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Peasants in an Era of Freedom: Property and Market Economy in Southern Xinjiang

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image of Inner Asia

While external commentators, and the Chinese state authorities, refer to the period which began around 1980 as the ‘reform period’ and apply concepts such as ‘socialist commodity economy’, Uyghur peasants in the vicinity of Qäzqär in the extreme west of China refer to the era in which they live as an age of ‘freedom’. This paper focuses on the bundle of rights over land and other changing property rights. Karl Polanyi’s concept of a ‘Great Transformation’ based on the spread of the ‘free market’ has been influential in economic anthropology and is regularly invoked in studies of current institutional change in the former Soviet bloc countries. In the Chinese case, the sphere of ‘the market’ has been steadily expanding within a country that remains officially socialist and in which the dominant role of collectively owned property is ostensibly unchallenged. This poses a puzzle for those who believe that a successful market economy requires a structure of incentives based on private ownership. This puzzle is largely hypothetical for contemporary peasants in southern Xinjiang, who remain preoccupied with subsistence and survival strategies. There is resentment at continued state interference in the bundle of rights over land; outside agriculture, commoditisation and private ownership are more completely established, though some entrepreneurs are already pushing against state imposed limits. Property rights, construed more broadly in terms of entitlements and capacities, are of concern to all. Adoption of this broad perspective on property gives insight into the radical changes brought by the reform era, not only in production but also in other domains.


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