December round-up: Reform, Opening, Belt and Road

As China celebrates 40 years of reform and opening up, the BRI needs to find its own place in and beyond Deng Xiaoping’s legacy

On December 18, 1978, the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party began its four-day deliberation at the Jingxi Hotel in Beijing. These were the coldest days of a year. But Chinese history books often associate the meeting with the image of thawing ice. It marked the official launch of a grand transformation of China that has since been known as “Reform and Opening Up.”

The 40th anniversary of the historic event dominated the political and media agenda of last month. And it is worth noting how the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was presented against the backdrop of Deng Xiaoping’s legacy.

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The 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party marked the official launch of a grand transformation of China that has since been known as “Reform and Opening Up.”

At a high-profile gathering commemorating the anniversary on December 18, President Xi Jinping referred to the 1978 moment as a “great awakening of the Chinese Communist Party”. Whether or not the Party was asleep before that is debatable, but the significance of the historic watershed is unquestionable. In 1978, China waved goodbye to three decades of Maoist fanaticism and embraced a more pragmatic, common-sensical path toward development. The ideological restrictions on individuals, businesses and society were gradually loosened. The countryside quickly recovered from the shackles of collectivization. The private sector emerged and prospered. Foreign capital flowed in. And the result was a booming economy that lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and enabled the Party to declare that a “national rejuvenation” was right around the corner.

The BRI naturally found its place in Xi Jinping’s speech that walked the audience through that journey again. It was presented as a logical extension to the decision to open up the country to the outside world, first through a few coastal special economic zones, then along the rivers that radiate inland. As China integrates into the global market, it’s time to go beyond its own borders and begin doing business around the globe. “We moved from letting in to going out,” as President Xi put it.

The idea of the Belt and Road as “Reform and Opening Up phase II” is not entirely new. Chinese experts had been making the argument ahead of the anniversary that BRI inherited and expanded the essence of Opening Up. In a narrow sense, one of the stated strategic objectives of BRI is to link China’s landlocked provinces to west-bound trade routes all the way to Europe through Central Asia. In a broader sense, BRI is seen as staying true to the reform’s key message of “integration”, fitting China into existing global institutions and frameworks such as the WTO.

At this point in history, emphasizing the continuity between BRI and the Opening Up would probably help remove some sharp edges of President Xi’s signature initiative in the eyes of external observers. But despite the insistence that BRI is the child of reform, it is undeniable that the initiative is not without tensions with Deng Xiaoping’s legacy. Its (perceived) geopolitical ambitions and challenge to existing international institutions and norms can be at odds with Deng’s teaching of “hide your capabilities and bide your time”. The dominating role played by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the initiative can also be read as a reversal of policies encouraging and nurturing the private sector.

Those tensions were tacitly touched upon in an earlier analysis by Chinese Academy of Social Science scholar Xue Li titled “BRI and the New Reform and Opening”. Xue argues that the BRI’s global impact is probably going to be larger than that of Reform and Opening Up. It continues on the path of opening the Chinese market (largely facing developed economies) but moves on to “unlocking others” (mostly developing economies). According to Xue, this is a departure from China’s traditional philosophy of “winning over others by perfecting one’s own virtues”(远人不服则修文德以来之). Instead, the new administration decides to go all the way to the distant “others” and help them with social and economic development.

He notes that China does not have the power/right to set development strategies for other countries and cannot force them into the BRI. The initiative is a “development strategy” for China, but can only be a “cooperation proposal” for the outside world. This leads to the elevation of “neighborhood diplomacy” in terms of strategic importance, another departure from reform-era diplomatic priorities that “put major power diplomacy, especially with the United States, at the absolute center.” The pivot towards neighboring developing countries, Xue contends, is a clear trend since 2016 and a response to the perceived shrinking/stagnating space for furthering diplomatic relations with more developed countries. His article also implies that China is no longer content with simply accepting the global frameworks and is making efforts to fix some of their flaws through negotiations rather than confrontations.

The analysis underscores the extent to which BRI needs to maintain a linkage to the 1978 legacy while distinguishing itself as an update and reinvention. And that need is not all externally focused (i.e. to placate Western critics). Internally, the public may also need some convincing that with a full-throttled push for the BRI, they are still on the Reform and Opening Up bus that they bought tickets for. One Weibo post captures the difficulty for the Chinese public to appreciate why they should be concerned with the development of, say, Africa or India. “40 years ago, our own opening up helped developed economies find an outlet for their capital and enterprises that their internal markets and free trade agreements within the OECD bloc could not provide.” Now, the Weibo commentator argued, it’s China’s turn to wanting that solution for its internal difficulties: employment, environment, etc, and the public should come on board with that logic in mind.

With all the talks of fixing the global order and “neighborhood diplomacy”, the celebration of the 40th anniversary was still largely a tribute to the past. One item of the program was the awarding of Reform Friendship Medals to 10 foreigners who had made distinguished contributions to Reform and Opening Up. They were American, Japanese, German, British, Swiss, Spanish, French and Singaporean. No one from the developing world received that recognition. It would be interesting to see if in 2028, when Reform and Opening Up policy turns 50, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans or Kenyans would be honored in the same manner for assisting China in its renewed quest for national glory.