The Making of China’s Economic Reforms. Interview with Isabella Weber

Isabella Weber

Isabella Weber is currently a Lecturer in Economics at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she is also the Principal Investigator of the ESRC-funded research project “What drives specialisation? A century of global export patterns”. She specialises in Chinese political economy and the history of economic thought and holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge. She is going to join the University of Massachusetts Amherst as Assistant Professor in Economics this fall.

The text presented here stems from a conversation between Isabella Weber and Raffaele Danna, which started from a talk given by Isabella at the Cambridge research network The Politics of Economics, convened, among others, by Raffaele. Such conversation ultimately led to a long interview, of which this is the first half. Arianna Papalia contributed in formulating the questions and took care of the Italian translation of the interview. The various subjects briefly touched upon here are discussed in detail in Isabella’s forthcoming book.

What was the role of the memory of the long history of China, as well as that of Western influence, in shaping the Chinese narrative for reform?

Isabella Weber: As a matter of fact, not only in the late 70s but until the present day, the long history of China is a recurring theme in speeches of Party leaders and debates among intellectuals especially in years like 2019, which marks the 70th anniversary since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But also beyond important anniversaries history is an integral part of political reasoning in China. For example in a speech that Xi Jinping gave at the UNESCO headquarters in 2014, he said: “for any country in the world, the past always holds the key to the present, and the present is always rooted in the past. Only when we know where a country has come from, could we possibly understand why a country is what it is today, and only then could you realise in which direction it is heading”. Until today there has been a clear and recurrent reference to different aspects and periods of China’s history also in regard to economic policy questions. The late 70s were a moment when Chinese intellectuals and political leaders opened their mind “to the outside world” – as Deng Xiaoping liked to say. This was not only a slogan, Chinese delegations started to travel around the world, and intellectuals had the chance to acquire first-hand knowledge of what was going on outside of China. One of the shocking revelations for many was how economically and technologically “backward” China had become in relation to the capitalist world. So if the Revolution had not only sat out to create the foundations for a communist society, but also to set China free of imperialism and feudalism, the new phase of economic reforms elevated escaping sheer poverty and material development to the guiding principles.


How important was the heritage of the Cultural Revolution in shaping the premises for the successive phase of economic reforms in China?

Isabella Weber: Among many other things the Cultural Revolution was an onslaught on bureaucratic structures (one of the slogans that resonated very strongly with the ‘68 generation of the West was “bombarding the headquarters”). The idea of a hierarchical, centrally planned economy was under attack. At the same time markets were condemned as the capitalist road. In many ways the economy from which the reforms started was closer to a chaotic command economy with an important place for political campaigns, rather than a planned, centrally coordinated system. The designated successor of Mao Zedong, Hua Guofeng, started off in trying to revive the planning structures by making a new big push towards Soviet-style industrialization, which failed dramatically. As an irony of history, the Cultural Revolution turned out to be vital for reform. The Cultural Revolution had broken up the prevailing social order in a violent way. Many of the people who had previously been in positions of power as well as prominent intellectuals were purged, and sent to re-education camps in the countryside. But also urban youth were sent to live with the peasantry, often for many years. When these people came back to the cities and the centres of power, they faced the question of how to rebuild China. In their search for ways forward, both the networks as well as the often traumatic experiences during the Cultural Revolution were critical. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution created in some sense the communicative space to debate the question of reform.  I am not a historian of Russia, but I think it is safe to say that in Russia, which had a continuity of highly bureaucratized structures, such a space did not open up before they started their attempts at reform.

Continue reading – next page


Current page: The role of the memory of the long history of China

Page 2: The transition from the Cultural Revolution to Reform

Page 3: Between Western economics and the Chinese way to Development

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Ha studiato filosofia a Bologna ed è dottorando in storia all'Università di Cambridge. Su twitter è @Raff_Danna

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