Civil Society in Traditional China: Governance and Ownership System -Evidence from Construction and Management of Public Facilities in the Qing Dynasty*

Long Denggao (龙登高)1, Yi Wei (伊巍)2and Wang Zhenghua (王正华)3
1 Institute of Economics, School of Social Sciences, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China
2 Institute of Economics, School of Social Sciences, Tsinghua University
3 History Department, School of Humanities, Tsinghua University

Abstract: This paper focuses on the bridge council and free ferry services as the private organizers of public infrastructure construction in the Qing Dynasty, uncovers the legal entity ownership system and governance model with China’s native origin, and reveals the attributes and characteristics of ownership by legal entities in China’s traditional era. Bridge councils and free ferry services are non-profit and non-government public-interest institutions, whose members were elected by local communities. These councils were responsible for the fundraising, construction, and long-term maintenance and operation of public facilities and infrastructure at the grassroots level. They adopted open and transparent management procedures and could coordinate cross-jurisdictional affairs and mediate disputes. They possessed independent assets such as lands and fund reserves, and such exclusive legal-entity ownership received protection from the government and under the laws. Such form of legal-entity ownership provided the institutional foundation for the development of clans, temples, charitable groups, academies of classical learning, and
various associations and societies. These self-organizing groups demonstrate remarkable mobilization and organizational capabilities and institutional creativity of civil society in traditional China. They served as a link between the government and communities and played a unique and active role in maintaining social order at the grassroots level.

Keywords: public facilities, ownership by legal entities, civic organizations, governance structure, social order at the grassroots level

JEL Classification Codes: N5
DOI:1 0.19602/j .chinaeconomist.2019.9.08

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