Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Chinese Development in Long-Run Perspective1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Chinese Development in Long-Run Perspective1

Article excerpt

AMONG DEVELOPMENT ECONOMISTS who dabble in history (as opposed to people like me-a historian who dabbles in development economics), there is considerable debate these days over what is called the "reversal of fortunes" argument.2 One group argues that various parts of the world that were once relatively rich became poor because succeeding in certain ways led to events and institutional configurations that then became major disadvantages. The opposite position argues that advantages and disadvantages tend to accumulate over time, that there is rarely a pattern of behavior so entrenched that it can't be eliminated if people see that it's in their interest to do so, and that, despite certain temporary anomalies, the places that are relatively rich today tend to be those that have been relatively rich for a long time. Depending on how you define your spatial and temporal units, China turns out to fit either position-which probably means there is something wrong with the way the debate has been framed.

Coastal China from Shanghai on south was probably among the richest regions on earth until the Industrial Revolution: in particular, living standards in the Yangzi Delta (population 31 million plus in 1770) were probably comparable to England's and Holland's in the mid-eighteenth century. Its agriculture was exceptionally productive-not only per acre, but per labor day; its extensive handicraft industries (especially textiles) yielded incomes comparable to those of textile workers anywhere, and at least some of its markets were remarkably well integrated.3

This relative prosperity was linked to large-scale inter-regional trade. The Delta exchanged manufactures (above all cloth) for raw cotton, rice, timber, and other primary products from North China, the Middle and Upper Yangzi, and other internal areas. It had little heavy industry, however, largely because it lacked energy sources: wood, coal peat, or even water power (due to flat terrain). It also lacked most metallic ores.4 Most of its industry was rural, which was hardly unusual prior to 1800.

But in another way, at least, the two ends of Eurasia were increasingly different. From the sixteenth century on, a growing percentage of rural European laborers in both agriculture and industry were proletarians-free people without property, who lived by selling their labor for wages. By 1800, they made up two-thirds of the European labor force, by one calculation;5 and though a stricter definition would yield much lower figures (particularly in Eastern Europe, where many people still had some land use rights that they received in return for compulsory labor), they certainly predominated in "advanced" England and the Netherlands. Moreover, most proletarians in those countries worked in agriculture or in other occupations, but not in both; farm work and unskilled manufacturing and service work had become separate markets in England and the Netherlands, even when they overlapped spatially.6

In China, however (and, for different reasons, Japan), proletarians made up less than 10% of the eighteenth-century rural population.7 In poorer regions, most farmers were smallholders; in richer regions, tenancy was widespread, but most tenants had very strong cultivation rights, which were themselves a kind of property.8 Having secure usage rights, these tenants, rather than the subsoil owners, made many landimproving investments. They also resembled owners of their own means of production in that they earned something closer to their average product than their marginal product: preliminary estimates suggest that secure tenants in both mid-eighteenth- and early twentieth-century Lower Yangzi earned 2.5-3 times as much as landless laborers.9

The Chinese state, which wanted an independent peasantry it could tax and draft without going through local magnates, supported these arrangements.10 They were further stabilized by the low reproduction rate among proletarians. …

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