China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
My paper examines the development of foreign trade in the rural Pearl River Delta in the 1970s. Presuming a big contrast and discontinuity in economic institutions and policies, the conventional wisdom dismisses China’s foreign trade in the Mao era and argues that a series of economic reform policies led to the prime of China’s foreign trade after 1978. Drawing on archival materials from three counties in the Pearl River Delta and oral narratives from former foreign trade cadres, this paper sheds light on the emerging export-driven economy in the rural Pearl River Delta since 1972, arguing that the development of foreign trade in the Mao era laid the foundation for its prime in the post-Mao era. In the 1970s, foreign trade accounted for a big percentage of the counties’ GDP and played a critical role in the whole economy. By exporting agricultural products and handicrafts, these counties were able to obtain imported fertilizers and other equipment from the state, which in turn contributed to transfer labor from planting grains to producing export commodities. County and commune governments were deeply involved in competing for orders from state-owned foreign trade companies for production teams and factories, and the state-owned foreign trade companies provided all the materials and techniques needed for producing commodities. It is noteworthy that this system has its root in the measures that the Communists took during and after the Great Leap Forward as a response to the shortage of export commodities.