The most instructive comparisons are those that surprise

Here are some good thoughts from the late, great Benedict Anderson on how to compare countries in a useful and interesting way, part of a longer except from his memoir posted at the London Review of Books:

There are a few important points to bear in mind when one wants to make a comparison. First of all, one has to decide, in any given work, whether one is mainly after similarities or differences. It is very difficult, for example, to say, let alone prove, that Japan and China or Korea are basically similar or basically different. Either case could be made, depending on one’s angle of vision, one’s framework, and the conclusions towards which one intends to move. …

A second point is that, within the limits of plausible argument, the most instructive comparisons (whether of difference or similarity) are those that surprise. No Japanese will be surprised by a comparison with China, since it has been made for centuries, the path is well trodden, and people usually have their minds made up already. But a comparison of Japan with Austria or Mexico might catch the reader off her guard. …

A third reflection is that longitudinal comparisons of the same country over a long stretch of time are at least as important as cross-national comparisons. One reason for this has to do with the power of a certain kind of textbook-style national history that doesn’t disdain myths and has a vested interest in continuity and perpetuating an ancient ‘national identity’.

Following Anderson’s principles, is it still possible to make a surprising and informative comparison of China? Comparing China with South Korea or Japan was surprising in the 1980s but is not anymore. Since then, viewing China as a successful Asian “developmental state” rather than a Communist basket case has become conventional wisdom. Some recent writing has also compared China’s economic policies with those of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, a perspective I also found both surprising and useful.

It might be easier to come up with fresh comparisons in the field of politics rather than economics. One comparison I do not see made often, but which seems natural to me, is of China and Indonesia (this may just be because these happen to be the two Asian countries I have studied in depth). China and Indonesia both happen to be modern nation-states whose predecessor states were multi-ethnic empires (the Qing and the Dutch East Indies), and whose borders stayed largely unchanged after the shift from imperialism to nationalism. The fact that in both cases those empires were assembled by an alien people (the Manchu in China’s case, the Dutch in Indonesia’s case) has not lessened the appeal that the imperial boundaries hold for modern nationalists.

This point of similarity is interesting as most European empires did not manage to survive the 20th century with their borders intact (although the wider British Empire was obviously dismantled, the continuity of the core United Kingdom could qualify, as I think Robert Tombs is right to see as the UK as the “empire of the English”). And it also seems to be the case that many political and foreign policy issues for both China and Indonesia (and recently the UK) arise from the tensions between the desire to preserve the nation in its present form and the appeal of narrower forms of identity, be they religious, regional or ethnic. At any rate, comparison does help avoid the tendency to always see China’s problems as unique.

One Comment

  1. We need better analysis on the effects of the one child policy.

    The truth is that If there are more men born than women, all of the men can still get married.

    Because, if normally the age difference between married couples is the male being 2-3 years senior. With more men born than women, the effect will simply be the average age difference will grow to, let’s say, 5-7 years. Everyone gets married. However, the cumulative years spent married will be longer for women than for men, assuming passing at the same age.

    Thus, the real issue in China is not that men cannot get married. It’s that moderate income young males cannot find young brides.

    Thus, it’s not an economic issue. It’s a social one, maybe.

    And I’m sorry for this being non sequitur. But your blog is about China and economics.


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