Lessons from China’s Economic Policy

Over the years, China has managed to turn around its economy by instituting certain reforms which have seen the country’s economy grow exponentially during the last 60 years into a global economic powerhouse. Most of these were done by recalibrating how they interacted with the informal sector in their country. The reforms first took shape in the agriculture sector with the household responsibility system (HRS) replacing the people’s commune system. Under this system, individual households were instituted as the basic unit of farm operation, as opposed to a collective team of 20 to 30 households in the past. The HRS gave individual households autonomy over production and farmers were given incentives to increase output.

(Source: http://media.philstar.com/images/the-philippine-star/business )

A study carried out by the Lancaster University Management School indicates that Between 1978 and 1984, China’s average annual growth rate of agriculture was 7.7%, after the introduction of the household responsibility system. The significant improvement in agriculture helped the country to release labour from land to industry and service sectors. This labour reallocation process was necessary as China’s agriculture was characterised by an egalitarian system of distribution of cultivated land with more than 200 million rural households, each cultivating less than 0.55 hectares. With the improvement in productivity in the agricultural sector, there was no need for a large number of people to stay on land. Agricultural employment as a share of labour force fell from more than 70% in 1978 to 60% in 1990 and 35% in 2011. The release of such a large number of economically active population from land hugely helped China’s development of the labour-intensive, low-skilled manufacturing sector.

In addition to the introduction of the HRS, China successfully re-introduced marketization. In implementing agricultural reforms, China first tried a dual-track approach. Under this approach, farmers were required to deliver a portion of their output to the state and allowed to sell the rest of the output on the free-market. With the newly earned profits, farmers set up or pulled resources into town and village owned enterprises (TVEs). These are communal organizations managed by managers on a contractual basis.

Town and village owned enterprise operate outside of the Chinese government’s apparatus and were highly market-oriented. Even though they did not enjoy preferential government treatment, they were also not subject to widespread state regulation. The study further notes that between 1979 and 1991, TVEs grew at an average rate of 25.3% in comparison to that of state owned enterprises which grew at 8.4%. Though TVEs were not private firms, since they were often owned by local governments or local communes rather than solely by private owners, they cultivated an internal culture of competition in the Chinese economy which helped stimulate efficiency of the state‐owned enterprises. It is worthy to note that TVEs were the major export drivers of China’s impressive export growth. For example, in 1999, the value of TVE exports of US$94 billion accounted for 48% of China’s total exports. Much of these were labour‐intensive products involving simple production techniques.

Another aspect that accelerated China’s growth and economic success can be attributed to privatisation. The study notes that the ownership structure of private firms was not properly defined until 1988. Private firms only became an integral part of the Chinese economy in 1997 and had their legal status established in 1998. The rapid growth of the private sector began with the introduction of the policy whereby the government not only lowered entry barriers in most sectors, but also pursued a policy of “grasping the big, and letting go of the small”. This meant that State Owned Enterprises were to only be kept in “strategic sectors” whereas small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) were either privatised or their ownership transferred from the central government to local governments.

Lastly, the study shows that China’s development in manufacturing has also benefited from inward foreign direct investment (FDI) whereby the early years of China’s history of inward FDI was particularly dominated by the Chinese diaspora. Chinese diaspora-invested firms cooperated with TVEs and other indigenous Chinese firms and introduced them to international markets as well as freed them from domestic market constraints. In this sense, the diaspora-invested firms also helped indigenous Chinese firms to exploit the country’s comparative advantage in cheap labour and to translate its comparative advantage into international competitiveness.

Kenya is a country whereby about 75% of the population rely on agriculture for employment and livelihood. Outside agriculture, a vast majority of its citizens are employed in the informal economy, accounting for 90% of the employment demographic. The route taken by China is one which the country can borrow a leaf from when looking towards ways in which it can transform and grow its economy through agriculture and manufacturing.


Informal Economy Analyst.





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