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Jean-Frangois Huchet The Emergence of Capitalism in China: An Historical Perspective and Its Impact on the Political System ON TH E EVE OF THE LAUNCH OF ITS ECO N O M IC REFO RM PROGRAM IN 1 9 78, China was seen as shackled by its thousand-year-old bureaucracy—a bureaucracy that, while guaranteeing longevity and territorial integrity through its authoritarian and predatoiy tendencies, always stifled the emergence of capitOalism (Braudel, 1985: 76).1In the space of a quarter of a century, a thoroughgoing change visibly took place, replacing the vision of a “giant with feet of clay,” imprisoned in its bureaucratic tradi­ tions, with a new vision of an emerging economic superpower. The gap between these analyses and the kinds of terms we now use almost daily when speaking of China is all the more striking. China is now “the world’s factory,” “the engine of global economic growth,” “a twentyfirst -century superpower.” Moreover, commercial conflicts over textiles and exchange rates demonstrate how important China has become to the world economy. After repeated attempts since the 1842 Opium War, China seems, under the direction ofits Communist Party, to be at last in the process of installing a capitalist system and of permanently revers­ ing the extraordinary economic decline the country witnessed between 1850 and 1978 (Maddison, 1995). social research Vol 73 : No 1 : Spring 2006 1 This leads to a series of questions inspired by the historic mean­ ing of the economic changes that have taken place in China since December 1978, when economic reform were officially launched by China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. The first question we will try to answer is how did a Communist Party that rejected all forms of a market economy during its first 30 years in power succeed in establishing capitalism in China when so many attempts had failed after the mid-nineteenth century. Instead of relying on the traditional economic explanation based on labor, capital, and productivity that is favored by economists and that has been well discussed in the economic literature, we will focus more on the political and social factors that explain this acceleration of history. The second question is related to the different problems that the Chinese economy faces today. China has registered one of the fastest economic growth rates in the history of capitalism, but this take-off still appears fragile in many analyses, potentially reversible. Again, if we consider what has been achieved during 25 years of reform, the question we can ask is whether the problems that create the concern with fragility represent a real threat to the economic modernization launched in 1978, and to the definitive establishment of a capitalism system in China. Finally, a third question that has been repeated like a mantra in foreign government circles and by reformers in China: Will the economic transformations that have taken place in the People’s Republic soon lead to the emergence of a democratic regime that will enable China to complete its cycle of modernization? I. THE SOCIOPOLITICAL DYNAMICS OF THE ECONOMIC TAKE-OFF In looking for explanations for China’s spectacular economic take-off, it is possible to limit the search to purely economic factors. For exam­ ple, the effects ofthe market’s “invisible hand,” if it is not disturbed by mankind’s folly (wars, political instability), can lead, as Adam Smith 2 social research pointed out, to economic development even without political liberties and can even operate in the face of erroneous decisions in economic policies (Hirschman, 1977). In the same register, it is also possible to evoke growth theories. China seems to be in a slightly more favor­ able situation compared to other Asian countries, but Chinese growth has also depended—between 75 percent and 85 percent, according to estimates (Yan and Yao, 2001)—on the contribution of labor and capital. Productivity increase has become significant only since the late 1990s. These explanations are well documented in the economic litera­ ture and are crucial to understanding China’s economic take-off. But they focus too narrowly on economic factors and fail to capture other important factors that explain why China has seen such an accelera­ tion of history and...


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