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The Emergence of Mafia-like Business Systems in China

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 July 2021

Meg Rithmire*
Harvard Business School, Boston, MA, USA
Hao Chen
Tsinghua University, Beijing, China. Email:
Email: (corresponding author).


A large body of literature on state–business relations in China has examined the political role of capitalists and collusion between the state and the private sector. This paper contributes to that literature and understanding of the internal differentiation among China's business elites by documenting the emergence of a particular kind of large, non-state business group that we argue is more akin to a mafia system than any standard definition of a firm. Drawing on large-N descriptive data as well as deep ethnographic and documentary research, we argue that mafia-like business systems share organizational principles (plunder and obfuscation) and means of growth and survival (relations of mutual endangerment and manipulation of the financial system). Understanding the particular moral economy that underlies mafia-like business systems and their interactions with the state challenges methodological foundations of research on China's political economy and helps to explain recent conflict between high-profile business people and the state.




Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of SOAS University of London

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