History from the Dustbins

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In this essay, I reflect on the growing political obstacles to doing business history in China and how, in my doctoral dissertation research, I attempted to overcome them. More specifically, I discuss how I drew on unconventional historical sources and novel data to examine the relationship between informal entrepreneurial activity and economic change in Maoist China (1949–1978). Through the quantitative analysis of thousands of case files of individuals prosecuted as “speculators and profiteers”—discarded administrative documents that were recovered from Chinese flea markets—I reassessed the scale and scope of informal entrepreneurial activity in Maoist China. I then went on to triangulate these data with evidence found in other sources to illustrate how, over time, informal entrepreneurial activity became more collusive, encompassing, and impossible to contain. Ultimately, I argued that China’s “Reform and Opening Up” was not the state-led watershed event that it is often made out to be; rather, economic and institutional change was, at least partly, the result of a bottom-up transformation, decades in the making. This essay thus suggests that the use of unconventional sources and mixed methods presents opportunities both for doing research in contexts where history is being actively securitized and for producing countervailing narratives that decenter the state.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEnterprise & Society
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)965-976
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

Published online: 16 November 2023.


  • China
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Informal economy
  • Economic development

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