Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

A different stage for reforms

By Zhang Zhouxiang (China Daily) Updated: 2014-01-20 07:23

Thirty-five years ago, then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping launched the reforms that have changed China so remarkably. Now the country is launching a new round of reforms. What is the difference between now and then? "There are many," said Ezra F. Vogel, a professor of emeritus at Harvard University and author of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, which was published in 2011.

In Vogel's opinion, the biggest difference between China in 1978 and now is the economic situation. When Deng launched reform, the country was "poor and divided", having just emerged from the devastating "cultural revolution" (1966-76), and it had a huge population struggling only for survival. Today it has the second-largest GDP in the world, more than $8 trillion, and the people are wealthier and better educated and have a global perspective.

However, while offering a stronger base for the deepening of reform, the better economic conditions might also mean it is difficult to make people feel they are economically benefiting from the new reforms, he said.

In his book on Deng and his reform, Vogel famously concludes that one of Deng's most important ideas was "allowing some people to get rich first"; but China's social gaps have become wider after three decades so now it needs to concentrate on not only increasing the general wealth of all, but also promoting a more equal distribution of wealth, he said.

Vogel said he was glad to see that over the last decade, China's leaders have improved social security and helped the poorer, backward regions, and he hopes this process will be accelerated in the new reform program.

A different stage for reforms

Vogel said another fundamental difference between now and Deng's era is "people now have the Internet", and this is compelling global leaders to change their ways of governance, China being no exception. With almost universal access to the Internet, ordinary people now have a bigger and more convenient say in public issues, which means the authorities have to be extremely careful when making public policies, he said. As the US has found with its attempt to mislead the world over the Iraqi War, all governments should avoid guiding information because they will only humiliate themselves.

Vogel also said that reactions from other countries such as the US might differ from 35 years ago. "Generally the US offered full support in the 1980s to China, as it was still relatively weak and its economy lagged far behind that of the US, and because there was the Soviet Union," he said, adding that China was unlikely to get the same support today, as it has emerged as a potential competitor to the US. The rest of the international community also holds diverse opinions on China's growing influence.

China has done a smart move by raising the idea of "new major power relations" with the US and other powers. In a conference on Sino-US relations, held by the Institute of American Studies affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which Vogel came to Beijing to attend, local scholars discussed with their colleagues from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. A generally accepted conclusion is that the two countries can avoid a war, but there is possibility of conflicts based on interests and value.

Vogel noted that China's new leadership is showing a new style, characterized by easygoingness, openness and confidence, which he thinks is helpful to maintaining relations with the outside world, including the US. "The new leadership has shown political unity inward and friendliness outward," he said. The summit of the two Presidents, Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, in June 2013 in California was a good example of the two countries trying to build trust, but he said more initiatives are needed to reduce mistrust.

Summing up, Vogel said he is "generally optimistic" about the new reform push, but he cautioned, "there are many pressing problems, too", and he emphasized that finding solutions to these problems is necessary if reforms are to succeed.

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