Karl Polanyi in Beijing: why are China’s capitalists so successful?

The economic reforms introduced in the late 1970s were, argued the CCP, essential to combat economic stagnation and waste of the Mao years. So it was the Party that created the market in China. In Europe, Polanyi described an insurgent middle classes who “developed an all but sacramental belief in the beneficence of profits” and faith in the market. In China the market was introduced to break the bureaucratic control of the economy, but reform has ironically led to the enrichment of China’s bureaucrats. It has also left land and labour deeply unprotected. In contrast, China’s private and state-owned businesses are deeply embedded in social relationships. Its a deeply contradictory and complicated place as only a country of over a billion people can be.

In The Great Transformation (full pdf) Polanyi runs three chapters concurrently, Market and NatureMarket and Man and Market and Productive Organisation. These posts have followed a similar course and this penultimate post will look at China’s breakneck economic growth and discuss whether that invalidates Polanyi’s idea that “a embedded economy will be more efficient than a disembedded market.”

I started by saying that China’s party decided to create a market, that is how Polanyi and I talk about it, but it isn’t the normal parlance. The main school of thought on liberalisation emphasises the spontaneous creation of private enterprise wherever the state withdraws; this school draws on Adam Smith’s assertion about man’s “natural propensity to truck and barter.” I haven’t much truck with this. Capitalism got going in large part thanks to the fiscal strength of the British war state being able to enforce property rights and help capitalists accumulate capital through dispossession. Likewise in the US the government opened up the west with bloodshed and dispossession which helped America’s farmers accumulate land and helped prop up the wages of its working class. But I digress.

One half of Polanyi’s theory was that while laissez-faire was planned, the response was automatic and universal, even capitalists rebelled against the market. Good free marketeers like Tim and Chris see this as lamentable, they should see it as inevitable. Polanyi insisted that against the tide of market utopianism even capitalists will strive to protect themselves against the market. In China there has been no unconditional acceptance of the market, and its implementation has been limited, even if its effects have been broad. Contrary to the liberal belief that those engaged in private business will seek further economic and political freedom, it appears that those engaged in business in China prefer stability to economic liberalism. There’s more parallels to this: authoritarian capitalism can be pretty stable, Bismark’s Prussia, Meiji-era Japan and Pinochet’s Chile were all stable for extended periods of time. Just like in these countries, embedded markets can be remarkably effective at delivering growth.

China’s business operations rely more on connections than on private property, they are embedded networks of guanxi. I think you should conceptualise guanxi differently for migrant workers versus business men. For labour, it has arisen as a protective last resort, a countermovement which provides shelter in place of hollow labour laws. For businessmen it has become an integral part of “doing business.” Rather than decreasing as China’s economy develops, guanxi has increased its prevalence as businessmen develop new ties, and deepen old ones, in order to achieve their aims.On one level it functions, not as a system protecting against the market, but as a method for smoothing the transition between different state policies, in which extralegal activities are permitted in order to maintain smooth operation of business. There’s a parallel in the Soviet Union were boxes of cigarettes and bottles of vodka lubricate the workings of a badly drafted plan. In China gifts lubricate systems of insecure exchange.

At a macro level, the state also supports businesses and economic growth. The ideal developmental state, as described in Monday’s post by Evans possesses a “concrete set of social ties that binds the state to society and provides institutionalised channels for the continual negotiations of goals and practice.” Is is easy to dismiss guanxi as clientalism, or “crony capitalism” that distorts a natural market conditions. In reality China’s capitalists have the ear of the Chinese state and mutually assured destruction ensures they are focused on growth. Where Scott Sumner sees pragmatic policy making I see the fear in their eyes.

The state has laid the foundations for China’s economic growth and like other developmental states, it has sporadically suppressed market activity and supported strategic investment at the behest of its capitalists. China’s business situation is a system in which legal foundations of private property do not matter as much as ensuring that personal connections with local government and party are good. This can be a method by which private capitalists can extort money, power and influence from society at large. But it is also a method for ensuring capital investment is incentivised and profitable opportunities exploited. The institutionalisation of guanxi is a symptom of the decentralization of power which has occurred in China as both an impetus to, and consequence of, China’s economic rise.

To a degree the Chinese state has failed. For the majority of China’s development, while attempting to build global leaders the vast majority of the Chinese economy remained wedded to low-wage manufacturing. “Manufacturing” may prove to be  a superlative a word for what occurs in China. It can perhaps be better described as “assembling” imported inputs. High-value adding components are constructed outside and shipped to China for final manufacturing before being re-exported. The challenge for a developing country is to move up the value added chain. In the mid-2000s I was relatively sceptical of this happening, now I am more optimistic.

From The Independant, taken by Leonardo Finotti

From The Independant, taken by Leonardo Finotti

The tight state-industry link hasn’t been severed and remains very strong. In return for a huge degree of state control Chinese capitalists can help direct infrastructure spending. Britain has built one new runway since the Second World War. China has been building ten a year or more for over a decade. Britain was rather well endowed with runways following the war, but China’s achievement is colossal. China’s expanding its infrastructure at an astounding pace and it is a close coalition of capitalists and bureaucrats directing it. While some reports suggest lots of this investment is in empty ghost cities and roads to nowhere others are more optimistic:

In the case of Henan’s Zhengzhou—frequently dubbed China’s “largest ghost city”—Ms. Wong notes that a number of media portrayals of the city’s newer areas have used photographs taken between 2010-12, before the metro system connecting the district to the city’s more established neighborhoods was completed. On her most recent visit there in August, Ms. Wong said she saw many cars, “hordes of pedestrians” and considerable ground activity in addition to curtains and air-conditioners installed in numerous residential buildings.

“I asked local people about what they think…about Zhengzhou being a ghost city and the answer is, ‘What?’ They don’t actually have any idea they’re being labeled a ghost city,” Ms. Wong said.

Western reporters are the least likely to understand movement and patterns of production in China. Infrastructure investment is being directed by a coalition of capitalists and bureaucrats using local knowledge passed through to the might of the Chinese state.

From the BBC, taken by Pu Yongfang

From the BBC, taken by Pu Yongfang

Of course, the state can also be expected to expropriate the poor as necessary. As the poor and dispossessed become wealthier and therefore more powerful it seems that land grabs are becoming a little rarer than they used to be. This could also be because all the good land has already been grabbed. In any case, capitalist production is closely embedded in the state apparatus. Seizing land isn’t fair, but it is a pretty good way to accumulate capital. Capitalists are also more productive than poor people and development is all about putting things to their most productive use. This is the ugly side of development, and China is very good at it because its capitalists and government need to keep the economy growing.

The Chinese economy contains a business community embedded in close sets of social ties, this having given it the potential to direct its domestic industry in socially productive ways. To some degree it has certainly succeeded. In centres of development on the coast modern economies have grown up but it is unclear that this will spread to China’s interior. Firms are moving up the value added chain but China remains a very poor country. I’ve discussed in past posts that increasingly large tail risk is being built up in the poor treatment of China’s workers and its environment. China has managed to leverage some of the connections between business and state towards useful investment but at great cost to people and planet. Tomorrow’s post will tie together some of the ideas discussed over the last few days.


Good news, bad news for LGBT asylum seekers

Remember Irina Putilova? She was going to be deported to Russia, despite being a lesbian and likely to face severe persecution. Well, she’s not getting deported. At least not yet. So well done to any of you who actually did anything after reading last week’s post.

To maintain balance, of course, our dark lady Theresa May will be instead deporting Prossie N, a lesbian, to Uganda. There’s a petition here to sign, it seemed to do some good last time so please sign and write to your MP.

Click here for an article on “corrective rape” in Uganda. If you want something shorter and therefore slightly less harrowing  please read this account of Prossie N’s life up until now:

Prossie N has fought hard to escape a lifetime of abuse and persecution. An orphan from the age of 8 years old, the only family she had was an uncle who abused and raped her. At 15, she was outed as a lesbian and forced to live on the streets. It was only through a secret relationship with a well-connected married woman that she was finally able to escape to Britain in 2010.

Now, the Border Agency wants to send her back into danger. The department has already tried to force Prossie onto a flight with Ethiopian Airways, but she bravely protested at the gate, and the pilot refused to take her back. Her new deportation date is set for 12 December, back to a country with some of the harshest anti-gay laws in the world, where she has no family and no support network.