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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


Commodificating Communism: Business, Trust, and Politics in a Chinese City
David L. Wank

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
298pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 35.00/US$59.95; ISBN 0-521-62073-2.



The book is a result of an ethnographic fieldwork in Xiamen, a special economic zone in Fujian, China. The fieldwork lasted almost two years in 1988-1990, investigated 69 various 'private' enterprises and interviewed 200 entrepreneurs. It tried to find out how commodified Chinese communist officialdom, especially local officials, maintained mutually beneficial commercial clientelist networks with the entrepreneurs and help the latter pursue their business activities. In 1995, Wank went back to Xiamen for a short visit. However, most original material was painstakingly gathered in the earlier fieldwork.

In addition to the useful first-hand material, the author makes a rigorous theoretical analysis and interpretation of the collected data. His institutional commodification account challenges the more conventional traditional culture and market economy accounts. He argues that institutionalized presence of state power in commercial competition in market sectors and exchanges between public units and private companies which create mutual benefit from commodiciation of public resources have led to China's rapid economic growth. However, China's experience confounds the conventional wisdom that markets promote democracy and democracy is more conducive to markets. He further points out that further emergence of markets may encourage rather than undermine the presence of local government in the market economy. Moreover, clientelist ties are a durable contracting mode in a market economy and can operate in an institutionally plural context. In terms of the role of local government, he asserts that policies of active state participation in the economy are increasingly seen as stimulating the more rapid growth of a capitalist market economy.

All these are bold and certainly controversial theoretical points to make. Wank has vigorously and persuasively made them. However, they do sound like the 'neo-authoritarian' views expressed by XiaoGongquan, Zhang Bingjiu and others in the last 1980s. They also seem to fit well with the 'Asian values' advocated by Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia's Mahatir Mohamad. Unfortunately for Wank, the book had been written before the onset of the current Asian economic crisis in 1997. Thus, his statement that the most rapidly growing market economy in the late twentieth century, namely the Chinese economy, is also one of the few remaining communist party-state needs to be more carefully scrutinized. The sort of rapid growth envisaged in1995 is no longer possible in 1999. In the late 1990s, is China still a communist or rather an authoritarian Confucian state? That is a debatable question. More seriously, the kind of official-entrepreneur clientelism described by Wank as acceptable in late 1980s and early 1990s is increasingly unacceptable to Premier Zhu Rongqi and his reformists. Within such a short time span, to generalize what he keenly observed in his fieldwork into such radical theoretical statements seems hasty.

Still, this is an exciting and challenging book to read. It should cause a lot of rethinking and redefining of orthodox western theories on developmental political economy.


CL Chiou
The University of Queensland




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