College of Liberal Arts

Historian Provides Perspective on China’s Economic Rise

Mon, Mar 2, 2015

Since the ending of the Mao era, China’s economy has grown from small and centralized to a global market giant. But, is China’s success a response to what many consider to be an era of economic failure?

Huaiyin Li, a professor in the Departments of History and Asian Studies, examines the micro-foundations of economic growth and social change in Maoist China, drawing on the archival data from local governments, as well as oral histories of ordinary workers and villagers.

“My project re-examines the Maoist economy and reconstructs historic realities to make sense of the relationship between the Mao and post Mao eras,” Li said.

There are two contrasting interpretations of Maoist China from 1949-1976. One sees the era as the failure of a socialist economy that was stagnate and isolated from the world. The other argues it to be a time of social equity and significant improvements in literacy, health care, and overall living conditions of the Chinese population.

Li’s research poses the question: If the Mao economy was a success, why did it result in reforms? And, if it was a huge failure, what is the origin of economic success in today’s China?

Li and his colleagues at Chinese universities interviewed nearly 100 retired workers, asking them questions about everyday life, personal experiences in factories, and work ethic and integrity.

“We asked them specific questions about everyday life in the Mao era,” Li said. “When recollecting their experiences in state-owned factories, many had both good and bad things to say. Their accounts offer a more balanced picture of the era. It wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t always that bad.”

Li notes times of economic growth – particularly in the early 1950s, 60s and 70s when worker incentive programs were implemented– along with times of extreme hardship and chaos, like “The Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s when the government attempted to reorganize agricultural and industrial production and the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s when production was at a standstill in many factories.

“It was a very complex system,” Li said. “There were a lot of factors that went into play to maintain an equilibrium in the factory that operated like a closed ecosystem. If any of those factors were missing, the equilibrium would be damaged and the whole economy would be in trouble.”

As a historian, Li believes that referencing the past can help people better understand the present. This is just part of his research that will appear in his upcoming, two-volume book about Chinese economy and politics.

“I hope my research can help people better understand the dynamics and historical background of today’s Chinese economy,” Li said. “Economists are typically focused on current developments; but as a historian, we have to step back in order to understand the origins, consequences and significance of what we are witnessing today.”

Li’s work was supported by a Humanities Research Award, a three-year $15,000 research grant created by the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts. He  presented his findings at this year’s Humanities Research Award Symposium. 

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