Westad: Both in the early 1970s, when Mao Zedong was still around, and maybe even more so in the late 1970s, both under Hua Guofeng and then Deng Xiaoping and his group, there’s this obsession with the idea that there will be war, that China will be attacked from the outside. Most likely by the Soviet Union, but also possibly by the Americans.
The imperative of growth, of rapid growth, came straight out of that. It’s remarkable to see how often leaders in this time period keep repeating that. From their perspective, this isn’t growth to help people get rich and move out of poverty. It’s all about strengthening the state, creating a state that can withstand the storms of that war that is going to come in the future. That was their thinking.
It’s fascinating to see how much of the literature that deals with this time period, especially from a US perspective, gets this exactly upside down. They think that economic reform is simply about releasing setting productive forces free and enabling a market transformation based on what had happened elsewhere. I think from the leadership’s perspective, then and probably also now, it’s the state imperative that is the most important. It’s what the state can extract from its own society in order to prepare for some kind of external conflict.
Karl Gerth: I’m often surprised that the Made In China 2025 plan is talked about as a form of autarky rather than as a form of geostrategic response. Just take the simple statistic that the US military budget is greater than the next 10 countries combined. It’s easy to imagine that China would find itself today, as it did then, in a position where it constantly needs to innovate and unleash productive forces.
Westad: I agree with that. If we look at the situation today, I think that’s very true, it’s exactly where much of this is coming from. It is less specific thinking about rapid economic development per se as it is a preparation for whatever the Communist Party and the Chinese government wants to do. There doesn’t necessarily have to be a contradiction between those two. But it’s very clear what comes first: it is the geopolitical strategy that determines how China approaches its economy, not the other way around.
At this moment, it’s easy to see these historical parallels: with the US openly attempting to strangle China’s technology sector, China clearly feels more externally threatened than it has in a while. As a result, it’s more obvious than usual how its geopolitical position is shaping economic policy. The geopolitical context for Chinese economic policy is also the subject of Covell Meyskens’ excellent recent book on the Third Front–see my review from last year.