Saturday, August 15, 2009

China Transformed

R. Bin Wong’s China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience is the first of the major three recent “California School” studies, and much the best. (The others are Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the making of the modern world economy – reviewed here – and Hobson’s The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation.)

Bin Wong’s central point is that Chinese history had its own dynamics, and one distorts one’s understanding of those dynamics if you import models of politics and state-building applicable in Europe to China. As he says, it is much more useful to understanding if one also looks at Europe through Chinese perspectives rather than only the other way around.

Bin Wong is particularly good at elucidating the patterns of Chinese history and the history of the Chinese state. He differentiates between the rulership structures of medieval and post-medieval European history and those of Chinese history very effectively. Nevertheless, reading Bin Wong’s discussion of the development of imperial Chinese rule (an effectively a one-rulership civilisation) I was struck by the parallels with imperial Roman rule (Europe’s only experience of one-rulership civilisation). For example, the Roman bread-and-circuses dole was an even more elaborate welfare arrangement than Imperial Chinese granaries. The Roman state kept population registers much like the Chinese state did. It showed the same reluctance to raise taxes. Prior to its Christianisation, it had a remarkably similar religious policy. If the history of the Mediterranean basin had been repeated attempts to recreate and improve the Roman Empire of the Antonines, then the resultant state would have probably looked very similar to the late Imperial Chinese state, with Stoicism perhaps playing the role of Confucianism.
This thought-experiment points to a major analytical difference. I am more sceptical of cultural explanations because of, for example, parallel evolutions of knightly Latin Christendom and samurai Japan, than Bin Wong is.

Bin Wong does pick up on the far greater institutional variety of Europe compared to China and the importance of jurisdictional competition in driving state-formation in Europe. I rather liked his description of the Chinese social order as ‘fractal’ (looking much the same at each level) with much less sharp differentiations between state and society than Europe developed. The Imperial Chinese state, in its various dynastic iterations, was basically concerned with one problem – how do you run an agrarian empire. As Bin Wong makes clear, they got to be very good at it. European rulers, by contrast, had to deal with a much wider range of challenges and, as a result, Europe developed much more flexible social arrangements. That Chinese Imperial rule had less need to mobilise consent and negotiate with organised domestic interest groups also put limits on ability to respond to unexpected challenges. While it is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration to say that Qing China showed all the institutional variety of a petri dish, it is true that, unlike Japan, Qing China had to both attempt to industrialise AND create from scratch appropriate institutional arrangements to mobilise social resources in new ways.

Another parallel I noticed with Roman history, is that the problems the Qing state had from the 1840s onwards with the Western capitalist Powers were very similar to the difficulties the Eastern Romans had with the Italian merchant city-states. In both cases, the society the bureaucratised autocracy ruled were central elements of trading systems whose citizens were not themselves major conveyors of trade. In both cases, a series of decisions and omissions led to them being at a perennial disadvantage in dealing with the aggressive, commercially expansive, foreigners whose commercial interests very much had the ear of rulers (in Venice’s case, the merchants were the rulers).

European states operated on higher levels of both coercion and consent than China. But higher levels of provision of public goods requires higher levels of coercion: public goods being based on the state’s capacity to compel contribution and punish transgression.

It seemed to me Bin Wong could have more fruitfully drawn a compare-and-contrast with the similar experiences, yet strikingly different trajectories, of China and Japan from the mid C19th. In the 1840s, China is humiliated in the Opium Wars. In 1854, Japan is forced to open by Commodore Perry and similar humiliations follow. From 1851-1868, China is ravaged by internal revolts (the Taiping and Nian rebellions) with some Muslim rebellions persisting until 1877. Up to 1877 Japan suffers internal revolts (particularly the Boshin War) ending only with the suppression of Saigo Takamori’s rebellion (fictionalised in The Last Samurai) in 1877. Yet, by 1895 Japan is a modern power able to defeat China in the Sino-Japanese War, a take-off even more blatant with Japan’s defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, where China was simply territory to fight over.

All the Japanese had to do was industrialise: they already had the institutions appropriate to mobilise social resources, merely adding a Western “gloss” on them. The problem with Qing China, as Bin Wong manages to make clear (though a contrast with Japan would have made it much more effectively), is that, although the Qing government rose to the fiscal challenge much better than I realised, it could not manage the institutional challenge anywhere near as well.

Bin Wong also conspicuously fails to grapple with the demographic costs of the Chinese Revolution (or, indeed, of events in Chinese history generally). Death tolls in the millions or tens of millions pass without comment or reference, which is not only a moral but an analytical failing since such experiences underpin the power of appeals to order that Chinese rulers regularly use. Though Bin Wong does make clear that, in the context of Chinese history, Mao was much less of an innovator than Western observers, using Western frames of reference, grasped. (Mao’s famous comment that he hadn’t changed China, just a few places around Beijing, may have been more perspicacious than folk realised.)

I was sad to see a passing mention (p.286) to the widespread myth in academe that the welfare state is being dismantled, the common confusing of adjustment with retreat. I am also sceptical about the notion of a 'theory' of revolution. One gets regime collapses (which come in all forms) which then lead to a wide variety of outcomes (regime replacment, regime transformation, state replacement ...) that trying to pick out enough specificity and commonality to get a coherent 'theory' of revolution seems a doubtful exercise to me.

Still, an extremely informative book I greatly enjoyed. I heartily recommend it if you want to better understand the patterns of Chinese history.

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