China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
The city of Wenzhou garnered intense nationwide interest in 1980s China for its model of development: the so-called “Wenzhou Model” characterized by indigenous private entrepreneurship and small-scale household production. What was so fascinating about this model was not only its perceived success—which included an almost nine-fold increase in industrial output between 1978 and 1989—but what this seemingly capitalistic success then meant for the shifting socialist economy. Although the Wenzhou case has been studied by scholars from several angles, from capitalization through the informal financial sector (Tsai 2002) to the agency of enterprise managers (Chen 2008), there has not been any sustained consideration given to the actual means by which the commodities produced within this system were manufactured.
This paper revisits 1980s Wenzhou with a particular focus on the machines that made the assortment of goods and parts for which China would earn the moniker of “the world’s factory”—buttons, cigarette lighters, toys, pens, shoes, and more. How were these machines acquired? How did they relate to the formation of commodity specific industrial clusters? How were workers trained in the use of these machines, in their modification, in their repair? How did these machines shape the very nature of work? How were the machines adapted to the upgrading of product quality in the 1990s? In seeking answers to these questions, this paper aims to provide a fresh glance into the nature of the material and technological forces undergirding socioeconomic change in China’s reform era.