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Austerity in times of war: government finance in early nineteenth-century China

  • Elisabeth Kaske (a1)

Qing China represents a counterfactual to the early modern European history of fiscal expansion in the wake of warfare. In response to the staggering costs of suppressing the White Lotus Rebellion (1796–1804), the Jiaqing Emperor sought to solve the empire's fiscal problems by tightening bureaucratic control over an overstretched system of treasury finance. However, Jiaqing's policy of austerity and retrenchment was not simply an expedient in times of fiscal strain, but deeply rooted in ideological struggles over taxation that began in the eighteenth century. It was an expression of hardline fiscal conservatism, which held fixed revenue quotas sacrosanct and which I call quota-ism. This policy had dire consequences for the ability of the Qing regime to respond to external shocks and to fulfill its sovereign tasks – war, river conservancy and famine relief. It contributed to the bankruptcy of Qing government finance by the time of the Opium War.

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Corresponding author
E. Kaske, Ostasiatisches Institut, Faculty of Sinology, Universität Leipzig, Schillerstraße 6, 04109 Leipzig, Germany; email:
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Research for this article has been facilitated by a Starr Foundation East Asian Endowment Fund membership at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. I wish to express gratitude to Pan Wei of Shaanxi Normal University for help with understanding river conservancy finance and sharing unpublished work with me. I also thank the editors for including me in this special issue as well as Yingcong Dai, Benjamin Elman and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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