Innovation at the Margins: Illicit Entrepreneurship in Socialist China
Contrary to popular belief, the modern Chinese economy did not spring into being in 1978 with Deng Xiaoping’s call for “Reform and Opening Up.” Rather, it was a product of an incremental transformation, decades in the making, driven by bottom-up entrepreneurial innovations. Drawing upon an array of non-traditional sources, including contraband archives, oral histories, and the recorded self-criticisms of capitalists, this talk will show how illicit entrepreneurs fundamentally reshaped China’s socialist economy. Throughout the socialist era, citizens at all levels of society— from farmers who illegally traded ration coupons, to state officials who colluded with underground factories to manufacture goods— actively subverted state control to profit from inefficiencies in planning and, more generally, to make things work. In the absence of “good institutions,” they formed vast illicit networks that subsumed the ordinary functions of markets (ex. coordination, information aggregation, risk sharing, lending) and created productive assemblages of capital, labor, and knowledge. Such activities not only supported the continued functioning of the socialist economy, but created the conditions for China’s subsequent economic grow.
Adam Frost is a Ph.D. candidate in History and East Asian Languages at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge
The event is arranged in cooperation with the Chinese language section of the Centre for Languages and Literature.