Markets under Mao: Measuring Underground Activity in the Early PRC

Adam Frost*, Zeren Li

*Corresponding author for this work

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In this article we develop and analyse novel datasets to retrace the persistence and scale of underground market activity in Maoist China. We show that, contrary to received wisdom, Chinese citizens continued to engage in market-based transactions long after “socialist transformation” was ostensibly complete, and that this activity constituted a substantial proportion of local economic output throughout the Maoist era. This helps to explain, in part, why, when markets were officially reopened in China, private economic activity took off. We arrive at these findings through the development and analysis of novel datasets based on unconventional historical sources – namely, a collection of 2,690 cases of “speculation and profiteering” that were recovered from flea markets in eastern China. We show how these grassroots sources can be systematically analysed and used, in lieu of official statistical aggregates, to develop new insights into the macro workings of the Maoist economy.
Original languageEnglish
JournalChina Quarterly
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jul 2023

Bibliographical note

Epub ahead of print. Published online: 31 July 2023.


  • Informal economy
  • Black markets
  • Maoist China
  • Quantitative historical methods
  • Economic history
  • Grassroots data

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