China is taking steps intended to reduce its exposure to Western economic coercion, while enhancing its leverage over others.
Deng Xiaoping‘s initiation of the ‘reform and opening up‘ programme at the end of 1978 appears in retrospect to be the decisive turning point in the history of modern China. Increasing reliance on market forces, as opposed to state planning, and deeper integration into the global economy, in place of the old policy of self-imposed isolation and virtual autarky, launched China onto a steep growth trajectory. By any measure, economic or strategic, China‘s decision to join the world has been an enormous success, raising the standard of living of hundreds of millions of people, enhancing the nation‘s influence and prestige, and paving the way for its eventual re-emergence as a regional and global power on a par with the United States.
The decision to reform and open was obviously consequential, but it was also extremely risky, in ways that are sometimes overlooked or downplayed in the West. As they emerged from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s and entered into a period of intensifying geopolitical rivalry with the Soviet Union, Deng and his colleagues were convinced that reform was essential both to national survival and to regime security. Unless it could expand and modernise its economy more rapidly than it had done in previous decades, China would remain poor, weak and vulnerable. And unless it could deliver sustained, meaningful improvements in the quality of life of the Chinese people, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would face growing dissatisfaction and the mounting danger of unrest.