From Mao to Market: New Data, Methods, and Perspectives on China’s Economic Transformation, 1969–89

From Mao to Market: New Data, Methods, and Perspectives on China’s Economic Transformation, 1969–89

Wednesday, January 13, 2021 - 10:00am to 12:00pm
via Zoom See map

Official narratives of the origins of China’s economic transformation have focused on elite politics, state policies, and the leading role of rural China. As the narrative goes, China’s transition from Mao to Market was shaped by the interaction between the top-down policies of the Deng Xiaoping faction, the agency of local reformers, and rural entrepreneurship. However, as researchers have shifted their focus from official documents and memoirs to newfound sources— especially oral history, grassroots bureaucratic archives, and private life documents like family letters— they have begun to offer new perspectives on China’s economic history in the 1970s and 1980s. Research based on these new sources has challenged the official narrative on two accounts. First, there was a stronger continuity between the Maoist period in the 1960s and 1970s and the economic reform era of the 1980s and 1990s – in terms of the underground market economy, the service sector, the mediating role of Hong Kong, and structural changes in the household economy. Second, the dynamism behind China’s economic transformation came from all corners of society and the economy: the service sector, urban entrepreneurship, household economy, and the intellectual and educational exchanges between China and the West.


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• Gavin Healy, Columbia University
• Peter E. Hamilton, Trinity College Dublin
• Adam Frost, Harvard University
• Yanjie Huang, Columbia University

Gavin Healy, “To Serve the Tourists is to Serve the People: From Chairman Mao’s Revolutionary Diplomatic Line to Mass-Market Tourism”

Workers serving foreign tourists in China’s hotels, restaurants, and transportation facilities in the 1970s performed their jobs under the guidance of ideological campaigns that attempted to define the political and economic nature of service labor. While at the beginning of the decade these campaigns had attacked as revisionist forms of customer service that “targeted both refined and popular taste,” by mid-decade tourism service workers reported that they were “studying professional skill for the sake of Chairman Mao’s Revolutionary Diplomatic Line.” By the end of the decade, these ideological campaigns for service workers unabashedly emphasized the development of mass-market tourism and the professionalization of customer service skills as integral parts of China’s program of “Four Modernizations.” Yet in many ways the discourse around service labor remained the same. Young people had long resisted assignment to the service sector in favor of roles in primary production, and campaigns over the years had urged them to subsume their individual ambitions to a collectivist narrative. As the political and economic terms that framed this narrative changed, tourism service workers struggled to understand how their work fit within an ethos of “serving the people.” This paper examines the evolution of this narrative of the value of service labor in China’s growing tourism industry of the 1970s and early 1980s, arguing that tourism and the service sector were key grounds in the recalibration of China’s economic ideology in its transformation from a socialist to a post-socialist society. 


Peter E. Hamilton, “The Revival of Business and Management Education in 1980s China”

As mainland universities re-opened in 1978 and Beijing approved the first market-oriented reforms, senior university officials believed that this new era required the training of a new generation of economists, managers, and even executives. Tsinghua opened a Department of Economics and Management in 1979 and by 1984 proceeded to establish a School of Economics and Management under future Premier Zhu Rongji. Yet, university officials sought international expertise and assistance to re-develop these fields, particularly from the United States. Amid an era of warm relations, US universities, foundations, and corporations seized on the ensuing invitations and extended extensive resources and training, particularly to help establish China’s first MBA programs.

This paper examines the 1980s Sino-US partnerships that facilitated the revival of business and management education at Tsinghua and Fudan Universities. Alongside tracing these programs’ development, this paper digs into the intellectual conundrums behind such partnerships, particularly the disconnect between capitalistic US-sponsored MBA programs and “red” state educational institutions. To what extent did these Chinese and American partners share similar goals and how did their respective ideologies shape these programs? In so doing, this paper advances and links new scholarship of China’s Reform era and Sino-US relations. As both fields decenter high diplomacy and senior officials in order to incorporate non-state actors and flows, business and management education provides an intersectional new lens.


Adam Frost, “Illicit Entrepreneurship in Socialist China”

China’s socialist era (1957–1980) is often described as having been void of entrepreneurial activity. Generations of scholars have argued that after the completion of “socialist transformation” in 1957, private entrepreneurship was effectively purged from the Chinese economy and only began to reemerge after the start of market-oriented reforms in the late 1970s. This paper draws on new evidence from grassroots sources that were acquired from Chinese flea markets to reassess the nature of economic activity in socialist China. Specifically, it develops and analyses original datasets based on more than 2,600 cases of “speculation and profiteering” prosecuted by local government agencies in the 1960s and 1970s. Combining this grassroots data with national statistics, the paper provides robust empirical evidence for the following three propositions: 1) the Chinese socialist state was never successful in suppressing private entrepreneurial activity; 2) entrepreneurship under Chinese socialism was far greater in scale and scope that previous scholarship would lead us to believe; and 3) the central and local governments were not unified in their efforts to enforce formal socialist institutions. Collectively, these findings overturn longstanding ideas about China’s socialist economy and reveal important historical antecedents of China’s market-oriented reforms


Yanjie Huang, “Origin of the Xiaokang Society: Household Economy, Popular Sentiments, and Ideological Shifts in Shanghai, 1969-1980”

The narratives of the end of the Cultural Revolution and the origins of the reforms in the 1970s have focused invariably on elite politics and political movements. However, the structural changes of the political economy and family life during the Cultural Revolution are equally, if not more determinant, of China’s transition away from the Maoist political and economic models. As the centerpiece of Maoist strategy of “idealist revolutionary austerity”, the sent-down policy imposed universal family separation and sacrifice on urban families. Behind the revolutionary fervent in official media, urban Chinese families quietly bore the economic costs of the Cultural Revolution, reinvented their model of household economy, and moved away from the Communist ideals in the 1970s. In response, urban families coped with economic stress, and shrank their sizes, and embraced incipient consumerism centered on the “Three Pieces”. This paper, which focuses on the sent-down youths and their families, attempts a bottom-up approach to China’s transition away from Mao’s Communist visions in the 1970s. Drawing on newfound family letters curated at Fudan Center of Contemporary  China Social Life Documents and Research, as well as official surveys, magazine articles, memoirs and archival sources in Shanghai, the paper traces the various developments in household economy, popular sentiments, and official ideology in the making of the Xiaokang (small comfort) as a central ideology of the urban working class in Shanghai. It shows that the Dengist vision of “Xiaokang”, namely, a depoliticized, family-centered, pervasively cynical society, originated in the political and economic model of late Maoism.  In addition to the political support it rendered on the Dengist faction, the  “Xiaokang”’ ideology also heralded China’s peaceful transition from the Communist to the neoliberal authoritarian model.