Geopolitics and Asia’s Little Divergence: State Building in China and Japan After 1850

Crossposted at the Medium

Why did Japan successfully modernize in the 19th century while China failed to do so? Both China and Japan came under increasing threat from the Western powers after 1850. In response, Japan successfully undertook a program of state building and modernization; in China, however, attempts to modernize proved unsuccessful and the power of the central state was fatally weakened. The failure to build a modern state led to China’s so-called lost century while Japan’s success enabled it to become the first non-western country to industrialize. In a paper with Chiaki Moriguchi (Hitotsubashi University) and Tuan-Hwee Sng (NUS), we explore this question using a combination of historical evidence and formal modeling.

On the surface this East Asian “little divergence” is extremely puzzling. Qing China, as late as the end of the eighteenth century, was a powerful centralized empire. An impersonal bureaucracy selected by exams, and routinely rotated, governed the empire. In contrast, the institutions of Tokugawa Japan are usually described as feudal. The shogun directly ruled only 15% of the country. The remainder was divided into 260 domains ruled by lords known as daimyo who collected their own taxes, possessed their own armies, and issued their own currencies. To the outside observer China would have seemed much more likely to have been able to establish the institutions or a centralized state than Japan.

Figure 1: Qing China and Tokugawa Japan

For much of the early modern period (1500–1700) China and Japan possessed military capabilities that made them more than a match for any western power. This changed dramatically after the Industrial Revolution and their vulnerability exposed by the Opium War (1839–1840) and the Black Ships Incident of 1853, respectively. During the First Opium a small number of British ships overpowered the entire Chinese navy, while Commodore Perry’s show of force in landing in Japan in 1853 convinced the Japanese of western naval superiority. Within a few years, political elites in both countries recognized the need to modernize if only to develop the military capacity required to fend off this new danger.

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Figure 2: Commodore Perry in Japanese eyes

In China, after the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, there were attempts at modernizing — notably the Self-Strengthening movement associated with Li Hongzhang and others. Recent scholarship has reevaluated this movement positively. At the purely military-technological level it was in fact quite successful. The Jiangnan Arsenal and the Fuzhou Shipyard saw the successful importation of western military technology into China and the Chinese were soon producing modern ships and weaponry. However, these developments were associated with a process of political decentralization as local governors took on more and more autonomy. The importation of military technology was not associated with more far-reaching societal or political reforms. There was no serious attempt to modernize the Qing state.

In contrast, Japan, following the Meiji Restoration, embarked on whole scale-societal transformation. The daimyo lost all power. Feudalism was abolished. Compulsory education was introduced as was a nationwide railway system. A new fiscal system was imposed in the teeth of opposition from farmers. The samurai were disarmed and transformed from a military caste into bureaucrats and businessmen.

Qing China and the newly modernized Meiji Japan would collide in the first Sino-Japanese war (1894–1895). Before the war, western observers believed China would win in part because of their superior equipment. But the Chinese lacked a single national army. It was the Beiyang army and the Beiyang fleet that fought the entire Japanese military force. The fact that Japan had undergone a wholesale transformation of society enabled them to marshal the resources to win a rapid victory.


Figure 3: The Jingyuan, one of the ships in the Baiyang fleet

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Why did the Japanese succeed in modernizing while Qing China failed to do so? Historians have proposed numerous explanations. In our paper, however, rather than focusing on cultural differences between Japan and China, we focus on how different geopolitical incentives shaped their decisions to invest in state capacity and state centralization.

Before the mid-19th century China only faced a threat from inner Asia from where historically nomadic invasions had routinely invaded and threatened the sedentary population of the Chinese plain. Due to this threat, historically China tended to be a centralized empire with its capital and the bulk of its professional army stationed close to the northern frontier (see Ko, Koyama, and Sng (2018)). In contrast, Japan faced no major geopolitical threats prior to 1850. This meant that it could retain a loose and decentralized political system.

After 1850 both countries faced major threats from several directions. China was threatened on its landward borders by Russian expansionism and from the coast by Britain and France (and later Germany and the United States). Japan was threatened from all directions by western encroachment.

We build a simple model which allows for multidirectional geopolitical threats. We represent each state as a line of variable length. States have to invest in state capacity to defend against external geopolitical threats. Each state can use centralized fiscal institutions or decentralized fiscal institutions.

If there is strong threat from one direction, as China faced prior to 1850, the dominant strategy is political centralization. In the absence of major geopolitical threats decentralization may be preferable as was the case in Tokugawa Japan.

The emergence of a multidirectional threat, however, changes things. A large country facing a multidirectional threat may have to decentralize in order to meet the different challenges it now faces. This is what happened in China after 1850. In contrast, for a small state with limited resources, an increase in the threat level makes centralization and resource pooling more attractive. For a small territory like Japan, the emergence of non-trivial foreign threats renders political decentralization untenable.

We then consider the incentives to modernize. Modernization is costly. It entails social dislocation and creates losers as well as winners, the losers will attempt to block any changes that hurt their interests. We show that for geographically compact polities, it is always a dominant strategy to modernize in the face of a multidirectional threat as the state is able to manage local opposition to reform. This helps to explain why all members of the Japanese political elite came around to favoring rapid modernization by the late 1860s.

Consistent with our model, modernization was more difficult and controversial in China. The Qing government and particularly the Empress Dowager famously opposed the building of railroads. The most well-known example of this was the Wusong Road in Shanghai. Built using foreign investment it was dismantled in 1877 after locals complained about it. The Qing state remained reactive and prepared to kowtow to local powerholders and vested interests rather than confront them. Despite local initiatives, no effort was made at wholesale reforms until after China’s defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895.

Figure 4: The Wusong Railroad in 1876

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By 1895 it was too late, however. The attempts of the Qing state to reform and modernize led to its collapse. Needless to state, East Asian’s little divergence would have lasting consequences.

Japan’s modernization program astonished foreign observers. Victory over Russia in 1904 propelled Japan to Great Power status but also set Japan on the path to disaster in the World War Two. Nevertheless, the institutional legacy of Japan’s successful late 19th century modernization played a crucial role in Japan’s post-1945 economic miracle.

Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty China fragmented further entering the so-called warlord era (1916–1926). Though the Nationalist regime reunified the country and began a program of modernization, the Japanese invasion and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) devastated the country. The end result was that China came to be reunified by the Communist party and to experience more conflict and trauma until it began to embrace market reforms after 1979.

The legacy of autocratic rule in China

What is the long-term legacy of political persecutions? Here I want to present the main findings of my recent research with Melanie Meng Xue (UCLA Anderson). Our research is an attempt to undercover how a legacy of political persecution can shape social capital and civil society by studying imperial China. The full version of the paper is available here.

We know from other research that particular institutions, policies, and events can have a detrimental and long-lasting impact on economic and political outcomes (e.g. Nunn 2011, Voigtländer and Voth, 2012). But it is hard to find a setting where we can study the long-run impact of autocratic institutions. A key feature of autocracy is the use of persecutions to intimidate potential opponents. In our paper, Melanie and I argue that the intensification of imperial autocracy that took place in the High Qing period (1680-1794) provides an ideal setting to study the impact of such persecutions.

Qing China

The High Qing period was one of great political stability, imperial expansion, and internal peace. Economic historians like Bin Wong and Ken Pomeranz have shown that China possessed a flourishing market economy during this period; it experienced Smithian economic growth and a massive demographic expansion. Rulers such as the Kangxi (1661-1722) and Qianlong Emperors (1735-1794) are seen as among the most successful in Chinese history. Nevertheless, as ethnic Manchus, these rulers were extremely sensitive to possible opposition from the Han Chinese. And during this period Qing tightened control over the gentry and implemented a policy of the systematic persecution of dissent. (Figure 1 depicts the Manchu conquest of China.)

The Qing conquest of China

The Literary Inquisitions

The focus of our paper is on the impact of persecutions conducted by Qing China against individuals suspected of expressing disloyalty. We study the impact of these state-orchestrated persecutions on the social fabric of society. This allows us to speak to the kinds of concerns that authors like Hannah Arendt and George Orwell expressed about the long-run impact of totalitarianism in the 20th century.

These persecutions are referred to by historians as ‘literary inquisitions’. Existing scholarship suggests that the resulting fear of persecution elevated the risks facing writers and scholars, and created an atmosphere of oppression and a culture of distrust which deterred intellectuals from playing an active role in society. But these claims have never been systematically investigated. Putting together several unique datasets for historical and modern China, we explore the impact of literary inquisitions on social capital in Qing China and trace its long-run impact on modern China through its effect on cultural values.

Jonathan Spence provides an excellent account of one of the most famous and unusual inquisition cases in his book Treason by the Book

To conduct our analysis, we use data on 88 inquisition cases. We match the victims of each case (there are often multiple victims per case) to their home prefecture. This data is depicted in Figure 1. Since prefectures varied greatly in their economic, social, and political characteristics we conduct our analysis on a matched sample. This ensures that the prefectures “treated” by a literary inquisition are similar in terms of their observables to those we code as “untreated”. As our data is a panel, we are able to exploit variation across time as well as variation in space.

While individuals could be persecuted for a host of reasons, these were all but impossible to anticipate ex ante. Cases were referred to the emperor himself. Frederic Wakeman called this “the institutionalization of Imperial subjectivity.” The standard punishment in such cases was death by Lingchi or (slow slicing) and the enslavement of all one’s immediate relatives. In some cases, however, the guilty party would be executed by beheading. These persecutions aimed to deter opposition to Qing rule by signaling the ability of the Emperor to hunt down all potential critics or opponents of the regime.


The Impact of Literary Inquisitions on Social Capital

We initially focus on the impact of persecution on the short and medium-run using our historical panel. We first examine the effects on the number of notable scholars.  In our preferred specification we find that a literary inquisition reduced the number of notable scholars in a prefecture by 33 percent relative to the sample mean.

We go on to show the effect of persecutions on collective participation among the gentry in China. Our measure of collective participation in civil society is the number of charitable organizations. Charitable organizations played an important role in premodern China providing disaster relief and local public goods such as repairing local roads. They were non-governmental organizations and played an important role alongside the government provision of disaster relief. In our preferred empirical specification, we find that a persecution number of charitable organizations by 38 percent relative to the sample mean.

These results are in keeping with the argument that literary inquisition had a major psychological impact on Chinese society. They are consistent with the rise of “inoffensive” literary subjects during the Qing period that have documented by historians. To reduce the risk of persecution, intellectuals scrupulously avoided activities that could be interpreted as constituting an undermining of Qing rule. Instead they “immersed themselves in the non-subversive “sound learning” and engaged in textual criticism, bibliography, epigraphy, and other innocuous, purely scholarly pursuits” (Wiens, 1969, 16).

The Impact of Literary Inquisitions on 20th Century Outcomes

We go on to examine how the effects of these persecutions can be traced into the 20th century. In particular, we focus on the provision of basic education at the end of Qing dynasty. In late 19th and early 20th century China, there was no centralized governmental provision of primary schools.  Basic education remained the responsibility of the local gentry who ran local schools.

Thus the provision of education at a local level was dependent on the ability of educated individuals to coordinate in the mobilization of resources; this required both cooperation and trust. We therefore hypothesize that if the persecution of intellectuals had a detrimental impact on social capital, it should also have negatively affected the provision of basic education.

We find that among individuals aged over 70 in the 1982 census – hence individuals who were born in the late Qing period – a legacy of a literary inquisition is associated with lower levels of literacy. This reflects the impact of literary inquisition on the voluntary schools provided by the gentry and is not associated with lower enrollment at middle school or high school. We show that result is robust to controlling for selective migration and for the number of death caused by the Cultural Revolution.

Finally, we show that literary inquisitions generated a cultural of political non-participation. Drawing on two datasets of political attitudes – the Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) and the Chinese Political Compass (CPoC) – we show that individuals in areas in which individuals were targeted during literary inquisitions are both less trusting of government and less interested in political participation.

Finally, we find that individuals in prefectures with a legacy of literary inquisitions are less likely to agree that: “Western-style multi-party systems are not suitable for China” (Q 43.). This suggests that in areas affected by literary inquisitions individuals are also more skeptical of the claims of the Chinese government and more open to considering alternative political systems. Similarly, individuals in affected prefectures are more likely to disagree with the statement that: “Modern China needs to be guided by wisdom of Confucius/Confucian thinking.”

In summary, our analysis suggests that autocratic rule reduced social capital and helped to produce a culture of political quietism in pre-modern China. This has left a legacy that persisted into the 20th century. These findings have implications for China’s current political trajectory. Some scholars anticipate China undergoing a democratic transition as it’s economy develops (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012). Others point to China as an example of “authoritarian resilience.” By showing that a long-history of autocratic rule and political persecutions can produce a culture of political apathy, our results shed light on a further and previously under-explored source of authoritarian resilience.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. China’s Legalist Revival
  2. Does Europe need a new Warsaw Pact?
  3. Daniel Larison (PhD in Russian History) on Trump’s foreign policy speech
  4. The Anti-Trumplodytes
  5. Why Popular Sovereignty requires the due process of law

Were Confucians the first internationalists?

Sheng [Hong] uses the term in this broader sense, so that we can say that tianxia zhuyi is the idea of a global civilization that encompasses a diversity of cultures. In fact, this interpretation matches with the historical evolution of the Chinese empire, which was a multiethnic body politic based on certain universal civilizational principles and artifacts such as the Chinese script.

It is essential why Sheng makes that distinction. He claims that globalism, which he considers to be a Western term, is actually violating basic principles of economic liberalism in opting for trade liberalization but containing international migration.

That is from Carsten Herrmann-Pillath, a Professor of Business Economics at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, in a chapter titled “Smith, Confucius and the Rise of China.” The chapter is in Volume 8 of The Adam Smith Review, edited by Fonna Forman, which in turn was a gift from Edwin to me. There is no mention of Mises or Hayek (or NOL!) in the bibliography. Herrmann-Pillath continues:

So, globalism is a conceptual framework which still builds on the conception of the nation state and hence economic nationalism […] Ideas about the transition from the ‘nation state’ to a new political order based on culture and civilization continue to flourish among Chinese intellectuals until today. (88)

Unlike Chhay Lin and Matthew, I don’t know very much about ancient or medieval Chinese political thought,  but I can buy Sheng’s argument. In fact, I’m surprised it has taken this long for scholars anywhere in the world to realize that certain schools of thought in an empire would be internationalist. What is more curious to me, though, is this “new political order based on culture and civilization.” Why not base it on the individual? It seems to me that basing political orders on hard-to-define terms like “culture” and “civilization” will only lead to major problems, such as cultural chauvinism, down the road.

An overview of India-China boundary disputes

I have a new paper that has just been published in Asian Affairs. Here is an excerpt:

Questions over the India-China border are not a new phenomenon. They are asked whenever there is a Sino-Indian state visit. Despite having close to $100 billion of trade between them, China and India have failed to bring their frontier disputes to an end. In the 1980s and 1990s it was thought that the increasing economic cooperation between the two countries would act as a prompt to resolve their political disputes, but it has not. Military stand-offs and confrontations between border guards from India and China occur at regular intervals. To address their boundary disputes, they have engaged in frequent dialogues (17 rounds of focused dialogues can be counted between 1988 and 2015), but nothing substantive has yet been yielded through such engagements.

The boundary disputes between India and China have their ultimate origin in the ‘Great Game’ played during the British Empire. At present, the two main areas of dispute along the Himalayan frontier are the western sector (Aksai Chin around 37,250 sq km/14,380 square miles) and the eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh, around 83,740 sq km/32,330 sq mile). This article traces the roots of the boundary disputes between India and China and attempts to discuss sources of tensions and probable solutions.

The link to the whole paper can be found here [pdf].

Free Trade and Labor Market Displacement

A few days ago, I saw Noah Smith’s piece on free trade and why opening up with China may have yielded some undesirable results. In essence, his argument is that labor market adjustments have been slow. It created a small storm in the economics blogosphere. I wanted to reply earlier. I did not and I regret that. However, better late than never. So here are my three key reactions to the piece written by Smith (see his blog here).

  1. Slow labor market adjustments are not a cause of free trade: If anything, they are the results of a series of government intervention. Countries like Denmark, which may have large governments combined with fewer regulations on businesses, are very well able to adapt to free trade. The ability to start businesses is basically the ability to properly channel inputs towards more valued output. If you prevent an entrepreneur from doing just that while you open your borders to more efficient producers, it is quite obvious that free trade could be “less” beneficial. This point can be well seen in the role of states with “right to work (RTW) laws”. Although there is a debate as to whether or not RTW laws increase wages (James Sherk at Heritage says yes, the good people at the Employment Policy Institute say no and I say that both don’t get it, we should care about regionally adjusted real wage growth), it does seem that it helps industrial activity while boosting employment levels (see here too).  Unions would hinder adjustments to changes in trade patterns. In fact, its worth pointing out that of the 11 states that had RTW laws before 1948 – in only three of those states did the income share of the top 10% exceed that on the whole United States (see the data here) in 2013. While the entire country has seen an increase in income inequality, the RTW states have seen the share of all income of the top 10% increase by only 26% (1947 to 2013) compared to 42% nationwide. This suggests that RTW laws are probably helping workers adjusts to changes caused by free trade (otherwise, there would be a state-level increase in inequality). This finding seems to conform to large section of the literature on the links between RTW and inequality (here and here).  I am sure that if the Autor, Dorn and Hanson study (on which Noah Smith relies) was to be redone with attempts to control for right to work laws, the effect would be concentrated in non-RTW states. Thus, if the problem is labor laws, don’t blame free trade for the poor adjustments!
  2. Nobody said that free trade was “costless” to adapt to. I do economic history. I see cases of industries being protected for decades. Protectionism not only raise prices, but it changes relative prices between different inputs. It incites the adoption of an artificially profitable production method. It is profitable to do so, but it is by no means the most efficient approach. It was made profitable only by the artifice of regulation and duties. Once you eliminate that artifice by removing the barriers, you still have “time to build” problem and a need to change production methods. That takes time. However, governments are very good at making sure this takes more time than needed (see point 1)
  3. Trade agreements with China are not free trade agreements: this is the point I keep repeating (and the point that actually make Paul Krugman interesting), free trade agreements should normally fit on a napkin. If it takes 10,000 pages, it is free trade with 10,000 exceptions. Noah Smith should realize that he may be looking at a case of such “managed trade”.

That’s all folks!

Down All Your Markets

The US stock market had its worst ever initial trading weeks in 2016. Speculators are alarmed by the fall in the stocks of China. The economy of China has been growing more slowly, if at all. Also, most of the economies of the world are in growth recessions, a reduction in the rate of growth. The US dollar is high relative to other currencies, which reduces exports.

The government of China has yet to learn that interventions into financial markets often backfire. The Chinese chiefs have halted stock transactions when the market average falls to seven percent. They also have not allowed sales by investors who own more than five percent of a company. One problem with financial “circuit breakers” – a halt of trading – is that when stocks start to fall, speculators will panic and sell more quickly before trading halts. Restrictions on selling stocks create uncertainty when buying them. A speculator will fear being unable to sell shares later.

There is enough inherent uncertainty in markets without government adding to it. Uncertainty makes it important to let the market set the prices. Markets are a discovery process in which prices and quantities evolve through the bids of buyers and offers of sellers. When government interferes, we cannot know the price. Since the leaders of China have decided to have a market economy in goods, input factors, and financial assets, they should allow the market to do its job of setting the prices.

When I visited China three times, I saw a forest of cranes in all the cities I went to. Construction has driven the economy of China, along with exports. But, similar to real estate booms elsewhere, this construction was propelled by governmental policy. Throughout the world, cheap credit and fiscal subsidies to real estate have fueled unsustainable speculation.

Now China has much excess building capacity, and the halt in construction reduces related goods such as furniture and raw materials. The slow-down in China and sluggish growth elsewhere has resulted in a collapse of commodity prices.

The chiefs of China seek to move the country’s economy towards more domestic consumption. But they interfere with domestic spending by imposing a value-added tax of 17 percent on most goods other than real estate. The government of China probably chose to impose a VAT because the World Trade Organization allows the VAT to be subtracted from the price of exports, unlike an income tax. But Chinese consumers suffer a higher cost of living.

The Chinese leaders could have instead enacted LVT, land-value taxation, which would not add to the cost of goods. A tax on land value reduces the purchase price but not the land rent, so also not the price of goods. A tax on most of the rent or land value would stop the land speculation that has made a few people rich at the expense of the public.

The government of China still maintains tight control over the banking system. All the markets – real estate, financial, goods – would be more efficient if interest rates too were set by the market supply and demand for loanable funds. Of course the central banks of Europe, Japan, and the USA also are not letting their markets set the money supply and interest rates. But common practice does not imply optimal policy.

I don’t think the big drop in stock market averages imply impending economic doom. For 200 years, the US economy has had a real estate cycle of an average duration of 18 years. The current cycle began with the depression of 2008. The recovery has been slow, but the expansion has continued as employment and output have grown. Real estate construction has contributed to the expansion, and land values have recovered. The economy seldom has a recession while interest rates and commodity prices are low.

The economy of China has some severe long-run problems, but its economy is still developing and catching up. The government seems ready to let the currency trade more freely, and the coming acceptance of the currency (the yuan or renminbi) into the “special drawing rights” of the International Monetary Fund will boost the economy.

In the short run, the US stock market could fall some more, as markets often overreach, but over the next few years, financial markets will be consistent with the economic reality of restored world-wide economic growth, if there are no major destructive attacks. What we should be worried about is the unsustainability of debt and the next real estate speculative boom. The next economic disaster is about a decade into the future, and nobody is yet alarmed about that.