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Understanding The Modern World: The Rise Of China

China has changed in scarcely three decades from a poor and overwhelmingly agricultural country to what may already be the largest industrial economy in the world, with the geopolitical significance that that entails. To Western observers this is liable to seem like a sudden rise from backwardness and obscurity. But China's citizens have a different perspective: that their country is on the brink of recovering a status that it held for millenia - that of the world's most technically and culturally sophisticated society, only eclipsed for a few brief centuries following Europe's industrial revolution. But how should these events be explained? To do this we will look at the variety of ways in which economists have accounted for the transition from agriculture to industry, and thus for the fact that China has achieved what countries in Africa and South America have found so much more difficult.
  • Who is it for?

    There are no prerequisites for this course except a desire to learn and understand. In particular, no previous formal study in history, politics or economic development is required, although an interest in at least one of these is assumed.

  • What does it cover?

    The first part of the course considers China in deep historical context; in particular, the 'great divergence' with Europe, which ended in the major western powers playing a colonial role in China during the nineteenth century. Next we look at the twentieth century social and national revolutions as answers to economic backwardness - in particular the development of central planning in the Soviet Union and Mao's China. Finally we relate this history to a selection of theories about economic development.

    o The 'great divergence'
    o Rise of capitalism in the west; Opium Wars and after
    o The USSR: 'war communism', New Economic Policy, collectivization and central planning
    o Mao's China: 'national capitalists', Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution
    o Development economics
    o Mercantilism and 'national economics'
    o Rostow's 'stages of growth'
    o Import substitution versus export-led growth
    o 'Big push' theory
    o Arthur Lewis two-sector model
    o Application: China after Mao; 'state capitalism'?


    Students will be able to give an account of China's eclipse at the expense of Western powers in the nineteenth century and its recent resurgence. They will also be able to outline some of the theories of economic development that have been proposed to explain and promote change from agricultural to industrial societies.


    Students will understand the deep historical background to modern China's political and economic policies. They will be able to relate these to theoretical perspectives on the transition from feudal agricultural societies to capitalist industrial economies.

  • What will it be like?

    Each session will combine lecture material with student discussion. Typically the class will start with the lecturer explaining the issues in question and describing some ways in which scholars have addressed them, followed by a student-led exploration of material from the previous and current session.


    At the first meeting students will be asked to complete a short survey about their expectations of the course; self-assessment surveys at the half-way and end-points of the course will address the extent to which both student and staff expectations have been met.

  • What else do I need to buy or do?

    Active note-taking is a proven way of deepening ones grasp of learning activities, so appropriate equipment, either electronic or paper-based is strongly recommended.Students will get the maximum value from the course if they are able to if they are able to read ahead to inform contributions to class discussion. Thus a reading list will be provided to both support in-class work and for further reading following the end of the course. Readings for class sessions will be available via the Moodle page for the course

  • What could it lead to?

    Further courses in Economics, Politics, History, Philosophy at the Mary Ward Centre or elsewhere

Available Courses

Understanding The Modern World: The Rise Of China

China has changed in scarcely three decades from a poor and overwhelmingly agricultural country to what may already be the largest industrial economy in the world, with the geopolitical significance that that entails. To Western observers this is liable to seem like a sudden rise from backwardness and obscurity. But China's citizens have a different perspective: that their country is on the brink of recovering a status that it held for millenia - that of the world's most technically and culturally sophisticated society, only eclipsed for a few brief centuries following Europe's industrial revolution. But how should these events be explained? To do this we will look at the variety of ways in which economists have accounted for the transition from agriculture to industry, and thus for the fact that China has achieved what countries in Africa and South America have found so much more difficult.

20 February 2024 – 26 March 2024
Tuesday, 18:30 to 20:30
Course Code:432
£76 / £27
6 Meetings
High Street, Stratford
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Understanding Conflict In The Modern World - Perspectives On The War In Ukraine

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022 sent shockwaves throughout a world still ravaged by the pandemic. More than a year on, the horrors of war still dominate the front pages of news around the world. A climate of fear and uncertainty dominates world politics as we are constantly reminded of the fear of escalation between major world powers, rising death tolls, human rights concerns and what the outcome of this conflict might mean for global peace and stability. Despite this global attention, there remains a large gulf between opposing camps on how this war is viewed - leading to contrasting and competing national policies. This course aims to explore how the histories of these countries resulted in open conflict, its development since 2014, and a close examination of the motives and intentions of opposing blocs in this war. This course aims to explore and comprehend contrasting views and to what extent they are coloured by historical fact, national security, and political objectives.

24 January 2024 – 27 March 2024
Wednesday, 18:30 to 20:30
Course Code:435B
£126 / £42
10 Meetings
High Street, Stratford
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Understanding Inequalty In The Modern World:A Question Of Justiice?

For most of recorded history contemporary thinkers have regarded the idea of human equality as either nonsensical, undesirable or impossible. But by the middle of the 19th century Marx could assert that this notion had 'already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice'. Notwithstanding this claim, it is clear that inequality in the distribution of society's benefits not only persists but has recently been growing. Indeed, some would argue that without some measure of inequality society would have no drive towards innovation and economic growth. This course interrogates the meaning of this 'popular prejudice' and examines what considerations of principle or expediency might justify either equality or inequality.

23 April 2024 – 28 May 2024
Tuesday, 18:30 to 20:30
Course Code:433
£76 / £27
6 Meetings
High Street, Stratford
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Understanding Inequality In The Modern World:What Is Inequality Anyway?

Responding to the global financial crisis of 2007-8 and the austerity policies that followed, the Occupy movement focussed attention on social inequality with the slogan 'We are the 99%'. This implied a clash between the wealth and interests of a tiny elite and the experiences of the average member of society. But is this 99:1 split a useful or appropriate measure of inequality? And can we give a precise meaning to the notion of the 'average' person? This course explores a variety of ways in which social scientists have tried to answer these questions through numerical measures of the size and extent of inequality. As will be shown, these proposed answers are not solely neutral technicalities but have potential political and social implications.

04 June 2024 – 09 July 2024
Tuesday, 18:30 to 20:30
Course Code:434
£76 / £27
6 Meetings
High Street, Stratford
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