Why Didn’t China Give Birth to Democracy?

“The nominal form of [China’s] government… is an irresponsible autocracy; its institutions are likewise autocratic in form, but democratic in operation.”

—Herbet Giles, The Civilization of China (1919)

Yuhua Wang and Mark Dincecco have an interesting paper out in the Annual Review of Political Science. The paper offers and tests a new hypothesis for why European governments developed “political representation” while China did not. The paper is interesting and the data they have collected is fascinating. However, the case they have made is flawed in a few important ways. The most interesting of these flaws is conceptual—and as I read the paper I could not help but think that it is a good example of how the normative-focused ‘political theory’ subfield of political science can contribute to live debates in the ’empirical’ side of their departments. I submit that the categories we have developed to make sense of Western history are sometimes a poor fit for the history of China. Analyzing Chinese history means taking Chinese conceptions of their own institutions seriously. Failure to take Chinese political philosophy with the seriousness it deserves may cause us to miss some of the most interesting patterns of China’s political history.

I’ll go through my logic and highlight the other flaws I see below, but before I do, let’s bask in the wonderfully presented data set Wang and Dincecco (or their graduate students!) have given the world:

Figure I in Yuhua Wang and Mark Dincecco, “Violent Conflict and Political Development Over the Long Run: China Versus Europe,” Annual Review of Political Science (2018), vol 28, 344.
Figure I in Yuhua Wang and Mark Dincecco, “Violent Conflict and Political Development Over the Long Run: China Versus Europe,” Annual Review of Political Science (2018), vol 28, 345.

It is a bit fun simply to look at these maps and try and pick out patterns. (Wang has a few more maps of this type in a different working paper, where he breaks down the battles into rebellions and fights against non-Chinese foes). As Wang is a Harvard professor, my hope is that these battle locations will be added as a skin on Harvard’s ChinaMap project. The applications are endless. But what do Wang and Dincecco use the data for?

I will let them explain:

Our simple model suggests that warfare may have diverse implications for political development depending on the underlying political geography context. Namely, the model predicts that political representation is more likely to emerge in the context of political fragmentation. Here, the elites may credibly threaten to move abroad if the ruler does not meet their demand for a political freedom. Furthermore, the ruler may be more vulnerable to external attack by military rivals emanating from multiple directions, enhancing the value that she places on elite loyalty. For both reasons, the elites may be in a strong enough bargaining position vis-a-vis the ruler to demand ` political representation. In the context of political centralization, by contrast, the elites’ threat to exit is less credible, due to the difficulty of moving abroad. The ruler, moreover, may place less value on elite loyalty, both because of the smaller chance that elites will move abroad and because of the greater probability that foreign attack threats will be unidirectional in nature, thereby reducing her vulnerability. The ruler’s bargaining position versus elites should thus be stronger, making the emergence of political representation less probable. [1]

With this thesis Wang and Dincecco are wading into a debate that is now about three decades old. It was kicked off when sociologist Charles Tilly advanced the claim that “states make war and war makes states.” [2] Tilly’s basic case (further developed in his book, Coercion, Capital, and European States) is that the creation and strengthening of political institutions in Europe c. 1000-1900 AD was driven by warfare. The demands of warfare drove political leaders to extract greater and greater resources from their domains. Wringing more wealth from society at large meant building political institutions capable of more vigorous wringing. Tilly hypothesized that the pre-existing shape of a given society (e.g., is its wealth held mostly in cities, in a landed aristocracy, etc.) determined the strategy political leaders would adopt when building these institutions. If you want to understand why some states had parliaments while others had czars, then you must turn your gaze back to the expedients kings resorted to in order to fund their wars centuries ago.

In the three decades since Coercion, Capital, and European States was published a cottage industry has sprung up investigating whether there really is a relationship between war and state strength on the one hand, or war and regime type on the other. The problems comes when you attempt to apply Tilly’s famous framing outside the European experience. War is a constant of human history. Strong states are not. Strong states with representative institutions are even more difficult to find. If Tilly’s “bellicist” model of state formation is valid, then why doesn’t it work outside of Europe? For some researchers, the simple answer is that bellicist models are not valid, and some other model of state formation should be defended.[3] Others have suggested that bellicist models are correct given certain conditions—the wars fought must reach a certain intensity, the states must not have access to external credit, they must not be divided along ethnic lines, or what-have-you, for the model to hold.[4]

Wang and Dincecco are political economists, not historical sociologists, but their model fits neatly into this debate. What makes their case different from—and in my eyes more promising than—most of this literature is the object of their analysis. Most bellicist theories focus on aspects of the states themselves, or more rarely, aspects of the wars fought between them. The general claim is that variable Y or variable X (hopefully something that can be easily measured and thrown in a regression analysis) is what causes the different patterns of state development across the world. But in focusing in on ease of exit and vulnerability to attack from multiple directions Wang and Dincecco are shifting the object of analysis from the state to the state-system. They do not really frame it this way, of course, but this is what they are claiming: in a state system where states face geopolitical pressure on many fronts, and in which it is easy for wealthy elites to decamp to other states, war will drive leaders to compromise with local elites instead of driving leaders to coerce them. The end result of such compromise will be “representative” political institutions like parliaments and congresses.

I am strongly in favor of (and have argued strenuously for) systemic theories of state formation. [5] But if we are going to go down this road we must travel its full length. Imperial China and Early Modern Europe are not the only two state systems that have existed in human history. More important still, Europe is not the only state system that was full of political units that faced geopolitical pressure on many fronts and which political elites could easily exit from one kingdom to another. I have written before about how these aspects of the Early Modern European system also describe Sengoku Japan and Warring States China. I am less familiar with early-modern India, but Roberto Foa makes a very strong case in his PhD thesis that similar statements can be made about the states that emerged in the wake of the Mughal collapse. [6]  Despite this fact, Western-style representative institutions are not to be found in post-Mughal India, Warring States China, or Sengoku Japan (the closest thing we have are the ikko-ikki leagues in Japan, but they were squashed quickly). It turns out Wang and Denecco face the same challenge that bellicists always face: how do you explain the model’s failure to predict outcomes outside of Europe?

I have a few other quibbles. Was it really so easy for European elites to take their wealth with them from one state to another? More importantly, was it so hard for Chinese to escape the grasp of the state? As Wang and Denecco note, in late imperial times the Chinese state was a weak thing. The historical record is rife with tales and accounts of clans, families, and disgraced officials fleeing to the hinterlands or the borders where they knew they would be beyond the reach of imperial control.[7] The inability of emperors to control their empire presents another puzzle. The historical consensus is that the Qin Dynasty—born out of the Europe-like geopolitical competition of the Warring States Era—was the era when state-society relations tilted strongest towards the state. Some authors have gone so far as to describe the Qin regime as “totalitarian.” Never again in imperial Chinese history would the state have such strong grip on the Chinese elite. [8] How can Wang and Denecco’s theory account for this? If their hypothesis is correct, why would Chinese in later eras have a stronger bargaining position vis-a-vis their emperor when China was a unitary state than when it was divided into warring states?

I do not have a suitable hypothesis to answer this question. To start us off, however, I do think it is helpful to consider how elite Chinese managed to subvert the emperor’s will in late imperial times. One of the guiding assumptions of much comparative history and social science work on imperial China is that the Confucian bureaucracy were faithful executors of the imperial will. But nothing could be further from the truth. In imperial times, Chinese politics often devolved into high-stakes competitions between the civil service on one side and eunuchs (or in the Qing Dynasty, imperial bondsmen) on the other. Eunuchs and bondsmen were the hand of the throne. Their loyalty was to the emperor. Confucian literati, in contrast, were loyal to the dynasty. Saving the dynasty often meant doing everything they could to limit the power of the emperor. These elites self consciously described themselves as pleading the cause of the common people of China. They were not entirely wrong to make this claim. The estates of bureaucrats were scattered across the empire; unlike the emperor, they had family members in the lower economic strata, and had personal contact with farmers living in poverty. More important still (and unlike the eunuchs) bureaucrats were selected and promoted by a system that was not entirely under the emperor’s control. The resulting throw-downs between  the literati and the eunuchs was as dangerous as any parliamentary censure of the king. Both contests pitted the empire against the throne. What differed was the structure and philosophy of each regime’s ‘representative’ institutions. [9] 

Treating the Confucian bureaucracy as representative institution engaged in constant bargaining with the throne puts an interesting spin on this entire topic. If this is a valid way of framing things, and if political bargaining worked in China more or less as it did in Europe, then I would predict that potential Chinese monarchs would try to use access to the bureaucracy as a tool to win over elite support for their regimes. A cursory look at Chinese history suggests that this is exactly what happened. Conquest dynasties like the Jin and the Yuan were not considered legitimate until they recreated the bureaucratic system; one of the decisive moments in Zhu Yuanzhang‘s campaigns against Zhang Shicheng was his decision to hold imperial examinations. Wang and Denecco provide a similar example in their paper:

 During [the Taiping Rebellion] event, the Qing government ran out of funds for its antirebel efforts. To defeat the rebels, the emperor asked local gentry for financial help. In exchange, public school quotas were adjusted in the gentry’s favor, increasing the odds that their sons would later be admitted to the imperial civil service. Wang (2017) finds that gentry located in zones nearer to the so-called Taiping Heavenly Kingdom—the revolutionary regime established by the Taiping—contributed significantly more to the emperor’s military efforts. This evidence suggests that, rather than exploit the ruler’s need for quick funds to bargain over local political freedoms, as was common in Europe, the gentry agreed to remain loyal in exchange for a greater chance for their offspring to gain entrance to the imperial civil service. [10]

Another possible way to frame this is that the gentry exploited the ruler’s need for quick funds in order to increase their share of power. There was little desire to make the imperial civil service democratic, but there may have been efforts to make it more “representative.”

This is a question of political philosophy—or to use the parlance of political science, it is a question of political theory. Whether Chinese conceived of the civil service system as an explicit check on the throne, whether there was a theory of representation built into the political ideals of Neoconfucian philosophy, and whether the limits of the word “representative government” are too narrow to include the imperial civil service inside them is a question for political theorists and historians to debate. The need to ask such questions at all is a reminder that the work of normative political philosophers cannot be so easily separated from more empirical analyses of human political behavior.


[1] Yuhua Wang and Mark Dincecco, “Violent Conflict and Political Development Over the Long Run: China Versus Europe,” Annual Review of Political Science 2018, 21:341-358.

[2] Charles Tilly, “Reflections on the History of European State-Making,” in Formation of National States in Western Europe, ed. Charles Tilly. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 75.

[3] For a few examples, Scott Abrahmson, “The Economic Origins of the Territorial State.” Mimeo (2013); Michael Niemen, “War Making and State Making in Central Africa,” Africa Today, (2005) vol 53, iss 3: 21-39; Thierry Gongorra, “War Making and State Power in the Contemporary Middle East,International Journal of Middle East Studies (1997), vol 29 iss 3: 323-340. Miguel A Centeno, “Blood and Debt: War and Taxation in Nineteenth-Century Latin America,” American Journal of Sociology (1997), vol 102, iss 6:1565–605.

[4] For example, Keith Jaggers, “War and the Three Faces of Power: War Making and State Making In Europe and the Americas.” Comparative Political Studies (1992), vol 25, iss 1: 25-62; Anna Leadner, “Wars and the Un-Making of States: Taking Tilly Seriously in the Contemporary World,” in Contemporary Security Analysis and Copenhagen Peace Research, eds., Stefano Guzzini and Dietrich Jung. (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 69-80; Brian Taylor and Rozana Botea, “Tilly Tally: War-Making and State-Making in the Contemporary Third World.International Studies Review (2008) 10: 27-56;

[5] Tanner Greer, “Darwin and War in Ancient China, Sengoku Japan, and Early Modern Europe,” Scholar’s Stage (5 November 2015).

[6] See the working paper embedded in Ibid; Roberto Foa, “Ancient Polities, Modern States,” PhD diss (Harvard: 2016), esp. ch. 3 and 5.

[7] For example, see Wang Wensheng, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 37-114.

[8] On the difference between Qin and later imperial practice, see Yuri Pines, Review of Zhao Dingxin, The Confucian-Legalist State: A New Theory of Chinese History. Early China 39 (2016), 311-320. The “totalitarian” title comes from Fu Zhengyuan, China’s Legalists: The Earliest Totalitarians and Their Art of Ruling (Routledge: New York, 1997); for a more measured assessment of Qin authoritarianism, see Yuri Pines, Gideon Schelach, Robin Yates, and Lothan von Falkenhausen, “General Introduction: Qin History Revisted” in Birth of An Empire: The State of Qin Revisted (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 1-36.

[9] This is one of many themes pursued in Frederick Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003). Mote traces the theme throughout his history of later imperial China, but is most clearly presented in his chapters on the politics of the later Ming emperors, pp. 598-685, 

[10] Wang and Dincecco, “Violent Conflict and Political Development Over the Long Run,” 350.

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My first objection to Wang and Dincecco, is that comparing Europe to China is a false equivalency: Europe was and is a region; China was and is a country. Modern democracy did emerge in Europe, however, it did so in fits and starts, with democratic brushfires starting across the region, influencing one another, and eventually leading to a fire that took hold in England and spread across the oceans even as those on the Continent were snuffed out. As per Kennedy (1989), Europe began to overtake other global power centers after 1500; concentrating on the period from 1500 to 1689 (England’s Bill of Rights and Williamite constitutional monarchy or Glorious Revolution), we can see that the areas that best fit Wang and Dincecco’s quantitative factors are the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Holy Roman Empire or German-speaking Europe, and Italy. Yet modern democracy burned first in England, which was more similar to China than Europe in six of Wang and Dincecco’s eight factors.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had ample and recent experience with local or federative governance, parliaments, bills of rights, and nationalism (comprised as it was of two or more nations i.e. Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, others) was conquered by unitary and absolutist states in the 18th Century. Perhaps tragic timing could also apply to India too, as well as the Aztec and Inca Empires?

During the crisis of the 17th Century, German-speaking mercenaries and commanders could find employment throughout Europe, and the famous general Wallenstein almost succeeded in creating his own state and massing more military power than the Kings of France and Sweden, or the Holy Roman Emperor. The Flemish, Italian, Spanish, German, French, and Swedes could lead or follow each other relatively smoothly, exhibiting a certain “exit ability”. Elite refugees of Europe’s wars of religion could emigrate to Poland (with England accepting Protestants exclusively), and yet the Polish tolerance toward Lutherans, Calvinists, and even the Muslim “enemy” and even the universally-despised Anabaptists, did not strengthen the state sufficiently to prevent the fire of democracy from being snuffed out within a century.

What of elite mobility in England? The English Civil War was fought almost exclusively by Englishmen of all ranks; there was no significant European involvement in England or vice versa. When the Scots and Irish became involved in England’s struggle, either through compulsion or opportunism, they found themselves on the business end of Europe’s most professional military force, which would finally and completely subdue Scotland and Ireland by the end of the century. Centuries of English mobility in Europe brought the Tudor dynasty to the throne in 1485, but future intrigues proved far from threatening.

The problem I find with Tilly’s thesis of state development, is his implied definition of “states”. I would suggest that war forces individuals to organize or create bureaucracies, and the militaries are the oldest form of bureaucracy. But states? In the Germanic kingdoms that succeeded the Western Roman Empire, the “state” consisted of the king himself, and it took time for the aristocracy and common people to accept rule by officials appointed by the king to represent his physical presence. Yet this is a digression from the discussion of democratic state formation.

East Asian scholars could and should examine why China, followed by Japan and Korea, decided to become “hermit” states in the 16th Century. Despite governance dynamics that were not dissimilar to Europe’s, these states’ rulers and elites were able to impose disastrous isolationist policies that were impossible in Europe. As much as European states tried to control the proliferation of information that came with the printing press, European trade and communication was considered essential to each state’s competition with its rivals and adversaries. By the time East Asia was opened up to the world by force, tragic timing became a factor.

China is a region that became a country. There was nothing inevitable about it. See my earlier post "Geography and Chinese History" for more on this point: http://scholars-stage.blogspot.com/2013/06/geography-and-chinese-history-fractured.html

Re: "hermit" — I don't think this is at all an accurate characterization of what happened in Korea or China. Remember, Qianlong fought expansionist wars in Burma, Tibet, and Xinjiang, and negotiated pretty hard with the Russians. If there was an inward turn at the end of his reign (and the reign that followed) it was probably because of the scale of the white lotus rebellion. See footnote 7 for more on these things.

I appreciate the comment. In response:

I. One could say that many modern nation-states are regions that became countries, including England. However, the Han Chinese are one of the earliest ethnic nations to have formed, even if they were often fragmented politically, and even though unified Chinese states have always been empires that attempted to forcibly assimilate non-Han Chinese ethnic groups.

II. China did attempt to isolate itself from European influence, even if Japan was the most severe or successful of the three. The Uighurs, Burmese, and Tibetans were peripheral peoples with less complex societies, not unlike how the Irish, Scots, and Welsh were to the English. As for the Russians, by the time of first contact, modern democracy was already taking hold in England, and Russia itself was on the periphery of Europe.

"East Asian scholars could and should examine why China, followed by Japan and Korea, decided to become “hermit” states in the 16th Century. Despite governance dynamics that were not dissimilar to Europe’s, these states’ rulers and elites were able to impose disastrous isolationist policies that were impossible in Europe. As much as European states tried to control the proliferation of information that came with the printing press, European trade and communication was considered essential to each state’s competition with its rivals and adversaries."

If I may add my thoughts on this, I think geographic and linguistic factors have to be taken into account.

Japan is an island, and far harder to reach from the mainland than Britain is from Europe. It has not been invaded for literally thousands of years. Korea is a peninsula that for one reason or another has also not had a significant influx of newcomers for thousands of years too. China is made up of a huge fertile basin where the Han people were formed, surrounded by deserts, the Himalayas and impassable jungle.

The Japanese, Koreans and Chinese also speak unrelated and completely unintelligible languages (although Japanese and Korean borrowed huge amounts of vocabulary from Chinese, they remain unrelated to it and to each other, as any cursory look at the grammar and structure will tell you).

European countries are generally smaller and better connected to each other. They have had much closer contact throughout history, their borders have shifted in and out of each other, populations have moved about between them, and they have shared the same ruling families. They speak languages belonging to a few different families (mostly Slavic, Romance, Germanic), but at least within those families there is a good degree of mutual intelligibility. Even nowadays one can see that in European countries the distinction between "foreigners" and locals is not as strong in people's minds as it is in East Asia, although it still exists.

Given these conditions, imposing such severe isolationist policies simply wouldn't have worked. It is hard to think of any examples of true isolationism in Europe, except perhaps Albania under Enver Hoxha.

Again, with China I don't think the meaningful comparison is with any individual European state, but with the entire European system as a whole. They were isolationist only in the way the Romans or Byzantines were isolationist. Sure, the Romans might have known that states existed on the other side of Persia, but what was the point in dealing with them? All of the states on the Ming/Qing borders, including nomadic confederations and little city states like Hami, had constant interaction with the empire.

More important, IMHO, is interactions within China itself. Sure, you can chalk up internal Chinese unity to some sense of shared entho-nationalism, but that's bullocks. The Chinese proper were divided among two dozen major languages and just as many lifeways. The economic foundations, religious norms, clan structures, customs, clothing, and social structure of different parts of China vary as greatly within "inner" China as they do between Spain, Norway, and Serbia. The idea that you could just pick up a peasant from somewhere up in Gansu and drop him off down in Guangdong and not have him feel like he was just thrown into an alien country and culture is a bit ludicrous. (And when such mixing actually happened, it inevitably ended in million person genocidal wars).

I'll have to find a way to quantify and prove this one, but I'd wager that your average Guangdong peasant in year 1700 had much more culturally in common with your average Vietnamese peasant than they did with anybody north of the Huai.

Chinese leaders were aware of this problem. It is partly why they had officials constantly rotating across the empire–if they could not have one cohesive people, they at least could have a fairly cohesive governing class. But that is the right way to think about it. They had managed to coral what was rightly an entire international system into one empire, and were constantly working to make sure the centrifugal forces inherent in such a system did not tear it apart.

IMHO, you might be exaggerating the extent of the differences between different parts of "China proper". While there were huge differences in custom, social structure and language (Chinese is basically a language family rather than a language), I doubt they could be compared to the differences between Spain and Norway, for instance. Different parts of China have been ruled by the same state for longer than they haven't for two thousand years. Spain and Norway have literally never been ruled by the same state. This really matters.

What's more the ancient Chinese clearly had a sense of themselves as a people when they compared themselves to the less civilized non-Chinese around them. There is little comparable in European history, except perhaps the sense of being Christian vis-a-vis the heathens, but then Christianity was never limited to Europe.

I would agree that China was never that isolationist in history, but it manages to be pretty isolationist today.

Thank you for the insightful post. Your point about the Confucian bureaucracy as a representative institution, I think, is perhaps even more applicable to the case of Korean history, which has consistently had a long tradition of powerful landed aristocrats unlike post-Tang China.

Regarding the isolationism that has been brought up here in the comments section, I'm not sure it's so wise to lump China together with Korea and Japan simply because they're all part of East Asia. China, being such a huge and diverse empire with a key interest in maintaining its Sinocentric order, has had to constantly engage its neighbours and I would definitely not support someone characterising it as simply "isolationist."

However, I don't think the same can be said about Korea and Japan. Of course, Japan wasn't nearly as "isolationist" as the historians who strongly advocated the idea of "sakoku" many decades ago claimed it was, but I do sometimes think certain revisionist scholars go too far in trying to oppose the isolationist framework. Even with its closest neighbour Choson-Korea, which historians mention Japan was consistently in contact with during its sakoku period (with the exception of the Imjin War's disruption), both diplomatic and economic relations were far more restricted than anything one can see in Europe or other regions with numerous, established states. James B. Lewis' "Frontier Contact between Choson Korea and Tokugawa Japan" does an admirable job in showing how the Southeast corner of the Korean peninsula was with the Southwest corner of Japan more than previously believed, but at the same time, his monograph is full of details that shows how much Korea wanted to keep relations with Japan a distant one.

As Ji Xiang already mentioned above, I do think geography is likely the dominant reason for this isolation, followed behind by ideology. By ideology, I'm referring more to a sense of cultural superiority or confidence that both Korea and Japan. For instance, the Koreans both seemed to look down on the Japanese and the Jurchens who for the most part seemed like brutish raiders or pirates, and there was little incentive to establish stronger diplomatic/economic-ties beyond the minimal necessary to not provoke more raids.

@Ji Xiang-

"What's more the ancient Chinese clearly had a sense of themselves as a people when they compared themselves to the less civilized non-Chinese around them. There is little comparable in European history, except perhaps the sense of being Christian vis-a-vis the heathens, but then Christianity was never limited to Europe. "

1. The ancient Mediterraneans also had a strong sens of themselves as a people in comparison to less civilized non-Mediterraneans. They called themselves Romans.

Moreover, I think the comparison between the identity of European elites c. 900-1400 AD is quite comparable to that the ancient Chinese, 700-200 BC. If Norway and Spain is too far a bridge for you, I'll offer England and Spain, and stick with it. But I suppose it will take an entire post to lay out my case–the evidence needed is more than can be offered in these short comments. The short of it though is that like the late Chunqiu/Warring States elites, the leaders of Christendom possessed a very similar set of political institutions, shared a common high culture, and thought of themselves as representatives of that high culture. Things began to change as that culture eroded and the masses were better integrated into political units (though that was happening in WS China as well–Yuri Pines and Gideon Shelech have done some interesting research on how the archaeology of elite tombs begins to reflect local cultures as more and more people from lower orders were recruited into the states).

One final comment–

"Spain and Norway have literally never been ruled by the same state. This really matters."

I'll submit that it probably does not matter that much. The main reason being: in Chinese history the imperial state was a very low-impact institution. For a peasant who did not leave a 30 mile radius his entire life, the government meant nothing more than a runner from a yamen he saw twice a year. During times of crisis and rebellion things would be different. But it times of peace (and in times of government failure!) the footprint was very, very light.

I can see a plausible argument for growing interconnectedness in the post-Song era, especially as certain neoconfucian norms spread across the country. But the untold tale of Chinese history is its cultural diversity, not its unity. We are in desperate need for an Albion's Seed type account of China's cultural geography.

Wang and Dinecco are contribute very useful insights to a complicated problem.This kind of study can be very useful for a general picture over along period of time and to teach us where lot look —which is what it is being used for here. But there are are massive variables it does not reach.Things are complicated, which is why they are so interesting
.For example you can’t say that the Emperor’s resources consisted only of the “palace attendants” i.e. the eunuchs. To begin with the Emperor had an Empress and several wives all of whom had extensive families with extensive resources which were part of the Imperial “party”. That’s why he married them. Love and sex tended to be for the concubines and if the family of an imperial wife hadn’t great resources when they got their daughter into the Imperial family they soon had them thereafter. He also had the officer class within the army a few of who were eunuchs. He had many “tame” literati in the Grand Secretary’s office, the Hanlin Academy and so on. Not all Literati followed class interests. especially when their personal interests went the other way. And the Literati being intellectuals tended to split up into cliques and be subject to ambition, jealousy and mutual hatred that a competent emperor and his prime minister/grand secretary etc. could exploit.
But if you are looking for reasons that China and Europe went their particular separate ways I suggest that you might look to the what China did not have as well as examining what it did. Consider the prevalence of independent and semi-independent self-governing city-states or semi-city states (e.g. Amsterdam) in the West—starting with Ur—and their absence in historic China where although great cities certainly existed they were not self-governing or even their own worlds. Then look at China today and for the last century and ask how the very existence of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan (in effect a city-state) has affected conditions over the last hundred years and today. I suggest “City air makes free.”
We might also think about the often-adverse relationships between Church and State and how it created nongovernmental space in which to breathe. Freedom grows in open space. Starting with Ur and continuing to today the Western religious establishments (including the High Priest and the whole priestly establishment/class) have had separate interests that the King had to consider. But in China the King/Emperor was himself the Son of Heaven. To perform the service for the worship of Heaven was treason just because it claimed the throne. With exceptions other religions in China have accordingly tended to be quietistic. Whatever one’s opinion of the Western Churches may be they have not been quietistic; the church has often been the Church Militant as often as not. Consider for example the astonishingly modern language of First Samuel 8 passim. When Western religion was naturalized into China outside the Jesuits at court what happened? The Taiping rebellion.

The point about Mediterranean people having a strong sense of their identity as Romans may be true, but that Roman identity collapsed almost 2000 years ago, so it isn't very relevant to Europe later on.

In any case you may be right about your general point. European elites in the middle ages did share a common high culture, and China's cultural diversity probably is its untold tale.

What is clear is that since the Renaissance European countries really have been developing separate identities in a way that different parts of China never have, not just because the masses were better integrated, but because the elite cultures diverged. With the abandonment of Latin the written language of the elites in every country became different, and even the religions changed, with some countries becoming protestant and some staying catholic. There is nothing comparable in China's last few centuries. That must be why nowadays, at least, European countries diverge culturally much more than different regions of China.

This is terrible and extremely off-topic, but given that this post mentioned the Taiping briefly, I noticed that you (or possibly someone with the same name) posted a comment on an Amazon review of Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom a couple of years back and said that there isn't a military history of the whole rebellion. However, in case you haven't come across it already, there is 'The Taiping Revolutionary Movement' by Jen Yu-Wen (Jian Youwen), which is a relatively comprehensive overview largely of the military side, although it has been out of print for many years and quite hard to get ahold of.