Institutional Rupture Versus Institutional Elasticity: Capitalism, Revolution, and the Respective Modernization Experiences of China and Japan, Essay Example

The question of whether or not there is more than one road to modernization is paramount to the study of modernization. Does ‘modernization’ mean westernization? A superficial look at East Asia might suggest the affirmative, with China failing and Japan succeeding in the 19th century. On the other hand, both of these countries did modernize, albeit in very different ways and at quite different times: despite its 19th-early 20th-century woes, China successfully modernized from about the mid-20th century on. To some conventional (and rather unsophisticated) perspectives, this seems puzzling, the expectation being that different societies should respond to a single modernization imperative in similar, converging ways.

Modernization theory demonstrates the patent absurdity of the expectation that different societies should necessarily converge onto the same program of modernization from different starting points, when faced with a common modernization imperative. Modernization theory emphasizes the roles of culture, institutions and social orders in the modernization projects that a variety of different societies have undertaken from the Industrial Revolution on. This is apparent in the two most spectacular examples of modernization in the Far East, China and Japan. Both China and Japan have modernized quite successfully; however, they did so at different times and in different ways that reflected their very different cultural, social, and institutional features. As will be demonstrated, analysis of these two cases disproves the conception of a single route to modernity, and elucidates the importance of institutions, social orders, and culture.

Let us consider the case of China first. By the time that the Manchurian-derived Qing dynasty (1644-1912), China’s last, was confronted with the industrializing West from about the late 18th century on, China had long since enjoyed the fruits of its own remarkably accomplished model of statecraft. The features of this classic imperial Chinese system included, first, the uprooting and eradication of the old landed aristocratic order in medieval times, a process thought to have taken centuries, but that was completed by the mid-10th century, under the Song. This highly successful eradication of the old order, represented by the more-or-less feudal landed aristocracy, at such an early date, stands in marked contrast not only to Europe, but also to Japan. This alone would prove to have enormous repercussions for subsequent Chinese history.[1]

In place of a landed aristocracy, China had a highly centralized bureaucratic system, a service aristocracy recruited by means of the highly meritocratic imperial examination system. This system was remarkably uniform: indeed, this achievement is the distinguishing feature of Chinese statecraft, one that put China far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of the consolidation of state power.[2] The imperial exams were based on the Confucian classics, with Confucian ethics permeating the Chinese state and everyday life. Although in theory the examination system was merit-based and unconstrained by class, since the ability to pass the exams required extensive study of the Confucian classics, in practice only the wealthy had access to the books and tutors necessary for formal studies.[3]

Thus, although the classical Chinese model was not feudal in the sense of land ownership being tied to performance of state functions, particularly the exercise of justice and military activity, land ownership did exert influence on the composition of the bureaucratic elite. This in turn created a remarkably stable relationship between not only urban and rural elites, but also between this relatively homogeneous elite and the interests of the state. What this in turn meant was that China did not have to solve the problem, so familiar from European history, of conflict between competing elite power blocs: Church and crown, crown and nobles, nobles and burghers, and so on.[4]

And yet, for all of this political, social, and even ideological unity of the Chinese state, modernization in the 19th and 20th centuries involved a painful and humiliating period of defeat and imposition by European powers, massive rebellions by various subjects, and finally a terrible period of disintegration and outright invasion by the Japanese before reunification. However, as Jacques explains, as late as 1800 there were few clues as to what was to come: China at this time had undergone a remarkable period of economic and demographic growth under the early Qing in particular. [5]

China’s costly failure to keep pace with the West during the 19th century can be traced to a number of different factors. First, unlike Britain and other great Western powers, China lacked the resources of an overseas empire. By 1800, both China and Europe were faced with the classic Malthusian problem of how to feed large and expanding populations, but unlike China, Europe had an American ‘New World’ to drain off its surplus population through colonization, and provide other resources, including slave labor.[6] Without overseas colonies to drain away surplus population and add to the markets of the home country, China was left with a large population, static markets, and declining profits. This meant that there was little incentive to invest in the kind of labor-saving industrial machinery that triggered Britain’s Industrial Revolution. And this development occurred in 18th-century Britain thanks to rising labor costs and growing markets (due to colonization), along with the rather limited power of the crown by this time, and the deeply commercial orientation of so much of the aristocracy and gentry.[7]

To the above one must add a consideration of the role of Chinese institutions on limiting growth and innovation in this regard. Despite the many achievements of the Chinese system under the Qing by 1800, including a commercial market for agriculture, Chinese institutions worked to promote unity and harmony, not competition. What this in turn meant was that it took the disintegration of the old order, a painful, humiliating process that took decades, to create a Chinese regime capable of modernization: the People’s Republic of China (PRC), created by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Despite Mao’s atrocities and some truly spectacular blunders, the Communists were able to transform the CCP into a very effective political regime.[8]

With the old order entirely destroyed, the CCP embarked on an ambitious program of modernization. But instead of drawing on the Western model, which after all was capitalist, the CCP drew on some Soviet influences, but most of the characteristics of their regime were homegrown, giving it a decidedly more Chinese character. For example, the PRC engaged in an enormous program of land redistribution, institutionalizing agricultural communes in a very Soviet manner. The surpluses extracted from these communes were used to power an emergent industrial sector. Soviet influences notwithstanding, the authoritarian, top-down, bureaucratic statecraft of the PRC is indelibly Chinese, and evokes the old order of the scholar-bureaucrats.[9]

The case of Japan presents an altogether different picture. Despite tremendous, overwhelming Chinese influence for the vast majority of its history, Japan never entirely adopted the Chinese model of statecraft. And with the breakdown of central order in the 12th century CE, Japan entered a truly feudal period, one which can, in many ways, be compared with Europe’s own feudal period. For several centuries thereafter, particularly in the period preceding the establishment of the Tokugawa bakufu in the early 17th century, but in many ways up until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, real power in Japan rested in the hands of powerful lords (daimyo) and their attendant bands of samurai. This feudal system, however, became much more centralized and formalized under the Tokugawa bakufu, when the shogun ruled Japan in the stead of the emperor, who still functioned as the nominal head of state. Japan, then, unlike China but very much like Europe, had a landed aristocracy responsible for many state functions.[10]

And yet, the Tokugawa Era produced precipitous changes in the society, culture, and political life of Japan. It was during this period that the country began to acquire the characteristics of a truly unified society, an important achievement after many centuries of fragmentation along regional lines. The shoguns built roads and castle towns, and although they cut Japan off from almost all foreign trade (the Dutch at Nagasaki being the only exception), the domestic economy thrived, and Japan became an increasingly urbanized society.[11]

And over the course of the 250 years of relative peace and stability of the Tokugawa, the samurai assumed a number of administrative, protocol, and diplomatic roles. The transformation of this military elite to an administrative one was to have major consequences for Meiji Japan, because unlike China’s scholar-bureaucrats (but again, much like Europe’s aristocracies) the samurai retained a highly “military, scientific, and technological” outlook and knowledge base.[12]

Commodore Perry’s ‘black ships’ heralded a new era of change for Japan—change driven by the desperate need to innovate. Faced with a string of ‘unequal treaties’ imposed upon it by a string of Western powers, after the Meiji Restoration the Japanese government embarked on an ambitious program of modernization explicitly modeled after the achievements of Western civilization. Over one thousand years of Chinese-influenced tradition was to be abandoned: Japan firmly turned its outlook from inward-looking isolation toward the West. The samurai elite played the key role, abolishing the feudal order, reforming Japanese law, opening and running factories, and designing a new education system based on that of France, though the universities were modeled on those of America. The same approach was applied to militarization, with a British-style navy, and a French- and then German-influenced army. And beginning as early as the late 1870s, the government started to sell its factories, as part of a program to create a new capitalist class. Many of the purchasers were, again, samurai.[13]

The consequences for Japan proved to be enormous, and they have largely proven lasting. For one thing, the policy of government-driven modernization along with governmental creation of a capitalist class produced a quintessentially Japanese recipe for modernization: a new capitalist elite who were dependent upon the state, and who had administrative, not entrepreneurial, credentials. In an almost unbelievably short period of time (most of the developments took place within two decades), Japan converted itself from a largely feudal nation to a highly-modernized, capitalist one.[14]

The greatest measure of this achievement is easily the degree to which it was able to defeat efforts to dismantle it during the Occupation. During the early occupation, the state patronage-favored cartels were broken up, and other liberal reforms were enacted. The plan was to promote economic growth and reform Japanese institutions; the results, however, were so disastrous that, in a distinct development, the authorities had to reverse course (Japanese, gyaku kosu). Despite land reform and an end to militarism, Japan’s economy has remained organized in ways that belie their deep continuity with the Meiji period. Japan’s remarkable post-war economic successes (until the late 1980s) were achieved with a distinctively Japanese capitalism, one that favored large cartels, including the ownership of major banks by industry, and domestic cooperation instead of competition.[15]

The respective experiences of China and Japan highlight the importance of indigenous economic, social, and cultural factors in shaping their own respective experiences. China’s failure to modernize in the post-1800 period can be traced to a combination of institutional, economic, and social factors which functioned to discourage modernization. Its geography encouraged China to look west into the Eurasian hinterland, rather than east to the Pacific, making for a combination of surplus population, stagnant markets, and declining profits that discouraged innovation. Modernization began in earnest only in the post-1949 period, once the old order had been painfully torn up by its roots, allowing the Communists to start afresh.

By contrast, Japan modernized after 1868 with alacrity: without a vast Eurasian hinterland or a conservative scholar-bureaucrat class, and with a long history of looking to a foreign society (China) for important cultural influences, Japan embarked on an elite-driven, top-down model of modernization. Although Japan displayed many similarities with Europe in this regard, this does not mean that Japan is simply an Oriental Europe: rather, Japan’s approach to capitalism is distinctly Japanese. What both of these cases demonstrate is that the institutions of developing societies, as well as the attitudes of elites, affect the course of modernization.


Fallows, James. Looking at the Sun: The Rise of the New East Asian Economic and Political System. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Fukuyama, Francis. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Huang, Xiaoming. Politics in Pacific Asia: An Introduction. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009.

Jacques, Martin. When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Group, 2009.


[1] Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 82-83.

[2] Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 20-21.

[3] Xiaoming Huang, Politics in Pacific Asia: An Introduction (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009), 10-12; Jacques, When China Rules the World, 83.

[4] Jacques, When China Rules the World, 83-85; Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, 20-21.

[5] Jacques, When China Rules the World, 23-26.

[6] Jacques, When China Rules the World, 23-27.

[7] Jacques, When China Rules the World, 26-27, 80-81.  

[8] Jacques, When China Rules the World, 88-93.

[9] Jacques, When China Rules the World, 88-93.

[10] Huang, Politics in Pacific Asia, 15; Jacques, When China Rules the World, 48-50.

[11] Jacques, When China Rules the World, 50-51.

[12] Jacques, When China Rules the World, 50-51.

[13] Jacques, When China Rules the World, 51-53.

[14] James Fallows, Looking at the Sun: The Rise of the New East Asian Economic and Political System (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 148-150; Jacques, When China Rules the World, 53-64.

[15] James Fallows, Looking at the Sun: The Rise of the New East Asian Economic and Political System (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 148-150; Jacques, When China Rules the World, 53-64.