China has been one of the world’s most dynamic economies in recent decades, but how did it fall so far behind? This column argues that the industrial revolution occurred in Europe rather than China because European entrepreneurs were eager to adopt machines to cut down on high labour costs. China didn’t “miss” the industrial revolution – it didn’t need it.
One of the big debates in economics is about the causes of the arguably most dramatic change in development trajectory in (recent) world history, the industrial revolution.
- Before about 1800, growth did occur, but it was mainly “extensive”, leading to more people but almost no growth in income per capita.
- After about 1800 this changed, and growth became (increasingly) “intensive”, focused on an almost continuous growth of GDP per head.
There is consensus about the fact that this change in growth pattern started in northwestern Europe, and gradually spread to large parts of the western and, after a lag, eastern and southern world.
Why this happened, and where it happened are topics of heated debate among historians. The recent “Chinese miracle” – fabulous growth since about 2000 – has had an important impact on this debate.
- How could the Chinese economy, which is clearly capable of dramatic economic change (in view of what happened since 1979), manage to “miss” the industrial revolution of the 19th century?
- How developed was China in the 18th century, when it was (under the Qing) experiencing a long period of economic stability and development? ...
... Mixed modernity
This detailed comparison results in a very mixed picture of Chinese economic modernity compared with that of Western Europe. Yes, the Yangzi delta had a relatively advanced economy, with high levels of agricultural productivity and urbanisation and a high degree of structural transformation; we can accept this part of Pomeranz’s thesis. But this did not imply that it was “ready” for an industrial revolution.
The industrial revolution was a process of mechanisation in which expensive labour was substituted for by machines driven by coal – as Bob Allen (2009) has demonstrated. Chinese factor costs were not at all conducive to such a change.
Whereas entrepreneurs in Europe were very eager to develop new technologies that increased labour productivity via the capital-labour ratio, Chinese businesses barely had any incentive to do so. That the industrial revolution emerged in England was therefore not accidental or the result of luck, but the long-run effect of its fundamentally different factor prices, reflecting its different economic and institutional trajectory.