Abstract: From Colonial Enterprise to Socialist Work Unit:Railroad Companies and the Transformation of Chinese Society and Economy

Elisabeth Köll


This paper discusses to what extent the growth of Chinese railroad companies as business institutions and infrastructure projects reflects China's economic and political development throughout the twentieth century. The analysis of railroad companies offers insights into various aspects of Chinese business history, in particular the emergence of the corporate firm. My analysis shows how railroad companies developed as hybrid business institutions throughout the Republican period by adopting "modern" forms of industrial, labor, and financial management; at the same time they became institutional entities assuming responsibilities in the realm of education, public, and social services which the then politically fragmented state was unable to carry out. After 1927 the state, in particular the Nationalist party, tried to reassert its role in China's infrastructure system by creating a centralized railroad bureaucracy in control of an integrated line network. After the 1949 revolution the large, almost self-sufficient compounds of former railroad companies were easily transformed into socialist work units and integrated into the nation-building effort of the PRC government. The ongoing expansion of the railroad network reflects the military, economic, and political agenda of the socialist nation-state and finally succeeded in providing mass transportation for the Chinese people.