Elites, Networks and Power in Modern China


Of the new professions and professional groups that emerged in China at the turn of the century, it can be safely said that industrial entrepreneurs were a complete novelty. While China had long history of manufacturing, including large-scale sites of production under imperial supervision, modern industry only came with the introduction of new technologies, power-driven machines, and new forms of work organization at the end of the nineteenth century. China’s « Industrial revolution » started as a low key and almost negligible affair with shipyards that tended to the repair and maintenance of ships. The Self-strengthening movement pushed this process to a new level, under government funding and guidance, yet with a narrow focus of activities (defense) and an uneasy relationship between state officials and merchants. The real take off of industry happened after the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. From the beginning, actors involved both foreigners and Chinese in various roles and capacity: experts, consultants, investors, managers, craftsmen, engineers, etc. Until the emergence of light industry at the beginning of the 20th century, these actors hardly formed an identifiable, and even less a self-conscious group. And yet various organisations emerged, first among vital professional groups (engineers), then among actual industrial entrepreneurs and investors.

The particular diplomatic configuration which curtailed China’s autonomy and her ability to fully conduct an industrialization policy left much of the initiative to private entrepreneurs. In the areas where foreigners enjoyed privileges — treaty ports, Manchuria — the industrial world was divided along national lines, with merciless competition. The advent of W.W.I created favorable conditions that led to a rapid development of industries in China, but even if the 1920s saw return of foreign imports competition, the industrial push never stopped and industrialists thrived through the Nanking decade and, with a momentary stop in 1937-38, through the war years until the beginning of the Pacific War and Western embargo. Chinese industries were badly shaken in the final years of the war, coming to a complete standstill in many places, but as soon as the war ended in August 1945, there was a remarkable and powerful come back.  The context was significantly different, but aside from the persisting issues of transportation, supplies, foreign currency, and energy that restrained economic recovery, the two main related factors were the role and share of government-controlled industries and inflation. Eventually industrial production collapsed in late 1948 due to hyperinflation. Nevertheless, by 1949 China had a full-fledged class of well-trained and highly skilled industrial entrepreneurs, engineers, and technicians, and a solid industrial base.

To look at industry from the angle of its actors implies reconsidering the vey category of « Industrialist ». As mentioned above, industry involved a wide range of actors, from workers at the shop floor level, to technicians, engineers, and plant managers or owners. There were many pathways toward becoming an « industrialist ». It could result from practical experience and upward mobility (workers, technicians), it could be based on education (engineers) or self-training, and it could also be through investing in or purchasing factories. In other words, while there were indeed genuine « captains of industry » — to use a French expression that M.C. Bergère liked to apply to the Shanghai industrialists — there was in fact a very mixed group of actors among whom some devoted all their time, energy, and money to industrial ventures. Some with an amazing success. But there were many — perhaps most — who established industrial companies within a much larger  range of economic activities. While a substantial body of works has examined the development of industries in China, few have addressed the social structures of industry and its manifold actors. Although past historiography covered the study of sectors (e.g. textile, tobacco, railroad) or specific companies, very few historians ventured into the study of historical actors in China’s industrial development. M.-C Bergère’s work remains a standard in this regard. Chinese historians have produced a good deal of monographs along the same lines and individual portraits of the leading industrialists. My objective is to study industrialists as a group.

In this case study, I approach industrialists with three main considerations. The first one is raise the issue of the « origins » of industrialists in China and to track their subsequent transformation over time. The challenge lies here in the paucity of information since many left few traces in historical records, especially for the earlier period.  The second concern is to provide a collective social biography of industrialists. Various individual biographies have been published on the major figures — the most famous captains of industry — but they represent a very small number of studies in view of the large number of actors involved in industry. The third concern is to integrate into this study the articulations between all the actors, first between those most directly involved in industrial ventures, but also all the connections that these actors made and maintained within the economic, social and political spheres. The notion of network will be central to this line of inquiry. This approach does not preclude selecting a sample of industrialists, covering the main industrial sectors from all parts of the country to establish the basis for a more in-depth study.

To enable this three-pronged approach, the kind of documentation which could be used include the press — the vast reservoir of newspapers, periodicals, specialized magazines that were produced over a century in China. A good number of such titles is already available in digital format and an increasing number is being added regularly. Likewise, biographies, business histories, and academic papers, as well as the historical Who’s who’s and directories can also supply rich and reliable data on all the actors involved in industry. Among the Internet resources, one should also count the modern local gazetteers, the wikipedia-type platforms, and the multitude of specific web sites. These sources come with varying degrees of accuracy and reliability and they will increase the challenge of disambiguating names (individuals, companies), but the information culled from all the sources can be matched together for comparison and analysis in a common database — Modern China Biographical database. This research will involve an intensive use of NLP methods for information retrieval from these vast corpora — identifying, classifying, curating — and on graphs and networks for analysis.