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The West Needs To Stop Believing China Can Reform Itself

Revered China expert Frank Dikotter’s latest book, ‘China After Mao: The Rise of a Superpower,’ paints a damning portrait of gullible Western leaders unwilling to pressure the CCP.


One of the West’s most significant foreign policy blunders was its blind faith that economic engagements with China would empower moderate Communist party members to launch political reforms. Such wishful thinking, unfortunately, is not the only China illusion the West has fallen for, according to Frank Dikotter’s new book China After Mao: The Rise of a Superpower.

Dikotter, as the chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong since 2006, has a front-row seat from which he can observe Chinese history. He’s also traveled to China many times and sifted through thousands of municipal and provincial government archives and primary source materials. All of this research enabled him to author the award-winning “People’s Trilogy,” a series of books that document the Chinese Communist Party’s rise to power and how its ideology and policies inflicted unimaginable pain on the Chinese people from 1945 to 1976, the year Chairman Mao, the worst mass-murder of human history, died.

Dikotter’s new book picks up from 1976 to the present and covers significant political events such as the CCP’s internal power struggle after Mao’s death and the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. The book also devotes many pages to analyzing China’s economy. An immense contribution of this book is that it shatters the image of a more open and powerful China. 

Socialism Persists in China

A common misbelief about China is that through four decades of “economic reform,” the Chinese economy has become more market-oriented than it was under Mao’s rule. According to Dikotter, the term “economic reform” is inaccurate. In actuality, the CCP was “tinkering with a planned economy” and misleading the public about economic reform whenever it needed to attract foreign investments or seek memberships to international organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Thus, China’s economy today is as much a socialist one as it was under Mao since the state still controls all the means of production. Dikotter writes, “To this day, the land belongs to the state, a great many raw material resources belong to the state, major industries are controlled directly or indirectly by the state, and the banks belong to the state … 95 of the top 100 private firms belong to current or former party members.” To this point, the state-owned banks distribute capital as political goods to state-owned enterprises to pursue political goals. The Chinese government still follows the former Soviet Union’s central planning model by issuing an economic plan every five years. Capital is not allowed to flow freely in China.

So how did China’s socialist economy still generate visible economic growth in the last four decades? The Chinese people pulled themselves out of poverty by disobeying the party’s orders. According to Dikotter, “Even before Mao died, villagers in many parts of the countryside sought to regain control [not ownership] over the land … In some cases, local officials quietly distributed land to the farmers. In others, they merely looked away.”

The party fought against this bottom-up de-collectivization movement, insisting, “We do not allow family farming, we do not allow the division of land, and we do not allow individuals to strike out on their own.” But eventually, the party had to give up after the production figures from family farming had consistently surpassed those from government-run agriculture collectives. Unwilling to admit defeat, the party presented the de-collectivization as its own idea, repackaged it under the title “Contract Responsibility System,” and promoted it throughout the countryside long after many villages had already implemented something similar.

What the Chinese farmer did is a typical example of how people must “subvert the master plan” to survive in a socialist regime. Quoting the historian Robert Service, Dikotter wrote, “Disobedience in the Soviet Union was not so much the grit that stopped the machinery as the oil that prevented the system from grinding to a complete standstill.” Thus, cheating or disobeying party policies is not only a must-have self-preservation skill under socialism but also what keeps preventing China’s socialist economy from collapsing.

There Are No Moderate CCP Leaders

The CCP always points to China’s economic growth as indisputable evidence that the party has competent and wise leaders who know how to deliver growth and prosperity for the Chinese people. In truth, Mao’s successors, including Deng Xiaoping, who was widely praised as the “architect of economic reform,” were neither competent nor wise. For instance, after Britain’s Prime Minister Margret Thatcher met Deng Xiaoping and other senior CCP leaders in 1983 to discuss the future of Hong Kong, “she concluded that none of the leaders in Beijing understood international finance or the concept of freedom under a system of law,” according to Dikotter.

There is no moderate CCP leader either. Take Zhao Ziyang as an example. Zhao was premier from 1980 to 1987 and CCP general secretary from 1987 to 1989. After the CCP leadership ordered the People’s Liberation Army to violently suppress the Tiananmen Square protesters, Zhao was placed under house arrest until he died in 2005. The West has lionized Zhao as a moderate party member who paid a personal and professional price for trying to build democracy in China, except that image was far from the truth.

In the 1950s, Zhao ruthlessly repressed farmers when as a provincial official in Guangdong, relying on torture to force them to surrender their crucial food supplies to the state. Zhao reached the peak of his power and became the premier of China and later the General Secretary of the CCP after winning a power struggle against his predecessor Hu Yaobang, claiming Hu wasn’t tough enough against the influence of bourgeois Western democratic ideas. In October 1987, Zhao told the Party Congress: “We will never copy the separation of powers and the multi-party system of the West.” A few months earlier, Zhao conveyed to Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany, that “Once their living standards had been raised, people in China would acknowledge the superiority of socialism. And then, we can gradually reduce the scope for liberalization further and further.”

Zhao appeared to be sympathetic to protestors in Tiananmen Square because he had hoped to exploit the event to gain power over China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, who had the final say on all essential matters. Zhao’s gambit didn’t pay off, and he was purged after losing the inner party power struggle. He was no martyr of freedom and democracy as many in the West chose to depict him.

The West should stop searching for moderate CCP leaders because there are none.

The West Has Failed to Learn

After the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, the West should have realized that there are no moderate CCP leaders and that China remains a brutal socialist tyrannical regime. Had leaders in Western democracies united in imposing severe economic sanctions on China, they might have been able to compel the liberalizing political reforms. Instead, China apologists, such as Henry Kissinger, promised the CCP that they could count on him as an old friend of China. Speaking to a global audience in the White House, U.S. President George H.W. Bush said, “I don’t think we ought to judge the whole People’s Liberation Army of China by that terrible incident.” Even though Deng Xiaoping ordered the massacre, Bush exonerated Deng by calling the Communist butcher a “forward-looking leader.” Bush opposed the use of sanctions against Beijing because he believed that commercial contacts would overcome these “unfortunate events” and inexorably move China towards democracy.

A month after the massacre, President Bush’s National security adviser Brent Scowcroft met Deng Xiaoping in Beijing and assured him, “President Bush is a true friend, a true friend of you and of China.” The CCP quickly realized that it should fear no one and change nothing. Western politicians eagerly welcomed the regime into international institutions, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), and opened their markets for Chinese exports. Foreign businesses brought their products, technologies, and money to China. The West’s wishful thinking and greed helped extend the CCP’s longevity and facilitated the rise of a formidable adversary that now threatens Western democracies and democratic values.

The only good news to emerge from Dikotter’s book is that Communist China is not as powerful as it projects. Its economy is “built on speculation, and everything is over-leveraged.” The nation also faces a demographic crisis as its population ages, and its size is expected to halve by 2100. In Dikotter’s words, “China resembles a tanker that looks impressively shipshape from a distance, with the captain and lieutenants standing proudly on the bridge, while below deck sailors are desperately pumping water and plugging holes to keep the vessel afloat.”

But a weak China can be even more dangerous than a powerful one. Beijing may learn from Russia and attempt to claim its relevancy by taking aggressive actions abroad, i.e., invading Taiwan. The West should learn from past policy mistakes by seeing through the CCP’s illusions and preparing for the worst. 

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