Self-reliance seems to be an important value for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In a public discussion with agricultural experts in March, he invoked the term to urge attention to food security: “Who will feed China? China has to put its faith in self-reliance, and feed itself!” Xi declared, “in a resounding tone,” according to the account in the People’s Daily. In Liaoning province in August, on a tour of a robot manufacturer, he used it again in the context of technology: “We must adhere to self-reliance, make developing the strength of the country and the nation the basic point, and firmly grasp the initiative of development.”
The phrase conventionally translated here as “self-reliance” is zili gengsheng (自力更生), which has historical resonances in Chinese that the neutral English translation fails to capture. Zili gengsheng was a key slogan during the Mao era, and Xi’s repeated use of the term in recent years is one of the things that make people think he wants to return to the autarky of the 1950s.
But like many good political slogans, zili gengsheng works to elicit an emotional response–who doesn’t want to be self-reliant?–without necessarily referring to a specific set of policies. The best short explanation of the term I’ve found is in Jason M. Kelly’s recent book Market Maoists: The Communist Origins of China’s Capitalist Ascent, a history of foreign trade policy during the Mao years:
Trade with capitalists was indispensable, but also dangerous. It must be controlled. This view produced an early and abiding tension in CCP trade policy. On the one hand, the Party must remain aloof from foreign capitalists to safeguard China’s independence; on the other, it must “struggle” to engage them. The Party reconciled these divergent aims in the concept of zili gengsheng, or “revival through one’s own efforts.” Zili gengsheng, which became a pillar of economic policy in the Mao era, was never just a policy. It was a disposition, a blend of caution and ambition from which Party leaders could derive the orientation and scope of China’s economic interaction in a given historical context. The term offered a foundation for thinking about the political implications of trade, especially the dependencies and vulnerabilities that accompanied it. Trade could breed dependency if not carefully controlled, and dependency brought vulnerability. In its broadest sense, zili gengsheng meant never trusting one’s fate to outsiders and never placing all of one’s eggs in a single basket.
I think this applies to the contemporary use of zili gengsheng as well. Xi’s use of the term conveys a conviction that China exists in a dangerous world surrounded by rivals and competitors. Because no one else is going to help China become rich and powerful, it must do that on its own, without depending on outsiders. Xi’s choice of this specific term, out of many possible synonyms for self-reliance, is certainly a gesture to the Mao era. But the use of zili gengsheng signals more of a “disposition,” in Kell’s term, than an endorsement of the specific policies of extreme isolation that Mao pursued. China’s central position in the global trading system means the starting point for any pursuit of self-reliance today must be quite different. The total value of its imports and exports is equivalent to around 35% of China’s GDP, a high ratio for a large economy, compared to around 5% in the 1950s.
During the Mao era, zili gengsheng was a general political value with varying interpretations, not a single program. Another very interesting book on trade policy in the Mao era, Lawrence C. Reardon’s The Reluctant Dragon: Crisis Cycles in Chinese Foreign Economic Policy, explains how Zhou Enlai in the early 1960s articulated an alternative to Mao’s version of self-reliance. Zhou agreed that China needed to become self-reliant, as the break with the Soviet Union had led to a major loss of foreign investment, aid and technical advice. But he argued for controlled foreign trade to obtain China’s needs, rather than autarky, and more orthodox socialist planning to guide development, rather than the disastrous campaigns of the Great Leap Forward.
Zhou did argue that “China’s strategic policy is to obtain self-reliance,” but also that “it is impossible to close the door to the outside world to implement communism.” He thought China should export the goods it knew how to produce in order to earn the revenue to import what it needed to develop further. The debate was not over whether China should be self-reliant, but over the best program for achieving that self-reliance: Zhou’s relative and flexible one versus Mao’s extreme and doctrinaire one.
Zhou ended up losing the debate on economic policy to Mao, and the more moderate development model he and others proposed in the early 1960s was abandoned for mass campaigns and autarky during the Cultural Revolution. their ideas lived on, and were an inspiration for some of the initial moves away from Maoist autarky in the late 1970s. But in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping abandoned self-reliance entirely and pursued a different model, of export-oriented growth and attracting foreign investment. The level of trade openness that Deng endorsed was a fundamental change from what socialist economics had previously considered desirable.
Xi Jinping’s renewed invocation of self-reliance, and related concepts like “dual circulation,” show a discontent with Deng’s outward-focused model and a desire to reduce China’s external vulnerabilities. At the same time, there is a recognition that China’s position as the hub of global supply chains gives it economic power and influence over other countries, which Xi wants to enhance rather than abandon. Given this context, Maoist autarky is not a practical option. Despite the occasional rhetorical gestures to Mao, Xi seems to be more of a strong-state nationalist than a true Maoist (see this previous post, “Who won the battle of ideas in China?“). The renewed pursuit of self-reliance in today’s China may end up being a variation of Zhou Enlai’s strategy of accepting the necessity of trade while guiding it to benefit the nation.