Historical change may occur in the Chinese political cycle

Historical change may occur in the Chinese political cycle


The People’s Republic of China celebrated its 70th anniversary in October this year. As the average period for unified Chinese dynasties since the ancient Qin dynasty is about 150 years, PRC seems to be a still young growing nation. However, some historical dynasties perished within a half-century and most dynasties failed to exist for more than 300 years that equivalent to 10 generations.

As well known, Chinese historical dynasties repeated cycles of nations’ rise and fall. Dynasties were growing with a stable society after new countries were established on the ruined land. However, nations always suffered rebellions and invasions after their growth peaked out. Then a winner who eventually beaten the drowning dynasty established a new country.

The current cycle started with the Xinhai revolution that beaten the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century. Communist Party of China became a winner after the civil war among military cliques that included foreign participants like Japan Empire continued for nearly 40 years, then built a unified nation.


In pre-modern China, population repeated expansion and shrink in line with the political cycle of rising and fall. During the first several generations, farmland development and growing commerce and industry boosted the population. However, once increasing population overtake economic growth, foods can’t be shared effectively. If the unfavorable climate continues, significant famine could be seen. Since traditional Chinese society sets a priority on family aid rather than public welfare, wealth was likely to be concentrated on bureaucrats and their relatives. Although the general public was also got some fruits during economic growth, their life easily became hard compared with bureaucrats who had ways to ensure wealth. Then, poor general public frequently raised revolts.



Historically, significant decreases in population triggered by the sluggish agricultural production and the outbreak of plagues due to the chilly climate were also seen in many other regions such as Europe. However, the size of changes in population in China was relatively bigger than that in Europe in the same era. Therefore, more serious social turmoil might have been seen in the Asian empire. However, not all social turmoil must trigger the significant decline of the population. For example, the Chinese population kept a steady increase during the Medieval Warm Period (from the 10th to 14th century) despite the collapse of the Tang dynasty followed by great separations. Meanwhile, during the little ice-age (14th-19th century), the world conquest by the Mongolian empire and its decay then the turmoil in the late Ming dynasty caused typical population collapse respectively.


Populations in Europe started expanding after the 15th century due to the introduction of novel agricultural products from the new world and the industrial revolution. In China, the Qing dynasty removed the strict limitation to trade that was set in the previous era and it impacted the increasing population. Aggressive development of the cultivated field in the historically maximized Chinese territory also raised the habitable population.

The total cultivated fields in China as of the mid-17th century when the Qing dynasty was in the early period are estimated at 37 million hectares. It increased to 52 million hectares by the mid-18th century. Although chilly climate depressed acreage to 51 million hectares in the early 19th century, it expanded again to 84 million hectares by the late 19th century, then reached 108 million hectares in the mid-20th century.

However, since the growth of the population exceeded the expanding rate of cultivated fields, cultivated fields per person decreased from 50 ares in the early 18th century to 20 ares in the late Qing era of the mid-19th century. Although Chinese people who lived in the late Qing dynasty era seemed not to be in serious famine, they were very frustrated by the government that could not have an effective way to remove the unequal wealth levels or conquest by western powers. Thus, the restoration of China and economic equality were included in the 4 slogans for the revolution adding to overthrowing the Qing dynasty and building republic.


In the first half of the 20th century, China was split by military cliques but population collapse was prevented. This situation resembles the 10th century when China was split after the Tang dynasty declined. What happened in medieval history? Song dynasty reunified China again, then it established a relationship with outer enemies in a humble way. Song dynasty provided a huge amount of money to nomadic countries like Jin or Liao annually to avoid their invasion.

The great China Empire was able to ensure economic and cultural development while buying peace and its population exceeded 100 million. However, Song administrations continued a faithless manner on the covenant with nomadic nations. It generated frequent wars then the empire lost its entire lands eventually.

Meanwhile, communist China continued to obey international rules for a half-century after surviving civil wars until 1949. Recently, China is escalating a faithless manner against international society led by the U.S. due to self-confidence based on rapid economic growth over the last 30 years.


It may be an inevitability of history that China could have another confusion following the conflicts with overseas rivals, however, it is unclear what will happen after that. Historically, Chinese society has always recovered prosperity after wars or turmoil led the population to a sustainable level. Although other ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Rome went into ruin following the collapse of agriculture, Chinese agriculture has every time regained economic prosperity. The reason is estimated as Chinese cultivated fields had been healthy, since rice which is free from the replant failure has been the basic crop in southern granaries and massive irrigation which causes salt pollution was not widely installed in northern farms.


However, China has increased irrigation for its agricultural development since the establishment of the People’s Republic. The total effective irrigation area was 16 million hectares in 1950 that accounted for 15% of the entire cultivated field in the nation. It expanded to 54 million hectares or about half of the entire cultivated fields in 2000. The irrigated acreage was boosted further to 68 million hectares in 2017 that equivalent to 60% of the total cultivated fields. Besides the salt pollution concerns, environmental damages are also adding the risk of unrecoverable cultivated fields compared with the pre-modern period.



Meanwhile, crop acreage in China had declined to 105 million hectares in 2000 due to policy change after peeking out at above 120 million hectares in the 1970s. Although the crop acreage has recovered following a new policy, it has started decreasing again below the target of 120 million hectares. The situation depresses grain production as well, however, China may not keep enough money to import alternative grains as its trade surplus is decreasing after peeked out in the mid-2010s. China’s population bearing capacity is likely to decrease because of lower food output and procurement. However, history suggests that the warming climate could reduce the risk of serious famine and population collapse.

★【Sozen Fujiwara】

Research partner、Institute of Economics for Humans

Private investor

Bachelor of Arts, Hiroshima University

Master of Economics, Nihon University

Worked as a reporter for US-based financial media after engaged in futures markets in China and Southeast Asia as a trader. Before that started work experience as a local newspaper reporter.

Immigrated to New Zealand for children’s educational opportunity. Participated in the management of a nutritional product manufacturer that is owned by wife’s family.

Having more than 30 years experience in commodity markets and operating a crude oil market specific blog since 2010: https://ameblo.jp/sozen22/



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