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The big picture: China's reform and opening turns 40

Illustration of Mao and Xi photos merged in a collage together
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

2018 is the 40th anniversary of the launch of China's reform and opening policy. Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party are making a very big deal of the anniversary.

What we're hearing: I spoke with Julian Gewirtz, an expert in modern Chinese history and author of a book on China called "Unlikely Partners," on the current state of China's market and Xi's plan for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

1. What is reform and opening and how is has it changed over the last 40 years?

Above all, “reform and opening” means the policies of market-oriented change and international trade and investment that facilitated China’s extraordinary growth. It conventionally marks the new path taken under Deng Xiaoping after Mao Zedong’s death, and the official anniversary celebrates the Third Plenum of 1978 as miraculously transformative. But the new economic policies were introduced gradually and were highly contested—witnessing dramatic ups and downs in how the leadership handled major tradeoffs between the market’s scope and the Party-state’s control, as well as questions such as political reform and intellectual openness. And new changes are underway today.

2. What is Xi's vision for China, and if he is successful what will China look like in the next 10-20 years?

Xi envisions China becoming a superpower with the Party firmly in control over all aspects of life. If he succeeds, China will be the world’s largest economy, a global leader in technological innovation with a modernized military, and the major force in Asia and beyond. He sees this as restoring its historic stature, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” that only the CCP can produce. Of course, we don’t know yet if he will succeed.

3. Some experts now say that [economic] reform is dead under Xi. He and the Party of course say both reform and opening are moving forward with urgency. Who is right?

The malleability of reform and opening explains some of this disconnect. Xi uses this term to mean not market-oriented liberalization prioritizing the private sector but rather strengthening China’s system on his terms: promoting more “balanced” growth with a powerful state sector enduring, and modernization led by the Party. That isn’t the direction that many analysts would wish for, nor does it fully reflect the factors that have enabled China to succeed thus far — but it’s the clear trend over the past several years.

4. What are the politics around planning celebrations in this anniversary year?

Xi will dominate this anniversary, and the backward-looking appearance of celebrating an anniversary will be used to glorify Xi’s “New Era” and the path forward. Domestically, it presents an opportunity to crystallize which elements of reform and opening Xi wants to keep — and which he is discarding, such as more open intellectual debate or greater limits on the Party’s authority. Internationally, amid serious trade conflict, the anniversary gives the Party an opportunity to remind countries that they’ve benefitted from China’s growth over the past 40 years and to advocate for a form of globalization with “Chinese characteristics.” So the anniversary will be deployed to serve the interests of Xi and the Party today. History will be used for present purposes.