- Narratives of the Chinese Economic Reforms: Individual Pathways from Plan to Market
The ongoing market reforms that commenced in China in the late 1970s have certainly had spectacular effects as, for example, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has had the highest economic growth rate in the world over the last 25 years, creating prosperity for a very significant proportion of its citizenry. Just as certainly, however, the market reforms in China have possessed a considerable undertow as well with their destruction of many of the previously available social supports, creating dire poverty in many areas and contributing to escalating inequality. Tracing out the effects of marketization in the PRC, therefore, is a daunting and controversial effort. Narratives of the Chinese Economic Reforms provides an innovative perspective on the economic and social transformation of China over the past three decades. As the title implies, this edited collection contains the detailed personal histories of seven people, primarily of peasant ancestry, whose fates were cast to the winds of the new market forces, both for better and for worse. Whereas such an approach makes sweeping generalizations hard, if not [End Page 509] impossible, it has the advantage of taking us beyond simple trends to the complexities and nuances that lie beneath them.
The first two chapters, by Hairong Yan and Lei Guang, describe the life experiences of two rural migrants to urban centers. Hua Min moved to Beijing to become a domestic after failing the university entrance exam. In Beijing, she atypically obtained a degree by going to night school, but then failed to get a teaching job. Her luck changed when she moved to Shenzhen to take a job in an expanding company that allowed her to get into retail. Especially after she moved back to Beijing to join her husband, she superficially seemed to represent a major success story for China's market reforms. Yet, her continuing identification with migrants and the cumulating travails of her natal family represent the substantial "dark side" of marketization in the PRC as well. Cheng Gong moved to Beijing to work for a relative in the growing field of home renovations and then struck out on his own as a "guerrilla renovator," working informally with other migrants. When the Beijing government began regulating this field more strictly, he was able to start his own firm in this highly competitive industry. He appears to have been highly successful, yet still remains in a vulnerable market niche.
The next two chapters, by Tim Oakes and Janet Sturgeon, depict the careers of individuals who used their entrepreneurial skills to assume leadership roles in rural areas. Secretary Wang was a trader dating back to Maoist times, which periodically resulted in persecution. The reform era allowed him to prosper and to use his commercial profits to gain leadership in his village. He then used his entrepreneurial skills and connections (guanxi) to promote the village, most recently as a tourist attraction based on its Tunpu culture. Still, his relationship with the villagers appears to be ambiguous, as his success has generated a significant amount of resentment. There is even less ambiguity in how others view Akheu, who also used his entrepreneurial talents, along with a more establishment background and career than Wang's, to benefit his village with a variety of projects: a tin mine, an auction of wasteland to promote reforestation, a lodge to promote tourism (which proved to be an utter failure), and selling goat meat to a restaurant in Shenzhen. In most of these schemes, the primary beneficiaries were Akheu and his coterie; and in several, the village as a whole gained little. In addition, Akheu's story is different from the others in this book in that the market reforms clearly brought greater prosperity to his rural area, while the reimposition of central control due to environmental concerns brought widespread poverty.
The last three chapters, by Jean-Louis Rocca, Antoine Kernen, and Dorothy Solinger, chart the human...