“Red Capitalists” in Communist China


A review of Capitalists, Cadres, and Culture in 1950s China, by CHRISTOPHER RUSSELL LEIGHTON.

The remarkable resurgence of Chinese capitalism under communist rule since the 1980s is widely recognized as a defining, if paradoxical, feature of the contemporary People’s Republic of China. What remains largely unacknowledged is that this particular historical configuration of business and politics has its roots in the very first decade of the PRC: the 1950s. Research on Chinese business history by such scholars as Parks Coble, Sherman Cochran, Elizabeth Köll, Bruce Dickinson, and Huang Yasheng has tended to bookend the Mao period by focusing on either the preceding Republican era or the succeeding Reform era. Building on the insights of these scholars into the relationship between entrepreneurs and the state, Christopher Leighton’s dissertation recovers an unrecognized legacy of the early PRC by tracing the surprisingly positive integration of capitalists into the socialist system in Maoist Shanghai. Leighton turns to social and cultural history to argue that Shanghai business leaders themselves had a hand in the initial creation of their own group identity as “red capitalists” that continued to exist in increasingly abstract discursive representations even after the nationalization of industry in 1956. It was the rehabilitation of not only the old captains of industry like Rong Yiren but, perhaps more importantly, this discursive phenomenon of the red capitalist that helped to facilitate the rapid transition back to capitalism in the 1980s.

The dissertation begins with the Communists’ financial takeover of Shanghai under the leadership of a professional accountant and long-time party member, Gu Zhun. This chapter extends the work of William Kirby and others in showing continuity between the Nationalist regime of the Republican era and the “New China” of post-1949. From his positions at the head of the municipal finance and tax bureaus, Gu Zhun not only maintained his luxurious lifestyle—complete with Western-style estate, lavish dinner parties and French cognac—he also tapped longstanding networks to staff his administration with personnel trained in Shanghai’s old bourgeois milieu. Although he ingeniously found new political justifications for them, even Gu Zhun’s tax policies exhibited the methods and entrepreneurial creativity of his Western-style training, often in the face of staunch ideological opposition. What was more, these policies were so successful at simultaneously nurturing and extracting revenue from Shanghai’s financial legacy that they were adopted at the national level. Although abruptly condemned in the Five Antis campaign of 1952, Gu Zhun’s posthumous popularity in the 1980s made this early cadre a symbol for bridging the realms of politics and business.

Chapter two turns from cadres to capitalists to argue that the latter were not simply passive victims but rather exhibited “bounded agency” in the reordering of their relations with the new party-state. The business elite who remained or returned to the PRC after 1949 chose to do so, and were ultimately rewarded in the Five Antis campaign with state-sanctioned status as positive representatives of their class – the first “red capitalists.” That they identified themselves specifically as “capitalists” was itself something new, a group identity crafted through participation in officially sponsored organizations such as the Democratic Construction Association and the All China Federation of Industry and Commerce. Particularly within the publications of these organizations, business leaders themselves discursively shaped an image of the red capitalist in images, cartoons, and even fiction. As the case of a particular firm, the Wuzhou Dispensary, demonstrates, membership in the capitalist class became riven by internal contradictions as it came to depend more on political maneuvering and symbolic function rather than actual managerial role or ownership of capital.

In chapter three, the author expands our view of capitalists by turning to their family lives with a focus on wives. He suggests that although the housewife is a subject position that has been largely overlooked in Chinese gender studies as a residual category, it held importance as the negative model against which progressive women defined themselves: “the other other.”  Capitalists’ wives had avoided the attention of the party-state until the high tide of socialism in 1956, when it was finally determined to use them to control their husbands. That year an elite group of “capitalist housewives” were summoned to the capital for a conference at which they shared their stories to help formulate official policy for their newly created social group. In a richly narrated depiction of this fascinating event, the author shows how, like their husbands, the housewives seized the opportunity afforded by official representation to gain political capital as a strategy for family survival.

The final chapter traces how in the late 1950s the PRC discourse on capitalists was transferred to the realm of art, capping the trend for it to become increasingly abstract and unanchored from material reality. Even though real-world capitalists disappeared after private ownership of industry was ended in 1956, fictional capitalists lived on in literature and film. The author examines two officially sanctioned artistic projects of the late 1950s that depicted the successful transformation of capitalists under party leadership since liberation. Both Tang Xiaodan’s film City Without Night and Zhou Erfu’s novel Morning in Shanghai offered surprisingly sympathetic portrayals of capitalists not as class enemies but as redeemable protagonists won over to socialism through moral suasion rather than violent coercion. However, these fictional renditions also called attention to the unsettling ways in which capitalists could make the transition to socialism merely by mastering the political script and giving a convincing performance of their assigned symbolic role. Both the film and the novel were denounced in the political turnover of the mid to late 1960s, but enjoyed a resurgence of popularity after 1979.

This dissertation provides an essential link between studies of Chinese capitalism in the Republican and Reform eras, while pointing to the local sources of national economic policy, the weakness of feminism, and the subtle methods of artistic resistance during the early PRC. Conventional periodization, too, comes into question when the positive integration of capitalists is extended into the 1960s. Yet Leighton makes perhaps his greatest contribution to our understanding of the possibilities for individual agency within the very institutional and discursive mechanisms that the communist party-state deployed to establish its hegemony. The case of Shanghai’s capitalists is both particularly noteworthy and broadly suggestive of performative responses to a political environment in which group identity and class status became increasingly abstract and symbolic.

J. Brooks Jessup
Assistant Professor of History
University of Minnesota, Morris

Primary Sources

Shanghai Municipal Archives (archival)
Gu Zhun zishu [Self Recollections of Gu Zhun] (memoir)
Shanghai gongshang [Shanghai Industry and Commerce] (periodical)
Gongshang jie [The World of Commerce and Industry] (periodical)
Shanghai de Zaochen [Morning in Shanghai] (novel)

Dissertation Information

Harvard University, 2010. 255 pp. Primary Advisor: William C. Kirby.

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