by Ye Ma (Beijing Normal University)
This blog is based on the author’s presentation to the 2021 Economic History Society annual conference
My research is motivated by debates on the Qing Empire’s role in China’s pre-1914 industrialisation. At the end of the Qing Empire in 1911, the economy of China slowly recovered from decades of social disorder and enjoyed a period of economic growth during the interwar period. At the very beginning of China’s industrialisation, the Self-Strengthening Movement (1861–95), supported by the Qing Empire, was especially important. This Movement sought to foster industrial development and strengthen national defence by importing new technology and scientific knowledge from the West — which might have shaped subsequent economic development. It is commonly believed that the Qing Empire’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–5), indicates weaknesses in state investment in new industrial production and, therefore, the failure to promote industrialisation. However, it might be too early to reach this conclusion without taking proper account of state investment in the late Qing period (1860–1911). The role played by the Qing state in China’s early industrialisation has not been sufficiently studied. My research focuses on the influence of the Qing state investment at the regional level, as well as considering whether the development of China’s manufacturing by the 1910s was promoted by the early investments of the Qing Empire.
Firstly, I report new measurements of the Qing state’s investment in new technologies and industries which reveals regional variation. These metrics are based on the classification of state investment in the late Qing period into the following categories: new education and training, military production, state-owned factories, telegraphy, and railways. The data are constructed at the provincial level and for two periods: the Self-Strengthening Movement between the 1860s and 1890s, and the last decades of the Qing regime, c1890-c.1910. The evidence indicates that different categories of Qing state investment can be re-grouped into two common dimensions: military-related, and infrastructure-related state investment for all sample provinces. Statistical evidence shows that in general the Qing state’s investment target shifted from military to infrastructure-related programmes after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95). During the Self-Strengthening Movement, most provinces were involved in the Qing state-invested programmes of industrialisation, but with different investment dimensions. Provincial differences formed in this period subsequently became more pronounced.
Correlation was used to examine the relationship between Qing state investment and the performance of private manufacturing at the provincial level around 1910. My data on regional industrial performance covers 22 provinces and 31 manufacturing industries in China for the 1910s. Regression analysis shows that on average, military-related state investment was negatively associated with provincial manufacturing output though after 1896, military-related investment may have promoted heavy industry. This result seems plausible: the growth of capital-intensive armament production can benefit heavy industries such as chemicals, iron, and steel. Surprisingly, it appears that infrastructure-related investment, which consisted mainly of railway construction, may have harmed provincial industrial production at the beginning of China’s industrialisation. My research also suggests that state-investment programmes failed to prompt the expansion of modern factory production which would have accelerated broader economic change. In conclusion, this research presents a case study on an old and vulnerable empire’s capacity to promote economic growth, and it enhances our knowledge of the role of the state in fostering industrialisation.
To contact the author: yema.rug2011[at]yahoo.com