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Up until the final four decades of the Qing Dynasty, fiscal extraction in imperial China was primarily a matter of taxing agricultural production, generally in the form of an annual property tax assessed on the basis of landholding, and collected in either grain or cash. All major dynasties prior to the Qing wielded this fiscal instrument somewhat flexibly, with large-scale reforms, usually leading to significantly higher taxes, occurring around mid-dynasty, but the Qing broke this trend: the absolute volume of agricultural taxes remained locked in place for the great majority of its 278-year life span, despite a near tripling of both the population and the economy. This eventually rendered the Qing fiscal state an extreme outlier in both horizontal and vertical comparisons: relative to the economy it governed, not only was it much smaller than its major early modern competitors, ranging from Japan to Western European states to other central Asian empires, but it was also probably the smallest post-Qin dynastic state by far. Preexisting scholarship has largely failed to identify, let alone explain, this sudden and dramatic shift in fiscal policy towards the end of China’s imperial history. There are a number of possible explanations for it, some of which have appeared in the extant literature, but the most promising one—which has not appeared—seems to be that the extraordinary circumstances of the Ming–Qing transition served as the catalyst for a decisive conservative turn in Chinese fiscal thought, pushing the Qing state into a fundamentally different political and institutional equilibrium than its predecessors.

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The term “overseas Chinese” refers to people who left the Qing Empire (and later on, the Republic of China or ROC) for a better life in Southeast Asia. Some of them arrived in Southeast Asia as merchants. They were either involved in retail or wholesale trade, or importing and exporting goods between the Qing Empire/ROC and Southeast Asia. With the decolonization of Southeast Asia from the end of World War II in 1945, overseas Chinese commerce was targeted by nationalists because the merchants were seen to have been working together with the colonial authorities and to have enriched themselves at the expense of locals. New nationalist regimes in Southeast Asia introduced anti-Chinese legislation in order to reduce the overseas Chinese presence in economic activities. Chinese merchants were banned from certain trades and trade monopolies were broken down. Several Southeast Asian states also attempted to assimilate the overseas Chinese by forcing them to adopt local-sounding names. However, the overseas Chinese continued to be dominant in the economies of Malaya (later Malaysia) and Singapore. Malaysia introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which has an anti-Chinese agenda, in 1970. The decolonization process also occurred during the Cold War, and Chinese merchants sought to continue trade with China at a time when governments in Southeast Asia were suspicious of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Attempts by merchants from Malaya and Singapore to trade with the PRC in 1956 were considered to have failed, as the PRC had other political concerns. By the time Singapore had gained independence in 1965, the door to investment and trade with the PRC was shut, and the Chinese in Southeast Asia turned their backs on China by taking on citizenship in their countries of residence.