From the Great Divergence to the Great Divide: Keeping Pace or Falling behind in Late Nineteenth-Century Independent Eurasian States

Mark Cohen, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

The immense gap between countries in levels of economic productivity and prosperity that characterizes the contemporary world emerged in its modern form in the nineteenth century. Even if the decisive transformation that set some regions towards sustained economic development while leaving others behind had already begun by the late eighteenth century or even before, at the turn of the nineteenth century the absolute gap between the wealthiest and poorest territories remained relatively narrow. It was only over the course of the nineteenth century that the ongoing process of industrialization expanded the initial divergence into a qualitative divide. This paper investigates the causal process that led to some initially lagging economies to begin to “keep pace” with capitalist development and others to continue “falling behind” in the late nineteenth century through a comparative analysis of four cases: Japan, Russia, Ottoman Turkey, and Qing China. Of these, only Japan entered into a durable process of growth and development, while the others continued to experience uneven growth and crippling political instability. Building on previous research in the literature and by the author, it identifies a key remaining question: if these different states shared similar initial levels of development and coexisted in the same international environment, why did rural social structures and institutions transform so as to form a basis for economic development in Japan and some limited parts of Russia but not in the Ottoman and Qing empires? The answer proposed is that the presence of a rural elite already partially excluded from political power was a decisive condition.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 86. New Frontiers in Comparative Development