The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times

By David S. Landes; Joel Mokyr et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 16
Chinese Entrepreneurship since Its Late Imperial Period

WELLINGTON K. K. CHAN

UNTIL THE LAST DECADE, the image of China for most of us was that of a country full of people, underdeveloped, poor, and communistic. Indeed, for at least one century, from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries, China's share of the world's gross product dropped precipitously, from around 8 or 9 percent to no more than 4 or 5 percent, while its population as a share of the world's total stayed fairly constantly at approximately 20 to 24 percent. Yet from at least the late sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, China alone accounted for between a quarter and a third of the world's gross output (Frank 1998, 108–16, 165–74, 297–320; Maddison 1995, 19–31). Late imperial China's agriculture was far more productive and commercialized than the contemporaneous West's, while its urban markets were bigger, and in many ways, just as sophisticated.

What happened was that by the early nineteenth century the Chinese agrarian economy was already heading toward a major crisis. And added to it was a second damaging development related to foreign trade and the state's relations with the outside world. The import of opium, starting in the late eighteenth century, turned the Chinese gain in silver from its exports into a deficit by the early nineteenth century. The drain on silver bullion was further exacerbated by several military defeats in wars and a treaty system with Western powers that denied China the right to conduct trade and foreign affairs on an equal basis. As for the revolution that ushered in a republican China early in the twentieth century, it did not help much; for the country was consumed by warlordism, civil war, and during the 1930s and 1940s, by Japan's invasion that destroyed its domestic trade and industry (Fairbank 1986).

The latest resurgence of China's economic performance did not come about by the Marxist-Leninist style of central planning that characterized the Chinese economy since it became a communist state in 1949. In 1978, the new party leader Deng Xiaoping announced a major economic restructuring. This has led to incredible successes, such that after thirty years of extraordinarily rapid growth, often at double digit annual growth rates, China's GNP has just overtaken all of Europe's to become the third largest economy in the world, just behind the United States and Japan. It has opened up millions of private or semiprivate enterprises, some having become so large as to reach multinational scale, such as China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC), Lenovo and Haier, and others remaining mostly small to medium in size. And operating them are an equally large number of entrepreneurs.

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