Book review: Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State by Yasheng Huang.
This is the most insightful book I’ve read so far on the Chinese economy. Most commentators only look at the most readily available data, but Huang dug through many obscure detailed records that were less likely to be manipulated.
The most important point of the book is to show that the widely held view of China as having gradual, steady improvement since 1978 is wrong. There was a dramatic political change in 1978 that allowed the rural parts of China (which still account for a large part of the economy, and where entrepreneurial culture had not been stamped out by communism) to prosper. Then starting in 1989 urban-focused leaders stifled rural businesses, causing stagnation there until 2002, when leaders more friendly to rural business gained power and allowed fairly healthy growth to resume.
Meanwhile urban areas have been dominated by crony capitalism which produced a good deal of gdp growth through massive state-directed investment in large companies, especially in the 1990s. This growth has produced fewer benefits to the average person than gdp numbers would lead us to expect.
Most of China’s success has been due to private enterprise. Beliefs that state-run businesses have produced growth are partly due to confusing reports about which companies are private.
I’m fairly impressed by the documentation of the changes in the rural political climate, but since the author seems to be the only one reading his sources of data and since it would be very time consuming to check them, it would be easy for errors to go unnoticed. For urban issues, he appears to be overstating the importance of problems that are not unique to China.
He partly clears up the puzzle of China doing better than should be expected for a country whose legal system doesn’t provide much rule of law. He provides evidence that some of the most important successes depend on British law imported via Hong Kong. But he doesn’t provide enough evidence to tell us how important this effect has been.
He leaves unanswered many questions I’d like answered. Why did government policies undergo these changes? Is the surprisingly reported steady gdp growth mostly the result of manipulated statistics? How much of the growth has been an investment bubble, and how much is sustainable? How did entrepreneurial culture survive communism in rural China so much better than in other countries?