Editor's note: Nobel Prize–winning economist Ronald Coase and Professor Ning Wang are the authors of a new book, "How China Became Capitalist." The book outlines China’s 30-year transition from a closed, communist, agrarian economy to a rapidly growing industrial economy. THE AMERICAN Editor-in-Chief Nick Schulz recently asked the authors about the transformation of the Chinese economy, the legacy of the Tiananmen massacre, and why “capitalism with Chinese characteristics is impoverished by the lack of a free market for ideas.”
Nick Schulz: In a famous 1978 communiqué, communist party leaders in China admitted that “one of the serious shortcomings in the structure of economic management is the over-concentration of authority.” What prompted the Chinese leadership to acknowledge this fact and embrace devolving economic authority?
Ronald Coase and Ning Wang: This was not the first time for the Chinese leadership to acknowledge the problem. As early as 1956, even before China’s first Five-Year Plan (1953–1957) ended, Mao realized centralization of power in the Chinese economy had dampened the incentives of local officials as well as those of the state enterprises in cities and communes and production teams in rural areas. Mao pushed decentralization in 1958, but it was quickly absorbed into the “Great Leap Forward,” when more than 30 million Chinese peasants perished in Mao’s great famine. In the eyes of Chinese economic planners, decentralization was the culprit. Afterward, centralization was restored.
By 1978, the Chinese government came back to Mao’s diagnosis, though its prescription went one step further than Mao’s, since it knew that Mao’s did not work. Mao devolved economic authorities only to provincial and sub-provincial local governments. Now, state enterprises were given some autonomy in their operation.
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