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Around the world in 80 (or so) days
Professor Bin Wong (Photo by Rebecca Kendall)

Around the world in 80 (or so) days

Collaborations, partnerships and perspectives enrich research, education, opportunities, says UCLA Asia Institute director

UCLA Today

To say that Professor Bin Wong, director of the UCLA Asia Institute, is a busy guy is an understatement. With several recent international talks now in his rear-view mirror, including those in China, Germany, Hawaii and Argentina, Wong is getting ready to take the podium in France as part of the 12th Rencontres Économiques d’Aix-en-Provence.

On July 6, Wong, along with former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine; Lionel Zinsou of the Fondation Zinsou, an African art foundation in Benin; and Stanford University Professor Emeritus Masahiko Aoki, will open the three day forum. The invitation to participate was extended by a group of 30 leading French economists in government, business and academia. Specifically, Wong will discuss some of the findings of his comparative work on China and Europe, the result of close to four decades of inquiry.

Most of his career has been spent comparing and contrasting the similarities and differences between the regional histories and political and economic developments of China and Europe.

“Thinking in comparative and historical terms allows us to identify innovative ways to looking at problems,” says Wong, who holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Michigan,  a master’s in regional studies with a focus on East Asia and a PhD in history from Harvard.

Although Europe is often held as a benchmark for success during the industrial revolution, Wong argues that China holds some intriguing lessons that have largely been overlooked.

 “Europe’s real growth was no greater than that of China during the pre- industrial era,” says Wong, who co-authored “Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe,” which was written with former UCLA economic historian Jean-Laurent Rosenthal and 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, says Wong, adding that 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 that it was in China,” he says. “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 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.

Following his time in France, Wong is heading to Shanghai, Taipei and Wellington, New Zealand for another series of speaking and teaching engagements. This packed schedule not only provides Wong with an opportunity to raise the profile of UCLA, its Department of History and its Asia Institute, where he had been the director for the past eight years, they also propel his professional pursuits by allowing him to make new connections and foster new collaborations.

“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. 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 institutions, who are not area specialists, but are doing things internationally,” says Wong, adding that he, 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.

“In a sense, this is the domestic end of international collaboration.”  

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, New York in the 1950s where his neighborhood had an Irish American milkman to one side and an Italian American bar tender and a Jewish professor of philosophy at SUNY Buffalo directly across the street.  Such a social context made him aware of cultural variations well before he entered graduate school to study European history and end up focusing on Chinese history.

 He says he was initially drawn to the study of Asia because of his awareness that much of what he was learning about the world as a student was based on a narrow perspective.  “Much of our understanding was based on how European history developed. Our education overlooked the important history in East Asia, and in 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 as director of the Asia Institute and a professor in the Department of History, Wong was, among other things, a professor at the University of Michigan and 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 Asian perspectives using content 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, published in Chinese, English, French, German and Japanese 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; the Asia Institute under Wong’s leadership has collaborated with the Kreddha Foundation a Dutch NGO involved in mediation work, the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), and is currently developing different project possibilities linking UCLA with Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Utrecht University.

Teaching is a particularly important topic for Wong.

“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,” says Wong. “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. We must also encourage Asian students to study here because to have Chinese, Japanese, Korean, South Asian, Southeast Asian students on our campuses in the same classes and conversations promotes a higher level of understanding and perspective.”