Why did modern nation-states not emerge in China?

This is from Yuhua Wang (highly recommended):

The collapse of the Chinese state in the early twentieth century was surprising. China was a pioneer in state administration: it established one of the world’s most centralized bureaucracies in 221 BCE, two hundred years before the Roman Empire. In the seventh century, it produced a quarter of the world’s GDP (Maddison 2007, 381) and became the first country to use a civil service examination to recruit bureaucrats…

Why, then, did China suffer a dramatic reversal of fortune, given its early bureaucratic development?

… elites’ level of support for state building depends on the geographic span of their social networks. If they must protect a geographically dispersed network, it is more efficient to support state-strengthening policies. These elites have an encompassing interest (Olson 1982, 48). If they need to protect a geographically concentrated network, it is more efficient to rely on private protection and oppose state strengthening. These elites have a narrow interest (Olson 1982, 48).

China…. As the elites’ social networks became localized, they also fragmented; they found it difficult to organize cross regionally. A fragmented elite contributed to a despotic monarchy because it was easier for the ruler to divide and conquer. Historians have noted the shift to imperial despotism during the Song era, as the emperor’s position vis-à-vis his chief advisors was strengthened (Hartwell 1982, 404–405). The trend further deepened when in the late fourteenth century the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty abolished the entire upper echelon of his central government and concentrated power securely in his own hands (Hucker 1998, 74–75). This explains the increasing security of Chinese rulers [see image].

The despotic monarchy and the narrow interest elite became a self-enforcing equilibrium: the rulers were secure, while the elite used the state to protect their local interests and enjoyed their autonomy. Yet this arrangement led to the gradual decline of the Chinese state.

There are so many parallels to the challenges to state-building in Africa throughout the piece (many of which were documented by Catherine Boone in the excellent Political Topographies of the African State).

Read the whole thing here.

Patchwork Leviathans? Pockets of Excellence in Otherwise Dysfunctional States

This is from Erin Metz McDonnell:

Within seemingly weak states, exceptionally effective subunits lie hidden. These high- performing niches exhibit organizational characteristics distinct from poor-performing peer organizations, but also distinct from high-functioning organizations in Western countries. This article develops the concept of interstitial bureaucracy to explain how and why unusually high-performing state organizations in developing countries invert canonical features of Weberian bureaucracy. Interstices are distinct-yet-embedded subsystems characterized by practices inconsistent with those of the dominant institution. This interstitial position poses particular challenges and requires unique solutions. Interstices cluster together scarce proto- bureaucratic resources to cultivate durable distinction from the status quo, while managing disruptions arising from interdependencies with the wider neopatrimonial field. I propose a framework for how bureaucratic interstices respond to those challenges, generalizing from organizational comparisons within the Ghanaian state and abbreviated historical comparison cases from the nineteenth-century United States, early-twentieth-century China, mid- twentieth-century Kenya, and early-twenty-first-century Nigeria.

…… Monolithically dysfunctional administrations are the exception, not the rule— albeit the exception that has long captured popular and academic attention (Evans 1989; Helman and Ratner 1992). Instead, many states regarded as uniformly ineffectual have great internal variation, with agencies spanning a continuum from ineffectual quagmires to competently achieving organizational man- dates in the public interest. These state “leviathans” are patch-worked: they are cobbled together from scarce available resources, with organizational diversity sewn loosely together into the semblance of unity. In such states, adapted Weberian-style bureaucracy exists in interstices—niches within predominantly neopatrimonial administrations.

The sociology of state and nation building, and development in general, is underrated.

Read the whole thing here.