Market Maoists. The Communist Origins of China’s Capitalist Ascent

Kelly, Jason M.
320 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Valeria Zanier, University of Bologna

The bleakest period in China’s recent history (from the foundation of the PRC in 1949 to the death of Mao Zedong in 1976) remains so far characterized by failure, isolation, fear…and ignorance. Historians and area experts in modern China are familiar with the inherent difficulty of dealing with CCP’s recent past. Having outlived economic change without reforming, historical narrative plays a crucial part for the party’s preservation. It is therefore threatening to advance new arguments or to attempt innovative interpretations of leaders’ actions, including Mao Zedong, that remains – to date – PRC’s founding father. Limited access to sources only increases the difficulties.

Under Mao’s sombre shadow, valuable works have focused on the scars inflicted to his people by this blood-soaked dictator (Dikötter’s People’s Trilogy). It is only desirable that this era attracts more and more attention, including cross-disciplinary perspectives. Among the many aspects that remain heavily under-researched, are: the process of change, that undoubtedly took place among the leaders; dis/continuities in economic choices; and China’s place in global history. It is therefore refreshing when a new book touches all three topics. By choosing to depict CCP’s long involvement in international commerce with capitalist countries from mid-1940s to mid-1970s, Market Maoists also prefigures many of the issues, which preoccupy contemporary observers of current China’s emerging might.

Organized in seven chapters following a strict chronological structure, the book narrates the habit of the Chinese leadership to embrace “trading with the enemy” right in the middle of the Cold War by unraveling thirty years of operations carried out mostly successfully notwithstanding what we know now and creating a background for Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform. Admittedly, it was challenging to carry out international trade practices when mass mobilization campaigns made victims among counter-revolutionaries and wreak havoc in the administration and the economy. Nevertheless, the book coherently explains that foreign trade deals were not isolated episodes. In fact, international transactions rested upon a system that found the consensus of illuminated leaders, such as Premier and Foreign Affairs Minister Zhou Enlai, chief economic planners Chen Yun, Li Xiannian, Bo Yibo, just to quote the most famous. To tell the truth, researchers active in the field have long been familiar with CCP’s ambiguous attitude towards capitalists, even dating back to the First United Front with the KMT in the 1920s. Conversely, a very welcome addition that the book brings to the fore is the detailed explanation of how the apparently irreconcilable summa of Socialist and capitalist tenets actually translated in an institutional setting, blessed by higher-level leaders and implemented on a daily basis by less known cadres. Just to mention one: Ye Jizhuang, the man at the wheel of the Ministry of Foreign Trade.

Keen observers of Socialist systems would notice that from an ideological point of view, such an attitude was in line with Lenin’s main argument, as it encouraged earning foreign currency and exploiting capitalists. This is also a point already widely clarified by Chinese scholars, with Zhang Shuguang deserving credit for having covered it in his works over the last twenty years. Nevertheless, Market Maoists has the merit of bringing more clarity to such a controversial issue, by repeatedly offering proofs that even the Great Helmsman saw the advantages of trading with capitalists and, already early on during the Civil War with the Nationalists, suggested to keep the door open.

The main contribution offered by Kelly is undoubtedly the detailed description of the system regulating foreign trade from mid 1940s to mid-1970s: a unique mix made of centralized institutions Soviet-style, small-size companies operated according to capitalist methods, capable officials based in crucial places of Europe.

Chapter 4 depicts the most active phase. In the years 1953 to 1957 the effort deployed on economic planning at domestic level made Chinese leaders increasingly more alert about intermediate goods and technology from more developed countries while at the same time testing the ground for the production of exportable consumer goods. The narration culminates with Chapter 5, which depicts how the infatuation with foreign trade was brought to an extreme by the corrosive enthusiasm of the Great Leap Forward campaign (1958-1960) that pervaded all branches of the economy with “its insistence on rapid expansion, its demand for decentralization, and its valorization of redness over expertise” (p. 151). The very spirit infused by GLF, condensed in the slogan “import and export on a large scale” (dajin dachu), threatened to deviate the Ministry of Foreign Trade from the project made of nuances and subtleties that had been carefully weaved under Zhou Enlai’s wise supervision. The climax is reached in pp. 151-156 when the book reports the Premier’s struggle to affirm “pro peaceful economics” against a “commercial war”, that would make no distinction among more or less useful capitalist countries.

One point that could potentially have received a better treatment is trade figures and, more in general, the quantification of exchanges. The author convincingly confronts the counterargument that the quantity of goods that China exchanged with the capitalist West remained negligible before the 1980s and claims that statistics tell only part of the story, whereas transactions, as well as “ideas, habits and beliefs”, have a more lasting significance (p. 4). In the overall project, this argument works. Regardless, a serious reflection about trade figures would definitely have helped the reader to relate to the financial issues mentioned in various episodes.

Many of the book’s arguments resonate with Karl Gerth’s reflections about “consumerism during the Mao era” in his Unending Capitalism (2020). It is a pity that Kelly engages all too limitedly with existing scholarship, as it would be really interesting to learn about his views on the current debate about the “communist” versus “state capitalist” nature of the Chinese system. After all it is a fact that the current debate actually followed the publication of Gerth’s book, which was almost coeval to Kelly’s.

In conclusion, even though the core contribution of Market Maoists is not totally new, Kelly does a great job by connecting the dots and condensing thirty years of China’s engagement with international trade into a compelling narrative. Arguments are proven by rich original sources and supported by an extensive note apparatus. The book is set in a recent past (the Cold War) when – notwithstanding ideological differences – Socialist and capitalist countries were interacting much more closely than expected. Reading it in present times, with our memory still fresh with the China-US trade wars and related reminiscences of the Cold War, would prove especially useful to rationally and critically digest the image of a PRC depicted as a monster threatening Western democratic principles.

While it is important that historians cultivate a passion for nuanced and articulate visions of reality, anyone curious about China’s evil plans to conquer the world should read this book. For sure, it can be demanding for a public devoid of a sound background in Chinese history. However, this is by no means an arduous read. Because of its strict adherence to facts, Market Maoists guides readers to navigate the logics behind CCP’s centennial grip on power and – what is most crucial – stimulates them to activate their search engines / brains.

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