China’s “economic juggernaut” is often noted to have arisen from successful market reforms carried out in the context of high state capacity. In contrast, we demonstrate that crucial reforms to replace central planning with markets have stalled as a result of major barriers of two types: institutional and ideational. Focusing on the electricity sector, we find that market reforms pushed by China’s central government are hindered by deep inefficiencies that arise from the legacy plan and “plan-derived” institutions of subnational governments and grid companies, against which the central state has been largely ineffective. We also uncover fascinating ideational differences of the nature and purpose of “markets” that show how they often are envisioned more as a way to extend the planner’s “toolbox,” or to offer “salvation” for ailing incumbent firms, rather than to induce efficiency. Our empirical focus on three prominent types of “market-oriented” experiments in the electric power sector demonstrate clear limits to state capacity, limits that emanate from state actors rather than merely industry, despite high-priority central government goals of increasing efficiency, integrating renewable energy, and reducing emissions from the electricity sector.

Open Access

Recommended citation:

Davidson, M. R., & Pearson, M. M. (2022). Static Electricity: Institutional and Ideational Barriers to China’s Market Reforms. Studies in Comparative International Development.