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Globe-trotting historian helps scholars see problems through different lens

A UCLA professor of history will help leading French economists this week gain more insight into the battered European economy by sharing his work that compares the political and economic development of China and Europe.
"Thinking in comparative and historical terms allows us to identify innovative ways to looking at problems," said Bin Wong, who has spent close to four decades comparing and contrasting the similarities and differences between the regional histories and political and economic developments of China and Europe.
Historian Bin Wong
On Friday (July 6), Wong, along with former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, Stanford University Professor Emeritus Masahiko Aoki and others, will open a three-day forum, the 12th Rencontres Économiques d’Aix-en-Provence, to which 30 leading French economists in government, business and academia have been invited.
Although Europe is often held as a benchmark for success during the industrial revolution, Wong, director of the UCLA Asia Institute for the last eight years, argues that China holds some intriguing lessons that have largely been overlooked.
"Europe’s real growth was no greater than that of China’s during the pre-industrial era," said Wong, who co-authored "Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe," with former UCLA economic historian Jean-Laurent Rosenthal. Released in 2011, the book explores the ways in which economic growth historically occurred in China and Europe, a topic that is increasingly gaining interest as China continues to build momentum on a global economic scale.
China began to develop big cities, sophisticated transportation, commercial farming and craft manufacturing during the 10th century, said Wong. By the 11th century, there was an impression that China was more developed than Europe. Despite this growth and innovation, Europe jumped ahead by the 18th and 19th centuries, positioning itself for an industrial revolution and catapulting itself into an emerging global economic powerhouse.
Wong credits this success to Europe’s fragmented land mass of separate and politically diverse nations.
"Economic growth was more difficult in Europe from the 16th and 19th century than it was in China," he said. "There were advantages to being a successful empire in which exchange more easily took place without the fear of conflict, or without the fear of a huge number of transit tolls that were typically levied within European countries, as well as between them. But political turmoil created conditions in which some unintended economic opportunities unfolded into the processes of modern economic growth in Europe."
Comparing the economic development of Europe (top, Paris) and China (above, Beijing), as Wong has, helps people see problems differently.
Europe is only one of the places where Wong, a globe-trotting scholar and lecturer, will be travel this year. In his rear-view mirror already are China, Germany, Hawaii and Argentina, where he gave recent talks.
Ahead of him following the conference in France are Shanghai, Taipei and New Zealand for yet another series of speaking and teaching engagements. This packed schedule not only provides Wong with an opportunity to raise UCLA’s profile, but it also allows him to make new connections and foster new collaborations, propelling his professional pursuits.
"Many of the places we go for meetings introduce us to people who are interested in similar problems, although we approach them in different ways," said Wong, who holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Michigan and a master’s in regional studies with a focus on East Asia and a Ph.D. in history from Harvard. "The challenge is to understand how those different ways identify common points of concern and reflection, and how they also bring in different kinds of concerns that challenge us to think about the connections that exist among those different points of view."
In addition to building international institutional relationships, Wong strongly believes that cross-campus relationships also provide incredible value and result in rich and innovative research and teaching programs that will allow UCLA to remain one of the top universities in the world, especially in times of dire financial constraints.
"We must draw into our conversations colleagues from our own institution, who are not area specialists, but are doing things internationally," said Wong, "In a sense, this is the domestic end of international collaboration."

Wong, along with his colleagues in the Asia Institute and the UCLA International Institute,are eager to identify cross-campus opportunities that may lead to innovative solutions to some of the issues being faced by particular countries and regions.
Wong was born in Columbus, Ohio, the son of a Chinese immigrant father and an ethnically Chinese mother who was born and raised in Hawaii. He went to primary school in Tonawanda, N.Y., in the 1950s when his family had an Irish American milkman as a neighbor on one side and an Italian American bar tender and a Jewish professor of philosophy at SUNY Buffalo living across the street. Growing up in a diverse community made him aware of cultural variations well before he entered graduate school to study European history and ended up focusing on Chinese history.

Initially, Wong was drawn to the study of Asia because he realized that much of what he was learning about the world as based on a narrow perspective of how European history developed. "Our education overlooked the important history in East Asia, and China specifically, and I always felt that we couldn’t have a good sense of how the world really developed historically until we included Asia."

Before joining UCLA in 2004, Wong was a professor at the University of Michigan and later the director of the Center for Asian Studies at UC Irvine, where he was also Chancellor's Professor of History and Economics.

Nationally, Wong is on the advisory board for LinkAsia, an innovative weekly video news magazine that reports Asian news from journalists working for Asian news organizations. He has also written or co-authored more than 70 articles published in North America, East Asia and Europe and in five different languages in journals that reach diverse audiences within and beyond academia.
In addition, he and the Asia Institute have developed collaborative programs for faculty and graduate students in Shanghai and Hong Kong. But there have been other alliances. The Asia Institute, under Wong’s leadership, has collaborated with the Kreddha Foundation, a Dutch NGO involved in mediation work and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Other possible partners for UCLA include the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; and Utrecht University.
"If global education is to be meaningful, it will have to involve the active collaboration of parties in different parts of the world framing and formulating activities in a multilingual environment," Wong said. "To develop an understanding of Asia, our students and faculty must view the world from an Asian perspective, rather than an American one — to look out from the U.S. but to also look back through Asian lenses.
"That’s precisely why in global education we have to have students who really study there," he said. "We must also encourage Asian students to study here because to have Chinese, Japanese, Korean, South Asian and Southeast Asian students on our campuses in the same classes and conversations promotes a higher level of understanding and perspective."
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