When things were falling apart : Tocqueville, Fei Xiaotong and the agrarian causes of the Chinese revolution

Xiaohong XU, Ivan P. L. PNG, Junhong CHU, Yeh-Ning CHEN

Research output: Working paperWorking paper series


Why the Chinese Communist Revolution succeeded has been long debated. Scholars have emphasized peasant proletarianization, Communist leadership in peasant nationalism, the attraction of their socio-economic reforms, their effective mobilization, Nationalists’ failures, and geographical conditions. Based on county gazetteers and administrative records of 154 counties in the most heavily contested region during the crucial years, we conduct the first multivariate local-level analysis of revolution. The results show little support for existing narratives. Instead, they substantiate what we call the “Tocqueville-Fei thesis”, that state centralization in agrarian bureaucratic polities inadvertently facilitated social revolution. The state’s effort to penetrate local communities undermined traditional governance structures, upsetting the balance between the state and local norms/elites and turning state agents into unbridled predators on peasants, which created favorable conditions for the Communists. This study has implications for understanding the modernization of agrarian societies and the dynamics of social change, and casts new light on the long-term trajectory of the state-society relationship in China.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages40
Publication statusPublished - 5 Aug 2018


  • Revolution
  • State Building
  • Social Change
  • Agrarian Societies
  • China
  • Communism
  • Tocqueville
  • Fei Xiaotong


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