In the 1980s rural China was in the ascendancy. Peasants, far from being tied to the land, as has been assumed, were free to set up manufacturing, distribution and service businesses and these were allowed to retain profits, pay dividends, issue share capital and even a form of stock option. State banks rushed to provide the finance.
Nian Guangjiu, a farmer from impoverished Anhui province, built up a business selling sunflower seeds (a popular snack), employed over 100 people and made a million yuan (nearly $300,000) in profit in 1986—just a decade after Mao’s death. Because most of this activity was set up under the misleading label of “Township and Village Enterprises”, Western academics largely failed to spot that these ostensibly collective businesses were, in fact, private.