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Autocratic Rule and Social Capital: Evidence from Imperial China

HSE International Center for the Study of Institutions and Development (ICSID) and NES Center for the Study of Diversity and Social Interactions held another session of their joint  Research Seminar on Diversity and Development.

Melanie Meng Xue, postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Economics and Center for Economic History at Northwestern University, presented her paper "Autocratic Rule and Social Capital: Evidence from Imperial China".

Abstract: This paper explores the impact of autocratic rule on social capital – defined as the beliefs, attitudes, norms and perceptions that support cooperation. Political repression is a distinguishing characteristic of autocratic regimes. Between 1660-1788, individuals in imperial China were persecuted if they were suspected of holding subversive attitudes towards the state. A difference-in-differences approach suggests that in an average prefecture, exposure to those literary inquisitions led to a decline of 38% in local charities – a key proxy of social capital.  Consistent with the historical panel results, we find that in affected prefectures, individuals have lower levels of generalized trust in modern China. Taking advantage of institutional variation in 20th c. China, and two instrumental variables, we provide further evidence that political repression permanently reduced social capital. Furthermore, we find that individuals in prefectures with a legacy of literary inquisitions are more politically apathetic. These results indicate a potential vicious cycle in which autocratic rule becomes self-reinforcing through causing a permanent decline in social capital.

 As usual, the event was held jointly with the seminar “Political Economy”.