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The Political Economy of China: Institutions, Policies, and Role in the Global Economy

Paper Session

Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021 3:45 PM - 5:45 PM (EST)

Hosted By: Union for Radical Political Economics
  • Chair: Zhongjin Li, University of Missouri-Kansas City

China: Imperialism or Semi-Periphery?

Minqi Li
University of Utah


Whether China has become an imperialist country is a question of crucial importance for the global class struggle. This paper argues that although China has developed an exploitative relationship with South Asia, Africa, and other raw material exporters, on the whole, China continues to transfer a greater amount of surplus value to the core countries in the capitalist world system than it receives from the periphery. China is best described as a semi-peripheral country in the capitalist world system. The real question is not whether China has become imperialistic but whether China will advance into the core of the capitalist world system in the foreseeable future. Because of the structural barriers of the capitalist world system, it is unlikely for China to become a member of the core. However, if China does manage to become a core country, the extraction of labor and energy resources required will impose unbearable burden on the rest of the world. It is doubtful that such a development can be made compatible with either the stability of the existing world system or the stability of the global ecological system.

Is China Imperialist? Economy, State and Insertion in the Global System

Zhongjin Li
University of Missouri-Kansas City
David Kotz
University of Massachusetts-Amherst


According to Marxist theory, imperialism is not a policy pursued by certain states, but rather a structural relation that emerges from the dynamics of some modes of production. Capitalism gives rise to imperialism, although, as Lenin observed, other modes of production such as the ancient Roman slave system also did so. In the capitalist era the profit and accumulation drive underlies the establishment of imperialist relations. China’s giant economy is now closely integrated into the global capitalist economy, with very high levels of exports and imports, a central role in global production chains, large investment flows into and out of China, large infrastructure projects by Chinese enterprises outside of China, and large flows of raw materials into China. China is ruled by a Communist Party that came to power through a socialist revolution, China still has a significant sector of large state-owned enterprises, and the party and state exercise considerable control over the economy. However, China now has a market economy and a large capitalist sector of privately owned enterprises. This paper applies the theory of historical materialism to analyze the economic and political system in China today to determine the forces that have shaped China’s insertion into the global system. We will present evidence that China’s role in other parts of the world does not fit the Marxist concept of imperialism. We argue that the non-imperialist character of China’s external relations stems from the political-economic structure of China’s system.

How China Escaped Shock Therapy: The Market Reform Debate

Isabella Weber
University of Massachusetts-Amherst


China’s rise and Russia’s fall shape today’s global political economy. This new great divergence originates from the different policies pursued in the transition from a command economy. Russia applied a ‘shock therapy’ doctrine with rapid price liberalization at its core. In contrast, a policy of experimentalist gradualism manifested in the dual track price system laid the foundations for China’s economic success. China’s path is often naturalized as having been without alternative. This paper shows that China came very close to implementing Russian style shock therapy in the 1980s, but as a result of a fierce debate among Chinese economists and reformers pursued a more gradual approach. Drawing on more than 50 interviews with key actors including World Bank economists and published and unpublished Chinese documents, this paper assesess China’s market reform debate and sheds new light on this critical crossroads. It shows that the direction of more market was dominant among Chinese reformers already very early in the reform process, yet the question of how to introduce market mechanisms into China’s command economy remained highly contested. This analysis of the intellectual roots of China’s reform path opens a novel perspective at the evolution of the Chinese economic model.
Chiara Piovani
University of Denver
Steve Cohn
Knox College
JEL Classifications
  • F5 - International Relations, National Security, and International Political Economy
  • B5 - Current Heterodox Approaches