Market Maoists tells the story of the commercial relationships that linked the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to various capitalist firms, traders, and markets around the world during the Mao era. Some readers may not have realized prior to reading the book that Mao’s China even had ties to international capitalism. This is an understandable misconception given how we typically think about China in the world during the Mao years as railing against foreign capitalists rather than negotiating contracts with them. But as the book shows, alongside public denunciations of capitalism, Chinese Communist traders scoured markets in Europe, Japan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere for imports, everything from medicines to whole factories. They also sought buyers for a menagerie of Chinese products, from hog bristles and soybeans to radios and bicycles.
The total value of these deals reached into the hundreds of millions of dollars each year. That is not an overwhelming figure given the size of China’s economy. But a core claim of the book is that trade is about more than just sums in a ledger. Each deal required contact, mutual intelligibility, accommodation, and trust between Mao’s traders and their capitalist counterparts. Over time, these exchanges influenced how Chinese leaders and working-level traders understood the relationship between the Chinese revolution and global capitalism. They began to see that China could pursue capitalist trade abroad without sacrificing China’s claims to socialist modernization, a lesson that helped lay the groundwork for China’s historic turn toward global capitalism in the post-Mao era.
Others have written about China’s trade with the capitalist world during this period, but nobody has delved into the personalities and experiences behind the statistics and policies. I tried to bring these dimensions to life by telling an engaging story, which is how I hope people will read the book. I want readers to step into the shoes of the women and men who faced the ambiguities and felt the thrills and terrors of working on the border between capitalism and socialism in Mao’s China.
So much of the public discussion about China today concerns the question of where the nation is headed. What are China’s intentions in the world? Part of this debate draws from anxieties about China’s future trade plans. Will it continue to expand into global markets, or will it strive for self-sufficiency after years of tension and sanctions? My book provides a historical backdrop for this debate. Readers will see that these questions are not new. In fact, China has been struggling with how deeply to wade into global capitalism—and how to encourage economic ties abroad without losing political control at home—since at least the 1930s. The stakes are certainly higher today given the size of the Chinese economy and its connections to global markets. But from the CCP perspective, many of the fundamental challenges remain the same.
The book does not predict how China will face these challenges in the future, but it does offer the chance to consider them from the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party. Doing so reveals that the CCP has long relied on key frameworks to guide leaders as they confront new challenges in trade and politics. One important example is the concept of zili gengsheng, which means revival through one’s own efforts. In practice, the concept has served as a reminder to CCP officials never to lose sight of the threats that accompany foreign trade. Too much trade brings reliance, which can create vulnerabilities and undermine China’s independence, as it did during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Zili gengsheng captures this mindset, which is why Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders still invoke the term today.
In retrospect, it isn’t surprising that I wound up writing a book about the history of China’s ties to capitalism. I first became interested in China through trade. I graduated from college in 2002, the same year China acceded to the World Trade Organization, and after deciding, for many reasons, I wasn’t fated for a career in investment banking, I decided to move to China for a firsthand look at how increasing trade would affect daily life. I taught English in Wuhan and Beijing, traveled around the country, and met people from all walks of life. Along the way, I became interested in China in a much fuller sense. In the two decades since, I have lived in China as a teacher, a student, a researcher, and a diplomat. No two experiences have been the same, but all have allowed me to witness the scope and pace of change in China since my first visit. I became a historian because I wanted to understand these changes and to see contemporary events in a broader perspective. Market Maoists is my effort to help others do that.
I would want a browser to start with page 12, the first page of chapter 1, which tells the story of how the CCP built its first international trade network. That project began well before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The chapter opens in Hong Kong, where four underground CCP members, all wearing vests stuffed with smuggled gold, are heading to the basement vault of the British Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) building. The four men are part of a clandestine trade mission designed to link the Communist-controlled areas in Northeast China to overseas markets through the British colony of Hong Kong. I hope this chapter is as much fun to read as it was to write. I spent hours in the archives tracking down details that would help readers step into the moment—the weight of the door, the layout of the bank, the interior décor. I want readers to feel the intrigue of the scene because so much of the CCP’s early trade was tied to intelligence, smuggling, and other clandestine activities.
I hope the book can help a wide range of readers develop a deeper, more nuanced understanding of how legacies of the past continue to shape the way the Chinese Communist Party sees the world today. I wrote the book to be accessible to non-specialists, including busy policymakers, partly because I worry about the flattening of the public conversation about China in the United States and elsewhere. Diminished contact between China and the rest of the world explains some of this trend. Covid eliminated many of the personal connections that have long been critical to understanding China and Chinese foreign policy. Rising tension between China and the United States hasn’t helped.
Reading this book is no substitute for meaningful exchanges, but it can add depth to the debate about China’s changing place in the world. This is a worthwhile pursuit given the stakes involved for all of us, whether we are China specialists or not.
Jason Kelly is senior lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. He was previously an assistant professor in the Department of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. Before becoming a historian, he worked as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer in Washington and Beijing. He has lived, worked, and studied in China intermittently since 2002.