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China’s Political Economy

January 31, 2010

Carl Riskin. China’s Political Economy: The Quest for Development Since 1949. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

E. Elena Songster (2003)

Carl Riskin investigates the economic development of the People’s Republic of China through the lens of an economist. He is particularly interested in how Mao Zedong’s vision of a socialist China guided the economic policies that drove and jolted the nation from 1949 through 1984. Tracing the transitions of the Chinese socialist economy historically, Riskin concludes that Mao understood China’s economic circumstances and the challenge of transforming China into a socialist state. He asserts that Mao was not “unconnected with the underlying realities of Chinese economy and society and development under those conditions” (378). The problems that China encountered arose because Mao thought human will could overcome those realities. Riskin’s assessment seems to differ only in tone from a less generous assertion that Mao simply did not understand how daunting a task overcoming China’s economic circumstances actually was. Riskin sees Mao’s policies as overly optimistic, others would type them as impossible.

Riskin lays out a fertile economic landscape for the Communist Party’s successful rise to power. Citing Thomas Rawski, Ramon Myers, and J. Buck (although not uncritically) he traces the transformation of an economically developing country that incorporated modern industry from western countries. Warfare, inflation, and Nationalist taxation devastated the economy to the point that many people saw the Communist Party as their only hope. This foundation offers sturdy pillars on which Riskin then builds his theory connecting economic circumstances and political strategizing. He demonstrates through his rigorous analysis that a socialist economy is necessarily a political economy and that politics guided each economic policy.

Riskin’s main interest in this narrative is a period he terms as ‘Late Maoism’ (1958-1976). The moment that creates this temporal division of Maoist thought and economic development actually took place in 1955 when Mao, frustrated with what he believed to be ineffective gradualist policies, began decentralizing the bureaucratic structure. The most famous of the ‘Late Maoist’ policies that followed was the Great Leap Forward. Riskin attributes the failure of the Leap in part to the decentralization of government and the lack of economic checks and balances.

Riskin types the aggressive economic policies of and directly preceding the Cultural Revolution under the two categories: “self reliance” and “egalitarianism” (201). The purpose of the ‘self-reliance’ effort was to make China completely independent of foreign influence and resources in the event of war with the USSR or the USA. In line with Mao’s broad efforts to decentralize, ‘self-reliance’ policies focused on coordinating rural and urban labor in local industrialization. The ‘egalitarian’ campaign was not truly an effort to make things egalitarian, but rather to combat significant discrepancies in the population. One notable result was the ‘down to the countryside’ campaign that transformed intellectuals into farmers. Riskin’s numbers show this campaign to have had an equalizing effect. The numbers are striking when compared to income differences in other nations (see table 10.15). One must ask, however, at what cost is China achieving this status of ‘more equal’?

Riskin’s contribution to these well studied political campaigns is his meticulous display of statistical data concerning the economics of these campaigns. He provides no fewer than one hundred tables of figures. In spite of basing his pre-1949 analysis on dated and controversial findings, Riskin is praised by his reviewer, Victor Lippit, for his “comprehensiveness” (Journal of Economic Literature 27,3:1184-5). Riskin’s book is highly provocative. Yet he ultimately unveils the same rationale by which these controversial economic policies were justified in the first place. It is surprising that no one has taken him to task in standard reviews for attempting to show the silver lining of two decades that most people view as utter failures.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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