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Black markets in 1981

Author’s note:
This article reflects of how isolated and deeply warped the old “socialist” Chinese economic system was, and how far the country has come in consumer economic terms. Back then, people in Canton were furtively buying contraband Hong Kong shirts, there were shortages of everything, the massive “factory to the world” had not yet opened for business and even Poland could export blank cassette tapes to China.

The successors to that Canton black market are the massive shopping malls of China’s coastal cities. China now over-produces everything, and while cassette tapes have all but disappeared, Poland surely finds it as impossible as anywhere else to escape reliance on Made in China goods.

Did I get rich by middle age? Certainly by his standards.

Chinese queue openly at black market stalls
By Graham Earnshaw in Canton
June 8, 1981

Want to buy a black market Japanese calculator in Canton? Go downtown near the river. They’re selling them for about 10 pounds sterling each.

In the past year, Canton’s streets have exploded into life with thousands of hawkers setting up stalls and vying for business, not all of it legal.

The relatively open way in which people flaunt the law indicates either that the Chinese authorities here are extremely liberal or else they have just given up trying to control it all.

China has basically two black markets ? one dealing in foreign goods and the other n hard-to-get Chinese consumer goods sold at marked-up prices. Both are hard to miss in Canton.

Down near a ferry wharf, young men squat with packets of black market American cigarettes in front of them going for 40 pence a packet.

Under a pedestrian walkway, teenage boys offer factory-made shirts to passers-by in blatant contravention of the regulations. No one seems to mind.

Further on, a man squats by a wall with three blank cassettes displayed casually in his hand. Two yuan (60 pence) each, he said.

Where do the cassettes come from? “They said Poland. How would I know?” he replied.

The next man is holding tapes from Hong Kong of Chinese singers denounced by the Communist authorities as “decadent” and “bourgeois”. He says he sells several dozen a day. Then a crowd of several dozen gathers on the pavement outside a newly-opened shop selling Swiss watches. This is the real black market.

The people huddle around in little groups, fingering shirts and trousers from Hong Kong. Young men furtively pull exotic pairs of sunglasses from under their tee-shirts and show them to prospective customers.

Calculators and cassettes of foreign make change hands in the semi-darkness. The police are nowhere in sight.

Once again, near the ferry terminal, teenage boys squat on the road shuffling three playing cards in front of them, inviting passers-by to best on which card is the court card.

But gambling is illegal in China. So is fortune-telling which is denounced regularly by the authorities as a “feudal superstitious practice”.

But near the Pearl River, there is a line of gentlemen reading palms and examining heads to divine the future of their customers.

“Ah yes,” said the white-haired peasant I chose to look at my palm. “You have good fingers. Your father has great talent which you have inherited.”

A pause as he squints closer under the dim streetlight. “By the time you reach middle age, you will be rich.”

Surprisingly, none of the people engaging in these supposedly shady activities minded talking to me.

But on second thoughts, it is obvious. I was the only person in the crowd they could be certain was not a plain-clothes policemen.

Links and Sources

? New York Times: A Taiwan pop singer sways the Mainland

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