Recently, some Western scholars and media have claimed that it was the United States that pushed China to adopt its reform and opening-up policy
in the late 1970s, with the intention of dragging China into the political and economic system under U.S.domination.
Their logic goes something like this: the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the United States started the process to normalize their diplomatic relations in 1972 and China launched the policy in 1978. Thus, the two countries' economic ties became increasingly intertwined over the following years.
But these scholars and media, along with some top U.S. officials, said that the decades-long U.S. engagement policy toward China has failed. This is why the current U.S. administration is turning to trade friction with China.
Is China's decision on reform and opening up indeed the result of the U.S. engagement policy? The assumption smacks of Cold War thinking at its heart because anyone who has knowledge of Chinese history knows it is not true.
The Chinese people liberated themselves from a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society after the founding of the PRC in 1949. Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), they took the road of self-reliance and arduous work. However the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) hindered China's economic development.
In order to turn the situation around, the 11th CPC Central Committee made a crucial decision to shift the focus of the Party's work to economic construction at its Third Plenary Session on December 18-22, 1978. The meeting is regarded as the commencement of the reform and opening-up drive.
The report to the 17th CPC National Congress in October 2007 said, "In a precarious situation left by the 'cultural revolution,' the [Party's] second generation of central collective leadership, persisting in emancipating the mind and seeking truth from facts and displaying immense political and theoretical courage, made a scientific appraisal of Comrade Mao Zedong and Mao Zedong Thought, thoroughly repudiated the erroneous theory and practice of 'taking class struggle as the key link,' and made the historic policy decision to shift the focus of the work of the Party and the state onto economic development and introduce reform and opening up."
The report pointed out that the aim of reform and opening up was to release and develop the productive forces, modernize the country, bring prosperity to the Chinese people and achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
Moreover, in the 1970s, China faced huge pressure from international competition as its gap with the developed world continued to widen in terms of economic growth and science and technology. This was also a compelling reason for China's reform and opening up initiative.
Therefore, both internal and external conditions drove China to take the road of reform and opening up to keep up with the rest of the world.
Washington does have an engagement policy toward China. However, it was not designed to promote China's social and economic development, but rather as a means of promoting U.S. interests.
The United States needed to align with China to confront the Soviet Union in the 1970s. As President Richard Nixon said to Chinese leaders on his first visit to China in 1972, he was there for U.S. interests.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1979, some people in the United States have developed their own ideas about the engagement policy toward China. They believe once a country begins to ramp up its economic growth through the market economy, international trade and closer ties to the outside world, it will have no choice but to become part of Western values as well as its political and economic systems.
Nevertheless, the report to the 17th CPC National Congress explicitly pointed out that "the fundamental reason behind all our achievements and progress since the reform and opening-up policy was introduced is that we have blazed a path of socialism with Chinese characteristics and established a system of theories of socialism with Chinese characteristics."
China and the United States need to engage with each other. They have been able to keep communication flowing during the past four decades successfully. As Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the United States, said at the Penn Wharton China Summit 2018 on April 15, decades of engagement have produced some beneficial changes to both sides. "China-U.S. cooperation in areas such as peace, security, stability, anti-terrorism, economy and poverty alleviation, among others, has brought positive impacts to the world, which in turn proves the necessity of China-U.S. cooperation," Cui added.
China's reform and opening up has strengthened its connection with the rest of the world. This has been voluntary, not forced, engagement. Mutually beneficial cooperation and engagement between China and the United States—two countries with numerous differen-ces—on the basis of mutual respect, will usher in a better future for both countries and the world at large.
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo
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