Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to the 1980s

By Jack Gray | Go to book overview

7
THE CHINESE ECONOMY

Developments between 1912 and 1938

Conventional opinions on the state of the Chinese economy and Chinese society in the first half of the twentieth century have been largely the reflection of nationalist emotion rationalized in a vulgar Marxism. These opinions are easily stated. They are that the Chinese economy was stagnant and regressing; that one major cause of this was the deteriorating conditions in which the peasant majority lived, conditions which were leading to their rapid expropriation; that the second major cause was the competition of foreign enterprise, buttressed by privileges imposed by force and served by a sycophantic class of compradors, competition which made it virtually impossible for modern enterprises in Chinese hands to thrive; and that such foreign competition also crushed the life out of the traditional handicrafts.

Modern historical research has disposed of these assertions. What we find in fact is that coastal China (the only areas of the country within easy reach of the new economic stimuli from abroad) put up a rate of industrial growth almost as high as that of the Japanese 'miracle'; that China's rural society did not change for the worse, and that for most of the period up to 1937, when the Japanese invaded, the average real income of the Chinese peasant was actually rising; that China's new industrial sector coped well in competition with its foreign rivals; and that with few exceptions Chinese traditional handicrafts, far from collapsing, thrived and grew. It is as true to say that, by the 1930s, the foreigners were serving the Chinese economy as it is that the Chinese economy was serving them -- the exception being the Japanese, whose economic policies were a planned part of their effort to subjugate China. Finally it is the case that the despised compradors, far from being subservient, were the chief instruments in China's assertion of new economic strength.

Between 1912 and 1933 China's per capita gross domestic product grew from Ch$113 to Ch$123, although population was increasing at a rate of at least 0.8 per cent per annum. The rate of growth of modern industrial production (excluding Manchuria which was industrialized in Japanese hands after 1931) was, from 1912 until the Japanese War in 1937, over 6 per cent per annum. Chinese-owned steamship tonnage increased in roughly the same period by about 12 per cent per annum; railway mileage by over 10 per cent; iron production by over 9 per cent; coal by over 8 per cent; and cotton-yarn

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