This article was originally posted on John’s blog, Key Trends in Globalisation on the 23rd of August.
August 22, 2014 is the 110th anniversary of the birth of Deng Xiaoping. Numerous achievements would ensure Deng Xiaoping a major position in China’s history – his role in shaping the People’s Republic of China, his steadfastness during persecution in the Cultural Revolution, his extraordinarily balanced attitude even after return to power towards the development and recent history of China, his all-round role after 1978 in leading the country. But one ensures him a position among a tiny handful of people at the peak not only of Chinese but of world history. This was China’s extraordinary economic achievement after reforms began in 1978, and the decisive role this played not only in the improvement of the living standards of Chinese people but the country’s national rejuvenation. So great was the impact of this that it may objectively be said to have altered the situation not only of China but of the world.
China’s economic performance after the beginning of its 1978 reforms simply exceeded the experience of any other country in human history. To give only a partial list:
- China achieved the most rapid growth in a major economy in world history.
- China experienced the fastest growth of living standards of any major economy.
- China lifted 620 million people out of internationally defined poverty.
- Measured in internationally comparable prices, adjusted for inflation, the greatest increase in economic output in a single year in any country outside China was the U.S. in 1999, when it added US$567 billion, whereas in 2010 China added US$1,126 billion – twice as much.
- During the beginning of China’s rapid growth, 22 percent of the world’s population was within its borders – seven times that of United States at the beginning of its own fast economic development.
Wholly implausibly, it is sometimes argued that this success was merely due to “pragmatism” and achieved without overall economic theories, concepts, or a leadership really understanding the subject (particularly with no knowledge of U.S. academic economics!). If true, then the study of economics should immediately be abandoned – if the greatest economic success in world history can be achieved without any understanding of the subject, then it is evidently of no practical value whatever.
In reality this argument is entirely specious. Deng Xiaoping’s approach to economic policy was certainly highly practical regarding application – the famous “it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white provided it catches mice.” But it was extremely theoretical regarding foundations – as shown clearly in such works as In Everything We Do We Must Proceed from the Realities of the Primary Stage of Socialism, We Are Undertaking An Entirely New Endeavour, and Adhere to the Principle to Each According to his Work. Deng Xiaoping’s outstanding practical success was guided by a clearly defined theoretical underpinning, which can be understood particularly clearly in its historical context and in comparison with Western and other economists.