Is The Chinese Variety of Capitalism Really Unique?

Many formal comparisons of the similarities and differences of Chinese and Western economic models miss the most important point. A real difference is the institutional capacity of the state.

Because the Chinese economy did much better in the recent recession of 2008-09, there is no shortage of articles suggesting that the Chinese model is more viable and that the West should learn from China.

“We in the West have a choice - writes Anatole Kaletsky in The Times -. Either we concede the argument that China, in the 5,000 years of recorded human history, has been a much more successful and durable culture than America or Western Europe and is now reclaiming its natural position of global leadership. Or we stop denying the rivalry between the Chinese and Western models and start thinking seriously about how Western capitalism can be reformed to have a better chance of winning” [2].

“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”? Rudyard Kipling's oft quoted words prompt a more modest question: does the Chinese economic model today differ radically from the Western model; does it really have magic properties that allow growth amidst the world-wide recession or has growth been just a stroke of luck?

Certainly the Chinese economy is no longer either centrally planned or state-owned. On the similarities with the West side we have the:

- Dominant role of the private sector - 75% of GDP is produced by non-state enterprises, including joint stock companies and individual private businesses, which are not that different from their Western counterparts;

- Relatively small share of government spending in GDP (about 20%) – lower than in all Western countries and often lower than in developing countries with similar per capita GDP;

- No longer free education and health care, and relatively high income and wealth inequalities (Gini coefficient of 45% and 64 billionaires on the mainland alone, according to the March 2010 “Forbes’ account, second in the world after the US with 403, but ahead of Russia's 62).

Differences with the Western economic model also do not seem to be all that significant:

- China has a strong, export-oriented industrial policy – mostly caused by undervaluation of the yuan leading to the accumulation of vast foreign exchange reserves. This is not without a precedent, however, since this practice was used by Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore at earlier stages of development);

- Land is still not private property in China and is not traded, but private, long-term transferable private leases are widespread; besides, public ownership of land is not uncommon in other countries, albeit in smaller proportions;

- China exercises controls over its capital account but, again, this practice is used by many developing countries now and was still being used by European countries just half a century ago, until well after the end of the Second World War;

- China has an authoritarian regime (which, of course, all developed countries had in the past; some of them, like Spain, Portugal, Taiwan, South Korea, as recently as three-four decades ago).

A real difference is the institutional capacity of the state.

Many formal comparisons of the similarities and differences of Chinese and Western economic models misses the most important point. The uniqueness of China is that while it looks very much like a developed country today in terms of the institutional capacity of the state, it is a developing country according to GDP per capita. Instead China should be compared with developing countries today or developed countries a hundred years ago, when their GDP was at the current Chinese level; this comparison is very much in China favour.

The institutional capacity of the state, narrowly defined, is the ability of a government to enforce laws and regulations. While there are a lot of subjective indices (corruption, rule of law, government effectiveness, etc.) that supposedly measure state institutional capacity, many researchers do not think they help to explain economic performance and consider them biased[3]. The natural objective measures of state institutional capacity are the murder rate – non-compliance with the state’s monopoly on violence[4], and the shadow economy – non compliance with the economic regulations. China is unique in having some of the lowest scores for both indicators in the developing world, comparable to those of developed countries.

Accordint to the World Bank, with less than 3 murders in 2002 per 100,000 inhabitants against 1-2 in Europe and Japan and over 5 in the US) China looks like a developed country. Only a few developing countries, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), have such low murder rates, normally they are considerably higher, as in Latin America, Sub Saharan Africa, and many Former Soviet states. By way of comparison, it took Western Europe 300 years to move from a murder rate of over 40 per 100, 000 inhabitants in the sixteenth century to current levels of 1-2 murders per 100, 000 inhabitants in the nineteenth century beyond [5].

The same is true of the shadow economy.  According to World Bank.and Friedrich Schneider data (Shadow Economies and Corruption All Over the World: New Estimates for 145 Countries. – Economics. Open Access, Open Assessment E-Journal, No. 2007-9 July 24, 2007), shadow economy is less than 17% of the Chinese GDP, lower than in Belgium, Portugal, Spain, whereas in developing countries it is typically around 40%, sometimes even over 60%. Only few developing countries have such low share of shadow economy, in particular, Vietnam and some MENA countries (Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria).

Where does the strength of the Chinese institutions come from?

The pre-conditions for the Chinese success of the last thirty years were created mostly in the preceding period 1949-76. It would be no exaggeration at all to claim that without the policies implemented by Mao’s regime, the market-type reforms of 1979 and beyond would never have produced the impressive results that they did. In this sense, economic liberalization in 1979 and beyond was only the icing on the cake. The other ingredients, most importantly strong institutions and human capital, had already been provided by the previous regime. Without these other ingredients, liberalization alone in different periods and in different countries was never successful and sometimes was counterproductive, as in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s.

Market-type reforms in China in 1979 and beyond brought about such an acceleration in economic growth because China already had an efficient government, created by the Chinese Communist Party after the Liberation, which the country had not had in centuries - not least because of its deliberate destruction by various colonial, European aggressors. Through the party cells in every village, the communist government in Beijing was able to enforce its rules and regulations throughout the country more efficiently than Qing Shi Huang Di or any subsequent emperor, not to mention the Kuomintang regime (1912-49). While, in the late nineteenth century, the central government had revenues equivalent to only 3 percent of GDP (against 12 percent in Japan right after the Meiji Restoration) and, under the Kuomintang government, they increased to only 5 percent of GDP, Mao’s government left the state coffers to Deng’s reform team with revenues equivalent to 20 percent of GDP [6].

The Chinese crime rate in the 1970s was among the lowest in the world, A Chinese shadow economy was virtually non-existent, and corruption was estimated by Transparency International even in 1985 to be the lowest in the developing world (China, together with the USSR, was in the middle of the list of 54 countries – below Western countries, but ahead of most developing countries and even ahead of South Korea, Greece, Italy, and Portugal [7]). In the same period, during “clearly the greatest experiment in the mass education in the history of the world”, literacy rates in China increased from 28 percent in 1949 to 65 percent by the end of the 1970s (41 percent in India, for comparison)[8].

By the end of the 1970s, China had virtually everything needed for growth except some liberalization of markets — a much easier ingredient to introduce than human capital or institutional capacity. The foundations for the truly exceptional success of the post-reform period had been laid purposefully in 1949-76. [9]

But even this seemingly simple task of economic liberalization required careful management. The USSR was in a similar position in the late 1980s. True, the Soviet system lost its economic and social dynamism, growth rates in the 1960s-80s were falling, life expectancy was not rising, and crime rates were slowly growing, but institutions were generally strong and human capital was large, which provided good starting conditions for reform. Nevertheless, economic liberalization in China (since 1979) and in the USSR and later in Russia (since 1989) produced markedly different outcomes.[10]

[Russia was assaulted for decades by the West and suffered massive human and material losses in the Second WW. China may have been having objectively hard and troubled times but it was not under attack in the same way, and having itself constantly diverted from its course of action by the Americans].

Fast economic growth can materialize only if several necessary conditions are met simultaneously. Specifically rapid growth requires: infrastructure, human capital, in agrarian countries even land re-distribution, strong state institutions, and economic stimuli, among other things. Rodrik, Hausmann, and Velasco talk about “binding constraints” that hold back economic growth; finding these constraints is a task in “growth diagnostics”[11]

Why did economic liberalization work in central Europe but not in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America? The answer, according to the outlined approach, would be that in central Europe the missing ingredient was economic liberalization, whereas in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America there was a lack of state capacity, not a lack of market liberalization. Why did liberalization work in China and central Europe but did not work in the Commonwealth of Independent States? It is because in the CIS it was carried out in such a way as to undermine state capacity — the one useful heritage of the socialist past ― whereas in central Europe and even more so in China , state capacity did not decline substantially during transition?

Unlike Russia after 1991, so far it seems that China in 1979-2009 managed to preserve its strong state institutions better — the murder rate, a reliable measure of state capacity as noted above, in China is still below 3 per 100,000 inhabitants compared to about 30 in Russia in 2002 and about 20 in 2009. In the 1970s, under the Maoist regime, the murder rate in Shandong Province was even less than 1 [12], and in 1987 it was estimated to be 1.5 for the whole of China [13]. The threefold increase in the murder rate during the market reforms is comparable with the Russian increase, but Chinese levels are nowhere near the Russian levels.

If the Chinese model exists, is it replicable and sustainable, or even desirable?

The litmus test is a question on which economists sharply disagree: where will the next economic miracles occur, if at all. Today, conventional wisdom suggests democratic countries that encourage individual freedoms and entrepreneurship, as Mexico and Brazil, Turkey and India, for future growth miracles, whereas rapidly-growing, currently authoritarian regimes, like China and Vietnam or Iran and Egypt, are thought to be doomed to experience a growth slowdown, if not a recession, in the near future. According to Jack Goldstone [14], “a country encouraging science and entrepreneurship will thrive regardless of inequality: hence India and Brazil, and perhaps Mexico, should become world leaders. But I say countries that retain hierarchical patronage systems and hostility to individualism and science-based entrepreneurship, will fall behind, such as Egypt and Iran ”. Many believe that rapid growth could be achieved under authoritarian regimes only at the catch-up stage, not at the innovative stage: once a country approaches the technological frontier and it becomes impossible to grow just by copying innovations of the others, it can continue to advance only with free entrepreneurship, guaranteed individual freedoms and a democratic political regime [15].

We still do not have enough evidence for innovation-based growth. For one thing, on all measures of patent activity, Japan , South Korea and China are already ahead or rapidly catching up with the US. The patent office of the United States of America, which had consistently issued the highest number of patents since 1998, was overtaken in 2007 by the patent office of Japan . The patent office of China replaced the European Patent Office as the fourth largest office in terms of issuing grants (the five largest patent offices - those of Japan, the USA, the Republic of Korea, China and the EPO accounted for 74.4% of total patent grants). The number of resident patent filings per $1 of GDP and $1 of R&D spending is already higher, sometimes considerably higher, in Japan, Korea and China than in the US [16].

miracles were happening in 1960: some would be betting on more free, democratic and entrepreneurial India and Latin America, whereaAnd the evidence for catch-up growth is controversial to say the least. Imagine, for instance, that the debate about future economic s others would predict the success of authoritarian (even sometimes communist), centralized and heavy handed government interventionist East Asia. What is unknown, however, is whether the gradual weakening in the reform period capacity of the Chinese state will continue to weaken further, which will convert China into a “normal” developing country. In this case Chinese rapid growth would come to an end and there wouldn’t be any more a question of what is so special about the Chinese economic model. 


[1] New Economic School, Moscow. vpopov@NES.RU,

[2] Anatole Kaletsky. “We need a new capitalism to take on China . If the West isn’t to slide into irrelevance, governments must be much more active in taking control of the economy”. “The Times”. February 4, 2010,

[3] Mushtaq H. Khan. Governance, Economic Growth and Development since the 1960s. DESA Working Paper No. 54, August 2007.

[4] Crimes are registered differently in different countries—higher crime rates in developed countries seem to be the result of a better registration of crimes. But serious crimes, like murders, appear to be registered quite accurately even in developing countries, so an international comparison of murder rates is well warranted.

[5] Eisner, Manuel. Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime. – Crime and Justice, Vol. 30 (2003), pp 83-142.

[6] Lu, Aiguo. China and the Global Economy since 1840. New York , St. Martins Press, 1999.

[7] Internet Center for Corruption Research, Historical comparisons. Http://

[8] Peterson Glen. State Literacy Ideologies and the Transformation of Rural China. The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 32 (Jul., 1994.

[9] To a lesser extent, this is true for India : market-type reforms in the 1990s produced good results because they were based on the previous achievements of the import substitution period. Fast Indian growth is sometimes attributed to the deregulation reforms of the 1990s, but it was shown that fast growth actually started in the early 1980s, well before the deregulation reforms were launched (Ghosh, Jayati. Macroeconomic and Growth Policies. Background Note. UN DESA, 2007). Like Chinese growth, Indian growth was based on the achievements of the 1950s-70s period of ISI and mobilization of domestic savings: the savings rate (as a percentage of GDP) doubled in the last fifty years, going up from 12-15% in the 1960s, to 16-20% in the 1970s, 15-23% in the 1980s, 23-25% in the 1990s, and to 24-35% in 2000-08.

Vladimir Popov

Economist, New Economic School, Moscow.