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Orville Schell is dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has written extensively about China and is the author of several books about Chinese history and culture....
China: Boom or Boomerang
Perhaps no other country has so many positive and negative trends as the home of a quarter of the world’s population.
China as a Success
That China did manage to fend off a seemingly ineluctable end-of-dynasty, tipping-point moment was in large measure due to then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping. Indeed, as a savage crackdown against political dissidence began after June 4, 1989, causing almost everyone to fear that reform of all kinds would end, the 85-year-old Deng met with his military commanders to commemorate the service of those who had died while “quelling the turmoil.” He surprised everyone present—especially hard-line Maoists who felt that the only salvation of the Communist Party’s unilateral rule was return to a less open and permissive system—by asking all assembled a simple rhetorical question. “Is our basic concept of reform and opening wrong?” he asked. “No!” he answered. “Without reform, could we have what we do today?”
Then, he declared emphatically, “Our basic proposals, ranging from our development strategy to principles and policies, including reform and opening up to the outside world, are correct.”
It was still far from clear, however, whether Deng would be able to prevail over those who saw his economic reform policies as the road to ruin. Deng had famously declared of his Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in the 1980s: “There are those who say we should not open our windows, because open windows let in flies and insects. But we say, ‘Open the windows, breathe the fresh air and at the same time fight the flies and insects.’”
But now, it looked as if the insects had overwhelmed the situation.
It was not until 1992 that Deng felt strong enough to once again open the floodgates of economic reform. Escaping conservative Beijing, where he felt stymied, he went to Shenzhen, the market-driven SEZ on the border with Hong Kong. There, he made an iconic visit to the stock exchange and several modern electronics companies, where, like an itinerant evangelist, he began extolling the market and, in effect, economic reform.
“As long as we pay attention to economic efficiency, product quality and foreign economic exchanges,” he proclaimed, “we need not be worried about anything else.”
He went on to urge Chinese “to boldly take heed of and absorb all accomplishments of every civilization achieved by the human race . . . including those of developed capitalist countries.” He concluded by saying that “leftism” (meaning hard-line Maoists) had done “terrible harm to our Party in the past.”
His utterances were like a clap of thunder, for they announced loudly and clearly to everyone that engaging in business and making money had now been re-sanctioned at the highest reaches of the party. And, his very symbolic trip set China off on the tear of economic growth that continues today, more than a decade later.
By the end of 2004 China could boast of the following:
[China’s National Bureau of Statistics (click English in upper right corner)]
Despite the tense relations with Taiwan and increasing friction with Japan, China’s image as a constructive world player also has steadily grown. A 2005 BBC poll showed that 48% of those queried in 22 countries saw China’s global role as “mainly positive,” suggesting how far China has come in correcting its post-1989 image.
Not since Mao took power in 1949 had China been viewed so positively around the world. And never in its history, or that of any country for that matter, have so many people’s material lives been improved so rapidly as during the past two decades.
That the former “poor man of Asia,” which was once isolated, reviled and steeped in losing ideology dedicated to world revolution and developmental backwardness might have found a way to transform itself into a productive, modern and globally engaged—if not democratic—country filled with modern cities that seemed to arise overnight has indeed been impressive.
Continued: China as a Failure
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