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Environment and History

'Public Interest' as a Basis for Early Modern State-Society Interactions: Water Control Projects in Qing China, 1750-1850

Wenkai He

Environment and History 23 (2017): 455-476. doi: 10.3197/096734017X14979473873902

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The safeguarding of public interest was an important means to legitimate state power in the period between 1720 and 1850 in Qing China. Social historians have highlighted the vital importance of autonomous management and financing to water control on the part of local gentry in localities in China. However, there were limits to the capacity of social actors for self-financing and self-management in cross-regional water control projects, especially when considering the rivalry of interests between upstream and downstream areas, between people living along the opposite banks of major rivers, and between commercial transportation and irrigation needs. This paper examines the political process by which the Qing state behaved as an 'impartial' guardian of the public interest in both financing and settling cross-regional conflicts of interest over water. By examining cases of petitions involved in such hydraulic projects, this paper also shows how collusion between local gentry and government officials often sacrificed the public interest and how this problem could not be corrected by the political participation of a wider range of social actors.

KEYWORDS: Qing China, public interest, water control, public finance, petition

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