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Public Interest and State Legitimation: Early Modern England, Japan, and China

Wenkai He, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Mon, 2/5 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · 202 Jones Hall

East Asian Studies Program

Book Talk: In this book, Public Interest and State Legitimation: Early Modern England, Japan, and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023), Wenkai He examines the connections between state capacity, state legitimation and the expansion of political participation. He demonstrates how in each case of early modern England (1533-1640), Tokugawa Japan (1640-1853), and Qing China (1684-1840), a public interest-based discourse of state legitimation provided a common platform upon which state and society collaborated to provide public goods such as famine relief and large-scale infrastructural facilities. In this way, state and society strove to overcome their respective weaknesses in attaining good governance. Moreover, each discourse of state legitimation entailed ‘passive rights’ that allowed subordinates to justify their demands on the state to redress welfare grievances; these often took the form of collective actions. Conflicts between domestic welfare and other dimensions of public interest, however, could instigate cross-regional and cross-sectoral mass petitions for fundamental political reforms that were likewise justified by the state’s proclaimed duty to safeguard the public interest; these mass petitions might ultimately transform the state. Such a political ‘great divergence’ occurred in England (1760s-1780s) and Japan (1870s-1880s), but not in China.

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