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Winds of Change in China

January 1, 1985 -

Who would ever have thought it possible? Zhang Chengshan, a peasant from China's Henan province, was recently declared the country's first Communist millionaire and given laudatory national publicity. Prior to 1978, the Zhang family lived in poverty, but following the economic reforms of the Chinese government, Zhang set up a soon prosperous co-operative to manufacture agricultural equipment. The Henan government decided to single out Zhang for his remarkable accomplishments, no doubt in order to spur others on to similar success. Just so that the relaxing of economic policies and the encouragement of individual initiative would not veer off into unapproved channels, the plaque presented to Zhang was inscribed: "Having become rich, he has never forgotten the interest of the state."

The post-Mao Zedong regime under Premier Zhao Ziyang has cast off the Maoist spell and adopted much more pragmatic policies aimed at improving the economic conditions of the Chinese people. These policies now allow Chinese peasants and small business operators a measure of market freedom. In the December 1984 issue of The Atlantic, Premier Zhao blames foreign powers for China's past isolation and lack of economic development, but claims that the world has begun to covet China's large market. According to Zhao, the Chinese "have come to realize the correctness and necessity of opening the country to the outside world, which has been made an unshakable policy guiding China's economic development." Such a policy will, according to the Chinese Premier, "rejuvenate the country and enrich our people," and will lead to greatly expanded economic co-operation, especially with the United States. "China and the United States, being respectively the largest developing country and the largest developed country in the world, have their own economic advantages and can help supply each other's needs in many fields. There are undoubtedly very broad prospects for Sino-U.S. economic and technological exchanges as long as each side makes its due efforts."

We ought not to read too much into this remarkable statement, nor should we expect the immediate collapse of the Communist dictatorship in China. Undoubtedly, the sentiments expressed by the Chinese Premier are also related to China's fear of the Soviet Union. But we should also be open to the signs of change that make it possible for the ordinary Chinese to breathe just a little easier. Genuine freedom does not exist in China, and Chinese Christians continue to be persecuted because of their faith. But the present, more "pragmatic" leadership of mainline China is a vast improvement over the unspeakable cruelty of Mao's cultural revolution. (For a critical inside look at China, see Steven W. Mosher, Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese [The Free Press, 1983].)