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Karina Moxon

March 28th, 2019

From dynasty to decay: an analysis of 19th century changes to the Chinese political economy


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Karina Moxon

March 28th, 2019

From dynasty to decay: an analysis of 19th century changes to the Chinese political economy


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Written by Caroline Wohl (General Course)

Despite economic prowess during the Song dynasty, subsequent regimes failed to
replicate growth (Brandt, Ma and Rawski, 2014). Using Francis Fukuyama’s Reactionary Thermador Model, I will argue that interlocking incentives among the Qing’s bureaucratic elite provided resistance to reform in the nineteenth and twentieth-century. This lack of reform deteriorated the state’s legitimacy, creating preconditions for the formation of new institutions and much needed economic reform.

Fukuyama’s framework

Fukuyama’s Reactionary Thermador model provides a good lens to analyze Chinese economic reform, or lack thereof, in the late Qing dynasty. Fukuyama posits that the rise and fall of political institutions follows a predictable pattern that is inherent to politics and power. Institutions, he argues, are at first able to respond well to challenges, but over time become rigid and fail to adapt to new situations. This conservative nature is rooted in elites’ ability to confer benefits and power that they can then use to resist institutional change. What ensues is a “cross-fertilization of economic resources, status and political power” that create highly resilient political regimes (ibid, p. 77). This inertia creates further issues as reactions to inadequate responses bring about further conflict. This process repeats itself and intensifies until the old institutions lack power and political legitimacy. Revolutionary actors that pushed for initial reform step in to create new institutions, often incorporating vestiges of the regimes prior. The cycle thus starts again; the Reactionary Thermador is inherent to politics and power.

Chinese historical context

The late Song and early Qing dynasties boasted leadership in technological innovation and stable living standards on par with Western Europe (Baten, Ma, Morgan and Wang, 2010, p. 348). The period featured expansions in intra-Chinese trade, transforming “desolate sandbanks” along the Yanzi into burgeoning mercantile centers (ibid, pp. 52-3). This “Song-peak” encompassed the intersection of large-scale innovation, price integration, and market expansion.

This economic vibrancy, however, did not last. Western imperialism represented a major shock to the Qing political economy, particularly the integration of trade following the Opium War. Economic dynamism was limited, despite increased access to larger markets. New factories were sparse, despite the Chinese strong comparative advantage in cheap labor. Unlike centuries prior, innovative activity ceased as did economic growth (Richardson, 1999, p. 9). Imperial powers limited steamship use at the ports while prohibiting railroad construction altogether, quite literally failing to pave the way for European-style industrialization.

Empirical data further illustrates this decline. Quantitatively, standards of living plummeted (Baten, Ma, Morgan and Wang, 2010, p. 355). Military failures in the Opium and Sino-Japanese wars marked a “major loss of face and political eclipse” for the imperial powers. Siphoning revenues towards these external conflicts drained government coffers, rendering central authorities useless in curbing internal revolt. Indeed, only local powers were able to ultimately respond to the Taiping rebellion, further eroding political legitimacy. Ultimately, nineteenth-century China was left “a government too weak to provide a stable political and legal environment” (Brandt, Ma and Rawski, 2014, p. 88).

Implications for reform of the Qing’s loss of legitimate power

Fukuyama’s Reactionary Thermador model provides a good framework for this decline; interlocking interests within the state prevented adequate replies to changing conditions. Political institutions in the nineteenth-century mirrored those of the fourteenth-century and provided handsome benefits for those in government. Confucian-based civil service exams served as a gateway towards a lifetime of tax-benefits and legal immunity for the narrow bureaucratic elite. This “deeply conservative attachment to a thousand-year-old polity,” ultimately road-blocked meaningful reform (Maddison, 1998, p. 58).

As the Reactionary Thermador intensified, the Qing’s falling legitimacy also made reform less feasible. As the state prioritized internal stability to maintain, imperial rulers failed to increase taxes, despite a growing population (Brandt, Ma and Rawski, 2014, p. 67). This lack of resources made meaningful reform infeasible, even if already unlikely (ibid, p. 88).

While institutional inertia initially served as a roadblock for reform, its role in complete political decay created preconditions for change. As new powers centralized, reform became obviously necessary. Pressure mounted from falling living standards and scholars outside the government began to publicly advocate change. Though early developments were restorative, ultimately, the twentieth-century political economy was characterized by “a gradual and ongoing process of rolling back old [sic] institutional barriers obstructing prosperity and growth” (ibid, p. 103).  New lines of thinking, such as arguments for modernization as an originally Confucian ideal, helped to lubricate this process, in allowing the government to save (some) face. Mantras like “Chinese learning for the essential principles. Western learning for the practical applications” further facilitated the process by appealing to Chinese cultural pride (Cohen, 1984, p. 29). These fresh institutions undertook “vigorous efforts” to establish institutions capable of developmental policy (ibid, p. 88). Such efforts were largely successful; China’s GDP growth soared as manufacturing flourished.


The cyclic rise and fall of Qing political legitimacy provides a good analytical and heuristic model for tracking reform in twentieth-century. Interconnected webs of elite interests and Confucian identity created a “deeply embedded political and economic institutions [which, in turn] prevented China from capturing the benefits associated with the Industrial Revolution” (Brandt, Ma and Rawski, 2014, p. 45). The subsequent failures to change and respond to new problems, however, ultimately paved the way for change. In a more macro view, the creation of a “historically stable, mutually reinforcing, and extremely difficult to alter” political economy, and its subsequent deterioration, represent a complete cycle in the Reactionary Thermador (ibid, p. 66).

Some, however, may argue that Fukuyama’s framework is a poor tool for analyzing the Chinese case. His model largely concerns nation-state formation in Western Europe, not China. This is problematic, as the existence of such long stretching dynasties makes the Chinese perception of institutions fundamentally different from the European context. The Chinese hold a long-term view of their history and political problems; simply put “they don’t sweat the small stuff.” Thus, the incidence of shocks, like the opening of markets, is not important in the Chinese political economy. More broadly, the reactionary Thermador Model is a poor lens for viewing issues in the Chinese context, as it relies on the importance of short-term political crises (Gustafson, 2017).

There are two main issues with this response. First, the opening of markets in the 1850s
was an unprecedented shock for imperial rule throughout Chinese history. The only external
challenges China had faced prior to the 1850s were territorial in nature, so the new type of
shock warrants a new type of analysis (Brandt, Ma and Rawski, 2014, p. 80). More broadly, however, I would argue, that the Reactionary Thermador model is actually an apt model for viewing the rise and fall of Chinese dynasties. While it is true that Chinese dynasties stretched for much longer than nation-states in the West, empirically dynasties fell when the ruling party lost political legitimacy and a legitimate use of force. Thus, the Reactionary Thermador is a suitable model; it just spans a longer period of time.

In this paper, I have used Francis Fukuyama’s model of a Reactionary Thermador to analyze the slow move to reform in late Qing China. I have argued that institutional inertia and elite interests played a critical role in preserving an inefficient status quo. As discussed, reforms and new institutions take up vestiges of prior regimes. Thus, capitalism with Chinese characteristics has driven immense growth since the turn of the twentieth-century. This paper adds to the current literature in transporting Fukuyama’s model eastward and provides a new lens for analyzing continued changes to the Chinese political economy.


Cohen, P. 1984. “The Problem with ‘China’s Response to the West.” In Discovering History in
China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past. New York: Columbia University Press.

Fukuyama, F. 2011. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French
Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Gustafson, Thane. 2017. “Comparative Political Systems”. ICC Auditorium, Georgetown
University, Washington DC.

Baten, J., Ma, D., Morgan, S. and Wang, Q. 2010. “Evolution of Living Standards and
Human Capital in China in 18-20th Century.” Explorations in Economic History, 47:3. Pp. 347-359.

Brandt, L., Ma, D. and Rawski, T. 2014. “From Divergence to Convergence: Reevaluating the History Behind China’s Economic Boom.” Journal of Economic Literature, 52.

Maddison, A. 1998. Chinese Economic Performance in the Long Run. OECD.

Richardson, P. 1999. Economic Change in China, c. 1800-1950. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.


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About the author

Karina Moxon

3rd year Bsc Government and History student and Editor-in-Chief of the LSE UPR.

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