Frank Dikötter says China's Economic Reforms Actually Started During the Cultural Revolution

Historians in the News
tags: China, economics, Cultural Revolution



The great shift that catapulted China from economic stagnation to more than three decades of breakneck growth is generally attributed to the top-down “Reform and Opening” policies directed by Deng Xiaopingstarting in 1978. But historian Frank Dikötter argues that this transformation actually started during the last throes of the Cultural Revolution, a disastrous period of social upheaval that lasted from 1966 to 1976, and was propelled by the Chinese population itself.

“[Deng] portrays himself as the architect of economic reforms,” Dikötter said. “When in fact the true architects of economic reforms are the people.”

In a recent talk delivered at Asia Society in Hong Kong about his new book The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976, the University of Hong Kong professor divided the Cultural Revolution into three phases: The “red years” (1966-1968), marked by urban violence between red guard factions and the brutal persecution of perceived counter-revolutionaries; the “black years” (1968-1971), when Chinese youths were sent down to the countryside and China was essentially a military-run “garrison state”; and the “grey years” (1971-1976), when the army’s control diminished and people in the countryside were largely left to their own devices. It’s during this final period, Dikötter argues, that the seeds of a capitalist reawakening began to sprout.

“By now people are exhausted by the revolutionary frenzy,” he said. “They look around, particularly in the countryside, and realize that the credibility of the Communist Party has been undermined by the Great Leap Forward, [and] the organization has been badly damaged by the Cultural Revolution itself. Who is going to prevent them from doing what they'd really like to do?”

Dikötter said that this situation yielded a “silent revolution,” in which millions of ordinary villagers “quietly, surreptitiously, and on the sly, reconnected with the past.” They started returning the land to individual households, expanding private plots, and opening black markets — often with the complicity of local officials. ...




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