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Conversion at all costs

Unlikely Partners – Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China
Forfatter: Julian Gewirz
Forlag: Harvard University Press (UK)
Intense exchanges between Chinese and Western economists pave the way for China's opening of the economy.


In 1984, one of "the eight immortals," Chen Yun, who co-founded the People's Republic of China, joins the pulpit during a meeting of the top of China's Communist Party with a – in vain – call to his comrades. He has just lost a crucial ideological blow to the course of economic reform in China, but does not accept it. “We are a socialist country. This is the goal we must always strive for, ”Chen Yun says, recalling that the degree of civilization must be measured not only on the material but also on the spiritual level. Then he "staggers", old and weakened in more than one sense, down into his place.


Goh Chok Tong, Prime Minister of Singapore 1990 – 2004, was saddened by the countrymen's way of acting with their new money.

Unlikely Partners – Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China depicting the tumultuous years from Chairman Mao's death in 1976 to the words "socialist market economy" was written into China's constitution in 1993.

The very central drama of Unlikely Partners is the battle between "conservative" forces in China's Communist Party (CPP), with Chen Yun as one of the main players, and the "ambitious" reformers, with head of state Deng Xiaoping at the forefront. The latter was the most well-known front figure in the West – though not the most central architect for the transition of the economy, as were people like Zhao Ziyang, Prime Minister 1980-87 and then Secretary General of the CPP, until he fell out of favor for his opposition to deploy the military against the demonstrating students and workers at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Fast money. It's supposed to be a bit comical when a cadre (an active and loyal party member, editor) like Chen Yun doesn't realize his time is over. At least there is no doubt about who the cultural anthropologist Julian Gewirtz is – and who doesn't love winners? It is also not possible to implement small things the wing of reform – a wing that is more a mosaic than a monolith, you learn the book through.

You can still experience common gymnastics in parks and in places, as well as another historical experience: the wall papers, and the elderly who quietly read them. 

Blessed Chen Yun died in 1995 and probably at that time could hardly identify the socialist in the socialist market economy. Even less would he have been able to do so today. This old-fashioned party address in its own way touching the insistence that socialism was not only about the scheme of the economy, but also the human being, made me think throughout the book of a cadre of quite another ideological observation (though perhaps not as radically different as one could immediately think): Goh Chok Tong, Prime Minister of Singapore 1990–2004, who, in the latter part of his reign, was saddened by his fellow countrymen's behavior with their new money, especially when they were living in poorer neighboring countries:

"Our social graces have not kept pace with our material progress," Tong, for example, lamented in a 2001 Singapore National Day speech.

Goh Chok Tong is still trying, now as an emirate, to use every opportunity to bring up the new generations. Singapore's middle class, meanwhile, has faced stiff competition from Chinese middle class who are noisily occupying the region with their plentiful yuan. Fast money rarely has any good impact on people's manners. Of course, this is not in itself an argument for not striving for economic progress – especially when the starting point is as lean as it was in China in the years when the wing of the reforms seized power.

Misconception? Now, as you know, those who make the most noise are not necessarily the majority. Chen Yun's China is still there. Both in the form of material poverty and in the form of a modest way of life in other ways as well. In Shanghai, the Chinese metropolis in which the CPP was formed and in which globalized China has always existed – under various forms and regimes – there is not far from the insane shopping hordes (of all nationalities) to the insane everyday life in neighborhoods such as the area south of Fudan University, where you can still find common gymnastics in parks and squares, or another relic of the past: the wall papers – and the (admittedly typically older) people who quietly read them.

Incidentally, Fudan University was there, the market fundamentalist Milton Friedman made his China comeback in 1988 after the first supposedly fairly demarcated visit in 1980. Friedman's visit to China constitutes one of the sub-dramas of Unlikely Partners: This Chicago school cult figure, who also acted as advisor to the Chile Pinochet government, was one of the Western economists who invited influential CPPs to intellectual exchanges as early as the first years of the reform era.

Should we believe Gewirtz's interpretation happened in Friedman's case in the first place on the basis of almost a misunderstanding: the reformists only knew Friedman for his expertise in fighting inflation, while the "conservative" CPP factions simply had no idea who he was . The first visit did not elicit much cheer from either party either.

In the following chapter you can read about the invitation of Princeton economist Gregory Chow – who was also a surprising choice – that the CPP people may have thought his professional title of "political economist" should be understood in a Marxist sense. It seems just a little too cleverly thought by the cultural anthropologist. Gewirtz tries to present his analyzes soberly, but at times has difficulty concealing his fun. He moves away from the narrow path of descriptive virtue in several places, thus undermining the respectful approach he embodies in the introduction, which states, inter alia:

"This book [...] replaces the abstract idea of ​​'changing China' that existed in the fantasies of often uninvited foreign advisers with a firm foregrounding the partnership between Chinese reformers and Western economists."

Eastern European economists showed genuine interest in the Chinese context, while the Americans seemed very little interested in understanding China.

Western disinterest. However, Gewirtz both shows and highlights the book through how impressive the persistent CPP summit was in its attempt to understand other economical worlds of thought than their own hitherto practiced. Even when the "western" economic ideas were presented with limited insight into the specific context in which they were to speak.

From the Chinese side, from the late 1970s onwards there was a sincere attempt to expand the ideological, theoretical and practical capacity to manage and change the economy. From the western side, the desire for knowledge was rarely reciprocated. Gewirtz notes this only to a limited extent. He emphasizes time and time again how little Chinese economists concept of capitalist economics, but does not find it equally relevant to dwell on how little "Western" economists concept of socialist economics in general and the Chinese variant specifically.

When I quote "western", it is because Gewirtz has chosen to group Eastern European economists from before the fall of the wall as Western, because according to the cultural anthropologist, this is most often presented in Chinese sources. Nonetheless, there is a world of difference between how Eastern European economists, and especially American economists, got their bearings in China. Roughly speaking, the former showed genuine interest in the local context and made an effort to act politely, while the latter seemed very little interested in understanding China – or even being understood by their Chinese counterparts – and some, including Friedman, for example, acted decisively. . Otherwise, one would think that the least you could reciprocate with an unexpected invitation was a little respect.

Economy vs. policy. Unlikely Partners is a fascinating insight into the struggles that were going on around the reshaping of the Chinese economy after Mao. About visions and ruthlessness, doubt, desire for knowledge, curiosity, courage and courage. Not least, it clarifies the logic that led to the liberalization of the economy not bringing about similar political opening. Unless, of course, Gewirtz omits anything substantial, the question of political democratization also did not hold the "Western" economists in their exchanges with Chinese colleagues.

The dissent that – though with clear and sometimes suddenly enforced boundaries – was given place in the Deng Xiaoping era was only in the economic discussions that could be presented as almost purely technical. Unfortunately you do not get rid of Unlikely Partners much clearer how the various CPP actors have really drawn the boundaries of whether a reform initiative could be integrated into a "socialist" conceptual framework or it fell outside. What remains particularly socialist in both the planning economy and the market economy remains a mystery.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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