Moving out of the red

The Chinese Economy in the 1990s - Economic Change in China, c.1800-1950
September 29, 2000

Philip Richardson's book is intended as a "concise and authoritative" expert summary for students and teachers of the major debate in China's pre-1950 economic history. It is not, in fact, as concise as the page count suggests; the text is packed with detail and subtle argument and is certainly not a quick crib on the topic. But it definitely repays careful reading, and the claim to "authoritative" status is justified; this is a verdict on the debate regarding the onset of modern economic growth in China that is likely to stand for a long time.

In that debate, Thomas Rawski has been the most active proponent of the argument that China had embarked on sustainable modern economic growth at the aggregate level by about 1950, while Philip Huang's thesis of "involutionary" growth without development in China's predominantly agrarian economy offers an alternative view that has found some support. The topic is a controversial one, and Richardson is to be commended for his scrupulously fair-minded approach. Crucially, he does not regard any of the competing versions of China's economic past as necessarily mutually exclusive, evaluating them strictly on their merits. Moreover, he emphasises the diversity of the Chinese experience, within regions and between them, and remembers to look up from the theories to check whether what is being proposed sounds like the way real people might plausibly have behaved. This intellectual approach is to be recommended to students at least as much as his conclusion that the Rawski thesis must remain at best a likelihood in the absence (likely to continue) of the sort of data that could prove it.

This book has many valuable insights into the underlying assumptions of various approaches to Chinese economic history and the limitations of the evidence they use, as well as into the practice of comparative economic history, and some thought-provoking observations on the effects, by no means all negative, of China's increasing contact with the West from the early 19th century. If you teach pre-1950 China, then I recommend you read this book, even if you cannot persuade your students to do the same; it will sharpen your teaching considerably.

Jun Ma's survey of a number of major topics in China's post-1978 economic reforms is a welcome addition to what has become an essential Macmillan series. Its 2000 publication date enables it to fill a definite gap in the market by making available in book form detailed discussions of fiscal and monetary reforms, the continuing problems of state-owned enterprises, the development of China's two stock exchanges, and decentralisation and regional economic policy, which take the story, in most cases, right up to the end of the 1990s. More important, Ma devotes considerable space to identifying the main challenges in each area that might, in the near to medium term, cause China's phenomenal annual average growth rates to falter, with all the consequences for political and social stability that such an occurrence might entail.

It is impossible to produce a book of this scope that will be absolutely up to date in policy terms when it appears, but Ma probably does as well on that score as is possible, and I cannot think of any likely policy announcements for the imminent Five-Year Plan that would render his observations irrelevant. He touches on many more issues than I have space to refer to here, and he has produced a readable book that students will find to be an excellent starting point for getting to grips with China's reforms; researchers will also find it repays attention.

Jackie Sheehan is lecturer in 20th-century Chinese history, University of Nottingham.


The Chinese Economy in the 1990s

Author - Jun Ma
ISBN - 0 333 75134 5
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 197

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