In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Economy, 1949–1978

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Planning and Related Economic Analysis
  • Fiscal and Monetary Policy and Performance
  • Foreign Trade and International Economic Relations
  • Employment and Labor
  • Urbanization Issues

Chinese Studies The Economy, 1949–1978
Dwight H. Perkins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0016


The Chinese economy during the first three decades of rule by the Chinese Communist Party was organized in a fundamentally different way from that of market economies in much of the rest of the world and from what the Chinese economy became in the 21st century after three decades of market-oriented economic reform. Beginning in the mid-1950s, China introduced a centrally planned command economy patterned on that of the Soviet Union. This economic system involved the abolition of household agriculture in favor of collectives, first called “agricultural producer cooperatives” and, later, “Rural People’s Communes.” Industrial inputs and outputs were allocated by administrative means in accordance with a plan developed by the State Planning Commission, and market forces were largely eliminated in industry and large-scale commerce. Wages were set, and skilled workers were allocated to jobs by the government rather than by a labor market. Even many consumer goods were rationed, although some were allocated to households through the market; prices paid to farmers also played a limited role in government procurement of agricultural products. This highly centralized nonmarket, Soviet-type system, however, was introduced into the very different context of a developing country that was extremely poor. From the beginning, China’s leadership and that of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, in particular, explored alternatives to these rigid central controls. The result of these explorations more often than not was economic disaster, leading to the 1959–1961 famine in which roughly thirty million people are believed to have died. The government and the leadership also pursued political goals, notably during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), that disrupted the economy and slowed economic growth. Economic studies during this period thus focused on how the economy was organized, how it made the transition from a market economy to a nonmarket command economy, and how the institutions and performance of this command economy performed in various periods. Describing the institutions was easier than measuring performance because, from 1958 to 1960, China published data that grossly exaggerated China’s economic performance. After 1960, given the reality of famine and a poorly performing economy more generally, the government simply stopped publishing statistical data on economic performance. Many analysts outside China thus had to piece together the data that did leak out, and much of their work managed to capture what was happening. The publication of increasing amounts of official data, beginning in 1979, filled in some of the gaps in the earlier literature. Most Chinese economists from 1949 through 1978 were expected to follow the government/party line at the time in anything they published; however, there were exceptions in which individual economists and officials stated views on economic matters that did not reflect the dominant government/party line.


The main bibliographies dealing with the Chinese economy from 1949 to 1978 include Skinner, et al. 1973, a monumental three-volume work. Many of the works listed in Volume 1, the Western-language volume, are general essays that provide a flavor of how analysts in the United States and Europe viewed China’s economic policies and performance, given the limited amounts of data available at the time and the political constraints that limited the information about which economists working in China could write. Probably most useful for an American or European researcher is Volume 3, the Japanese-language volume, which cites works by such prominent Japanese specialists on the Chinese economy as Shigeru Ishikawa and Reiitsu Kojima, with whom most Western economists are least familiar. Volume 2, the Chinese-language volume, includes studies done by specialists on Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as by economists working on the Chinese mainland, but most of these works are subject to the same limitations of lack of data and political constraints on the ability to write objectively. A later bibliography, Perkins 1983, focuses mainly on selected works in English that reflected the best analysis of mainly Western economists at the time.

  • Perkins, Dwight H. “Research on the Economy of the People’s Republic of China: A Survey of the Field.” Journal of Asian Studies 42.2 (February 1983): 345–372.

    DOI: 10.2307/2055118

    This bibliographic essay includes works mainly by Western economists in English, covering the years through 1983, and captures most of the works in English dealing with the Chinese economy from 1949 to 1978. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Skinner, G. William, Wensun Hsieh, and Shigeaki Tomita, eds. Modern Chinese Society: An Analytical Bibliography. 3 vols. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1973.

    Volume 1, Publications in Western Languages, 1644–1972, edited by Skinner, includes many articles on the Chinese economy for the 1949–1973 period but also includes articles on other periods and other disciplines. Volume 2, Publications in Chinese, 1644–1969, is edited by Skinner and Hsieh; Volume 3, Publications in Japanese, 1644–1971, is edited by Skinner and Tomita.

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