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How China Became Capitalist is the most fascinating book I've read about China. I've learned more by reading a few paragraphs in this book on some topics than I'd known from years of being interested in the topic, reading newspaper articles, listening to podcasts, etc. For example, even though I'd listened to a Planet Money podcast interviewing the farmers in the village of Xiaogang who secretly decided to run their collective farm as if it was private property in 1978, I still learned a lot about the context and other early experiments in private farming just after Mao's death by reading the book.

The authors are Nobel-prize-winning economist Ronald Coase and professor of Chinese history Ning Wang. Together, their expertise and insight make this a pleasure to read.

I often found myself having to put the book down to think about what I'd just read and absorb it. The prose is very clear and easy to read at the same time as being dense with information. It's an unusual combination and I'm impressed by the achievement.

A few other examples of things I found interesting:

- Deng Xiaopeng drove a tractor on a farm, while in Mao's disfavour. His time being a farmer changed his ideas about what would be most beneficial for the government to focus on, for example the economic well-being of the population rather than class warfare.

- Mao favoured decentralization, since it helped him in his military career. However, some of the early experiments in decentralizing power lead to the man-made famine of the "Great Leap Forward." The causes of the famine were not entirely analyzed by the leaders of the Communist party, and for a while they ended up buying into a false dichotomy between starvation and central control of the economy, and attributing too much of the responsibility for the famine to nature and a poor harvest.

- Almost like a modern development project, decades ago, Chinese leaders set up factories with new technology, which failed. Simply transporting the Western way of doing things into China didn't work without taking into account other factors and context.

- Maybe this should have been obvious to me, but a lot of Mao's ideas were influenced by Russian communists, and were somewhat non-sensical outside the Russian context.

- At one time, the government encouraged cottage-industry-like smelters in backyards.

How do you change a whole society? To what extent can you import ideas that have been compelling or effective in other environments and societies and have them actually work locally? Is a commitment to truth and doing what works enough to change a communist society into a capitalist society, one step at a time? I often found myself thinking about these questions while pondering what I'd just read in the book. The book is about experimentation and failure, not just milestones and successes, refreshingly so for a history book.

I'm not an expert in Chinese culture and history. But I have read several books, non-fiction and fiction, about China, and this one is the best I've come across.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jan. 23rd, 2014 11:48 am (UTC)
How do you change a whole society?

Slowly, over time. Trying to do it over night can be a cure worse than the disease.

Also, you can't force it. You have to lure it along. People are naturally conservative, in the sense that they don't like change.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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