China’s Short March

BEIJING – China’s government is making massive preparations for a grand National Day parade in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to celebrate both the 60th anniversary of the PRC’s founding and the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s program of “reform and opening up.” Walking through the square the other evening, I found myself thinking back to when I first began following China’s amazing odyssey. The iconic, Mona Lisa-like visage of Chairman Mao still gazes out from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, but what was happening all around me suggested how much things had changed.

When I first began studying China at Harvard a half-century ago, China’s leaders trumpeted the superiority of their socialist command economy, which controlled every aspect of life. Hostility between the United States and China, however, prevented students like me from actually traveling there.

But in 1975, while Mao still lived, the Cultural Revolution still raged, class politics still held sway, and there were no private cars, shops, advertisements, or private property, I arrived in Beijing. Even we visiting foreigners – all dutifully clad in blue Mao suits and caps – were expected to attend regular political “study sessions” to purify our bourgeois minds with proletarian tracts written by the Gang of Four. That trip set an indelible baseline against which I have since been able to measure all the changes China has undergone.

As Deng Xiaoping began to encourage individual incentives over the next several decades – embodied in such slogans as, “To Get Rich Is Glorious” – I watched with wonder and amazement as China’s private economy began to rise from the ashes of Mao’s revolution. As this process unfolded, it became fashionable for market fundamentalists in the West to bask in a sense of vindication. After all, were the scales not falling away from the eyes of Chinese leaders, and were they not now turning for salvation toward the God of capitalism that they had once so militantly denounced?