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The “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” Guide to 40 Years of Reform and Opening

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This week, Xi Jinping gave a major speech celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Reform and Opening era. It also happens to be the time of year when I attempt to indoctrinate my wife into the joys of Christmas by forcing her to watch beloved holiday specials from my childhood. Now that I’m older and I live in China, I’ve come to realize some of these traditions were pretty messed up, but they also make excellent heuristic devices for understanding the last four decades of Chinese development.

With that, I give you the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer guide to Reform and Opening

Comet: Now, now. What’s all this nonsense here, bucks? After all– [yells when he sees Rudolph’s nose, too]

[The other reindeer gasp, but then they laugh]

Reindeer #1: Hey! Look at the beak!

Reindeer #2: Hey, Fire Snoot!

Reindeer #3: Rainbow Puss!

Reindeer #4: Red Schnoz!

Rudolph: Stop calling me names!

Reindeer #5: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!

Santa[glares at Donner] Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself! What a pity! He had a nice takeoff, too!

Comet[blows his whistle] Alright! Alright, now, yearlings! Back to practice! [The other reindeer return to playing and Rudolph tries to join them] Oh, no! Not you! You’d better go home with your folks. From now on, gang, we won’t let Rudolph join in any reindeer games! Right?

The Cultural Revolution profoundly sucked but it’s nice to know that China wasn’t the only place in the 1960s where the masses turned on individuals deemed unfit for joining the new order. That Rudolph wasn’t able to better establish his “Red” credentials and then use those to wage retributive political war against his enemies simply shows a lack of imagination on his part.

That said, it’s also worth considering that the Cultural Revolution, as horrible as it was, acted as a brushfire clearing the way for the bold reforms of the Deng Xiaoping era. It’s hard to get people to give up a system which sorta kinda works no matter how good the idea. It’s easier to convince people that change is necessary when you drag them through ten years of turmoil and political hell. 

 

“Head Elf: Hermey! Aren’t you finished painting that yet? There’s a pile up a mile wide behind you! What’s eating you?

Hermey: Not happy with my work, I guess. 

One of the problems of central planning is that nobody has much of a choice… in anything. Historians, economists, and politicians love to argue about who gets credit for the Reform and Opening Era. Xi Jinping seems to have some clear thoughts on the matter. So does Mike Pence. But I think it’s pretty obvious that much of the credit should go to the Chinese people, who took advantage of new opportunities to make their lives and those of their children better.

Did foreign investment prime the pump and provide the capital? Absolutely. Did the Party create conditions for people’s prosperity? Probably. But however you want to look at it, the Reform and Opening era created a lot of opportunities for people to be happy – or at least better paid – for their work and folks took that opportunity and ran away with it.

“Hermey: Hey, what do you say we both be independent together, huh? 

One of my favorite things about Deng Xiaoping is how he ran a whole country of people who were, even by the standards of the era, a lot taller than he was. Dude was basically Tyrion Lannister in a Mao suit. I also love that he did it all without a lot of titles. Sure, he held on to one of the biggest ones (Chairman of the Central Military Commission) but he wasn’t head of state or head of the party. Those were titles for the people who worked for him, notably Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang. Hu Yaobang may have been the only person in the entire CCP shorter than Deng Xiaoping while Zhao Ziyang had shown some reformist chops in his home province of Sichuan.

They were two of the most important figures at a critical moment in the Reform and Opening era and they also made convenient fall guys when things went off the rails. Hu Yaobang was ousted in 1987 following a wave of student protests and Zhao Ziyang followed in the wake of the 1989 demonstrations (which began, of course, in part as a memorial to the recently deceased Hu Yaobang).

It’s also interesting if you read Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs, just how much Zhao and Hu didn’t get along.

Yukon Cornelius: We’ll have to outwit the fiend with our superior intelligence.

Undoing a quarter century of disastrous policymaking wasn’t the only thing the Party did to kick off Reform and Opening. They also invited in the world to share their money and their knowledge. This can be a tricky thing. In the 19th century, officials would talk about “Chinese things for what is essential, Western things for what is useful.” In the 1980s, Deng liked to refer to a screen which lets in the fresh air of capital and technology transfers without any of the mosquitos and flies (presumably democracy and some of the early ’80s Def Leppard albums).

Technology transfer was a cornerstone of the era. Companies from all over the world, including the United States, Europe, and Japan, opened factories and facilities in China and shared their technology with Chinese counterparts. It was a huge boost to China’s modernization to be able to absorb in a short amount of time the trial-and-error of the world.

It was all very clever up until the point that Canada started taking hostages and the world realized that gifting the CCP the best practices and the best IP the world had to offer and then letting them put it to work building a strong Chinese State might not have been in everyone’s interest.

Related:

People’s Daily Releases Epic Illustration for 40 Years of Opening and Reform

As many have written, it started with a fundamental miscalculation: If we develop China’s economy, then the people will eventually get rid of the CCP. That’s the way it has always worked. If we sign a few deals and transfer some tech it won’t matter. The long-term goals are too juicy to worry about the short-term problem of Chinese companies making photocopies of their partner’s IP in the back while toasting foreign CEOs and heads of state out front in the banquet hall.

Yeah, well… looks like the world called the putt on “economic development will lead to peaceful evolution” just a wee bit early.

Yukon Cornelius: You’re going to stay with me and we’ll all be rich with the biggest silver strike this side of Hudson Bay. Silver.

Hermey: I thought you wanted gold.

Yukon Cornelius: I changed my mind.

At the same time, it’s easy to think that the Chinese government and the Party were executing some kind of deep plan brimming with strategic brilliance and ancient insights. Not so much. One of the characteristics of the 1980s at least is that there wasn’t really a plan. The same could be said for today. There was, and still is, a lot of reactive fetishization of GDP and economic growth but not always actual strategy. I wonder if that’s why Xi is so attached to “Made in China 2025” because it looks like the Party is trying to be proactive for once.

 

Yukon Cornelius: Whoa. Whoa. Unmush, will ya?

There were also the unintended consequences of reform. Deng, ever the farsighted hobbit, knew this would be an issue. He said: “The penetration of bourgeois ideas is inevitable.” But by 1983, it was clear the Party didn’t want to be penetrated quite that deeply or in as many orifices as was the case in the early years of Reform and Opening. American capital is good. American technology is good. The strident and trenchant songs of that notorious American revolutionary poet John Denver… not so much.

The Party needed to remind people that the country of Wham! was also the country of the Opium War. The 1980s were characterized by cautious moves toward greater openness and then campaigns which smacked of retrenchment. It wasn’t until the 1990s, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square disaster, that the Party and Deng realized that half-measures weren’t going to cut it. What the Party tried to do in the 1980s was, to quote the late political economist Robin Williams, like partial circumcision. Less than ideal. You either do it all the way or fucking forget it.

Hermey: Well, someday I’d like to be a dentist.

Head Elf: A dentist?

Hermey: Well we need one up here. I’ve been studying molars and bicuspids and incisors…

Head Elf: Now listen, you, you’re an elf and elves make toys. Now get to work. 

Which of course leads into one of the most famous – and unfortunate – events of the era.

When thinking about the Reform and Opening era, whatever your politics, the numbers are staggering. The World Bank claims 800 million people were lifted out of poverty on Deng Xiaoping’s watch. The process wasn’t always pretty, but one of the most staggering transformations of society in human history occurred while he was in charge.

But Deng’s obituaries, those written outside of China anyway, all cited Deng’s use of the military to clear the demonstrators, usually in the first couple of paragraphs. That’s what happens when you make terrible choices. OJ Simpson is in the American football Hall of Fame. Gary Glitter sold over 20 million records. I guarantee that’s not what comes up when you Google those names.

There’s been a lot written (and with the 30th anniversary coming up there’s sure to be more) about the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. But one thing that is sometimes overlooked is the extent that anxieties over jobs and careers motivated many of the students in the square. Things were changing in the 1980s but for many college students in the era, their lives and careers were out of their hands. As the economy changed and corruption flourished, many of China’s best and brightest worried about being left behind. There were others as well who didn’t want to be an elf and go to elf practice. They wanted to be a dentist. Frankly, Hermie the elf should wake up every morning in his North Pole dentist office grateful that Santa doesn’t have any tanks.

Happy Christmas or Happy Reform and Opening 40th Anniversary depending on your location and political affiliation.

Jeremiah Jenne
    Jeremiah Jenne is a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing.