Seeing China through its economic history

That is my new Bloomberg View column, here are some excerpts:

Enter Richard von Glahn’s “The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century,” a book likely to go down as one of the year’s best. Over the last 15 years, the economics profession has gone from a poor understanding of China’s economic history to knowing quite a bit. Von Glahn’s exhaustive but readable book is the best guide to this rapidly growing body of knowledge.

…a lot of autocratic Chinese regimes in history have proven stable even in periods of fairly slow economic growth. It can take them centuries to fall and be replaced, and even then a foreign invasion, like ones by the Mongols or Manchus, may be required.

From today’s media, one sometimes receives the impression that a Chinese growth rate below 4 or 6 percent could mean radical instability and a rapid fall of the government, but Chinese history does not show this pattern. That is hardly proof of how things will run in the future, but it should shift our expectations in the direction of greater Chinese political stability.

Other times, Chinese regimes can fall for what might at first appear to be relatively arbitrary reasons.  And the key point is this:

If there is a single common theme running through the many centuries covered by this book, it is the never-fully-successful quest of the Chinese state for revenue and fiscal stability. One reason China fell behind Western Europe in the 18th century is simply that the Chinese state spent less on creating valuable public goods and infrastructure.

In 1993, 15 years after it began making market-oriented reforms, the Chinese central government’s direct revenue was only 3 percent  of gross domestic product, with the usual caveat that no Chinese numbers should be taken as exact measures. Only in the last 10 years has that revenue share exceeded 10 percent of GDP; by comparison, in the U.S. in normal times that number sits in the range of 17 to 18 percent. For all the images Americans might have of China’s government as a communist behemoth, the country’s political order is better understood as still somewhat immature.

Do read the whole thing.  You can order Glahn’s book here, it is one of my favorites of the year so far.

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