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At the 1958 Chengdu conference Deng Xiaoping emphasized that economic policy was a matter of methodology, of jumping high to grab the fruit. In this, his mindset was close to Mao's ... In the reform period, Deng didn't know much about the economy; he just knew he wanted fast development.
- Vice minister in a key economics ministry in the 1980s1
The [April 1979 meeting that approved setting up Special Economic Zones (SEZs)] was not Deng Xiaoping' s [meeting] - Hua Guofeng was in charge. After Hua' s approval of Guangdong's proposal, [Guangdong leader] Xi Zhongxun returned and reported: This is what Chairman Hua said, not what Deng Xiaoping said . . .
The worst thing in our Party is not to speak of Zhao Ziyang or Hua Guofeng, just to speak of one person for good things [Deng Xiaoping] and one person for bad things [Hua Guofeng in the context of 1977-78]. Is this Marxism? I don't think so.
- High-ranking leader of Shenzhen upon its establishment as an SEZ2
In the PRC narrative of economic policy during the late 1970s, Hua Guofeng is depicted as advocating a reckless leftist approach to growth with outdated Maoist concepts, while Deng Xiaoping is credited with setting China on its new course of "reform and opening" (gaige kaifang ...). The prevailing view in Western literature on China fundamentally accepts this myth of Dengist hagiography, and adds the interpretation that policy developments were part and parcel of a succession struggle between Hua and Deng and their assumed factions or coalitions. In the most incisive statement of this analysis, Joseph Fewsmith argued that "reforms emerged as part of the struggle for power against Hua Guofeng and the wing of the party that he represented" and that Deng and his allies "formulated an approach to the economy as part of the attack on Hua".3 In this article, we offer an alternative interpretation of initial post-Mao PRC economic policy,4 arguing that a power struggle did not influence evolving economic approaches in 1 977-7 8,5 and that on all key dimensions - the overambitious drive for growth, a newly expansive policy of openness to the outside world, and limited steps toward management reform - Hua and Deng were in basic agreement.
The focus of our analysis is the top leadership, specifically Hua, Deng and Li Xiannian, the leader responsible for the work of the State Council and the economy. This is not to argue that they alone determined economic policy, nor that their broad consensus prevented conflict and debate within the relevant bureaucracies and among economic specialists, but Hua, Deng and Li were decisive in setting policy directions and driving the process forward in 1977-78. In addition, we give attention to Chen Yun, the enormously prestigious leader who was the economic architect of the successful First Five-Year Plan in the 1950s, and who subsequently engaged in rescue missions at Mao's behest in 1959 and 1962 before being shunted aside by the Chairman as "always a rightist". Chen was on the sidelines with very limited influence on economic policy until the Third Plenum, but regained his status as a Party vice chairman at the November-December 1978 central work conference preceding the plenum. This was linked to his intervention on non-economic issues. Once restored, however, Chen soon played a critical role in the economy.
Brief sketches of the key actors are in order. The essential difference between Deng and Chen Yun was temperament, with Deng's boldness contrasting with Chen's caution. This contrast was captured vividly by a senior Party historian who observed that Deng "lifts heavy things as if they are light, while Chen lifts light things as if they are heavy".6 Moreover, although a remarkably savvy politician who was not averse to advancing his personal interests, Chen was renowned in CCP circles for focusing on viable policy. In contrast, as Benjamin Yang has observed, Deng "was an expert on nothing - except politics". …