The following article was written by Martin Jacques for People’s Daily on the subject of the 40th Anniversary of Reform and Opening Up.
A Chinese translation of the article was published in People’s Daily on 15th January 2019. Read the Chinese version of the article here.
When Deng Xiaoping launched the special economic zones in Guangdong and Fujian provinces in 1978, encouraging farmers to sell some of their produce in the newly created markets, and then seeking foreign investment in the new zones, nobody in the world, not even Deng himself, could have imagined that China would, in a handful of decades, experience the most remarkable economictransformation in human history. It is a wonderful story; and from such humble origins. China, of course, is intimately familiar with this story, but the western world still remains largely ignorant of it.
Yet the western world was, in a sense, where, at least in part, it began. Deng, looking beyond China, could see that, while the latter had made considerable progress since the Revolution, it still had much to learn from both the West and the Asian tigers like Japan and South Korea. Deng was a communist but also a pragmatist. He could see the failings of the old centralised and autarchic system and searched for ways in which it might be made more dynamic. In so doing, Deng made two great changes to communist orthodoxy: the market was to be seen as an integral part of socialism along with the state and central planning; and the capitalist and socialist worlds, far from being estranged from each other,were to be regarded as part of the same international system, an integrated whole rather than separate and isolated from each other. And as a natural corollary of this,China should learn from, compete with, and measure itself against the capitalist world.
Deng’s reforms marked a profound intellectual revolution. One of the communist world’s greatest problems had been a tendency to stagnate, to retreat into orthodoxy, to adopt an almost biblical way of thinking, wheretablets of stone replaced creative thinking, with the latter too often dismissed as heresy. This helps us to understand why the Soviet Union failed: it ossified to the point of extinction. Deng’s ideas, in contrast, were hugely creative. They did not represent, as many in the West liked to think, the beginnings of a western-style capitalist system in China. On the contrary, they marked a step into the unknown, something entirely new. The Chinese did, indeed, borrow, most notably the idea of the market from the West, but in combining it with the state and planning, they created something new. And the desire to join the world and engage in long-term competition and cooperation with the West was a mark of confidence; expansiveness replaced a defensive, bunker mentality.
The consequence was a huge release of energy. Everything needed to be rethought – from the top down and the bottom up. China became the site of a massive experiment. The old certainties and guarantees were abandoned in favour of a restless search for new solutions, ambitions and targets.The West thought that Deng’s reforms were simply and only economic. This is nonsense. Actually, what the West meant was that they only recognised political reforms if they involved moving in a western direction. There were, indeed, major political reforms, the old-style state was not fit for purpose, a new one had to be created, and those who worked for it had to acquire a new kind of mentality and new skills.
There was no end point. Reform and opening up was the beginning of a restless, ever-changing, always dynamic, highly creative process, at all levels of Chinese society. The only constant was change. China had to be recreated. And the process was so successful that China, as it doubled in size every seven years, and even now every decade, had to be continually recreated. It involved the entire society, no part was left untouched, from the Communist Party, the system of government, and foreign policy to the nature of cities and the systems of transportation. Most important of all, though,has been the transformation of the Chinese people, who have been the makers and bearers of the change. Reform and opening up has imbued them with an extraordinary energy, a huge desire for change, growing curiosity, ambition, openness and a great appetite for learning. They are epitomised by Chinese students abroad: extremely hard-working, conscientious, open-minded, curious about the world, and hugely committed to learning.That is why, by global standards, Chinese students are such good students, often the best.
China’s transformation did not stop at its borders, on the contrary it flowed over its borders to impact seemingly every nook and cranny of the world. It has transformed China, butit is alsoin the process of transforming the world. The meaning of reform and opening up, therefore, is not confined to China; it is worldwide. We are very familiar with many aspects of this: China as a huge trading nation, its foreign investments, its tourists and, of course, Belt and Road. But there is another and rather different dimension. Reform and opening up represented a new way of thinking. It marked a break with the highly centralised and universalistic model of the state, together with the idea of socialism in one country (or bloc), as typified by the Soviet Union. But also, and far more importantly, it offeredan alternative to the Western neo-liberal model and its developmental adjunct, the Washington Consensus. The growing appeal of China’s approach is manifest in much of the developing world, as illustrated by the widespread and enthusiastic support for the Belt and Road Initiative.
After forty extraordinarily successful years, what is the future for reform and opening up? As I have emphasised, it is not a set of shibboleths, a tablet of stone of eternal verities, a rigid plan. On the contrary, it is a way of thinking, a process, a vision of transformation that combines pragmatism with a strategic perspective. Belt and Road, it should be noted, belongs to the same school of thinking: no plan, no blueprint, no timescale, experimental, constantly evolving, finding out what works, pragmatic, but based on a clear vision of the objective, the transformation of a continent. Or, to put it another way, it is very Chinese, drawing from the country’s long history and culture, the traditions of the CPC, and the needs, interests and views of the participating countries.
We have now arrived at a new juncture. Reform and opening up more or less coincided with a relatively benign and cooperative phase in US-China relations. Deng Xiaoping was always deeply aware of the importance to China of a friendly relationship with the US. That, of course, was when the relationship between the two countries was extremely unequal. Now the relationship is much more equal, though by no means equal. And the very fact of this shift in power is a fundamental reason why President Trump has adopted a much more hostile attitude towards China. There is no question that this will make things more challenging for China – and, indeed, the wider world – in a variety of ways. At root, Trump wants to make the rise of China more difficult – or, if he could, prevent or reverse it, but that is dreamland – and thereby reset the relationship between the two countries in a way that is more favourable for the United States.
China would not be inimical to some of the US proposals; for example, expanding the possibilities for foreign investment in its financial sector, which presently is very restricted, boosting imports, and strengthening intellectual property rights. These are items on China’s agenda for reform and opening up which, in part, areintended to enhance relations between China and the developed countries. But demands that China cease subsidising its new tech industries and those detailed in Made in China 2025, and that it roll back the state-owned enterprises, represent a flagrant violation of China’s rights and choices as a sovereign country. They are entirely unacceptable.
The era of reform and opening up has always been a very difficult balancing act, on the one hand that China should becomean integral part of the global economy, while, on the other hand, preserving what is different about it, based on its highly distinctive history and culture, and its own political choices. China’s path has never been either or but a combination of the two. Contrary to the West’sagenda, China is not western and never will be western, though it has learnt much from the West, just as the West will increasingly have to learn from China. And these, we should remember, are not only choices that confront China: in some degree or another, every developing country, in its own way, faces the same kind of choices, which is why China has such a growing appeal for so many of them. It does not require them to subordinate themselves to western values and norms, nor, for that matter, its own. Reform and opening up rejects the idea of a homogenous western-style world and embraces a world that respects difference and the integrity of different civilizations.