This essay studies the relationship between decentralization and the success of economic reform in China. It begins with a theory about the relationship between the types of decentralization and economic performance. We argue that a particular form of decentralization, called market-preserving federlism, Chinese style, provides a critical component of the political foundations for market success in China.
After discussing the evolution of federalism, Chinese style, during the first fifteen years of reform (1979-1993), we turn to the political foundation of economic reform. We argue that economic success hinges in part on an important aspect of decentralization, notably, that it provides for the political security of the reforms. By creating alternative centers of power at local levels, decentralization established forces that could help resist attempts by the central government to compromise the reforms.
China's form of decentralization has served the critical purpose of creating markets at time when political resistance to economic reform remained strong and when the durability of the reforms was important. Nonetheless, federalism, Chinese style, remains incomplete, accounting for some of the anomalies surrounding China's success. It lacks some national public goods such as enforcement of a common market and a unified monetary system, and the system needs to be institutionalized via a set of rules underpinning the market. We also observed that aspects of the problems facing modern China are not unique but have historical precedents in the economic development of the West. To this end, we highlight some important parallels between the economic and political problems facing the early United States under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1787) and those of modern China.