Efforts to enhance state capacity often face resistance by local strongpersons unwilling to submit their control over the population and economy to the government. Existing studies suggest that such resistance may soften due to war, economic crisis, politicians’ time horizon, or contentious politics. This paper highlights a compensatory strategy through the use of bureaucracy, in which the ruler offers meaningful government offices in exchange for elites’ acceptance of state-building reforms. We test this argument in the context of early medieval China, when the Northern Wei (386 – 534 AD) regime ruled the north after conquering other “barbarian” kingdoms. Our unique dataset combines geocoded family background and career histories of almost 2,600 elites with information on medieval Chinese castles, which we use to infer local strongholds lacking state penetration. We leverage a comprehensive state-building reform under Northern Wei in the late 5th century. Difference-in-differences estimates document that the reform led to a sustained, substantial increase in the total number of powerful aristocrats from localities with strongholds recruited into the imperial bureaucracy. Subsequent estimates provide evidence for two mechanisms by which compensation facilitates state-building: 1) the offices taken by these elites came with direct benefits of prestige and power, and 2) by transforming these aristocrats from local powerfuls into national stakeholders, these offices potentially induced the realignment of their interests toward those of the dynasty. Further analysis suggests that the bureaucracy provided the regime with institutional tools of power-sharing to mitigate credible commitment problems. Additionally, we provide systematic estimates for increase in state penetration following the reform using the number of county government offices established in localities with strongholds. Findings in this paper shed light on the causes of the “First Great Divergence,” where similar barbarian invasions at similar times led to political fragmentation in Europe but further state consolidation in China.
Erik H. Wang is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse and will be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University starting in September 2021. He obtained his PhD in Politics at Princeton University under the supervision of Carles Boix, Rory Truex, and Kosuke Imai. His research interests center on politics of state-building, bureaucracy, and historical political economy. He also does research on statistical methods of causal inference. Erik’s work has appeared in Journal of Politics, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Research and Politics, and Socius.
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