Image of Photo of Prof Li Bozhong and of cover of his book An Early Modern Economy in China

From the "Great Divergence" to the "Great Convergence": The modern transformation of the Yangzi Delta's economy in a new perspective

The China Centre lecture on Wednesday 15 June 2022 was delivered by Professor Li Bozhong, Chair Professor of Humanities, Peking University, and Professor Emeritus, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).

Professor Li Bozhong's lecture addressed the debate surrounding 'The Great Divergence' between China and the West, which has been under way since the publication in 2000 of Kenneth Pomerantz's book using this title. Pomerantz’s book was heavily indebted to research over many decades by generations of economic historians in China. That research demonstrated that China was the world’s most vibrant and technologically advanced part of the world economy up until the British Industrial Revolution. Li Bozhong examined the remarkable transformation in world economic power between 1800 and 1978, which ‘turned the world upside down’. By the late 1970s China had shrunk into a minor part of the world economy, with a GDP per person roughly the same as India’s. Since 1978 another remarkable transformation has taken place and China has regained its place as the ‘workshop of the world’. Professor Li analysed the ‘Great Convergence’ since 1978 through an analysis of the economic history of the Jiangnan region, which is located in the Yangzi Delta, with Shanghai at its core. He examined the way in which Jiangnan’s remarkable development since 1978 has been rooted in the region’s long-run economic and social development, including the complex institutions that underpin economic progress. Li Bozhong has pioneered the study of Jiangnan’s economy through the analysis of a single micro-region, for which he has constructed an estimate of GDP in 1823-1829. His pathbreaking research reveals the high level of traditional economic and social development in the region, in which industry and services contributed 70% of GDP, external trade accounted for 29% of GDP and the level of urbanisation was 40%. In the 1820s the level of GDP per person and its structure in Jiangnan were similar to Western Europe on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

The Q&A session addressed the following issues: the role of finance in the pre-modern economy of Jiangnan and the Netherlands; the treatment of environmental pollution in Jiangnan; the role of path dependence in Jiangnan’s economic development; famine alleviation in traditional Jiangnan; the role of the bureaucracy in Jiangnan’s long-run development; the theory of ‘growth poles’ and its relevance to the study of Jiangnan’s economic development; and the importance of non-economic factors in the analysis of economic systems.

Li Bozhong is a University Chair Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, Peking University and Chair Professor Emeritus, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Li received his Ph.D. degree in 1985 and was the first person who earned their Ph. D. degree in pre-modern Chinese History in the PRC after 1949. He finished his postdoctoral research at University of Michigan in 1992-1993.

Before he joined the faculty of Peking University in 2017, Li Bozhong had worked in different academic institutions, including Tsinghua University (Beijing), Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Beijing), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Hong Kong), University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), University of California (Los Angeles), California Institute of Technology (Pasadena), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge), Harvard University  (Cambridge, MA), The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Washington DC), The National Humanities Center (Research Triangle Park), University of Cambridge (Cambridge UK), London School of Economics and Political Science (London), L'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris), University of Tokyo (Tokyo), Keio University (Tokyo) and Academica Sinica (Taipei), etc.

Professor Li Bozhong has published eleven books since 1974 and more than ninety articles in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, USA, UK, Japan and South Korea. The books include Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850 (Macmillan, London & New York, 1998) and An Early Modern Economy in China: The Yangzi Delta in the 1820s (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2021).