Marc Blecher's magisterial text on China's political economy was first published in 1996. The tale of China's unfolding political economy after the 1949 Revolution has often been told, but Blecher did full justice to the subject, telling his story with aplomb, verve and no little eloquence. By focusing on politics and economics, he sensibly restricted the scope of his book, and by combining three narrative chapters with more analytical chapters on the state, inequality, as well as economics and politics, Blecher's reach extended well beyond that of any mere descriptive account.
This book, the second edition, retains the essential structure of its predecessor, but updates the story to 2002. In addition, a significant body of new material has been included. For example, the Society chapter includes an up-to-date and apposite discussion of gender inequality, whilst that on political economy discusses the implications of WTO entry. And, in recognition of the increased blurring of the distinction between rural and urban China, the separate chapters on the rural and urban economics of the first edition have been amalgamated. A little more up-dating would have improved the text still further; for example, the chapter on pre-1949 China takes into account little by way of recent scholarship. That, however, is only a minor quibble.
In its essentials, this is a textbook, and that is reflected in the balanced and judicious tone that permeates its pages. Nevertheless, Blecher's stands as a text apart. For one thing, it does proper justice to the complexities of Chinese political economy and (in a truly excellent discussion) its administrative system. Doubtless, some will complain that it is too sophisticated for its audience, but it is hard to condemn an author for refusing to pander to the mediocre. Secondly, this book is richly informed by Blecher's own research on the local Chinese state and economy, particularly that on Shulu county (Xinji city) in Hebei, conducted with Vivienne Shue. It is, therefore, the work of a practitioner, not an onlooker. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it focuses on the fundamentals of development, class, inequality and growth, and in so doing avoids fashionable ephemera. In a sense, its flavour is rather traditional. For example, the term “social formation” is used without either apology or irony, and the 1949 Revolution retains its (rightful) place as the fundamental climacteric in 20th-century Chinese history. Not all will share Blecher's approach to these matters. However, it is hard to see how one can understand an explicitly Marxist state armed only with a knowledge of missionaries and modernization theory, or a messianic faith in the capability of the multinational to render harmonious a fractured social landscape. If we are to comprehend post-1949 China, we need to understand its political and economic structures, as well as the forces and ideals which animated its leaders. Marc Blecher's book is the place to start.