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

Dec 7, 2023 | 11:30 AM - 1:00 PM

Common Room (#136), 2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA,


He Wenkai | Associate Professor, Division of Social Science, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; HYI Visiting Scholar 2016-17


Elizabeth J. Perry | Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government; Director, Harvard-Yenching Institute

Co-sponsored by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, and the Asia Center

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 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.