BC’s weekend reads

  1. the Kurdish bourgeoisie is against separatism (kinda, sorta)
  2. Qatar waives visas for 80 nationalities amid Gulf boycott
  3. doesn’t Pakistan already suck? Isn’t that why this is happening in the first place?
  4. Similar moves are open to someone living in Pakistan. But those are different contexts than France or the US.
  5. I read this twice, very carefully, but am unconvinced (the use of stats is amateurish)
  6. The music was acid house, the drug: Ecstasy.
  7. The Plastic Pink Flamingo, in America [pdf]

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.

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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.

From the Comments: Ottoman autocracy, Turkish liberty

Jacques, if you want to look at a libertarian/classical liberal case for the Ottoman Empire you should look at Islam without Extremes (Norton 2013) by Mustafa Akyol. I can’t claim to have got round to reading it myself, but I have seen Akyol’s summaries of his argumnents.

The power of Akyol’s argument in term of Turkey’s political scene has been somewhat undermined by his support for the AKP governemnt until after the Gezi Park protests. He is very critical of the AKP now, but as he was previously known as an AKP apologist (and enthusiast for Intelligent Design theory) it’s doubtful how much of an asset he is to Turkey’s rather small pro-liberty scene.

In any case I do not endorse myself straight on Ottomanist libertarianism and there are reasons it does not have much of a hold in Turkey’s pro-liberty scene though there are a few who think like this. The problems are endless and complex because the Ottoman system lasted from the 14th to 20th centuries and you can’t really talk about the same system, or at least few historians think you can. The millet system is a term applied late in Ottoman history, while the system was at its peak in terms of the size of the empire, along with it general prestige in the world, in the sixteenth century. Of course at that time, it could be said to have established some version of some liberty with order as good as many Christian states, and to me more power ful than any. I don’t think even at its height though you could say the Ottoman empire had more liberty than the most law governed and tolerant places in ‘Christendom’ and certainly while European thinkers respect the Ottoman system at its height it very much looked like an example of strong orderly monarchy, not decentralised liberty.

Even at its peak the Ottoman system obliged Balkan Christian families to send one son away at a very early age to be brought up as Muslim convert soldier-bureaucrat slave of the Sultan. The Janissary system, a very privileged kind of slavery and forced conversion, but that is what it was. The Sultan employed black eunuch slaves, transported from Africa, again a privileged position but not really an example of liberty.

Jumping forward, the Ottoman system started to imitate the west in some respects from the late eighteenth century, following military defeats to Russia. The biggest act of ‘reform’ was the violent repression/massacre of the Janissaries which formed a whole class of soldiers, bureaucrats and Istanbul firemen who were also market traders on the side, blocking the Sultan’s ideas of reform, including the formation of a more modern military.

Jumping forward again, the Ottoman sultan most revered by Turkey’s current Ottomanists on the whole, Abdulhamit II, suspended the national assembly, pursued a program of bureaucratic-military-technical centralisation, which included the early massacres of Armenians to which you refer. In the end he was overthrown as a ruker (not as holder of the title of Sultan) by westernising reformers (Committee of Union and Progress/Young Turks) who ended up continuing a centralising reform process which alienated people outside the Muslim Ottoman elite and the Anaotlian heartlands of the Empire. Jumping back to the period between the suppression of the Janissaries and Abdulhamit II’s rule, the Greek Independence movement was resisted with staggering levels of violence and cruelty (the Greek insurgents were not always fastidious in their methods either, it must be also be said). By the nineteenth century, the Ottoman system of relative tolerance towards non-Muslims on a communal rights basis was looking less impressive compared with a growing European tendency towards tolerance based on individual rights.

The ‘millet system’ at its peak provided a way Muslims, Christians and Jews could live together, but mostly as separate communities able to continue communal traditions, within a hierarchy in which Muslims had the real power. As with looking to models of liberty in ‘feudal’, medieval Europe, we may see some liberty benefits in the elements of localism and communal autonomy under a monarchy, but in both cases we are not talking about a system of individual rights or free interaction, we are talking about individuals constrained by communal traditions and hierarchies, along with the hierarchies between communities. If we value individual rights under common legal rights then this is not a model for us, even if we can see some lessons.

Even at its peak the Ottoman system blocked the spread of printing, one of the major elements of modern liberty. The reasons for the block combine the power of religious conservatism and the guild interests of manuscript copyists which seems to me to sum up the problems of even peak time Ottomanism for liberty. It was a system based on an assemblage of local, communal and guild privileges finding change difficult except through dramatic acts of autocratic rulers. The transition from Empire to French-modeled republic, but less liberal than the France of the time, in the 20s and 30s under Atatürk was itself the last great example of this and was a product of the difficulties the Ottoman system had with peaceful consensual change, even if it did have a few good moments on that score (e.g. the 1840 Tanzimat reforms).

Finally the Ottoman system was condemned by its own failure to defend itself, the last Sultan could only give into the victorious powers of World War One, while the republican-nationalists, who emerged from the most educated sections of the Ottoman elite, were able to mobilse a successful military struggle (the Independence War) even without control of the state apparatus. A system which can’t win a war is not a successful system, regardless of how sad the importance of war in human history is.

Arguments now about reviving the Ottoman Empire are surely self-evidently hypothetical only for anyone who does not take Erdoğan’s more bombastic statements seriously. In what way would the Middle East resolve anything by rule from Istanbul, particularly as part of a centralised state ruled by Erdoğan? If the question is should the Ottoman Empire have been prolonged at the end of World War One, the Ottoman government of the war undermined that possibility by massacres of Arabs, along with the leaders Faisal gave to Arab nationalists, aided by devious British and French policy.

The Ottoman Empire was in the Balkans before it was in the Middle East. Ottoman sultans used the title Kaiser-i rum (Emperor of Rome) after the Fall of Constantinople before they adopted the title of Caliph (leader of the faithful) after the later conquest of the Hezaz (i.e. the region containing Mecca and Medina). There is nothing natural or inevitable about a Turkey leaning predominantly towards the Middle East and nothing inherently desirable about Beirut, Amman, Riyadh, Damascus, etc coming under the dominance of Turks; there is nothing obviously healing for Arab Shiite Muslims in living under a Sunni Caliph in a palace on the Bosphorus, not now and not in 1919.

Ottomanist libertarianism makes most sense for those inclined to paleolibertarianism based on dispersal of power between homogenous traditionalist localised communities. I don’t see it has so much to offer to other kinds of libertarian. If we think about more modern liberal forms, there was some interest in Britsh style liberalism (already at that time in transition from classical liberalism to left liberalism) amongst the last Ottomans, most notably Prince Sabahattin, but this was a minority within a weakened elite, discredited by collaboration with British occupation at the end of World War One, which never had anything like a politics capable of mobilising the elite (very influenced by French republicanism politically and intellectually by the sociological expression of French republicanism in the work of Emile Durkheim), never mind the population as a whole.

(Yes Brandon I should be posting this kind of thing, in refined and revised form, but I really don’t have time to do this properly at present, believe me I really am in extreme crisis mode with writing/editing deadlines), after a particularly busy semester, believe me I will be posting when I can, and I should be able to manage within the next few months, sorry I can’t say any more than that, but it is the reality.)

This is from Barry Stocker, responding to Jacques’ musings on the Ottoman Empire and libertarian arguments that are sometimes in favor of it. The rest of the thread is pretty good too, though Dr Delacroix has yet to respond…

From the Comments: New Republics, Westphalia, and Russian Strategy

Thomas L. Knapp (check out his two contributions to the most recent Cato Unbound symposium on voting) has a great comment about Ukraine (Russia) that deserves further scrutiny:

In order for Putin to “pull out of” Ukraine, he’d first need to be in Ukraine.

The new republics which seceded from Ukraine are not in Ukraine.

Knapp brings up an interesting point that most geopolitical outlets and experts rarely consider (the Washington Post‘s Worldviews is a notable exception, as is Ilya Somin over at Volokh Conspiracy), and because of that these outlets fail to provide any depth or light to the world around us. There are three aspects of Knapp’s excellent comment that I’d like to hone in on.

The new republics

First, what are these “new republics” Knapp mentions? If you don’t count Crimea (wiki), which Moscow formally recognized in 2014, then the new republics that declared their independence from Ukraine are Luhansk (wiki) and Donetsk (wiki). Both polities are roughly 3300 square miles in area and house roughly 1.5 million people (you can get the exact numbers from the wiki links I provided above). Here is a map:


Alarmingly, both republics style themselves “people’s republics” and (less alarmingly) have aligned publicly with Moscow. Russia, by the way, has not recognized these “new republics,” for geopolitical reasons I hope to make clear below.

Westphalian sovereignty

Russia does not like to recognize new polities (“republics”) because of its adherence to the ideal of Westphalia, which is state sovereignty (elsewhere at NOL Barry Stocker argues that the Westphalian ideal can be better understood as an early modern cosmopolitanism rather than state sovereignty). All throughout the Cold War Russia and China were staunch supporters of the Westphalian ideal (as were states in Africa and Asia that broke away from colonial empires), and they became even more so after the collapse of socialism in 1993. State sovereignty is the idea that states (“countries”) have sole control over what goes on in their own borders, and that any interventions of any kind, by any type of organization, needs to be approved by the state. It is called “Westphalian” because of the Treaty of Westphalia that was signed by a number of major and minor European states in the 17th century. The major states were able to maintain a balance of power and the minor states were able to assert more sovereignty over their territories than ever before because they were signatories of an international treaty. (Edwin van de Haar’s article in the Independent Review [pdf] on the balance of power as the most libertarian option available is worth reading, and is made stronger, I believe, by Giovanni Arrighi’s argument [pdf] that the balance of power led directly to the “capitalist oligarchies” that eventually pushed feudalistic institutions out of Europe beginning in the late 15th century.)

Russia, China, and other autocratic regimes prefer an international system that is respectful of state sovereignty because of the fact that this idea helps their governments to administer an amount of coercion on populaces that Western states consider immoral or rights-violating.

Russian strategy

Why did Russia hint at recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk, but ultimately decide not to recognize them? Because the West has been recognizing separatist republics since the USSR fell apart, and it has done so in the traditionally Russian sphere of influence (noticeably carving up Yugoslavia at Serbia’s geographic expense). The West has not carved up post-Soviet space by simply recognizing the sovereignty of self-proclaimed republics, but also by incorporating these polities into the international system that it dominates. Russia wants to show elites (but not necessarily the public) that it is tired of policymakers ignoring Westphalian notions of sovereignty (which are enshrined in the UN charter that almost all recognized states have signed; when they sign it they get rent-seeking privileges, but that’s a story for another day…).

This is fairly straightforward logic on Moscow’s part. When the West supported Kosovo’s secession from Serbia (in defiance of Article 2(4) of the UN charter), Russia responded by supporting South Ossetia and Abkhazia breaking away from Georgia before annexing them. The interesting thing here is that Russia even mimicked Western use of force to back up its play. When the West supported Montenegro’s secession from Serbia (in defiance of Article 2(4) of the UN charter), Russia responded by supporting Donetsk, Crimea, and Luhansk breaking away from Ukraine before annexing Crimea. The interesting thing here is that Russia even mimicked Western use of force to back up its play. Both Russia and the West used minimal military resources to achieve their objectives, and both played the sovereignty card to back up their actions.


Western policymakers will never be able to bring liberty to Russia, and liberty will never be known by Russians if the rule of law is trumped by geopolitics. The West dominates the world’s international governing organizations. It has made the rules. It has drawn up the contracts. It has invited the non-West to participate. It has given concessions in order to gain the non-West’s support. So when the West breaks the rules it first outlined and drew up, the non-Western polities it convinced to join IGOs in the first place cannot be expected to take such rules seriously. The fact that Russia does play by the West’s rules, by taking seriously the claims of breakaway regions, suggests that the West has been in the wrong post-1993.

American media pundits and critical thinking

All of this leads me back to sensationalist headlines about nefarious Russian meddling in the American presidential election. Don’t believe any of that garbage. Firstly, look at how often American foreign policy pundits have been wrong. Just look! Amid the cries of Russian meddling in the Clinton-Trump contest you can surely hear the faint echoes about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Secondly, all good analyses of geopolitical affairs provide at least some bit of historical context to them. Does your foreign policy pundit use history as a guide? Thirdly (and lastly), when thinking about a country remember that most accounts will have a point of view that shadows the consensus found in the world’s political and financial centers, which are useful but will sacrifice important details in the name of efficiency (and efficacy).

American libertarians, of all the factions out there, realize this best. Unfortunately, until they can shake the isolationist dogma that has paralyzed the movement since the Rothbard era of the 70s and 80s, they will continue to be marginalized in contemporary discussions about foreign policy, either as token libertarians in a Republican administration or as token libertarians in the “anti-war” movement (I put “anti-war” in scare quotes because by now it should be obvious that this movement represents the Democratic Party [pdf], not an ideal; see, though, Michael Kazin’s excellent, if ultimately unconvincing, argument for a different take on the disappearance of the anti-war movement once Obama and the Democrats came to power). New republics, secessionist movements, and other endeavors of exit are often embraced by American libertarians because of their autonomist appeal, but if they don’t pay attention to how state actors view such movements, especially regional and global hegemons, they may end supporting some very nasty regimes in the name of liberty.

The Asian Age

I love Asia. Ever since my student days I have had a keen interest in South East Asia and China, with my course on the Politics of the Asia Pacific at the London School of Economics in the run up to the handover of Hong Kong as a high point. This was followed almost a decade later with four years of living in Manila, with time spend as a freelance journalist covering Philippine politics and society, as well as teaching for three years at the European Studies Program at the elitist Ateneo de Manila University. I also had the opportunity to travel to almost all countries in the region (with the notable exceptions of Laos, Taiwan and the Koreas, but one should keep something to be desired). I admire the resilience of the Asians, their humour, great work ethics, the beauty of their countries, and of course their sumptuous food.

As a classical liberal I always have a keen interest in the economic developments of the region, which to me serve as the prime evidence for the great and positive impacts freeing up economies have. The rise of Asia in essence is the empirical proof that classical liberal ideas work, that capitalism has the capacity to improve the life of millions of people, in a very short term. This despite the imperfect implementation of capitalism throughout the region, so there is much room for further improvement. In this light it is also interesting to see how long economic freedom and political lack of freedom can co-exist. Classical liberal ideas predict, most clearly expressed by Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom, that one follows the other. Economic and political freedom cannot be separated forever (nor forever suppressed together, as the experiences in the former Soviet bloc continue to make clear, even despite Putin’s increasing autocratic rule).

For an international relations observer from Europe, the developments in the Asia Pacific are of particular interest, because the rise of Asia seems to go together with the fall of Europe as a geopolitical player. Or more precisely: the fall of the middle rank European powers, as the European Union itself is a significant player in trade politics only, the only field where it represents all member states and policy is determined at the European level, with a leading role for the European Commission.

The recent book Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century, by Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman, deals precisely with this issue.


It is a great book, bringing together Rachman’s extensive experience in the US, Asia, and Brussels. Often, books written by journalists lack sound analysis for the mid to long term, and historical perspective. While Easternisation is not an academic tome either, it does provide sufficient deep analysis, especially by tackling developments in all important countries which play a role in the process. It is not just another volume of simply USA or EU bashing, as we have seen before with the huge literature on the alleged Japanese take-over of the US economy.

Rachman’s main argument is that the influence of the West, Europe in particular, has crumbled. This may lead to a major conflict in the Asia Pacific, most notably between China and the US, which also endangers the global economic order. Yet many other conflicts are also building up, in a region which heavily invests in armaments. In short, in the 21st century, ‘rivalries between the nations in the Asia Pacific will shape global politics, just as the struggles between European nations shaped world affairs for over 500 years from 1500 onwards’. I think this is an important message, which should be taken seriously by everybody. Certainly by the Europeans, who are in danger of just inhabiting the world’s largest open air museum within a few decades.  One thing is certain: the Asians will not wait for them to come to terms with the current shift of power.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Madonna offers oral sex for those who vote Hillary Clinton
  2. Trump-inspired ‘pussy’ ad banned in San Francisco subway
  3. The poverty of democracy
  4. The battle for the Arctic
  5. Countries rush for upper hand in Antarctica
  6. Why not world government? (Part 2)
  7. Meet China’s state-approved Muslims
  8. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Somaliland secession

BC’s weekend reads

  1. NATO sends a message to Russia
  2. Iraq doesn’t need to break up to be successful (so says a scholar at Brookings)
  3. Benedict Anderson (political science) reviews Clifford Geertz (anthropology)
  4. The Muddled Mystique of Karl Polanyi
  5. The prison house of gender
  6. Investigating Madison’s Political Religion (central planning is hard to do)