The Emperor Is Far Away: Understanding Challenges Faced by the New Leadership. (China)

By Vogel, Ezra | Harvard International Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Emperor Is Far Away: Understanding Challenges Faced by the New Leadership. (China)


Vogel, Ezra, Harvard International Review


HARVARD INTERNATIONAL REVIEW:

China enjoyed remarkable growth rates in the last 20 years. What accounts for this accelerated rate of development, and how has China's economic liberalization affected its attitude toward the West?

China's opening to the West began in 1970, when the Chinese leadership decided that the biggest risk was no longer the United States but the Soviet Union. Practically no Westerners had had direct contact with China, and initial progress was slow. China remained a relatively closed country until 1978, when its leadership decided to adopt an official policy of foreign opening. By the mid-1980s, China began to grow quite rapidly and continued at an ever greater rate in the early 1990s. The average per capita annual income is now about US$1,000, so China remains relatively undeveloped, though many countries are much poorer. This process of opening and growth has allowed the Chinese government to prepare its people to take their place in world affairs.

Historically, China has been the dominant power in the region, but it was never a global power. China began to take part in world affairs for the first time in the 19th century. For the subsequent 150 years, it was much weaker than other world powers and suffered oppression from the outside world. But once China opened in the early 1980s, it was able to take part in the world system. One of my favorite Chinese expressions is "linking tracks." In the 1930s, some of the Chinese warlords had no railroads because they had a narrower gauge than the national railway, leaving a wider distance between the rails. The warlords had to design a way to make the tracks compatible in order to form a national railway system. Now, China uses "linking tracks" to describe the process of adjusting various traditional practices so that they can interface with the global system.

This is an enormous change, and on the whole, China has done remarkably well. China today has become one of the world's leading trading states with a substantial trade surplus. This development marks extraordinary progress over a short period of time from the backward, isolated country that China once was. Furthermore, this is a much more exciting period within China than the outside world realizes. The 1989 Tiananmen protest and response received so much attention that even today China is often thought of as one big jail. But some of the most exciting cultural and intellectual growth in the world is taking place in China right now. There are a lot of smart people thinking about how to combine diverse Western influences with Chinese history. There are extraordinarily creative programs being conducted in every field on the grand scale--it is truly a renaissance. China can be criticized for being too repressive, but the change for the average person in China has been overwhelming.

Do you ascribe the opening of China to structural change, individual action, or a combination offactors?

I think there were three reasons for the opening. The first is that in its basic foreign policy strategy, China first identifies its greatest foreign adversary and then seeks allies against it. After the late 1940s, China saw the United States as the major enemy. By 1970, when it decided that the Soviet Union was the greatest enemy, China sought cooperation with the West. That decision had a serious impact on the re-organization that began China's entrance to the world system. Second, the Cultural Revolution ruined the country and was extremely painful to many people. There was real chaos because so many of the leaders had been in jail for an extended period of time. Then, after Mao Tsetung died in 1976, the new leadership began to think, "What should we do?" The timing was right, and the West was receptive to an opening from China. The third factor is individual leadership, and China has been very lucky in this regard. There were a number of circumstances that made it possible for Deng Xiaoping to become th e paramount leader after Mao. …

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