Capitalism and the Private/Public Division

From the Series: Generating Capitalism

Photo by Steve Buissinne.

Feminists have long deconstructed the division between the private and the public. In “The Use and Abuse of Anthropology,” Michelle Rosaldo (1980) argued that what counts as “domestic” and “public” varies a great deal both historically and across cultures, and that we should accordingly eschew origin stories of women’s subordination—or male domination—that assume the universal importance of this division. Her point was not to throw out these categories but rather to do the opposite—to untangle the processes through which publics and privates are constituted and imbued with deeply gendered meaning.

Feminist activists have challenged these ideological constructions of private/public by drawing attention to the public import of actions in the seemingly private sphere of the home (Collier, Rosaldo, and Yanagisako 1982; Weeks 2011). They have drawn attention to the way in which domestic violence, for example, has been naturalized in the context of assumptions about male dominance, and they went on to foster changes in the law to protect female victims rather than male perpetrators, thereby forever changing the division between what counts as private and what counts as public by challenging this differentiation’s very existence. The Wages for Housework movement likewise challenged the ideological division between reproductive and productive labor, arguing for the productive value of both.

Curiously though, when we discuss this private/public division in relation to capitalism, we tend to assume we know exactly what this division means without further investigation. I began to question this assumption in my recent field research in China. Through a shared project—The Twenty-first Century Silk Road—Sylvia Yanagisako and I have been examining the collaborations, negotiations, and conflicts in relationships between Chinese and Italian entrepreneurs in the textile, garment, and fashion industries. In the course of this research, I came across several enterprises whose true nature was difficult to discern using conventional distinctions between public and private, even as they were clearly seeking to create profit. I slowly came to believe they represent the kind of hybrid entity that is profit-seeking, partially privatized, and still part of the state. Analytically, this ambiguity reveals the historical contingency of capitalism’s private and public relations—not only in China but elsewhere.

Consider the perspective of General Manager Li Linfeng, who is in charge of the joint venture called Hui Hua Yi/Splendid China-Italy.1 Manager Li had worked for the Zhejiang Silk Bureau—now Zhejiang Silk Corporation—for forty years. As a state-owned entity, it was intent on seeking and creating profit, largely through export. Eventually, as Manager Li explained in an interview, it formed a company called Sina because the government was trying to become more privatized. Sina is akin to a general holding company and has twenty to thirty ventures, including Manager Li’s Hui Hua Yi, under its aegis.

The particular words Manager Li used to discuss this process are telling. The term I translate as “privatized” was actually minying, which colloquially means “people-managed.” It can also be translated as “privately run,” but there is a different Chinese term that means “privately owned by individuals”: siren or sirenbande. Minying is meant to signal that the firm is run by people who do not represent the state. That Manager Li did not use the term "siren" could signal the reluctance of state officials to speak of privatization directly. But Manager Li’s reluctance to use the term "privatization" could also have been due to the fact that Sina was still part of the silk corporation but in a different relationship to the state. The meaning of “privatization” in Manager Li’s story is ambiguous, and as I learned more about Sina, I had to reconsider my tendency to draw a neat dichotomy between “private” and “state-owned.”

Over the course of numerous conversations, Manager Li spoke about various practices that would conventionally indicate privatization but were categorically murky. For example, employees were encouraged to buy stock in Sina and did so, but this did not make them owners or even managers of the factory. Neither the managerial personnel nor their roles or duties changed at all when stock was sold.

Additionally, the power of appointments remained the same in Sina’s case, as the Zhejiang Silk Corporation continued to appoint all the managers. As a “privatized” trading company still within the Zhejiang Silk Corporation, Sina is certainly “private” to the extent that it creates its own profit-seeking activities without direct oversight and is responsible for its losses. However, its profits continue to be used by the Zhejiang Silk Corporation to pay the salaries of its appointed managers.

One more telling ambiguity relates to “branch companies.” Manager Li explained that “under Sina, there are eight branch companies, or you could call them bumen.” The word “bumen” is a bureaucratic term indicating a department within a larger government entity. In an analogous example, a friend who works in a corporation in Shanghai also described his office as a bumen, and he still considers himself to be working for the government. A “branch company” thus indicates profitization but not necessarily privatization. “Privatization,” I realized through this research, could have a wide variety of meanings, and therefore does not fully capture the range of processes underway.

Sinologists of contemporary China agree that the lines are often quite blurred when it comes to the private and/or public ownership of profit-seeking entities. Those who would like to see capitalism thrive in China see this as a matter of authenticity and accordingly try to distinguish “true” (fully private) from “fake” (state-dominated) capitalism. But if we heed the deep insights of feminist anthropologists that private/public divisions vary historically and cross-culturally and are far from set, then we have to take hybrid entities seriously in their own terms. An empirical analysis grounded in this understanding demonstrates that profit-seeking entities may be both private and public. Following the inspiration of feminist scholars allows for further analysis of how these flexible categories have high political stakes. They are used to meaningfully frame social inequalities and hierarchies that are variably naturalized and contested in China and elsewhere. Moreover, as Karl Polanyi argued some time ago, the state has always been involved in creating market economies. Getting caught up in drawing strict boundaries between the public and the private is less an exercise in analytical rigor than a displacement of attention from how both public and private structures of power are reinforced and reproduced, and especially how the state uses its resources to support corporate profit.


Collier, Jane, Michelle Rosaldo, and Sylvia Yanagisako. 1982. “Is There a Family? New Anthropological Views.” In Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions, edited by Barrie Thorne with Marilyn Yalom, 25–39. New York: Longman.

Rosaldo, M. Z. 1980. “The Use and Abuse of Anthropology.” Signs 5, no. 3: 389–417.

Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.


1. All names of people and companies are pseudonyms.