The Asian Century 4 16 July 2019.

In 1976, Mao Zedong died.  For two years, Hua Guofeng occupied the nominal leadership of China.  Then, in 1978, Deng Xiaoping came to power.  Both men, and many others, recognized that China’s vast potential had remained un-tapped during the long reign of Mao.  The party orthodoxy that peasants formed the backbone of a Communist society in Asia had stifled all economic progress.  Those peasants were themselves trapped in a vast system of collective farms that stifled initiative and productivity.  Marxist and Maoist economic ideas—the only ones taught to China’s educated elite—provided no useful guide to economic reality.[1]  To “save” itself, China would have to change.[2]  For one thing, it would have to become a truly industrial society.

To accomplish this transformation without re-inventing the wheel, China would need foreign advisors who knew how to run an industrial economy.[3]  Initially, these advisors came from the then still-existing Communist bloc.  Soon it became all too apparent that the Communist advisors didn’t have the slightest idea of how to build or manage an industrial economy.   Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, this reality imposed a frightening and unwelcome change of course.  China would have to turn to the capitalist West.  So it did.

The process began under Hua.  It took the form of a cautious experimentalism.  The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences sounds innocuous enough, or even boring to anyone who has attended a scholarly conference.  However, it provided the home for intense intellectual debates about China’s path forward.  In Sichuan Province, the first experiments with dismantling the collective farms began.  Consideration began of the ideas that would lead to the creation of the “Special Economic Zones.”

The need to save China by changing China had a wide constituency among leaders.  However, it also faced dogged opposition among more traditional Communist Party leaders.  To overcome this opposition, and to sustain and speed-up the pace of change, required a leader of exceptional character.  Deng Xiaoping proved the right man at the right time.  He combined great political skill, a theatrical affability, and ruthless determination.

The speed with which China changed course is fascinating.  So, too, is the enthusiasm in many quarters for both change and contact with Western thought.  Western economists were invited to visit and confer with Chinese leaders.  Chinese scholars, officials, managers and engineers, and—most important—students began to go abroad in growing numbers.  They absorbed and brought back to China the ideas and practices of the West.[4]  China’s history has been one of prolonged periods of hostility to foreign ideas interspersed with briefer periods of openness to foreign ideas.  The spread of Buddhism from India to China, and the curiosity about the West that allowed the Jesuits to operate in China offer earlier examples of this openness.

Now, Xi Jinping seems to be slamming the doors.

[1] See: Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea.  As one fictional character summarized the real Communist achievement: “boiler suits, prison camps, and a damn long march to nowhere.”

[2] This same truth had been recognized by the Japanese more than a century earlier.

[3] Julian Gewirtz, Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China (2016).

[4] Inevitably and predictably, many of these ideas and practices had nothing to do with economics.

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