The Qing conquest theory is a theory proposed by Chinese academics that attempts to explain the Great Divergence, the overtaking of China by the Western world as the major economic and industrial world power. Specifically, the theory seeks to explain how Europe could experience an industrial revolution, but China did not. Theory supporters claim that although the prosperous Song and Ming dynasties moved China toward a modern age, the restrictions placed on commerce and industry and the persecution of non-orthodox thought after the Manchu conquest of China caused the country to stagnate and fall behind the West.
Carl Dahlman and Jean-Eric Aubert of the World Bank argue, based on Angus Maddison's data, that China was the world's largest and most advanced economy for the most of the past two millennia and among the wealthiest and most advanced economies until the 18th century.
Sinologist Joseph Needham has claimed that China's GDP per capita exceeded Europe by a substantial margin from the 5th century BC onwards, but economic historian Angus Maddison believes that did not happen until the fall of the Roman Empire.
During the Song dynasty (960–1279), the country experienced a revolution in agriculture, water transport, finance, urbanization, science and technology, which drastically increased GDP per capita even further. China experienced an economic revolution in which the economy became proto-industrialized and experienced large increases in industrial and agricultural output. At the same time, overseas and domestic trade increased, along with the use of currency. Some scholars have termed the phenomenon China's "medieval urban revolution".
Although China suffered large population loss and a devastated economy during the Mongol conquest, the succeeding Ming dynasty brought economic growth, with per capita incomes and economic output surpassing its highest point during the Song dynasty. Late Ming laissez-faire policies such as nonintervention in markets and low taxes further stimulated commerce and trade. During the Ming dynasty, the Chinese economy became very commercialised, as market agriculture replaced subsistence farming. Wage labour became increasingly common, as large-scale private industry developed, displacing and often buying out government workshops. Historian Robert Allen estimates that family incomes and labor productivity of the Ming-era Yangtze Delta Region, the richest province of China, was far higher than contemporary Europe and exceeded the later Qing dynasty.
In addition to being a period of wealth and economic growth, the late Ming dynasty also brought intellectual fervor and liberalization. New thinkers like Wang Yangming and Li Zhi challenged orthodox Confucianism and argued that the words of Confucius and Mencius were fallible and that wisdom was universal. They also questioned government power over the economy and personal rights. Scholars of the Donglin school protested increases in government taxation during the Wanli Emperor, and restrictions on freedom of speech, advocating a program similar to classical liberalism.
Ming dynasty scholars also adopted western science, including that of Archimedes. Additional scientific advancement also flourished during the late Ming dynasty. Supporters of the theory contend that the economic and social developments during the late Ming paralleled the development of Europe in the 18th and the 19th centuries and would have allowed China to enter a modern age without the Manchu conquest and then the Qing dynasty.
Supporters of the theory believe that the policies of the Qing Dynasty slowed China's advancement, which allowed Western nations to surpass China's prosperity during the medieval and the early modern eras. Specific Qing policies cited include literary persecution, interventions in foreign trade and domestic policies and restoration of serfdom as well as the devastation of the initial conquest itself.
Supporters most often point to Qing restriction on foreign trade as evidence of the theory. During the Ming dynasty, considerable commerce existed between China, Japan and Western Europe, estimated by Joseph Needham at nearly 300 million taels of silver from 1578 to 1644 (for comparison, the total Ming state revenues were from 20 to 30 million taels).
However, during the Qing dynasty, foreign trade was prohibited completely from 1644 to 1683, and it later restricted to only one port at Guangzhou. In addition, commerce had to be conducted by 13 guilds approved by the government, with competition prohibited.
The government also refused to provide protection to overseas Chinese. The emperor did not protest of the massacres carried out by the Spanish and Dutch colonial authorities against the Chinese, such as what happened in the Spanish Philippines.
The restoration of serfdom is cited as another policy that greatly hampered the Chinese economy. After the conquest of China was completed, Manchu forces expropriated huge amounts of land, turning millions of people from tenant farmers into hereditary serfs. The amount of land requisitioned amounted to nearly 16 million mou, or nearly 10,666 km², of farmland. Serfdom was so common in the early Qing that slave markets were set up to buy and sell those who had been enslaved during the conquest.
While literary persecution existed in China prior to Qing rule, it was rare and never widespread. During the late Ming dynasty, protests by scholars forced the government to declare that "speech will not be criminalized". However, the Qing government frequently used literary persecution to destroy Chinese opposition to Manchu rule. Several cases of literary persecution saw hundreds of intellectuals and their families executed, often for minor offenses such as referring to Manchus as "barbarians" and using the Qing character in areas that was deemed offensive by the government. Thousands of ancient texts deemed subversive were burned in the persecutions. Protests by scholars, which had been common during the late Ming period, were also suppressed.
The persecutions extended to non-orthodox thought as well; scholars who disagreed with the standard Neo-Confucian theories were executed along with a scientist who argued that the brain, rather than the heart, was the centre of thought.
The Qing dynasty intervened in the economy far more than its predecessors. Unlike the Ming dynasty, who had adopted laissez-faire policies, there was frequent intervention in the economy by restricting the number of merchants allowed to operate. The official edicts discouraged the cultivation of commercial crops, in favour of subsistence agriculture. Also, most new mines were prohibited.
The initial conquest of China by the Manchus was one of the most devastating wars ever fought in Chinese history, and it set back Chinese progress decades. Examples of the devastation include the Yangzhou massacre in which some 800,000 people, including women and children, were massacred by the Manchus. Whole provinces, such as Sichuan and Jiangnan, were thoroughly devastated and depopulated by the Manchu conquest, which killed an estimated 25 million people. Some scholars estimate that the Chinese economy did not the regain the level reached in the late Ming dynasty until 1750, nearly a century after the foundation of the Qing dynasty. According to economic historian Robert Allen, family incomes in the Yangtze delta, China's richest province, was actually below Ming levels in 1820 but equal to that of contemporary Britain.
The destructive effects of the Manchu invasion were felt economically for decades. In the 1690s, Tang Chen, a retired Chinese scholar and failed merchant wrote:
More than fifty years have passed since the founding of the Ch’ing dynasty, and the empire grows poorer each day. Farmers are destitute, artisans are destitute, merchants are destitute, and officials too are destitute. Grain is cheap, yet it is hard to eat one’s fill. Cloth is cheap, yet it is hard to cover one’s skin. Boatloads of goods travel from one marketplace to another, but the cargoes must be sold at a loss. Officials upon leaving their posts discover they have no wherewithal to support their households. Indeed the four occupations are all impoverished!
Kenneth Pomeranz, a noted critic of the theory, rejects the assertion that "certain Asian societies were headed toward an industrial breakthrough until Manchu or British invaders crushed the 'sprouts of capitalism'". He holds that the Qing "revitalization of the state" had a positive effect on the Chinese economy.