Monday, May 24, 2010

Is The Chinese Variety of Capitalism Really Unique?

A Guest Post by Vladimir Popov [1]

Because the Chinese economy did much better in the recent recession of 2008-09, there is no shortage of articles suggesting that the Chinese model is more viable and that the West should learn from China.

“We in the West have a choice - writes Anatole Kaletsky in The Times -. Either we concede the argument that China, in the 5,000 years of recorded human history, has been a much more successful and durable culture than America or Western Europe and is now reclaiming its natural position of global leadership. Or we stop denying the rivalry between the Chinese and Western models and start thinking seriously about how Western capitalism can be reformed to have a better chance of winning” [2].

“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”? Rudyard Kipling's oft quoted words prompt a more modest question: does the Chinese economic model today differ radically from the Western model; does it really have magic properties that allow growth amidst the world-wide recession or has growth been just a stroke of luck?

Certainly the Chinese economy is no longer either centrally planned or state-owned. On the similarities with the West side we have the:

- Dominant role of the private sector - 75% of GDP is produced by non-state enterprises, including joint stock companies and individual private businesses, which are not that different from their Western counterparts;

- Relatively small share of government spending in GDP (about 20%) – lower than in all Western countries and often lower than in developing countries with similar per capita GDP;

- No longer free education and health care, and relatively high income and wealth inequalities (Gini coefficient of 45% and 64 billionaires on the mainland alone, according to the March 2010 “Forbes’ account, second in the world after the US with 403, but ahead of Russia's 62).

Differences with the Western economic model also do not seem to be all that significant:

- China has a strong, export-oriented industrial policy – mostly caused by undervaluation of the yuan leading to the accumulation of vast foreign exchange reserves. This is not without a precedent, however, since this practice was used by Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore at earlier stages of development);

- Land is still not private property in China and is not traded, but private, long-term transferable private leases are widespread; besides, public ownership of land is not uncommon in other countries, albeit in smaller proportions;

- China exercises controls over its capital account but, again, this practice is used by many developing countries now and was still being used by European countries just half a century ago, until well after the end of the Second World War;

- China has an authoritarian regime (which, of course, all developed countries had in the past; some of them, like Spain, Portugal, Taiwan, South Korea, as recently as three-four decades ago).

A real difference is the institutional capacity of the state.

Many formal comparisons of the similarities and differences of Chinese and Western economic models misses the most important point. The uniqueness of China is that while it looks very much like a developed country today in terms of the institutional capacity of the state, it is a developing country according to GDP per capita. Instead China should be compared with developing countries today or developed countries a hundred years ago, when their GDP was at the current Chinese level; this comparison is very much in China favour.

The institutional capacity of the state, narrowly defined, is the ability of a government to enforce laws and regulations. While there are a lot of subjective indices (corruption, rule of law, government effectiveness, etc.) that supposedly measure state institutional capacity, many researchers do not think they help to explain economic performance and consider them biased[3]. The natural objective measures of state institutional capacity are the murder rate – non-compliance with the state’s monopoly on violence[4], and the shadow economy – non compliance with the economic regulations. China is unique in having some of the lowest scores for both indicators in the developing world, comparable to those of developed countries (see chart 1).

Chart 1. Murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants and government effectiveness index (ranges from -2.5 to +2.5) in 2002

Upper chart - countries with a high (15-75) murder rate; Lower chart – countries with a low rate (0-3). Source: WHO, World Bank.

With less than 3 murders in 2002 per 100,000 inhabitants against 1-2 in Europe and Japan and over 5 in the US) China looks like a developed country. Only a few developing countries, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), have such low murder rates, normally they are considerably higher, as in Latin America, Sub Saharan Africa, and many Former Soviet states. By way of comparison, it took Western Europe 300 years to move from a murder rate of over 40 per 100, 000 inhabitants in the sixteenth century to current levels of 1-2 murders per 100, 000 inhabitants in the nineteenth century beyond [5].

The same is true of the shadow economy: it is less than 17% of the Chinese GDP, lower than in Belgium, Portugal, Spain, whereas in developing countries it is typically around 40%, sometimes even over 60%. Only few developing countries have such low share of shadow economy, in particular, Vietnam and some MENA countries (Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria).

Chart 2. Share of the shadow economy in GDP in 2005, %, and government effectiveness index in 2002 .

Source: World Bank. Data on shadow economy are from: Friedrich Schneider. Shadow Economies and Corruption All Over the World: New Estimates for 145 Countries. – Economics. Open Access, Open Assessment E-Journal, No. 2007-9 July 24, 2007 (measures of the shadow economy are derived from divergence between output dynamics and electricity consumption, demand for real cash balances, etc.).

Where does the strength of the Chinese institutions come from?

The pre-conditions for the Chinese success of the last thirty years were created mostly in the preceding period 1949-76. It would be no exaggeration at all to claim that without the policies implemented by Mao’s regime, the market-type reforms of 1979 and beyond would never have produced the impressive results that they did. In this sense, economic liberalization in 1979 and beyond was only the icing on the cake. The other ingredients, most importantly strong institutions and human capital, had already been provided by the previous regime. Without these other ingredients, liberalization alone in different periods and in different countries was never successful and sometimes was counterproductive, as in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s.

Market-type reforms in China in 1979 and beyond brought about such an acceleration in economic growth because China already had an efficient government, created by the Chinese Communist Party after the Liberation, which the country had not had in centuries - not least because of its deliberate destruction by various colonial, European aggressors. Through the party cells in every village, the communist government in Beijing was able to enforce its rules and regulations throughout the country more efficiently than Qing Shi Huang Di or any subsequent emperor, not to mention the Kuomintang regime (1912-49). While, in the late nineteenth century, the central government had revenues equivalent to only 3 percent of GDP (against 12 percent in Japan right after the Meiji Restoration) and, under the Kuomintang government, they increased to only 5 percent of GDP, Mao’s government left the state coffers to Deng’s reform team with revenues equivalent to 20 percent of GDP [6].

The Chinese crime rate in the 1970s was among the lowest in the world, A Chinese shadow economy was virtually non-existent, and corruption was estimated by Transparency International even in 1985 to be the lowest in the developing world (China, together with the USSR, was in the middle of the list of 54 countries – below Western countries, but ahead of most developing countries and even ahead of South Korea, Greece, Italy, and Portugal [7]). In the same period, during “clearly the greatest experiment in the mass education in the history of the world”, literacy rates in China increased from 28 percent in 1949 to 65 percent by the end of the 1970s (41 percent in India, for comparison)[8].

By the end of the 1970s, China had virtually everything needed for growth except some liberalization of markets — a much easier ingredient to introduce than human capital or institutional capacity. The foundations for the truly exceptional success of the post-reform period had been laid purposefully in 1949-76. [9]

But even this seemingly simple task of economic liberalization required careful management. The USSR was in a similar position in the late 1980s. True, the Soviet system lost its economic and social dynamism, growth rates in the 1960s-80s were falling, life expectancy was not rising, and crime rates were slowly growing, but institutions were generally strong and human capital was large, which provided good starting conditions for reform. Nevertheless, economic liberalization in China (since 1979) and in the USSR and later in Russia (since 1989) produced markedly different outcomes.[10]

[Russia was assaulted for decades by the West and suffered massive human and material losses in the Second WW. China may have been having objectively hard and troubled times but it was not under attack in the same way, and having itself constantly diverted from its course of action by the Americans].

Fast economic growth can materialize only if several necessary conditions are met simultaneously. Specifically rapid growth requires: infrastructure, human capital, in agrarian countries even land re-distribution, strong state institutions, and economic stimuli, among other things. Rodrik, Hausmann, and Velasco talk about “binding constraints” that hold back economic growth; finding these constraints is a task in “growth diagnostics”[11]

Why did economic liberalization work in central Europe but not in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America? The answer, according to the outlined approach, would be that in central Europe the missing ingredient was economic liberalization, whereas in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America there was a lack of state capacity, not a lack of market liberalization. Why did liberalization work in China and central Europe but did not work in the Commonwealth of Independent States? It is because in the CIS it was carried out in such a way as to undermine state capacity — the one useful heritage of the socialist past ― whereas in central Europe and even more so in China , state capacity did not decline substantially during transition?

Unlike Russia after 1991, so far it seems that China in 1979-2009 managed to preserve its strong state institutions better — the murder rate, a reliable measure of state capacity as noted above, in China is still below 3 per 100,000 inhabitants compared to about 30 in Russia in 2002 and about 20 in 2009. In the 1970s, under the Maoist regime, the murder rate in Shandong Province was even less than 1 [12], and in 1987 it was estimated to be 1.5 for the whole of China [13]. The threefold increase in the murder rate during the market reforms is comparable with the Russian increase, but Chinese levels are nowhere near the Russian levels.

If the Chinese model exists, is it replicable and sustainable, or even desirable?

The litmus test is a question on which economists sharply disagree: where will the next economic miracles occur, if at all.

Today, conventional wisdom suggests democratic countries that encourage individual freedoms and entrepreneurship, as Mexico and Brazil, Turkey and India, for future growth miracles, whereas rapidly-growing, currently authoritarian regimes, like China and Vietnam or Iran and Egypt, are thought to be doomed to experience a growth slowdown, if not a recession, in the near future. According to Jack Goldstone [14], “a country encouraging science and entrepreneurship will thrive regardless of inequality: hence India and Brazil, and perhaps Mexico, should become world leaders. But I say countries that retain hierarchical patronage systems and hostility to individualism and science-based entrepreneurship, will fall behind, such as Egypt and Iran ”. Many believe that rapid growth could be achieved under authoritarian regimes only at the catch-up stage, not at the innovative stage: once a country approaches the technological frontier and it becomes impossible to grow just by copying innovations of the others, it can continue to advance only with free entrepreneurship, guaranteed individual freedoms and a democratic political regime [15].

We still do not have enough evidence for innovation-based growth. For one thing, on all measures of patent activity, Japan , South Korea and China are already ahead or rapidly catching up with the US. The patent office of the United States of America, which had consistently issued the highest number of patents since 1998, was overtaken in 2007 by the patent office of Japan . The patent office of China replaced the European Patent Office as the fourth largest office in terms of issuing grants (the five largest patent offices - those of Japan, the USA, the Republic of Korea, China and the EPO accounted for 74.4% of total patent grants). The number of resident patent filings per $1 of GDP and $1 of R&D spending is already higher, sometimes considerably higher, in Japan, Korea and China than in the US [16].

And the evidence for catch-up growth is controversial to say the least. Imagine, for instance, that the debate about future economic miracles were happening in 1960: some would be betting on more free, democratic and entrepreneurial India and Latin America, whereas others would predict the success of authoritarian (even sometimes communist), centralized and heavy handed government interventionist East Asia. What is unknown, however, is whether the gradual weakening in the reform period capacity of the Chinese state will continue to weaken further, which will convert China into a “normal” developing country. In this case Chinese rapid growth would come to an end and there wouldn’t be any more a question of what is so special about the Chinese economic model.

POSTSCRIPT by DMN: The 27 May issue of the Russian magazine "Russkiy Reporter" lists Vladimir Popov among the "10 best [Russian] economists and sociologists in 2000-2010". Vladimir is sketched on the right-hand top corner of the magazine's cover.
Warmest congratulations, Vladimir!

[1] New Economic School, Moscow. vpopov@NES.RU,

[2] Anatole Kaletsky. “We need a new capitalism to take on China . If the West isn’t to slide into irrelevance, governments must be much more active in taking control of the economy”. “The Times”. February 4, 2010,

[3] Mushtaq H. Khan. Governance, Economic Growth and Development since the 1960s. DESA Working Paper No. 54, August 2007.

[4] Crimes are registered differently in different countries—higher crime rates in developed countries seem to be the result of a better registration of crimes. But serious crimes, like murders, appear to be registered quite accurately even in developing countries, so an international comparison of murder rates is well warranted.

[5] Eisner, Manuel. Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime. – Crime and Justice, Vol. 30 (2003), pp 83-142.

[6] Lu, Aiguo. China and the Global Economy since 1840. New York , St. Martins Press, 1999.

[7] Internet Center for Corruption Research, Historical comparisons. Http://

[8] Peterson Glen. State Literacy Ideologies and the Transformation of Rural China. The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 32 (Jul., 1994.

[9] To a lesser extent, this is true for India : market-type reforms in the 1990s produced good results because they were based on the previous achievements of the import substitution period. Fast Indian growth is sometimes attributed to the deregulation reforms of the 1990s, but it was shown that fast growth actually started in the early 1980s, well before the deregulation reforms were launched (Ghosh, Jayati. Macroeconomic and Growth Policies. Background Note. UN DESA, 2007). Like Chinese growth, Indian growth was based on the achievements of the 1950s-70s period of ISI and mobilization of domestic savings: the savings rate (as a percentage of GDP) doubled in the last fifty years, going up from 12-15% in the 1960s, to 16-20% in the 1970s, 15-23% in the 1980s, 23-25% in the 1990s, and to 24-35% in 2000-08.

[10] Popov, V. Shock Therapy versus Gradualism Reconsidered: Lessons from Transition Economies after 15 Years of Reforms. – Comparative Economic Studies, Vol. 49, Issue 1, March 2007, pp. 1-31
(; Popov, V. Why the West Became Rich before China and Why China Has Been Catching Up with the West since 1949: Another Explanation of the “Great Divergence” and “Great Convergence” Stories. -NES/CEFIR Working paper # 132, October 2009.

[11] Rodrik, Dani, R. Hausmann, A. Velasco. Growth Diagnostics. 2005. Http://

[12] Shandong Province database [ Shandong sheng shengqing ziliaoku]. PPP GDP per capita in the 1970s was about $1000 – at the same level as in Western Europe in the seventeenth century, when the murder rate was about 10 per 100, 000 inhabitants (Eisner, op.cit; Maddison, Angus. Statistics on World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1-2008 AD (

[13] WHO Health for All Database, 2004.

[14] Goldstone, J. Unpublished comments on Popov, V. Why the West Became Rich before China and Why China Has Been Catching Up with the West since 1949: Another Explanation of the “Great Divergence” and “Great Convergence” Stories. -NES/CEFIR Working paper # 132, October 2009.

[15] Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel. Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[16] World Intellectual Property Indicators. WIPO, Geneva , 2009.


Martina said...

Thank you Prof for this interesting post! It provides a different view about China that I've never read elsewhere.

D. Mario Nuti said...

Vladimir: you remind me of the classic Russian answer to whether the Chinese model could be realised in Russia. "No, it could not. There are not enough Chinese in Russia"... Vladimir Putin is reported to have commented: “If only I had the Chinese institutional capacity, I would turn the Russian bear into an Asian tiger in no time even without any Chinese" – though apparently the report was not confirmed (I believe it was you who told me).

In her recent book Maonomics (Rizzoli, Milan 2010, in Italian) Loretta Napoleoni describes the Chinese system as a capitalism sui-generis, a capi-communism, which might be the economic model most suited to the XXI century. Originally her book was to be entitled Marx Won (as in the Chinese edition). Loretta Napoleoni maintains that Marxism actually won the cold war, because the Chinese model exhibited the flexibility necessary to take advantage of the profound changes in the world economy brought about by globalization. Paradoxically, neo-liberalism never had that flexibility, which enabled China to avoid the global crisis. I expect she would approve of your post.

Of course, a unique spectacular departure of the Chinese economy from market principles - beside the prohibition of trades unions and strikes - as you recognize is the very tight central bank control of foreign access to renmimbi funds, without which hedge funds would have driven renmimbi revaluation a long time ago, reducing global imbalances and China's accumulation of $2,400 bn reserves to date.

"China has an authoritarian regime (which, of course, all developed countries had before,...)”. Including England, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, the United States? If you said "many developed countries had before" nobody could argue, but all? you might say more about this presumedly universal authoritarianism.

A final quibble: Mao's contribution to filling state coffers is fine, but did he really contribute to building state institutions? I thought Maoism had been fairly destructive rather than constructive in this respect?

Anonymous said...

I think that your interpretation of the Chinese model is based on many weak foundations.

First, your comparison of today China with the western countries of a hundred years ago - "Instead China should be compared with developing countries today or developed countries a hundred years ago, when their GDP was at the current Chinese level" - does not make any sense. How can you compare the level of development reached by today China - concluding that it "is very much in China favour" - with that of the Western countries of a century ago when along one hundred years China has had the opportunity to build on all the socio-economic, political,technical progresses realised across the world countries?

Second, in what you have defined as one of the two objective measures of the institutional capacity of the State - the other being the extent of the shadow economy - I think that you forget to include the state murders realised through the capital punishment and the silent massacre of female babies along with the number of suicides directly or indirectly induced by Chinese state repression and rule of force.

Third, it seems very hard to reconcile your definition of impressive results of the Chinese institutional capacity of the State with the Chinese spreading belief in the magic and aphrodisiac properties of some animal parts leading, for example, to the extinction of the white tiger or to the brutal practice of murdering animals and destroying the nature.

Alice from Wonderland

Alberto said...

China's brand of authoritarian mixed capitalist economy is original only in its pretension of having anything to do with Communism: authoritarian types of mixed capitalist economy with an important steering role for the state have thrived in South-East Asia, from Japan to Singapore, to South Korea and Taiwan, without any communist connotations, leading those countries to development and prosperity. In particular the Nationalist regime of Taiwan has been quite successful in bringing about impressive growth performances and high living standards, much higher than the present ones of China. Indeed, seen in a historical perspective the nature of the Chinese economic and political system looks more akin to the original Taiwanese nationalistic model, with the one party dictatorial political system and a heavily regulated mixed market economy, and nationalistic political undertones in foreign policy, than to the previous Maoist political and economic system. In a sense over the long haul Chiang Kai-shek has triumphed over Mao. (An analogous consideration could be made with respect to Vietnam, where after a long bloody civil war the vanquished appear to have triumphed over the victors.) Only after the Maoist economic system has been progressively destroyed and transformed, starting with the demolition of the collective agriculture system, the Chinese economy has started its remarkable growth path recovering from the terrible twin tragedies of the Great Leap forward and the Cultural revolution and lifting more than five hundred people from a state of utterly destitution (according to World Bank data). The assertion that the preconditions for the Chinese success where created during the Maoist era can be accepted only in the sense that Maoism left the Chinese economy and society in such a bad shape that simply the demolition of Maoism produced the economic miracle. Strong institutions (in the sense of a strong control of society and a strong grip to dictatorial power) were produced, with lesser disruptions and human tragedies, also by the other south East-Asian countries during their dictatorial periods, turning afterwards to more democratic set-ups. Moreover the usual game of placing the responsibility of present problems to colonialism does not work: all the four Asian tigers were originally subjected to colonial domination, even much more comprehensively than mainland China ever was. Finally, to compare China with sub-Saharan Africa means completely ignoring the abysmal differences in historical background. Another objectionable comparison is of the achievements in terms of share of state revenues in GDP of Maoist China after twenty years from the end of the civil war and that of the Kuomintang regime in a country disrupted by war.
As to the choice considered by Kaletsky between the Western model and an assumed original Chinese model, this looks rather nonsensical. An important constituent part of the original South-East Asian model and the present Chinese model was political repression and suppression of trade-union freedoms that allowed to concentrate on enlarging employment rather than of raising wages. Such a model would be hardly a choice not only in modern Europe, but also in the present South-East Asian countries that have undergone in the meantime a process of political and economic liberalization, without renouncing to their remarkably high productivity and living standards.