Marquis and Qiao (2020) Waking from Mao’s Dream: Communist Ideological Imprinting and the Internationalization of Entrepreneurial Ventures in China


Christopher Marquis – Cornell University

Kunyuan Qiao – Cornell University


Diana Jue-Rajasingh – University of Michigan

Wei Wang – Northwestern University

Article link:

Question 1. The idea of how imprinting decays at the hands of the imprinter who is disseminating information that contradicts the original imprinting information has powerful theoretical and practical implications. Had you always had an inkling about this result, or did it surprise you? Moreover, how generalizable do you think the result is — do you expect to find similar results in countries with a different type of regime (i.e., a non-authoritarian or democratic one)? In what ways do you think this result can inform organizational theory and, perhaps, current events?

Thank you for this question and interest in our article. Marquis and Tilcsik (2013) discussed the idea of imprinting decay, yet there have not really been studies of this concept. One of our inspirations for the article is the uniqueness of China’s transition to a market economy after 1978. Unlike many other transition economies such as those in Eastern Europe, the same party/government remained in control. This then provided an interesting puzzle – if the source of the imprint dramatically changes, can it change the imprint it established earlier? This was especially interesting as Mao was famous for saying that “communist party members shall always respond to their party’s call.” But what if the call had changed in a 180-degree fashion? Interestingly, the process we study also corresponds to a traditional Chinese idiom that “only those who tie the bell around a tiger’s neck can untie it.”

We do think the results are generalizable in a number of ways. First is that the imprinter can change its stance and this then affects the imprint. Regarding a government changing its stance and then instituting dramatic changes to the society while still remaining in power, there are many examples. For instance, the Meiji Restoration in Japan was such a dramatic change, and after the changes the samurai who were steeped in traditional feudal ideology still followed their Emperor’s call in a new, more centralized direction; e.g. many samurais joined the modernized military system and surrendered their previously guaranteed high salary. Thus, our results inform organization theory by calling for attention on how effects of historical events can last and specific conditions under which their effects can fade away as well. Understanding this is an important contribution to imprinting theory, as prior work mostly focused on the persistency rather than dynamics.

Another area of generalizable contribution is that we provide evidence for the impressionable year hypothesis (Mannheim, 1923/1952), which argues that individuals in certain periods—e.g. early adulthood—form their personally held values, which then stays stable over time. This period is when individuals’ values begins to crystalize as most of them start living away from home and gain independence. At this time, they are particularly sensitive to their environments and are more likely to absorb prominent elements in forming their identity as an adult. However, afterwards individuals are less open to influence given their identity has already formed. So, understanding effects of leaders’ external environment during her/his early adulthood is another general area where this study contributes to. 

Contextually, our findings also inform our understanding of transition economies, especially former communist countries. Many businesspersons in these places may still bear a communist mindset, which could obstruct the operation of their business in a market economy. Particularly for China, a special phenomenon—communist entrepreneurs—requires closer attention. There are 15.6 million Chinese entrepreneurs, and almost 30% are communist party members, such as Jack Ma, the well-known founder of Alibaba, and Ren Zhengfei, founder-CEO of Huawei. Given they are an important engine of Chinese and world economy, there should be more research on them. Indeed, the Chinese regime resembles many other former communist countries (e.g., Czech, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia), and we believe there are a large population of similar entrepreneurs in these countries as well.

Question 2. One of the main reasons why the founders’ communist ideology is related to firms’ decision of internationalization is their exposure to the negative image of “foreign capitalism.” Is this image consistent and stable within the CPC across different provinces? Does it vary across time? It seems that as the leaders of the CPC change and as the country develops, the general idea of “foreign capitalism” in the 1990s and the 2000s is quite different from the 1970s and 1980s. The founders who became members of the CPC in the 2000s are not exposed to the same negative description of “foreign capitalism.” For example, both Jiang Zemin, the leader of the CPC from 1989 to 2002, and Hu Jintao, the leader of the CPC from 2002 to 2012, encouraged firms to go abroad in their public speeches. In this case, founders who joined the CPC at this time may be exposed to a positive image of “foreign capitalism.” However, the imprinting effect is still consistent and robust across time and cohorts. What do you think are the reasons behind it?

This is an interesting question. We agree there could be some variation across different provinces, especially considering the current differences across provinces in China, but during the Mao administration (1949-1976), the variation is unlikely large because there was one, relatively centralized ideology and there were tight top-down controls. For example, during the Great Leap Forward period from 1958 to 1960, throughout China, provincial leaders wanted to please Chairman Mao’s idea of “running into communism” by over-reporting agricultural production. There was consensus that all provincial leaders should closely follow the central ones. Political leaders who deviated from the central ideology were punished severely, e.g., imprisoned and/or persecuted. Similarly, during the Cultural Revolution, local leaders radically implemented class struggle to respond to Mao’s call. 

In contrast, after 1978 there was more variation across different provinces, as Deng Xiaoping—then China’s paramount leader—initiated reform by experimenting with economic opening in several cities and then provinces. This gave rise to regional differences and our paper also explored this idea with a regional moderator (foreign direct investment). However, as you could see, this reform was also top-down; the central government allowed variation among provinces regarding marketization and economic ideology to take place. But this is not true for political ideology as the central government still exerts strong control and punishes deviation; so regional political ideology is closely aligned with that of the central government. This model is known as economic decentralization (federalism) and political centralization (Xu, 2011).

In general, we agree there is overtime variation after 1978, initiated by the central government, and in particular that entrepreneurs who joined the Communist Party of China (CPC) after Jiang Zemin took office in 1989 could be different. However, the contradiction between entrepreneurship and communism remained until 2001 when Jiang allowed entrepreneurs to join the CPC. Our results mostly reflect entrepreneurs joining the CPC before then—particularly 1978, whose indoctrination contains a relatively negative image of foreign capitalism. In the future, as there are more entrepreneurs who were born in the post 2001 period, we hope researchers can reexamine these issues and see how the imprints may differ. 

Question 3. It is very impressive that you were able to construct an individual-level panel dataset for private Chinese entrepreneurs. Can you speak to the process of data collection for this project, such as the obstacles that you encountered to acquire and compile your dataset, and the ways that you overcame it? Are there any insights that you can offer for other researchers who are going through a similar process? 

This is a good question. We obtained data directly from the data providers. These data are distributed in repeated cross sections without identifiers, but it is known that there are many repeated observations over time. To start our research, we initially used a pseudo-panel approach, which does not require constructing a panel dataset. According to the econometrics literature (cited in the appendix which shows the pseudo-panel results), when dealing with repeated cross-sectional datasets, one can aggregate variables at the regional level within which individuals share similar characteristics and then use panel data methods for estimation. However, we had heard that other researchers had constructed true panel data from this data set and so investigated this as well. 

We also learned that this idea of creating panel datasets from repeated cross-sections is not unique to this setting, but also done with a number of similar datasets in labor economics. For instance, researchers using the Current Population Survey and Panel Study of Income Dynamics—two of the most authoritative labor surveys in the U.S.—match repeated cross sections in different periods with time-invariant variables (e.g., Feng, 2001; Kambourov & Manovskii, 2013; Madrian & Lefgren, 2000; Peracchi & Welch, 1995). This set of research was a useful guide to better understand processes of matching cross-sectional observations.

As we learned more about the dataset, we also came to understand from historical documents published at the time of earlier surveys, and communications with the official data providers that there are a number of different sources of repeatedly surveyed observations, including both formal attempts to track entrepreneurs over time and also from convenience reasons. However, to the best of our knowledge there is no official list of all repeated observations. 

Part of this investigation was ensuring the potentially repeated observations described in the documents was consistent with the number of observation we were finding. To do this we obtained official reports of the data collected in books such as (1) The Large-Scale Survey on Private Enterprises in China: 1993-2006; (2) Chinese Private Economy Statistical Yearbook; and (3) other publications by official data providers. We also obtained other relevant information from unofficial sources, including various online sources that summarized the data and repeated observations in different waves and private communications with data providers. 

We would recommend researchers to be careful when attempting to construct such a dataset. As we described in the online appendix, we went through a long process with tens of thousands manual inspections and checks, so it takes considerable effort and much human decision making. We recommend researchers start their investigations by using pseudo-panel approaches. Indeed, according to the econometrics literature, results from the pseudo-panel data approach should be consistent with genuine panel data, which is also what our different analyses show. 

Question 4. Can you share with us a little bit more about the process of developing and publishing this paper? What was the most challenging part of it? Are there any things you wish you could have done in the beginning? 

Sure, there were certainly many challenges. This paper responds to the call in Marquis and Tilcsik (2013) to better understand individual imprinting and dynamics. As noted, we are also very interested in the phenomenon of China’s transition and how China’s unique economic model has been created. So studying the ideology of entrepreneurs was an important area of focus. To theoretically ground our study, we investigated a large body of literature across different disciplines to develop the current framework. While our background was from a more “macro” perspective, e.g. our prior imprinting work has mainly looked at city or organizational level processes, we took this as a good opportunity to learn more about how imprinting manifests at the individual level. 

Many friendly reviewers provided important suggestions for our article, and such feedback was invaluable for developing the paper. We then sent it to ASQ and spent much time in addressing the editor’s and reviewers’ comments, which enhanced our paper substantially as well. We were fortunate to go through this tough and beneficial process.

In retrospect, the most challenging part was to convince readers that communist entrepreneurs would still listen to the CPC/government even if they have become entrepreneurial, market-oriented individuals. This is counterintuitive given CPC/government itself has accepted the market economy and many capitalist principles. Both of us are deeply embedded in the Chinese context and have witnessed this and assumed others would also accept the idea that these entrepreneurs still follow the government/CPC. But we can see how this may have been confusing and potentially unconvincing to others.

As we now discuss in more detail, there is an important distinction between political governance and market principles. This was not part of the original article, but emerged after reviewers pushed us to understand the underlying processes in more detail. In the paper we explain in more detail how the government carefully chose words to communicate the idea of reform while still maintained its communist principles in political governance. At the same time, many communist entrepreneurs tend to maintain their communist membership as their first identity. We have some interesting follow-up findings showing that many communist entrepreneurs emphasize communist membership more than their entrepreneur identity and they follow governments’ call in philanthropic donation and other activities.

Question 5. We see you issued a corrigendum with your paper. That is not common, could you share with us the details about it?

We did not realize how much interest there would be in this data and after the paper went online, we were contacted by a number of researchers using it. There have been over 200 papers published with this data, so there are many people who have and use the data. For example, a frequently asked question is how to construct the panel data or use related techniques to utilize the longitudinal nature of the data. So a corrigendum can help increase the accuracy, clarity, and transparency of our data and analyses to help these researchers. By publishing it now, all of these changes are in the officially published paper. For instance, we detailed the data construction process and also discussed how there could be some errors in the data, similar to many other longitudinal surveys (e.g., Current Population Survey and Panel Study of Income Dynamics; Feng, 2001; Kambourov & Manovskii, 2013; Madrian & Lefgren, 2000; Peracchi & Welch, 1995). Furthermore, we took the opportunity to also present more details on the wide range of robustness checks we had done to ensure our results are not subject to these potential errors or analysis technique. As these and our previously reported robustness checks show, our results are very robust, they hold when analyzing the data cross-sectionally, using pseudo-panel analyses, different implementations of propensity score matching, and with other methods. Additionally, a recent study in finance uses data of publicly traded firms and has replicated our results, also finding that CEO’s communist ideological imprint negatively affects their internationalization decisions. We are glad that the final published version is able to reflect these changes and hope these additional details are useful for researchers.

Question 6. Chris, much of your recent research has been conducted in China, and Kunyuan, it seems like you are heading in that direction. How would you advise PhD students who want to study international contexts, either within one country or across countries? 

This is an important question in general. As our academic society becomes increasingly international, we believe phenomena outside the U.S. deserve more attention and will continue attracting researchers. We think it is important to combine uniqueness and generalizability of these contexts for both within and cross-country studies.

For example, China is unique in having communist entrepreneurs, guanxi, and the combination of communist and capitalist principles in its political and economic institutions. Continental European countries have different institutions based on civil law as opposed to common law in Anglo-American countries, and studies have shown that owner-manager relations are different under these laws (e.g., La Porta, Lopez-de-Silanes, Shleifer, & Vishny, 1998). And recent research has been focusing on many other international contexts as well. We encourage researchers to focus on new and different contexts as they hold promise to extend existing theories and findings.   

On the other hand, a bedrock goal of social science is producing generalizable theory and findings. This requires deep knowledge of the existing literature and figuring out how the new study based in a different context connects to it. For example, what are the assumptions of existing theories based on the contexts in which they were developed, and how will the new contexts place boundary conditions or even question these assumptions? For instance, agency theory rests on the assumption of diffused ownership of public firms in Anglo-American contexts, where few single owners can wield enough power to discipline managers. However, this assumption might not be true in continental European and Japanese contexts where banks play an important role in the financial system and are powerful principals. Hence, many governance mechanisms might be different under the two different contexts. This is a simple example, but illustrates the value of using different contexts to better clarify the boundaries of different theories.

In our study we worked to carefully balance these two ideals – valuing uniqueness while striving for generalizability. For example, imprinting as a process is generalizable in different contexts, and articles in the U.S., China and other contexts use the word “imprinting” to describe influence of the past on individuals and organizations. Meanwhile, information processing before decision making is also universal. These provide theory to connect to the broad literature. However, what is less general and more unique is the big role the government/CPC plays as an imprinter such that we can examine how communist entrepreneurs still pay attention to imprinter’s behavior. This leads to imprinting decay, which is also a generalizable contribution to imprinting theory. Overall, while balancing uniqueness and generalizability can be a challenge, it is increasingly necessary to push forward theory and also understanding of new contexts. 

References cited:

Feng, S. 2001. The longitudinal matching of current population surveys: A proposed algorithm. Journal of Economic and Social Measurement, 27(2): 71-91.

Kambourov, G. & Manovskii, I. 2013. A cautionary note on using (March) Current Population Survey and Panel Study of Income Dynamics data to study worker mobility. Macroeconomic Dynamics, 17(1): 172-194.

La Porta, R., Lopez-de-Silanes, F., Shleifer, A., & Vishny, R. W. 1998. Law and finance. Journal of Political Economy, 106(6): 1113-1155.

Madrian, B. C. & Lefgren, L. J. 2000. An approach to longitudinally matching Current Population Survey (CPS) respondents. Journal of Economic and Social Measurement, 26(1): 31-62.

Mannheim, K. 1923/1952. The problem of generations. In P. Kecskemeti (Ed.), Essays on the sociology of knowledge by Karl Mannheim: 68-74. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Marquis, C. & Tilcsik, A. 2013. Imprinting: Toward a multilevel theory. Academy of Management Annals, 7(1): 195-245.

Peracchi, F. & Welch, F. 1995. How representative are matched cross-sections? Evidence from the Current Population Survey. Journal of Econometrics, 68(1): 153-179.Xu, C. 2011. The fundamental institutions of China’s reforms and development. Journal of Economic Literature, 49(4): 1076-1151.

Diana’s Bio: Diana Jue-Rajasingh is a PhD candidate in Strategy and Sociology at the University of Michigan. She studies market emergence in developing countries, inter-organizational collaboration, and entrepreneurship. Diana cares deeply about the role of businesses in addressing social inequality, international development, and environmental sustainability.

Wei’s Bio: Wei Wang is a Ph.D. student at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. She is interested in organizational communications with surrounding environments, social evaluations, and institutional complexity. 

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