Autocratic Rule and Social Capital: Evidence from Imperial China

45 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2016 Last revised: 13 Nov 2020

See all articles by Melanie Meng Xue

Melanie Meng Xue

New York University (NYU) - New York University Abu Dhabi

Date Written: October 21, 2020


This paper explores the impact of autocratic rule on social capital -- defined as the attitudes, beliefs, norms, and perceptions that support cooperation. Political repression is a distinguishing characteristic of autocratic regimes. Between 1661-1788, individuals in imperial China were persecuted if they were suspected of holding subversive attitudes towards the state. A difference-in-differences approach suggests that in an average prefecture, exposure to political repression led to a decline of 38% in local charities -- a key proxy of social capital. In line with the historical panel results, individuals have lower levels of generalized trust today in affected prefectures. Taking advantage of institutional variation in 20th century China, and using two instrumental variables, we provide further evidence that political repression permanently reduced social capital. Moreover, individuals in prefectures with a legacy of literary inquisitions are more politically apathetic. More suggestively, there appears to be a self-reinforcing cycle in which autocratic rule becomes entrenched through causing a permanent decline in social capital.

Keywords: Social Capital, Institutions, Autocracy, China

JEL Classification: D73, N45, Z1

Suggested Citation

Xue, Melanie Meng, Autocratic Rule and Social Capital: Evidence from Imperial China (October 21, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Melanie Meng Xue (Contact Author)

New York University (NYU) - New York University Abu Dhabi ( email )

PO Box 129188
Abu Dhabi
United Arab Emirates

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