China once dominated the world economy at the beginning of the nineteenth century. At the time, the massive empire was responsible for about a third of the world’s GDP and was home to more than a third of the world’s population. However, this was followed by a decline that eventually cost the Qing dynasty its power. Complexity researchers in Vienna have now tracked the events, and see clear parallels with what is happening today.
The wealthy Qing Dynasty ruled from 1644 to 1912. There are many different theories about the reasons for its end, and they are the subject of contentious debate. A team led by Peter Turchin of the Center for Complex Sciences (CSH) in Vienna together with colleagues from China, Japan, the USA and Great Britain have made a new contribution on this matter in the specialized journal “Plos One”.
The scholars chose Structural Demographic Theory (SDT), which Turchin co-developed, as a methodological framework. In it, societies are viewed as complex and ever-changing systems, CSH announced on Monday. For its analysis, the team used the Seshat Global History Database, which the Russian-American complexity researcher helped create. This is a collection of historical and archaeological data for 373 societies around the world.
The most comprehensive analysis on the subject to date
With their mathematical approach, they attempted what the researchers say is the most comprehensive analysis on the topic to date — and also to learn from it for the time being, because: “It’s critical to understand how this instability came about. That would be a mistake,” Turchin says. On reflection: That was it then and it can’t happen again. The mechanisms behind such disorders are surprisingly similar.”
According to the latest analysis, in the case of the ruling class in China at that time, there were three main processes that led to a sharp increase in social pressures over a long period of time. First, from 1700 to 1840, China’s population quadrupled, reducing the amount of land available per person and impoverishing the rural population. As a result, rapid population growth propelled large numbers into coveted administrative positions in the administration. In the end, more people were able to obtain an academic degree, but the number of jobs remained small.
Elites, often deeply disillusioned as a result, and without corresponding opportunities for social advancement, became the driving force behind bloody uprisings and civil wars. This, in turn, led to a significant increase in government spending to quell the riots. Added to this was the decline in per capita economic productivity and the rising trade deficit due to dwindling silver reserves and rising opium imports.
Internal tensions continued to mount
According to the analysis, the greatest social pressure accumulated between 1840 and 1890. However, until the beginning of the 20th century, the institutional structures were still able to keep the Qing dynasty in power. Then great internal tensions and external pressures brought the dynasty to an end after more than 250 years.
The Qing Dynasty was well aware of the problems that were piling up, but countermeasures such as preventing famines, counterinsurgency measures, and administrative reforms could not stop the developments that were destabilizing China. Ultimately, it will take so far for the country to regain its geopolitical and economic supremacy.
Scholars also see many similarities between the decline of the Qing Dynasty and the decline of Tsarist Russia under the Romanov Dynasty (1613-1917). Even today, there are some countries where similar developments are emerging or occurring, according to the scientists. The study’s conclusions can be read as far-reaching: “Without long-term insights and targeted strategies to defuse this social pressure, there is a risk in many areas of taking the same path as the Qing Dynasty,” says Daniel Hoyer, a researcher at CSH. a point.
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