China’s Path: Four Decades of Opening up and how it Challenges our Preconceptions

Tom Harper is a SACU member and joined SACU Council in September 2019. He is a doctoral researcher at Neijiang Normal University. He specialises in China’s foreign relations and has written on this subject for several publications. This is his first for China Eye, published in Issue 63, Autumn 2019. 


Over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, few nations have had as great a reversal in status as China has had, going from an isolated quasi-feudal empire seemingly frozen in time to one of the Great Powers of the modern day complete with cities that are as modern if not more so than many First World capitals. This comes with the 40th anniversary of China’s opening up to the world under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, who has gone down as one of the significant leaders of the 20th century and Deng’s vision for China will continue to have an impact on global life today.


One of the testaments to this has been in Xi’an, which I had the fortune to visit in 2017. The city saw China’s past and present paths blend together, with the tombs and palaces of emperors long departed standing almost side by side with structures from the modern day. One wondered what Emperor Qin, one of the founders of the Chinese nation, would have made of his new kingdom. This blend has also made itself apparent in the frequent references to the Silk Roads of old which once began in Xi’an, with the city being one of the focal points of China’s ambition to craft a latter day Silk Road in the form of the Belt and the Road Initiative, which renders China as a truly global power rather than the hermit nation it has often been cast as and is a demonstration of how far China has come since 1979.


Silk Road Museum Xi’an (TH)


As with any major global development, China’s ascent has been a challenge to the common assumptions and myths we have regarding China. In addition, China’s development has also been perceived as an example for other states to follow for their development, seemingly following China’s traditional role of leading by example.


China’s current status can be attributed to the defeats suffered by the Qing dynasty at the hands of the European powers, most notably in the First Opium War of 1839. This was often claimed to be a result of China seemingly falling behind the Western world, most notably in the perception that China was unwilling or unable to industrialise in the way that the European powers had done. As a result, this raised the question of how China should modernise with the once dominant Confucian system seemingly losing its appeal in favour of Western ideals, a development that would be furthered by the downfall of the Qing dynasty in the Xinhai revolution of 1911. It was the question of how to modernise China to regain its former status, a quest pursued by Sun Yat-Sen, the father of modern China, that has been the starting point for the path that we see today in the form of China’s ideological and economic development.


The roots of China’s development, which has seen it become the world’s second largest economy a decade ago, overtaking Japan and often projected to overtake the United States in the near future, has often been traced to the economic reforms and opening up of China in 1979. This saw the abandonment of the pursuit of the communist ideology that had been the guiding force of the Mao era in favour of the pursuit of economic development, which continues to underpin China’s relationship with the wider world today.


With the opening up of China, it became the world’s workshop, a title once held by the United Kingdom at the height of its power during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. This also saw the rise of the moniker ‘made in China’ which has been synonymous with cheaply produced, low-quality goods that litter everyday life. It is also this image of China as the world’s low-cost factory that would be challenged in the later phases of China’s development as it sought to conceive its own designs rather than building those of others.


What has been most notable about China’s development has been in its speed, which has been likened to the Industrial and ICT Revolutions happening simultaneously and in half the time period, as described by the former Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd. This has also seen what had once been little more than dirt roads give way to sleek infrastructure that puts many First World nations to shame. In addition, China’s experiences of development have also been an inspiration to the developing world, which has been expressed through the China Model.


The Chinese model of economic development, known as the ‘Beijing Consensus’, has been one of the tools behind China’s rapid development and one of the most successful aspects of China’s soft power push. This has seen the elites of the developing world, such as Pakistan’s Imran Khan, become staunch advocates of the China model, as demonstrated by his pledge to bring this model to Pakistan during his electoral campaign. It is this aspect that has demonstrated China’s appeal to the developing world.


China’s model follows the precedent set by Japan’s modernisation during the Meiji Restoration of the mid-19th century and its post-war economic development. It also utilised what Ho Kwon-Ping termed as ‘Neo-Confucian State Capitalism’ pioneered by Singapore, which has also been praised by British politicians who misinterpreted the country as a nirvana of free-market capitalism. This came at a time where China’s identity shifted towards a more Confucian vision rather than the ideological project of the 20th century. While the Chinese model has been part of China’s appeal, it has also challenged the common images of China, most notably the perception that China’s development was solely due to outside help and that it was based upon a Western model, which has been raised by the image of China’s development as a Frankenstein’s monster created by Western investors and economists.  Such an image often overlooks the nature of the Chinese model as well as the role that the Chinese themselves have played in the country’s development.


The latest phase of China’s development has highlighted its technological advances, which can be characterised as going from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Designed in China’, a move that has been epitomised by China’s telecommunications flagship, Huawei.  As with much of China’s development, this challenges many of the common myths about China, most notably the assumption that it can only manufacture goods that have been conceived elsewhere and that China is either incapable of innovation or can only do so through imitation. Such an image overlooks China’s tradition of innovation, with inventions such as gunpowder and paper money continuing to play important roles in everyday life as well as how China has been able to make its advances in high technology.


China’s advances in technology can also be attributed to its long-term strategies and its Confucian embrace of education. At many British universities, this can be seen in the flood of Chinese students eager to study in the UK, with applications from China recently eclipsing those from Northern Ireland to become the largest contingent of foreign students studying in the UK. This will further the educational exchange between China and the UK as well as offering a glimpse of what is to come. This was clear in the China Bridge competition in London this year, where Chinese universities sought to recruit the future of Britain as well as challenging the assumption that the British have no aptitude for foreign languages, with students across the country giving speeches in fluent Mandarin. It is this event that shows how the Sino-British educational exchanges offer a window into the future of their relationship.


As a result, China has moved away from what the influential Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, termed as ‘Foxconn China’ to a state where Chinese firms have become an equal to their Western counterparts in numerous fields and has even surpassed them in others, most notably in 5G technology, with Huawei being identified by British Telecomm as the global leader in this technology. While this challenges the image of China being incapable of innovation, it also questions the belief that the Western world will always hold the technological advantage, an assumption that seems increasingly tenuous today.  As a result, it is likely that China’s innovations today will play a role in shaping life just as its previous innovations had done.


China’s experiences of economic development have demonstrated how far the country has come as well as setting an example to inspire other nations in the developing world. In addition, it has challenged many of the common assumptions about China as well as seeing it become one of the major powers of the modern day, which will play a greater role in shaping the future of the world.


Tom Harper, November 2019