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Why the West Became Rich before China and Why China Has Been Catching Up with the West since 1949: nother Explanation of the “Great Divergence” and “Great Convergence” Stories

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  • Vladimir Popov

    (New Economic School, Moscow)

Abstract

The goal of this paper is to offer a non-technical interpretation of the “Great Divergence” and “Great Convergence” stories. After reviewing existing explanations in the literature, I offer a different interpretation. Western countries exited the Malthusian trap by destroying traditional institutions, which was associated with an increase in income inequality and even a decrease in life expectancy, but allowed the redistribution of income in favor of savings and investment at the expense of consumption. When the same pattern was imposed on some developing countries (colonialism ?Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), Latin America (LA), and the Former Soviet Union (FSU)), it resulted in the destruction of traditional institutions, increase in income inequality, and worsening of starting positions for catch-up development. Other developing countries (East Asia (EA), South Asia (SA), and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA countries)) that were less affected by colonialism and managed to retain traditional institutions by the end of the twentieth century found themselves in a better starting position for modern economic growth. The slow-going technical progress finally allowed them to find another exit from the Malthusian trap—increased income that permitted the share of investment in GDP to rise without a major increase in income inequality or decrease in life expectancy. The roots of the impressive long-term performance of China lie in the exceptional continuity of the Chinese civilization—the oldest in the world—that managed to preserve its uniqueness and traditions without major interruptions. It is argued that institutional continuity (East Asia, India, and MENA) is more conducive to growth than attempts to replace existing institutions by allegedly more advanced institutions imported from abroad (Latin America, FSU, and SSA). Like Russia in 1917, China re-established collectivist institutions in 1949 as a response to the failure of Westernization. Unlike Russia after 1991, China in 1979-2009 managed to preserve “Asian values” institutions—priority of community interests over the interests of the individual. However, the rapid increase in income inequality since 1985 could be a sign of weakening of collectivist institutions, which is the single most important threat to the continuation of fast economic growth.

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  • Vladimir Popov, 2009. "Why the West Became Rich before China and Why China Has Been Catching Up with the West since 1949: nother Explanation of the “Great Divergence” and “Great Convergence” Stories," Working Papers w0132, Center for Economic and Financial Research (CEFIR).
  • Handle: RePEc:cfr:cefirw:w0132
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    6. Popov, Vladimir, 2010. "The Long Road to Normalcy," WIDER Working Paper Series 013, World Institute for Development Economic Research (UNU-WIDER).

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