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China and Europe, 1500–2000 and Beyond: What is Modern?
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The Rural Industry Tradition in China
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The Rural Industry Tradition in China

Reform-Era China Draws on the Past
As many people know, beginning in the 1980s and well into the 1990s, the main source of economic dynamism in reform-era China came from the development of township and village enterprises, from enterprises that existed in small towns and in villages and involved people who previously were in farming.

Why was the development of rural industry a smart strategy in this period? One of the reasons has to do with earlier patterns of economic activity where handicraft production was largely in the countryside.

This is to say that because the Chinese did not have the same pattern of urbanization and the development of urban industry as Europe did, it made sense that the development of new industrial opportunities in China in the 1980s took advantage of certain kinds of spatial and institutional patterns that drew upon older forms of economic activity, older forms of marketing, older forms of networking between peoples in different villages. Many of these resources tapped into the development of township and village enterprises. Now clearly, the development of township and village enterprises in the 1980s depended on a lot of factors. It depended on new technologies becoming available, as well as new sources of capital. And rural industrialization took place in an institutional environment that was very different from what had existed 200 years earlier.

All of that is clearly true. But what is missing in most accounts that look at township and village enterprise with an historical perspective going back to the 1950s at most is a recognition that rural industry and rural commerce called upon traditions that went back to much earlier periods in a positive way.

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China Is Consistent with China, Not with Europe
Therefore, the success of the development of township and rural enterprises, in my opinion, depended at least in part on the repertoire of practices and possibilities that Chinese in the countryside have had for a long time. This then means that the past is not simply an obstacle. It is not simply something negative. The past includes practices that people can harness to serve new kinds of goals.