The Qing Dynasty in China saw a decline and eventual collapse in the year 1912, marking the conclusion of its reign that spanned over 250 years. An worldwide research team, under the guidance of the Complexity Science Hub (CSH), has identified significant factors contributing to the collapse, thereby drawing parallels to contemporary instability and providing crucial insights for future endeavors.
China is presently regarded as the global leader in terms of economic size, specifically in relation to purchasing power parity. Nevertheless, this position is not novel. By the year 1820, China had established itself as the leading economy, commanding a significant share of 32.9% in the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). During the intervening period, there was a phase characterized by a decrease in performance, which was subsequently followed by a period of renewed growth.
In the year 1912, the Qing Dynasty, which had held control for a period over 250 years, saw a collapse, while possessing a significantly greater wealth compared to contemporary China. Georg Orlandi, the primary author of the study, underlines that this serves as a clear illustration of the necessity for economies to remain watchful, since situations have the potential to undergo quick changes. The research article titled “An Analysis of the Collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) in China through a Structural-Demographic Lens” was published in the scholarly journal PLOS ONE.
Common ancestry between then and now
Understanding the roots of these instabilities is of utmost importance. Making the assumption that a particular phenomenon is confined to the past and incapable of reoccurring would be an erroneous perspective. According to Peter Turchin, a researcher at CSH, it is absolutely possible for such alterations to occur due to the presence of unexpected parallels in the underlying systems.
For the past two centuries, researchers have been engaged in efforts to identify the underlying factors responsible for the decline of the Qing Dynasty. Several variables were previously suggested, encompassing environmental catastrophes, foreign invasions, food shortages, or rebellions. Nevertheless, Turchin points out that “none of these factors offers a comprehensive explanation.”
3 Main Drivers
Therefore, in this study, researchers synthesized multiple components and found that three elements significantly increased socio-political tensions.
Initially, it is noteworthy that there was a significant quadrupling of the population between the years 1700 and 1840. As a consequence, there was a decrease in the amount of land available per individual, leading to the impoverishment of the rural population.
Secondly, this phenomenon resulted in heightened competitiveness for prestigious posts. As the quantity of individuals vying for academic recognition increased significantly, there was a corresponding decrease in the number of individuals being granted the highest academic degrees, with the lowest point being reached in the year 1796. The requirement of possessing such a degree in order to secure a place within the influential Chinese bureaucracy resulted in a significant disparity between the number of available posts and the number of individuals aspiring to attain them. Consequently, this discrepancy gave rise to a substantial group of discontented aspirants from the top class. The leaders of the Taiping Rebellion, widely regarded as one of the most violent civil conflicts in recorded history, were individuals who aspired to attain elite status but ultimately experienced failure in their endeavors.
Thirdly, the financial strain on the state increased as a result of escalating expenses related to the suppression of social unrest, a decrease in per capita output, and the accumulation of trade imbalances caused by the depletion of silver reserves and the importation of opium.
The combination of these circumstances resulted in a sequence of uprisings that marked the conclusion of the Qing Dynasty and resulted in a significant loss of Chinese lives.
The Qing government knew
Based on the findings of the study, it can be concluded that social tensions reached their highest point between the years 1840 and 1890. According to Turchin, it would be incorrect to assume that the Qing rulers were ignorant of the increasing pressure. The enduring nature of the dynasty until 1912 serves as a testament to the robustness of its institutional systems.
Nevertheless, a considerable number of the proposed remedies implemented by the authorities were found to be myopic or insufficient in addressing the issue at hand. For instance, the government opted to augment the permissible quota for those who successfully cleared specific degree examinations, yet failed to correspondingly expand the pool of accessible opportunities. This ultimately intensified the pre-existing conflicts. The rulers’ inability to prevent their downfall was ultimately brought about by the emergence of formidable geopolitical adversaries during the late 19th century.
Reducing Uncertainty Today
Significant insights may be gleaned from this historical progression, which can be applied to the present age as well as future circumstances. Numerous nations across the globe are currently confronted with the challenge of potential instability and circumstances that bear striking resemblance to those observed during the Qing Dynasty. For example, the level of rivalry for prestigious positions continues to be highly intense. Orlandi advises that in situations where there is intense competition among several individuals for a limited number of posts, political decision-makers should see this as a significant concern, as it has the potential to result in increased instability, at the very least.
According to Daniel Hoyer, a co-author and affiliated researcher at CSH, the detrimental effects of increasing inequality and declining opportunities occur over extended periods, making them challenging to identify and address, particularly given the limited duration of political cycles observed in numerous nations. In the absence of comprehensive foresight and strategic interventions aimed at alleviating these societal pressures, numerous regions have the potential of experiencing a fate similar to that of the Qing dynasty.
We do not possess prophetic abilities. According to Orlandi, the main objective of our research is to gain a comprehensive understanding of social dynamics, which can afterwards be utilized for the purpose of producing accurate predictions. Researchers have repeatedly proved the efficacy of employing the Structural Demographic Theory (SDT), a methodology co-developed by Peter Turchin that conceptualizes societies as intricate dynamic systems, in assessing the success of this undertaking. An example of this can be seen in a report that was published in 2010, which predicted the occurrence of instability in the United States by the year 2020.