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Friday, March 11, 2005

Chinese share of world output still only half what it was in 1820

Thought I should mine the BBC's China week a bit more (if that's not an unfortunate metaphor considering the thousands of miners who die in China every year).

Anyway, I found this interesting article providing a longer term historical perspective on China's current economic performance:
[China] has usually been a rather bigger player in the global economy than it is today.

Two thousand years ago, it produced a quarter of total world output.

A thousand years ago, it produced almost a quarter of world output.

And in 1820, it produced a third of the world's output.

China's relatively poor performance of the last two centuries has been an historical aberration, with the country falling behind Europe which learned to industrialize and develop quickly.


In the year 1AD, the per capita income of China was $450, (in 1990 prices).

In 1950, the per capita income was more or less the same ($439 in 1990 prices).

By 2001, that had risen to $3,583.

The author bases his piece on a report from the OECD called The World Economy: Historical Statistics which should make for very interesting reading (I want this book!). Seems to be quite strong material for some of the arguments that have been made by the historian Kenneth Pomeranz in his book The Great Divergence (one of those books I'll get around to reading one of these days...).

As for the figures quoted above, two things strike me: if China's share of world output was one third in 1820 and it is 15% now, then it is still only half way to recovering the position it held in the world economy almost two hundred years ago. And second, the comparison of per capita income in 1AD and 1950 must (I would guess) conceal much higher figures somewhere in beween. Surely the boom periods of the Song, Ming etc must have produced growth that led to higher per capita incomes than that of the mid Han Dynasty period.

Of course there is also something missing from this interesting article: what was the reason for the 'historical aberration' of the last couple of centuries? Well, to be slightly glib you could explain by saying that the capitalist mode of production was able to dominate societies in Europe before it could establish itself firmly in China. But this would ignore the history of political and military struggle between Europe and China that took place in the nineteenth century and in which China was ultimately defeated.

(I don't normally like to take the piss out of someone else's writing but I did think this phrase in the article was rather a good mixed metaphor if ever I heard one: "During the twentieth century, though, China was batting well below its weight.")


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