The Prosperity of Ching China

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The conventional wisdom is that in the 1800's, China was a disaster. This, I suspect, is false, and scholars have heavily confused Seeming with Being-- even good scholars. A lot of this is because historians are ignorant of even basic economics.

What is true is that opium was a huge problem in China in the 1800's. But consider some other factoids:
1. Taxes stayed low. (dubious, as I'll explain below)
2. The number of official government employees did not increase. (note "official"; see below)
3. Foreigners forced China to open up trade and keep tariffs low.
4. The population vastly increased.
5. The number of people who passed the official exams at the lowest level vastly increased.
6. The government was unable to maintain its ban on Christianity.

Historians regard these as bad things. They are actually all good things. To be sure, China was humiliated by being shown to be militarily weaker than the the United Kingdom, and later even weaker than Japan. But that's just because China did not spend enough on the military, and it did not have bad consequences except that it couldn't stop opium from being imported. Losing Hong Kong and Taiwan I don't count as bad consequences, or, if you like, they are trivial ones (remember: Taiwan was a foreign island with few Chinese until the 1600's, when it became a colony and the natives started being overwhelmed by immigrants; and I don't know if more than a few dozen Chinese ever lived on Hong Kong Island). Being forced to accept foreign trade was a good thing for China.

Similarly, if the population was increasing, that shows that China must have been more prosperous than ever before, especially the common people. At the same time, the number of people able to spend their teenage years studying must have increased if the number of exam passers did, so China wasn't even in a Malthusian trap where everybody was starving. That the exam passers couldn't all become government employees is a good thing, not a bad thing. To be sure, I suspect many of them did. The official number of bureaucrats didn't increase, but the unofficial one did, because the officials hired lots of assistants-- probably from all those exam passers. Taxes didn't increase, but bribes and squeeze did, probably to pay for the increased government services. Contrary to what the historians think, though consistent with what they describe, it seems that the number of "in effect government employees" increased with the population, as did the "in effect" taxes, which have to include the squeeze. Most of it didn't go on the official books, though.

I also think it a very good thing that the government could no longer suppress religious freedom, but was forced to tolerate Christianity. And that it couldn't keep out foreign goods, but instead had to allow its people to buy Western goods. What was humiliating for the Manchu tribesmen who held power was good for the Han Chinese people of the country. Scholars have been prey to their usual mental trap of thinking that what is good for a country's Establishment--which often means the thugs and sybarites who control the military, doesn't even include the educated elite-- is good for the country. We see how they kowtow when a nation tells them to change the name of the country and its cities, as if that were good for the people over whom they tyrannize. This is just another example.