Paralyzed by Worry of Corruption

TWO ISSUES HAVE EMERGED over the last decade as essential for understanding the politics of the Chinese state: corruption and data. Naturally, they are also among the hottest topics in news reporting and political science research: Data is at the heart of Surveillance State by journalists Josh Chin and Liza Lin (reviewed in the last issue of Global Asia) and Seeking Truth and Hiding Facts by Cornell University professor Jeremy Wallace, while corruption is dissected by Yuen Yuen Ang in her important book China’s Gilded Age (reviewed in our December 2021 issue). It is fortuitous, then, that one of the most brilliant and original books to appear in recent years on the history of imperial China explores the intersection of corruption and data — during the 17th and 18th centuries. Written primarily for historians, Maura Dykstra’s Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine: The Administrative Revolution of the Eighteenth-Century Qing State offers insights into deep patterns in Chinese governance that should be widely known.

Historians usually try to distill their book’s essential argument in the title. So, what does “uncertainty in the empire of routine” mean? To unpack the phrase, one must start with the problem of corruption, a key factor in the shocking fall of the once-mighty Ming Dynasty in the mid-1600s and a dark cloud hanging over its successor, the Qing Empire. From the start, Qing rulers were determined to root out corruption, a top priority for the trio of long-lived emperors (Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong) whose reigns spanned a century and a half. Their determination to eliminate corruption was at the heart of what Dykstra means by enforcing an “empire of routine” — the ideal of a smooth-running imperial bureaucracy in which officials carry out their duties with fairness and efficiency, controlling a pliant populace while keeping superiors, up to the emperor himself, well informed.

Qing emperors continued traditional Ming-era methods to fight corruption, such as enforcing rules of avoidance and transfer (prohibiting officials from serving in their hometowns and moving them to a new post every three years), punishing corrupt or deceitful officials, or raising government salaries to lessen the temptation of bribery. These are well-studied topics. But Dykstra, based on her fresh interpretation of the documentary record, draws attention to what was a new “revolutionary” form of stopping corruption and enforcing routine: standardization of reporting at the county level, everywhere across the vast empire of China.

Dykstra explains how this grand process of standardization unfolded by focusing on examples such as prison abuses, capital cases and personnel reviews. She shows how reports received by the imperial court for the emperor’s consideration were systematized into a standard form, which was then used as a blueprint for reporting on criminal cases generally, and how the archival burden on local officials grew and grew. The systemization of reporting steadily extended well beyond highly-sensitive matters involving life and death or senior appointments. Dykstra describes this as the “case-ification” of Qing administration — not only for criminal matters, but across a huge range of issues in the main functional areas of government (defense, tax, public works, personnel and rites). Paperwork had to be written up at the local level as a case, preserved in a local archive and submitted up the chain of command as a standard summary case report.

By the so-called High Qing period of the middle 18th century, the Chinese “empire of routine” was soaring to new heights of efficiency. Standardization of the reporting system allowed the central court to do statistical analysis of “summaries of summary reports” — a kind of pre-digital Big Data innovation. The central government could track violent crime and government corruption on a province-by-province basis, using comparative data to promote some officials and demote others.

Sounds good if you are a Qing emperor, and surely this “administrative revolution” contributed to China’s prosperity and power during the 18th century (indeed, Dykstra might have spent more time exploring specific ways that standardization enhanced government performance). But there was a rub, referred to in the book’s title as the “uncertainty” haunting the empire of routine. Dykstra shows how a gnawing sense of doubt ate away at the emperor and his court, generating what would prove a bottomless pit of suspicion and surveillance. After all, the splendid standardization of reporting revealed a scale of corruption that previous emperors could not see or track. The Qianlong Emperor, who reigned from the 1730s through the 1790s, was convinced that all this reporting was covering up even more pervasive embezzlement, criminality and irregularities.

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The only cure for uncertainty was to demand yet more reporting. As Dykstra puts it succinctly, “the more the Qing state learned about itself, the more uncertain it became.” And heading into the 19th century, the Qing began drowning in its own sea of documentation. A tipping point was reached beyond which the information overload became a drain on state capacity and fed into imperial paranoia about local government deception.

Dykstra ends her marvelous book with a question for historians who focus on the period of China’s decline in the 19th century, asking: “How did the pursuit of certainty continue to drive the Qing into ever more uncertain waters after the net had spread?” Political scientists trying to make sense of corruption, data and the Chinese state today might find Dykstra’s question useful as well, facing uncertain times ahead.

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