Socialist and Global Sources of China's Capitalist Ascent: International Trade under Mao, 1949-1976

Sandy Xu, UCLA

Under what conditions can countries successfully implement import substitution? I explain the exemplary case of Maoist China’s successful pursuit of “self-reliance.” China’s trade policy of “self-reliance,” or avoiding external liabilities, during the Maoist period (1949–1976) is credited with laying the foundation for its subsequent economic ascent during the Dengist period of “reform and opening up” (1976–1989). Yet “self-reliance” seems to contradict both institutionalist and structuralist theories of development, as Maoist China lacked a strong economic bureaucracy and was marginalized in the international political economy. I address the puzzle of “self-reliance” by extending and synthesizing development theories to reevaluate the internal and external conditions of Maoist trade. I extend institutionalist theories by theorizing an administrative structure unique to the socialist developmental state: the trade bureaucracy, an elaborate apparatus of trade officials, researchers, and administrators that coordinated with both domestic and foreign economic actors to acquire the hard currency and the capital imports essential for fulfilling the economic plan. I hypothesize two sources of trade bureaucracy capacity: 1) Weberian intra-state dynamics and 2) the trade bureaucracy’s position as the monopsonic buyer for the Chinese market. I extend structuralist theories by drawing on the world-systems interpretation of the postwar period as one during which intensifying capitalist competition within the Western bloc led industrial interests to defy US geopolitical dominance and to seek new markets in developing and socialist countries. I thus home in on two international political economic forces, economic competition and Cold War geopolitics, and hypothesize that they, counterintuitively, structured the world market in favor of Maoist “self-reliant” trade. Using archival data, I deploy my synthesized theoretical framework to trace China’s trade relations with both sides of the Iron Curtain—in particular, the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 3. Capitalism, Neoliberalism, and the State in Southeast Asia