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Economic Reform And Openness In China: China's Development Policies In The Last 30 Years

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Economic Reform and Openness in China: China’s Development Policies in the Last 30 Years


Clem Tisdell

Professor Emeritus

School of Economics

The University of Queensland Brisbane, 4072


This article adopts the point of view that China’s development policies can only be appreciated if they are considered by applying perspectives from institutional economics. This requires attention to be given to the historical, political and cultural context in which its economic development has occurred. Therefore, this article gives attention to the political events leading up to China’s decision in 1978 to begin its economic reforms and the way in which Deng Xiaoping crafted its new development path. It also discusses the subsequent extension of Deng’s development policies by more recent leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. Indicators of China’s economic progress (including its increasing economic openness) since 1978 are given, and its emerging economic issues and concerns are highlighted. The concept of ‘market socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is analysed and consideration is given to the economic challenges now facing China as a result of the global economic recession and the way it is responding to these challenges. In conclusion, the article touches on China’s economic and political future and its growing international status.


Since 1978, China has experienced extraordinary institutional change which has proven to be effective in promoting its economic growth and is advancing its international status. It has achieved institutional change in a steady systematic and staged manner. This has altered its economic system substantially. At the same time, the structure of its political system has hardly altered. It still remains a one-party state which relies heavily on the guidance of the leadership of the Communist Party for its direction. Institutional economists contend that the development of nations can only be well understood by considering the manner in which their institutions change and evolve or fail to do so. This requires simultaneous account to be taken of their political, social and economic settings. The importance of doing this is apparent in China’s case where the government has played a very active role in the reform of China’s institutions since 1978. Therefore, I give considerable attention in this article to political events that have influenced the development of China in the last 30 years.



Most institutional economist believe that traditional neoclassical economics is unable to provide an adequate explanation of the forces that promote or retard economic development (see, for example, North 2003, pp.2-3) because it fails to take into account factors that shape institutions, particularly political institutions. In this context, North (2003, p.3) states, ‘The economic institutions we have that shape directly our world derive from political institutions. Economists do not like to think that they are dependent on political science but they are. As well as recognizing the formal rules like constitutions, laws, rules and regulations, we are interested in who makes the rules and for whom’. This view is adopted in this article but it is also pertinent to note that political institutions are not the sole influence on economic institutions. For example, the cultural background of a society shapes norms which in turn have consequences for economic and political institutions. Institutional change involves complex social interactions (mutual causation) and path-dependence. For example, in the case of China, Confucianism may be linked with the type of political systems it has sustained. Confucian culture supports respect for authority and values social stability maintained by an acceptable authority (compare Qian and Wu 2008, p.62).

Few, if anyone, could have imagined in 1978 how much economic and social progress China would make in the next 30 years as a result of deciding to embark on its economic reforms and to introduce open-door policies. The purpose of China’s reform was said to be develop ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ (Deng Xiaoping 1984). As a result of these reforms, China’s economy has been transformed. It has changed from an economy in which market forces played virtually no role in organizing economic activity to one in which these forces play a major role. China has also gone from a position where it had virtually no foreign investment and a low-level of international trade and exchange to a position where it is a major global recipient of foreign investment and its trade and foreign exchange reserves are very high in comparison to its level of national production. A variety of indicators demonstrate that economic welfare in China has shown an upsurge in the last 30 years.

However, in 1977, there was no sign that China was about to change its economic policies and the extent of its cooperation with the outside world. Examination of the documents of the Eleventh National Congress of the CCP (The Communist Party of China) held in 1997 reveals a commitment to past practices and policies (The Communist Party of China 1977). Therefore, it seemed that without a change in political leadership, China would be stuck in its old economic groove, with well-worn philosophies and a negative outlook on the world.

Credit for the change in direction goes primarily to Deng Xiaoping and subsequent Chinese leaders who have followed in his footsteps and have continued to develop, modify and apply his approach. In retrospect, Deng Xiaoping was a wise and courageous leader. He was courageous in that several CCP members at the time would have viewed his approach as radical. He was wise in the sense that he could foresee the advantages to China of the reforms and opening up but was also aware that the reforms would have to be phased in at a gradual pace and systematically.

But as is to be expected, he could not foresee and provide solutions to all development issues that would eventually arise for China, such as growing income inequality, environmental problems and the global economic crisis that is currently plaguing China.

It is not clear that Deng Xiaoping’s major objectives were very different to those of the CCP prior to his reforms. These were firstly to maintain the position of the CCP in China and




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