Tag Archives: Asia

Assessing the Determinants of Economic Growth in South East Asia

The Historical State, Local Collective Action, and Economic Development in Vietnam

By Melissa Dell (Harvard University), Nathaniel Lane (Stockholm University), Pablo Querubin (New York University)

Abstract – This study examines how the historical state conditions long-run development, using Vietnam as a laboratory. Northern Vietnam (Dai Viet) was ruled by a strong centralized state in which the village was the fundamental administrative unit. Southern Vietnam was a peripheral tributary of the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire, which followed a patron-client model with weaker, more personalized power relations and no village intermediation. Using a regression discontinuity design across the Dai Viet-Khmer boundary, the study shows that areas historically under a strong state have higher living standards today and better economic outcomes over the past 150 years. Rich historical data document that in villages with a strong historical state, citizens have been better able to organize for public goods and redistribution through civil society and local government. This suggests that the strong historical state crowded in village-level collective action and that these norms persisted long after the original state disappeared.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/nbrnberwo/23208.htm

Circulated by nep-his on 2017/03/19

Review by Fernando Arteaga (George Mason University)

What was the impact of the ancient Vietnamese Dai Viet empire in promoting long-term economic development? That is the main question the authors try to assess. Their inquiry is embedded within the now large literature on the importance of culture and institutions, as deep determinants of growth. The contribution the paper makes is, however, not restricted to adding one more piece of evidence in favor of it, but, more importantly, in providing empirical support for a specific transmission channel: how state capacity can be built through time via the fostering of local self-organization capabilities.

The paper’s main story builds on the idea that two distinct meta-societies existed within East Asia, and idea around which, by the way, there is general agreement. One of these societies based on Chinese precepts, prevalent in the Northeastern region; and other spread in the Southeast throughout the Indian Ocean.  Societies of the former category were historically constituted around a sort of Weberian professional bureaucracy that consolidated the working of a central state. The latter depended more on informal networking mechanisms among local elites to survive, and hence, tended to promote hierarchical patriarchal relationships.

Today’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam (henceforth Vietnam) is an interesting case study precisely because it arose out of the union of those two distinct cultures. The northern part, the Dai Viet, is an example of a Sino-style state, while the southern part of Vietnam (initially part of the Champa State and later as part of the larger Khmer Empire) resulted from a Indo-style society.  Figure 1 below offers map of present day Vietnam aligned with the size of the historical Dai Viet empire. Figure 1 suggests the Dai Viet expanded southwards through time but ended up establishing its final frontier in 1698 (orange color). It is this border the authors think provides a natural experiment that allows a clean regression discontinuity (RD) strategy that permits the disentanglement of the effect of being part of a bureaucratized state vis a vis a patriarchal state.


Figure 1: Dai Viet Historical Boundaries (Dell et al., 2017)

The use of the RD design is appropriate, the authors argue, because the chosen border resulted from exogenous contingencies that do not reflect any difference in future economic potential. The 1698 demarcation was settled on the ridges of a river, but there was nothing else particular to it that made that boundary preferable to other potential borders. The Dai Viet stopped its expansion because of constrains imposed by a local civil war (something that has nothing to do with the river itself). Moreover, the environmental characteristics of both sides of the river are almost identical (or vary smoothly), so there is no important geographical difference either. The only thing that changes abruptly is that on the east shore of the 1698 border, Dai Viet settlers occupied and controlled the land, while Khmer villagers occupied and controlled the land to the west of the river. Another possible counterargument to the use of the 1698 border as a natural experiment is the relevance of migration: if settlers moved across villages (at any time after the establishment of the original border), then the boundary becomes inconsequential. The authors argue that, even though they do not have historical data to control for it, there is qualitative evidence that refers to negative attitudes towards outsiders within the villages, which constitutes an important constraint to any major migratory flow. Today, both sides are part of Vietnam. It is then possible to assess if Die Viet institutions still exert some type of effect in current economic outcomes.

Figure 2 portraits the main outcome of the paper. Using household expenditure data from recent censuses (2002-2012), the authors find that today, villages situated along the historical Die Viet side of the border earn a third more than those communities that are situated on the historical Khmer side (Within the figure, the darker the zone depict lower earnings).


Figure 2a: Household Consumption, RD Graph (Dell et al., 2017)

The authors, however, not content with establishing the effects on current outcomes, look for historical evidence too. They collect data from different periods of Vietnamese history: 1878-1921 for the French Colonization, 1969-1973 for the South Vietnam State, and 1975-1985 for the early Communist Period; and find that the pattern is persistent through time: The Diet Viet zone is, in general, more developed than the Khmer side.

How can these results be interpreted?  The income differences must be due to the Die Viet heritage of greater state capacity that acted through local community self-organization that made them more co-operative and facilitated the resolution of local collective action problems. To test whether this transmission channel matters, the authors looked for data on social capital. Their main sources were the surveys and census of the South Vietnamese period. What they find corroborates their story: villagers on the Diet Viet side were more prone to participate in community activities, to collect more taxes (that at the time were local responsibility, not provincial), to have greater access to public goods (health, school and law enforcement), to be skeptical of central government in favor of local, and to give more to charity.


All in all, the authors do a thorough job in assessing the robustness of their main story. They control for several of potential alternative stories and/or possible variables that could affect the results and mechanisms.  Any critique of it may sound redundant or unreachable.  Yet, I would point to three different aspects that may be important.

First, and perhaps most importantly, I would stress that although the argument makes sense, the narrative is unclear as to how specifically the Dai Viet, which supposedly was a centralized bureaucratized state, fostered local governance. As the authors mention in the introduction, the literature on social capital is ambivalent on its effects on economic outcomes. As it is, the paper’s contribution is the finding of empirical evidence on the presence of a particular transmission channel (from state to local governance), but without a clear model and/or an analytical narrative, we are left in the dark about how explicitly this mechanism worked its way throughout society.

Second, and pushing the level of pickiness even further, one can always speak of a potential omitted variable bias. I must ask then: what about genes? The authors minimize ethnic fragmentation as a problem because they find the studied area is cataloged as being almost entirely composed of homogeneously ethnic Vietnamese. The problem is that censuses and surveys may under-report true ethnicity, and cannot capture genetic differences at all. By the authors’ own account, we are told the Diet Viet State originated as, and remained for a long time, Chinese. Moreover, as Tran (1993) attests, Chinese ethnicity may conflate the results of the paper in other several ways:

  • the largest Chinese migration occurred between the late 17th century and early 19th century, just at the time that the Dai Viet-Khmer border was being established;
  • The Chinese settled mostly in southern Vietnam, the part that the authors use as study case;
  • Chinese early importance resided precisely in that they helped establish new villages and trade outposts. They (not merely the Diet Viet heritage) helped to build local governance structures.

If ethnicity has been underreported and/or Chinese genetics matter in fostering economic development in any way (as suggested by Ashraf-Galor, 20013a, 2013b) then the interpretation of the paper could dramatically change: the importance of the Dai Viet state would be downplayed in favor of just being more ethnic/genetic Chinese. After all, it is known that there is a correlation between having larger ethnic Chinese minority and larger economic growth (Priebe and Rudulf, 2015).

Third, related to the last point: one would expect that given the importance of the result – the long-term reach of Diet Viet institutions–, its impact would feel more broadly across all the territory, not only in the immediate zones of the frontier which were the last to be incorporated into the state.  Figure 3, for example, shows the level of poverty in Vietnam (Epprecht-Heinmann,2004). It is visible that the area under study (along the last border of the historical Diet Viet) has the lowest share of poverty in the whole country. The immediate area to the left (which coincides with the area that historically belonged to the Khmer Empire) is poorer indeed. But the differences are minor if we compare them to the rest of current Vietnam, which belonged almost entirely to the Diet Viet, and has the largest poorer areas.  The RD design may be identifying a non-observable variable that is concentrated in the southern part (like ethnicity or/and genes) and is not broadly distributed across the rest of Vietnam.


Figure 3: Incidence of Poverty in Vietnam (Epprecht-Heinmann, 2004: 155).

Additional References

Ashraf, Q., Galor, O., 2013a. Genetic Diversity and the Origins of Cultural Fragmentation. The American Economic Review: Papers on Proceedings 103, 528–533.

Ashraf, Q., Galor, O., 2013b. The “Out of Africa” Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development. American Economic Review 103, 1–46.

Epprecht, M., Heinemann, A., 2004. Socioeconomic Atlas of Vietnam: A depiction of the 1999 Population and Housing Census. Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research, Bern.

Priebe, J., Rudolf, R., 2015. Does the Chinese Diaspora Speed Up Growth in Host Countries? World Development 76, 249–262.

Trần, K., 1993. The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

Failed by #EconomicGrowth?

Asia’s Little Divergence: State Capacity in China and Japan before 1850

by Tuan-Hwee Sng (National University of Singapore) and Chiaki Moriguchi (Hitotsubashi University)

Abstract: This paper explores the role of state capacity in the comparative economic development of China and Japan. Before 1850, both nations were ruled by stable dictators who relied on bureaucrats to govern their domains. We hypothesize that agency problems increase with the geographical size of a domain. In a large domain, the ruler’s inability to closely monitor bureaucrats creates opportunities for the bureaucrats to exploit taxpayers. To prevent overexploitation, the ruler has to keep taxes low and government small. Our dynamic model shows that while economic expansion improves the ruler’s finances in a small domain, it could lead to lower tax revenues in a large domain as it exacerbates bureaucratic expropriation. To test these implications, we assemble comparable quantitative data from primary and secondary sources. We find that the state taxed less and provided fewer local public goods per capita in China than in Japan. Furthermore, while the Tokugawa shogunate’s tax revenue grew in tandem with demographic trends, Qing China underwent fiscal contraction after 1750 despite demographic expansion. We conjecture that a greater state capacity might have prepared Japan better for the transition from stagnation to growth.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/hithitcei/2014-6.htm

Reviewed by Joyman Lee


This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2014-09-25 and 2014-10-03. In it Sng and Moriguchi ask why China – with its large population and high levels of technological prowess – was not the first country to industrialize. Existing studies of “divergence” have not explained differences in economic performance between China and Japan. Despite the similarities between the two economies in levels of proto-industrialization, political and legal structures, and living standards. Sng and Moriguchi argue that differences in public finance accounted for important differences in the two countries’ ability to promote economic growth.

In this paper Sng and Moriguchi focus on the important question of size and geography as the central explanatory variable. In particular, the authors develop a context-specific model which suggests that rulers’ need to rely on agents to govern (principal-agent problem) in a pre-modern dictatorship meant that “agency problems increase with its geographical size and heterogeneity” (p5), owing to information challenges which precluded close supervision by rulers of their agents. The model predicts that the larger the polity, the higher the corruption rate, and the lower the tax rate out of fear that subjects will revolt, as expropriation reduces the ruler’s ability to provide social goods commensurate to the tax levied. The higher level of corruption also reduces rulers’ incentives to invest, and hence the provision of public goods per capita. Graft and inefficiencies mean that population and economic growth actually reduces the proportion of the economic surplus available to the ruler. As a result, the size of the polity lowers the tipping point where the negative effects of growth outweigh the positive effects.

Qing military officials. Qing China had a chronic corruption problem.

Qing military officials. Qing China had a chronic corruption problem.

Sng and Moriguchi test their hypothesis against a pool of primary and secondary data, which confirms that tax rates were higher in Japan than China, averaging around 34% in Japan (rising to 50-55% in some domains, p29): more than twice of China’s level in 1700 and approximately six times by 1850. Population growth was far greater in China than Japan, where the population stagnated after 1700. Compared to the Qing, Tokugawa Japan enjoyed a higher level of public services in terms of coinage, transportation, urban management, and environmental management (forestry), and in famine relief the Qing’s strengths were cancelled out by 1850. The authors conclude that the large size of China “imposed increasingly insurmountable constraints on the regime’s capacity to collect taxes and provide essential local public goods as its economy expanded,” and that “this factor alone might have been sufficient in holding back China’s transition from stagnation to growth even in the absence of Western imperialism” (p38). In line with the existing scholarship, Sng and Moriguchi contend that Japan’s healthier tax system provided the Westernizing Meiji regime (1868-1912) with revenues to conduct far-reaching reforms.


Despite its significance in global history, the comparative history of China and Japan is surprisingly overlooked. The “California school,” for instance, has focused largely on the economic “divergence” between China and the West, whereas Japanese economic historians have labored over Japan-Europe differences (Saito 2010). Sng and Moriguchi’s focus on the comparative history of China and Japan is thus relatively new. The authors join political scientist Wenkai He, whose recent book Paths toward the Modern Fiscal State also explores China’s failure to develop a modern fiscal state in the nineteenth century, in comparison with early modern England and Meiji Japan (He 2013). China’s “failure” is especially puzzling in view of the Qing’s overall success in raising revenue in the late nineteenth century (Wong 1997, 155-56).

Sng and Moriguchi’s argument that a state’s ability to increase revenue is inversely affected by size is persuasive. In the absence of institutions to monitor graft, China had seldom been able to pursue rational fiscal strategies – especially at the county level – since the Tang-Song transition (Hartwell 1982, 395-96). In contrast, Japan’s decentralized polity in the early modern period bore close resemblance to Europe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, early modern Japan’s experiences of proto-industrialization and industrious revolution had clear parallels both in England and in the Netherlands.

A magistrate's office in Jiangxi province. Arguments on the Qing's inadequacies hinge partly on the Qing's ideological goals.

A magistrate’s office in Jiangxi province. Arguments on the Qing’s inadequacies hinge partly on the Qing’s ideological goals.

What this narrative does not explain, however, is why China pursued such an inefficient mode of fiscal management. Given the challenges of graft and the fear of revolt, Sng and Moriguchi assume that it was the most rational or “optimal” course. The authors point to but dismiss lightly the question posed by Qing historians that the goals of the late imperial Confucian state might not have been compatible with “rational” state expansion. In other words, rather than fearing peasant revolt, the choice of tax rate might have to do with ideological reasons. Similarly, the idea that the Japanese state shared a “Confucian” outlook (p4) is overly simplistic, especially as consistently high levels of taxation in Tokugawa Japan undermine the idea that Tokugawa Japan was a “benevolent” state.

While size might have been a key variable in China’s state “weakness,” this does not in itself explain the strengths or weaknesses of China’s overall economy. The large size of China’s internal market, for example, allowed differentiation and specialization which appear to have sustained economic growth even in the absence of an active state. This was true both in the Qing and more recently in China’s informal and private sectors since 1978. Thus there is no reason to assume that the adoption of a “modern” fiscal apparatus was a natural goal for the Qing before 1850. Similarly, by focusing on the state’s fiscal abilities to the exclusion of other factors, Sng and Moriguchi also sidestep an important Japan-centered literature that considers how similarities in economic structures between China and Japan enabled the results of Westernizing experiments in Japan after 1850 to be transferred to China. This point is important because revenues from Japan’s trade with Asia propelled Meiji Japan’s economic growth, no less than the revenues collected by Japan’s indigenous tax structures. Moreover, this was a form of self-sustaining growth built upon constant competitive pressures from below, i.e. from China which was rapidly reproducing strategies developed in Japan (ed. Sugihara 2005).

Despite these criticisms, Sng and Moriguchi’s model offers clear quantitative analysis on an important aspect of a greatly understudied topic, and is recommended for anyone interested in the longue durée economic development of the two countries.

Additional References

Hartwell, R. 1982. “Demographic, Political, and Social Transformations of China, 750-1550,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 365-442 [Dec, 1982].

He, W 2013. The Paths toward the Modern Fiscal State: Early Modern England, Meiji Japan, and Qing China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Saito, O. 2010. “An Industrious Revolution in an East Asian Market Economy? Tokugawa Japan and Implications for the Great Divergence,” Australian Economic History Review, vol. 2010, vol. 50, issue 3, pp. 240-261.

Sugihara, K. (ed.) 2005. Japan, China, and the Growth of the Asian International Economy, 1850-1949. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wong, R. 1997. China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.