Celebrating the 30th birthday of China’s economic reforms

By David Bandurski — Today is the 30th birthday of economic reforms in China. And as a tribute to both sides in the ongoing debate in China over the spirit of reforms, we share with readers two recent writings on the subject. [Frontpage Photo: “Great Candles” by BodHack available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

In the December issue of the Chinese journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, writer Yang Min argues that the successes of China’s reform era owe not to unique “Chinese characteristics,” but rather to China’s adoption of universal values that are a product of the human cultural experience.

“The secret to China’s miracle lies not in its differences from the world, but rather in its affinities,” Yang writes.

Yang’s article has ruffled the feathers of Chinese leftists at the socialist website Utopia, which offered its own rebuttal of the essay on December 8.


[Screenshot of Yanhuang Chunqiu online, Deng Xiaoping appears with American President Jimmy Carter on a visit to the U.S. from January 29 to February 4, 1979]

Portions of the Yanhuang Chunqiu and Utopia articles follow:

Reform and Opening and Universal Values
By Yang Min (杨民)

China can boast major accomplishments in its 30 years of reform. This is especially true for the economy, with average annual GDP growth of 9.8 percent, urban and rural incomes rising 40 and 30 times respectively between 1978 and 2008, Chinese GDP accounting for five percent of the world’s total in 2007, up from just one percent in 1978, and China’s portion of global foreign trade rising from less than one percent to eight percent. Such a massive economy, with such rapid growth over such an extended period of time — this is something that has not been seen in recent history, what has been widely labeled as “China’s miracle.” The very life of this miracle and of economic reforms is inseparable from universal values.

The secret to China’s miracle lies not in its differences from the world, but rather in its affinities.

There is a popular wisdom that says that says that “China’s miracle” is the product of China’s having taken a path that is different from that of other countries and regions, that it has arisen not from “copying” but from “unique Chinese characteristics” (中国特色). There are even a number of investors and speculators outside China who have bet on the unique merits [of China], researching the so-called “Chinese mode” (中国模式), or “Beijing Consensus” (北京共识). These terms are not entirely without merit. From a certain perspective it is safe to say that the modernization drives of all nations are unique in one way or another, and this means China’s modernization necessarily has its own Chinese characteristics.

It may be true that a number of Chinese characteristics are preconditions and assurances of China’s rise, such as the upholding of the leadership of the CCP, the system of centralization (举国体制), etc. However, it is not enough to have these “special characteristics” alone, these “differences” or “non-imitations,” because we have upheld the leadership of the CCP and the system of centralization since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. If it were true that we could create a “Chinese miracle” by relying only on these “Chinese characteristics,” on these “differences” we have with other countries, then China would not have gone to the brink of economic collapse prior to reforms, and tens of millions of people would not have died in the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward.

Clearly, in searching for the secret of “China’s miracle,” we must look not only to China’s supposed differences with the rest of the world, but more to the point to the differences between China today and China in the past. It is not hard to come to the realization in what created “China’s miracle” was reform and opening, was the introduction of the market economy, of democracy, freedom, rule of law, human rights and other concepts that are universal values. Progress in our society over the last 30 years is inseparable from reform and opening and the practice of universal values in China. Of course you can also say that “reform and opening” is a Chinese characteristic, but what exactly is this special characteristic? At its base, the special characteristic is the study and borrowing from developed nations of civilized ideas that have universal value.

Therefore, “China’s rise” actually relies upon things that are “the same,” and represents the success of “the drawing of lessons from other countries” (拿来主义). It is principally the success of “sameness,” and not the success of “difference.” We can say that these 30 years of reform and opening represent the success of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and that they represent also the flowering in China of human culture imbued with universal values . . .

When we look back on the past 30 years, we see that China’s opening and reform began with the process of opening. Opening drove reform, and reform drove development. From the economy to society, successful reforms relied at every step on the study of the methods of advanced nations.

The Cultural Revolution was a major disaster for China. But what direction should [China] take in turning away from the Cultural Revolution? Deng Xiaoping, one of the century’s greats, clearly recognized the most effective path: opening to the outside world. In 1978, he not only went himself to the United States, Japan and other developed nations, but he also sent a hundred or so observation groups out into the world to seek the secrets of rapid development in developed nations. Very quickly, a consensus emerged throughout the CCP: Western nations were more advanced than us, and there were many cultural traits that deserved our study. National isolation was a dead-end. China must open its doors to the outside world.

Opening meant not just a geographical opening of the doors to the nation, nor did it carry a purely economic meaning about trade with other nations. More importantly, it meant tearing down the bulwarks the sealed China’s value system off and opposed [incursion]. It meant moving toward a more equal and rational vision that could allow the acceptance of all of humanity’s cultural assets with an attitude of tolerance and study. The most important asset was the adoption of the market economy.

In November 1979, when Deng Xiaoping met with the head of the editorial committee for America’s Encyclopedia Britannica, Frank Gibney Jr., and others, he pointed out that: “It is an error to hold that the market economy belongs only to capitalist societies” . . . “Why can’t socialism do the market economy?” . . . “Socialism can also do the market economy.” Deng Xiaoping’s meaning in these statements was clear, and that is that the market economy has universal value. In the southern dialogues (南方谈话) of 1992, he again emphasized that planning and the market were both economic tools, not core differences between socialism and capitalism . . .

The ideological debate has never abated over whether the market economy is surnamed “Socialism” or surnamed “Capitalism,” but in actual practice the marketization of the economic sector was staunchly carried out from the beginning of reform and opening.

The core value of the market economy is freedom. Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen, who has been called the “conscience of economics,” has drawn a number of salient results from his substantial experience analyzing many developing nations: Freedom is the core value of the market economy, and development means the expansion of freedoms; freedom is the primary goal of development, and also an indispensable tool toward promoting development.

China’s 30 years of reform offer the best possible annotation for Sen’s theories.

In the days of the planned economy, control was our sole “talisman,” and it permeated every aspect of people’s lives . . . Everything was to be controlled, and nothing was free. Lack of political freedoms [in that time] go without saying, and 800 million Chinese had only a single mind . . . It was the same economically. It wasn’t just that the top leadership decided what factories were to produce — they even decided what farmers would plant in the fields. They even talked such nonsense as, “We want only socialist grass, and we don’t want capitalist seedlings” (宁要社会主义的草,不要资本主义的苗). Under such controls, what impetus could people possibly have to produce, and is it any wonder that people starved?

The following is a rebuttal of Yang Min’s piece at the website Utopia:

Yanhuang Chunqiu’s Mythologizing on Universal Values Is Actually a Capitalist Restoration— criticizing Yang Min’s “Reform and Opening and Universal Values”

The December edition of Yanhuang Chunqiu published an article by Yang Min called “Reform and Opening and Universal Values,” which prattles on in an attempt to deify universal values, saying they are connected “as life to death” to [China’s] reform and opening . . . Why does this Yang insist on elevating universal values? From head to tail, the fine print of Yang’s article clearly exposes his evil goal beyond any doubt — a capitalist restoration.

First of all, it opposes the Marxist doctrine of class struggle, promoting bourgeois universal values, carrying out theoretical propaganda for a capitalist restoration.

Comrade Mao Zedong pointed out in “Losing our Fantasies, Preparing for Struggle” (丢掉幻想,准备斗争) that: “In class struggle, some classes are victorious while others are annihilated. This is history, the history of civilization for thousands of years.” . . . Democracy, freedom, human rights, and even the market economy all have class nature. These universal values that are said to transcend class are merely tricks used by the apologists of capitalism to deceive others and promote capitalist values or push the restoration of the capitalist system.

Yang’s article says that when we look back over the last 30 years “successful reforms, whether economic or social, have all taken their cues from the methods of advanced nations.” Who are these advanced nations? They are “the United States, Japan and other developed nations.” We have [Yang says] studied the universal values of these advanced capitalist nations.

The reactionaries in America, Japan and Europe often throw around the big clubs of democracy, freedom and human rights to attack our country and interfere with our domestic politics. As though only they really talk about democracy and freedom, and respect human rights. This is thoroughly a fabrication. Under the veil of democratizing the Middle East, American imperialism invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and now threatens Iran. American general elections are merely a matter of choosing between the Democratic and Republican parties . . . Human rights has ever been a plaything of the bourgeois classes, and capitalism had its start by exploiting and enslaving the black man. Over the last century and more, so many lives have been taken by the wars and incursions of capitalism, and the exploitation now continues as it always has. Look at the new social classes in our own country. We have illegal mine bosses, and brick kiln operators [who enslave workers], factory bosses who exploit the blood and sweat of the workers . . . These bourgeois intellectuals in our country, including Yang Min, are for the revival of capitalism, for a reversion to capitalism, for a joining up with global capitalism, and they speak with the same accents as the reactionaries of America and Japan, welcoming attacks on Chinese socialism.

Not only this, but they carry out irrational attacks against those of us comrades who have not forgotten the class struggle and who continue to uphold Marxism . . .

Yang’s article praises the economic theories of liberalism, holding that “the core value of the market economy is freedom.” He is swept off his feet by Amartya Sen, and admires his [notion that] “freedom is the core value of the market economy, and development means the expanding freedoms; freedom is the primary objective of development, and an indispensable tool in promoting development.” Yang’s article also says that China’s 30 years of reform are the best annotation for Sen’s theories . . .

But the economic crises that the capitalist world has suffered over the past century stem from the disorderly, unplanned and uncontrolled free competition of the capitalist market economy.

[Posted by David Bandurski, December 18, 2008, 11:47am HK]

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