Organized Panel Session
This paper is a preliminary examination of PRC leaders’ decision to establish and develop Special Economic Zones in southern China in the late 1970s and early eighties. Economic thinkers framed the zones as one of many policy “transformations” from a “planned” economy to a mixture of plan and market, aimed at maximizing accumulation and achieving the “four modernizations.” The zones, in particular, aimed t+o attract foreign capital and technology through tax breaks and preferential treatment, reintroducing market mechanisms into Chinese society.
Much of the extant literature on the reform period has been spatially and temporally limited, emphasizing charismatic individuals and the esoterica of Party thought. This paper seeks to situate the zones within a broader history of economic thought and practice across the twentieth-century world. Chinese thinkers drew upon the experiences of export-led growth in Asia and sought to adopt the export-processing zone models of South Korea, Malaysia, and Taiwan. They also targeted “patriotic” Macao and Hong Kong capital as a crucial source of investment and experience. These thinkers’ turn towards market mechanisms, further, grew out of Republican- and 1950s-era economic debates, wherein major economists such as Xue Muqiao and Sun Yefang first cut their teeth. Their critique of bureaucracy and economic imbalance in the 1970s, notably, paralleled contemporaneous criticisms of economic stagflation in the north Atlantic world. China’s special economic zones represented a world-historical change in the history of capital accumulation, evidenced by the widespread proliferation of such zones into other postcolonial societies, such as South Asia and Africa, today.