Could some part of China have initiated the Industrial Revolution, and with it a modern world economy centered on East Asia? Since that didn't happen, is there something to be gained by thinking about why? Or about how a different Chinese history might have influenced what did emerge in the nineteenth century West?
The Qing empire in the eighteenth century was larger than Europe, and comparably diverse, economically speaking. Some regions – especially in western China, and in the non-Chinese parts of the empire – were very poor. Others were as rich as the richer parts of Europe. The richest of all, the Yangzi Delta, was probably as wealthy as England and Holland – the richest places in Europe – in 1700, though it probably fell behind, at least in GDP per capita, sometime in the eighteenth century. In agriculture, the Delta's labor productivity was within 10 percent of England's as late as 1820 – and its total factor productivity in agriculture far exceeded that of any place in Europe. This point is particularly important for any model in which an industrial breakthrough is generated wholly within one society, since in such a model agriculture would have to provide most of the capital and the labor to fuel industrial growth.
But China's nineteenth century saw no breakthrough to energy-intensive industrialization, sustained per capita growth, and centrality to a rapidly growing world economy. On the contrary, it was a century of crisis, in which per capita income probably shrank significantly, both natural and anthropogenic disasters increased markedly, and China's political and economic position in the world deteriorated dramatically. So, what happened?
Any good answer must begin by acknowledging some significant problems with the question. As many scholars, myself included, have argued, there is no reason to think that having a prosperous agricultural-commercial-handicraft economy necessarily leads to modern industrialization. Past societies that were probably close in per capita income to pre-industrial Britain, such as Rome and Song China, had not made this transition; nor did a number of very dynamic early modern regions, from the Kinai to Gujarat, Bengal, Flanders, and Holland.