Autocratic Rule and Social Capital: Evidence from Imperial China

44 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2016 Last revised: 9 Nov 2021

See all articles by Melanie Meng Xue

Melanie Meng Xue

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE)

Date Written: November 7, 2021


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 and 1788, individuals in imperial China were persecuted if they were suspected of holding subversive attitudes towards the state (``The Literary Inquisition"). I first show that individuals trust less in affected prefectures. Next, I trace the impact of the Literary Inquisition back to the 18th century and apply a difference-in-differences framework to estimate the effect of exposure to political repression on the formation of local charities. Taking advantage of institutional variation in 20th century China, I provide further evidence that political repression reduced social capital. In line with these results, the Literary Inquisition is associated with political apathy and low community engagement. This raises the possibility that a decline in social capital may make autocratic rule more entrenched.

Keywords: Institutions, Social Capital, Autocracy, China

JEL Classification: D7, N10, N45, Z1

Suggested Citation

Xue, Melanie Meng, Autocratic Rule and Social Capital: Evidence from Imperial China (November 7, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Melanie Meng Xue (Contact Author)

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) ( email )

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