Recent polemics against neoliberalism have revived an old debate over the role of the economic advice given to developing countries by the World Bank and IMF. A crude but nonetheless influential interpretation of the relevant economic history holds that Russia’s failed “shock therapy” privatization of SOEs in the 1990s was the result of uncritical acceptance of free-market dogma pushed by the international financial institutions, while China’s successful “gradualist” approach to SOE reform was the result of wise officials ignoring those same institutions and carefully designing policy according to local conditions.
This interpretation may accord too much importance to the advice given by the international financial institutions, and too little to the domestic politics of the countries actually making the decisions.
John Nellis, a participant in the World Bank’s first mission to the USSR in 1990, has published an account of that period based on his notes taken at the time. It makes for fascinating reading. It’s particularly interesting that the famous Soviet State Planning Committee, or Gosplan, seemed committed early on to a “gradualist” approach to reforming state ownership:
Even here, in the principal basilica of socialist planning, no one questioned that the old system had failed and that a transition to the market, or something approximating a market, was urgently required. But those we met in Gosplan, and many of those we met in other Soviet ministries and central units, thought that the transition would be a gradual, lengthy affair, and that the outcome would be some sort of mixed approach. In this evolutionary process they thought (or hoped) that Gosplan would retain authority to forecast, analyze, assist, guide and even lead reform. …
As for the future of the real sector, the officials’ evolutionary vision was that the massive, multi-divisional state enterprise/ministerial complexes would be broken down into “correctly sized” units. These would then go through a process of “corporatization” and would become joint stock companies, with all shares initially held by the state. These would then undertake a process of finding private partners, Soviet or foreign, who would bring in capital, technology, management expertise, and access to markets. Some percentage of shares would have to be turned over to these partners, but it would at first be a minority share, particularly for foreigners. These processes had just begun to start and, in their view, years would pass before substantial results were seen. Central organs such as Gosplan would guide and assist this evolution. Majority private ownership was a long-term prospect.
This aspiration is not so different from the course that was actually followed by China. (Nellis also notes that a 1988 Soviet law had allowed for the creation of cooperatives, which, much like China’s township and village enterprises in the 1980s, often functioned as de-facto private companies.) The joint World Bank-IMF report that was published after the mission acknowledged that large-scale privatization was effectively impossible, and focused more on how to manage state enterprises effectively.
All this suggests that China’s “gradualist” approach to overhauling state ownership was less a strategy adapted to uniquely Chinese conditions, but more the approach most likely to be favored by a socialist government that wanted to maintain political continuity and control over the reform process. Yet by 1992, the Soviet Union had been dissolved, and the Russian government launched a program of rapid mass privatization using vouchers–a much more radical approach than anything that had been considered in 1990. Nellis asks the obvious question:
The overwhelming majority of persons we spoke to in 1990 were gradualists. They wanted to effect as painlessly and politically acceptable as possible a transition to the market. …
Why did the 1990 joint IFI mission not get a glimpse of the coming emphasis on mass privatization? How did it — we — miss the fact that the government of the Russian Federation would opt for audacity?
The answer, clearly, is the radical change in domestic politics after the vote to dissolve the Soviet Union in 1991. In particular, the failed coup against Gorbachev, which was led by representatives of the same conservative interest groups that had tried to stymie economic reforms. After the failed coup, the reform and privatization of state enterprises was no longer a technocratic matter of economic management, but an urgent political task to dismantle the strength of the interest groups that had led the coup. The new Russian government was driven by an “overriding fear that the communists might try again to regain power,” Nellis writes. And the reshuffle of domestic politics had elevated to decision-making positions people who were not that important in 1990, and had not previously had well-formed views.
A more recent, if less detailed, summary of the World Bank’s involvement in Chinese SOE reform by Zhang Chunlin serves as something of a companion piece to Nellis. Zhang is currently the lead private sector development specialist at the Bank, and previously worked on Chinese SOE reform both at the Chinese government and the World Bank. He writes that
The Bank’s work in the 1980s focused on the reform of the traditional SOE model itself while maintaining state ownership. Recognizing the need for state direct control over some “important enterprises” such as public utilities, the  report argued that once a suitable economic environment is created through price reform and competition, pursuit of profit should lead most state enterprises in economically appropriate direction. The fundamental problem remains of the proper relationship between the state and the enterprise.
The central theme of the World Bank’s recommendations for China was not the necessity of privatization, but of corporatization: giving state-owned enterprises the legal form of modern corporations. That promised to improve management and decision-making within SOEs. But it also posed the problem of how the state was to exercise its ownership rights to control these firms. Much of the Bank’s work since the 1990s has focused on finding the right institutional structures for effective state ownership, and it has advocated for reducing state ownership in many sectors.
But the radical downsizing and privatization of SOEs that started around 1995 and continued through about 2002 was a domestic decision driven by the dire financial situation at many firms. A World Bank report in 1997 did call for state ownership to “completely withdraw from inherently competitively structured industries where small and medium sized firms predominate,” but it noted that this recommendation “would formalize a process that is already underway.” (And, of course, China did not actually follow this recommendation.)
Zhang also notes that in later years the World Bank contributed to the debate over the creation and structuring of an agency to represent the government’s interests in SOEs, the body now known as Sasac. It’s less clear if this is a contribution the Bank should be proud of: Sasac is widely regarded as a conservative interest group that has worked to strengthen the position of large SOEs, rather than to further their effective reform. But Zhang mainly wants to emphasize the “productive partnership” that the Bank has had with China. “In retrospective, a clear reason why the Bank managed to stay relevant has been its willingness to adapt to China’s own reform strategy,” he writes.
Yet that is perhaps not so different from how the World Bank worked with Russia in the 1990s: it was willing to adapt to both the gradualist preferences of the Soviet leadership in 1990, and the radical program of the new Russian government in 1992. In the case of both Russia and China, the World Bank seems to have mainly tried to help their governments find the best way to implement decisions that had already been reached by domestic political leaders. It’s not clear that the advice of international financial institutions really played a decisive role in making those decisions.