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Zheng Yongnian highlights "no reason to change opening-up policy"
What prompts his vigorous defense and apparent alarm?
Consider the first half of this newsletter a test of your recent China-watching. Please read the translation of a recent article by Zheng Yongnian and answer one question. My answer will be unveiled in the second half of the newsletter.
The Chinese-language article was posted on Friday, Sept. 16, on the website and WeChat blog of the Guangzhou Institute of GBA (Greater Bay Area of Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macau), which Zheng heads.
Zheng is Presidential Chair Professor, the Founding Director of the Advanced Institute of The Institute for International Affairs, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen.
Graduated from Peking University (BA in International Relations, 1981-1985 & MA in Political Science, 1985-1988) and Princeton University (MA & PhD in Political Science, 1990-1995), Zheng served as the former Director of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore (2008-2019), and the former Research Director and Professor of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham (2005-2008).
Zheng has been a highly visible and influential commentator domestically in China.
Zheng Yongnian: China has no reason to change its national policy of opening up to the outside world.
Today, China is facing unseen changes in a century. The global environment has drastically changed. Globalization, once in tandem with China’s reform and opening-up, has rapidly transformed into anti-globalization. The West, which formerly drove globalization, is now the main driver of de-globalization. Globalization and China's reform and opening-up were previously two interdependent and enhancing forces. Because of this, China has finished the development process that took the major western countries a century and a half in just forty years. Today, though, this circumstance is no longer present. In order to contain China's continued rise and possibly even halt China's modernization, the West not only opposes globalization but also makes significant efforts to decouple it from China.
Given how deeply ingrained the Chinese economy is in the global economy, the de-globalization from the West has a significant effect on it. In response to western pressure, nationalism and populism are on the rise in Chinese society and are acting as a form of payback for the West. Some people began to doubt China's opening-up policy and misunderstand the policy of "dual circulation, in which domestic and overseas markets reinforce each other, with the domestic market as the mainstay." According to these people, internal circulation should take precedence over external circulation as soon as possible. Some people even began to academically justify the "closed-door policy" during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Although such emotions are responses to the West, they are easy to understand. The decoupling between China and the West will inevitably speed up if the reaction to the changes in the world is too intense and the level of irrational sentiment is too high. From historical experience, China may once again close the door if "closing the country to the outside world" is accepted as a valid ideology. There is no certainty in history. If somebody believes opening-up is an inevitability, history will show that that belief was a grave mistake.
We believe that China's reform process in the past decades was shaped by openness. The great achievements made in the past decades were shaped by openness. The history of the past decades was led by openness. There is no reason to change our belief in openness now that we are dealing with significant changes in the global environment. Instead, we should firmly believe in openness, let it continue to support national economic development, let it continue to shape the national economic future, and let it lead us to the center of the international stage when the West opposes globalization.
Opening up has made today’s China
The economic development of different nations around the world has become increasingly intertwined since modern times as a result of factors like industrialization, the spread of technology, and the spread of ideas. No economy has fully evolved in a closed state up until this point. Empirically, a nation's level of economic development and sustainability will increase the more open it is. In the 1980s, we [China] came to the conclusion that "if we close down, we will lag behind; if we lag behind, we will be beaten" after summarizing the historical lesson from blood. This conclusion can be said to be "universal".
Some frequently use mercantilism to show how closure and development go hand in hand, but there is a serious issue with this. With the exception of Britain, which was the first nation to industrialize, most nations experienced mercantilism briefly during their early stages of development. However, the goal of mercantilism is not to "not open up," but to open up more effectively. The cultivation of local businesses is the essence of mercantilism. It must be noted that nations at the mercantilism stage are also attempting to learn from more developed nations. For instance, North America and continental Europe were all late-comers compared to Britain, so on the one hand, they practice trade protectionism while on the other, they sought to learn from Britain. Through learning [from the outside], local companies are fostered. The nations may open to developed nations once they reach a certain level of competitiveness. These nations are also open to less developed nations, or nations with lower levels of competitiveness, during the mercantilist stage.
Opening up encourages advancement, whereas closing down results in regress. By contrasting the US bloc with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War, this is not difficult to understand. The former Soviet Union established a planned economy and closed its doors to conduct innovations by itself. Even though the Soviet Union made significant progress during the early stages of the Cold War, it was ultimately overpowered by the western alliance led by the United States. It should be noted that the Soviet Union's early achievements were also inextricably linked to Western technology. Since the modern era, Russia has made every effort to ingratiate itself with the West, and its ruling elites rarely reject the West. The Soviet bloc's lack of openness is its most notable feature. A market for free-flowing ideas cannot develop in the absence of opening up. There cannot be thought innovation without thought exchange and as time goes by comes the state of rigidness. In addition, without opening up, there was no market for goods and no movement of money, technology, or labor (including talent). The openness of the Western group, which is led by the United States, is its most notable quality. A sizable market of ideas was developed under the condition of opening up. Innovation is aided by the collision of various ideas. Openness also promotes the development of markets. As capital, technology, and talent flow to non-western nations, this market not only exists among western nations but also spreads to every corner of the globe. During the Cold War, Japan and the "Four Little Dragons" in Asia were integrated into the western market and experienced rapid economic growth.
China's current situation is the result of reform and opening up. We are now active contributors to globalization in open conditions. Openness and globalization support and strengthen one another. One could argue that opening up and globalization have shaped China into what it is now, particularly from the following features:
First, the rapid economic development of China has been aided by globalization. Early in the 1980s, China was still a very underdeveloped nation. China's transformation from a developing nation to the second-largest economy in the world, from a closed market to the largest goods trading nation, and from a "proletarian" society to a society with an overall high standard of living and 400 million middle-class citizens is only possible through reform and opening up. We have eradicated absolute poverty, a problem that had plagued China for centuries, over the past 40 years. More than 80% of the world's progress in reducing poverty has been made possible by the 800 million people in China who have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty. What China has accomplished in the past 40 years of reform and opening up is a miracle in the annals of world economic history: the second-largest economy, the 400-million-strong middle class, the lifting of 800 million people out of poverty, and the increase of its GDP per capita from less than US$ 300 to US$ 12,000 (by the end of 2021). However, we must understand that without globalization and openness, it would be very difficult for us to achieve these successes.
Second, the rapid urbanization of China has been aided by globalization. Shenzhen was a tiny fishing village forty years ago, but it has since grown into a first-class city with a population of about 20 million people. In the 1980s, Dongguan was just a county-level city with a few million residents; today, it has a permanent population of over 10 million. Urbanization has benefited from globalization because it encompasses more than the rise of high-rise buildings. Industrialization must go hand in hand with urbanization, which is supported by industry. Urbanization without industry is only empty urbanization. Globalization and urbanization are closely related in major cities like Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Guangzhou. We should be aware, though, that globalization also has drawbacks. As the "rust belt" in the United States, centered on Detroit, has declined since the 1980s, the urban belt in the Pearl River Delta has been growing. Prior to that, the Great Lakes region of the United States had a very successful automobile industry. Globalization will result in a leveling phenomenon, which could result in the transfer of industries from developed to developing nations. Losing industries causes a city to inevitably deteriorate. This is something we should be on alert for as the world becomes more globalized, not just as a lesson from the United States.
Third, the widespread adoption of Western technologies in China has been aided by globalization. One of the most important aspects of globalization is the freedom to move resources like labor, capital, and technology anywhere in the world. We must acknowledge that globalization makes it possible for us to use a variety of Western technologies, particularly those from the United States. In just a few decades, the Pearl River Delta has emerged as the hub of global manufacturing, which is inextricably linked to the spread of Western technology. China's industrial growth previously relied heavily on the transfer of technology from the United States and other western nations. We should also keep in mind that "Made in China" products produced since the 1980s are distinct from products "Made in Germany," "Made in the United States," and "Made in Japan" produced prior to that time. Prior to the 1980s, "Made in Germany" and similar terms referred to the production of complete goods. After the 1980s, "Made in China" referred to a product that was "assembled in China" rather than one that was entirely produced there. This meant that various components of a product were produced in other countries, transported to China, assembled there, and then exported to other countries. Global supply chains and industrial chains have developed as a result of the subdividing of the industrial division of labor. This has greatly promoted the formation and development of industrial chains and supply chains in the Pearl River Delta and the Yangtze River Delta.
Fourth, the expansion of private businesses has been aided by globalization. There are several sources of private enterprises in China. The first source is the initial group of private business owners who emerged in China during the 1980s transition from a planned economy to a market economy. They were called "ten thousand yuan households" at that time. Private businesses that were converted from state-owned businesses in the 1990s are the second source. Under the leadership of then-premier Zhu Rongji, China became the second largest source of private enterprises at that time by privatizing a significant number of state-owned businesses with low production efficiency, particularly local state-owned businesses, in order to join the WTO. Foreign investment is the third biggest source. Following Mr. Deng Xiaoping's "Southern Tour," a significant influx of foreign capital entered the mainland. The majority of foreign capital entering China is more willing to work with Chinese private enterprises due to institutional restrictions on state-owned enterprises, which has significantly aided in the growth of Chinese private enterprises.
Fifth, globalization has released China's demographic dividend. The demographic dividend in China is frequently cited by economists as the reason for its recent rapid development. But it is not a precise view. Empirically, not all nations that experience a demographic dividend are able to experience economic development. The demographic dividend might have been higher prior to China's reform and opening. However, it will be unable to support rapid economic development if the demographic dividend cannot be released. The family planning policy was put into place in the early 1980s precisely because the economy at the time could not keep up with the population growth. Globalization has brought about widespread industrialization and urbanization after the reform and opening up, and the demographic dividend has been released.
*Yi Da, a researcher at the Guangzhou Institute of GBA (Greater Bay Area of Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macau), contributed to the research and writing of this article.
Question: What prompts Zheng’s vigorous defense and apparent alarm?
I guess some of you might have wanted to abandon the reading upon these lines from the first paragraph, given that they are likely to be judged highly biased in the West
The West, which formerly drove globalization, is now the main driver of de-globalization….In order to contain China's continued rise and possibly even halt China's modernization, the West not only opposes globalization but also makes significant efforts to decouple it from China….
Zheng then appears to justify what he says is rising “nationalism and populism” as “response to western pressure” and says these “emotions” are “understandable.” He didn’t appear to blame domestic factors, except “if the reaction to the changes in the world is too intense and the level of irrational sentiment is too high. “
But from there, his writing took a drastic turn by issuing a dire warning:
From historical experience, China may once again close the door if "closing the country to the outside world" is accepted as a valid ideology. There is no certainty in history. If somebody believes openness is an inevitability, history will show that that belief was a grave mistake.
The last sentence shows that he apparently does not believe China’s opening-up policy is an inevitability. Rather, it is an option that is under attack and he needs to throw himself into the battle and defend it, by going on and on with the benefits and importance of opening up in the rest of his article.
So the obvious question is why now?
In my opinion, Zheng just mentioned it in passing:
Some people even began to academically justify the "closed-door policy" during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
As Zhou Xin, the Tech Editor of the South China Morning Post, opined in the Post on August 30:
…An official historical journal’s article that defended the isolationist policy Biguan Suoguo, referring to “closing borders and locking up the country”, implemented during China’s Ming and Qing dynasties.
The Historical Research article, written by a team at the Chinese Academy of History, challenges a widely held assumption, which is included in history textbooks, that China’s isolationist policy from the 16th to the 19th centuries was a total disaster. That led to the “century of humiliation”, when China was forced to open its borders after the opium wars, and the country’s harsh lesson to not isolate itself from the rest of the world.
The article has cast doubt on that interpretation, asserting that the Biguan Suoguo label itself was a product of “Western power and narrative”. It pointed out that the Chinese rulers’ policy at the time was a self-defence strategy, which fended off “threats of colonisation by the West”.
The isolationist policy was anchored on the noble motive of “safeguarding territory and culture”, according to the article. “From a contemporary point of view, whether a country should open itself up … is an issue within its own sovereignty.”
The South China Morning Post has another report the next day, August 31
An article on the “closed-door” policy of the Ming and Qing dynasties and its role in keeping away Western colonisers has sparked a storm on the Chinese internet, taking on added resonance as China sticks to its zero-Covid policy.
The isolationist policies of the last two imperial dynasties are sometimes blamed for closing off China to the outside world for some five centuries, causing its decline before the new People’s Republic came into being in 1949.
The article argues it was not a policy of complete isolation as such, but of “self-restriction” – to protect national interests and ward off foreign invasion.
However, while this delayed “the bloody eastward expansion of the Western colonialists” to some extent, the policy was “highly conservative” and had its limitations, it concedes.
Some social media users, especially on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, were up in arms against that line of thinking, saying it attempted to “reverse history”, while others said it promoted the benefits of isolationism, likening the imperial stance to China’s current Covid-19 policy.
“The greatest danger of this paper is that it gives people a wrong impression – [that] if China is closed today, it is in response to the invasion of Western capitalism, and it is also a foreign policy that is in keeping with the times,” commented one Weibo blogger with more than 340,000 followers.
So it is my opinion that the article you’ve just read was Zheng’s way of joining the discussion.
（Old Shenzhen vs. Shenzhen in 2018. credit: Xinhua)