Batten Dean Harding discusses Chinese ‘Third Revolution’

Describes China in need of social, economic, political change


The International Relations Organization hosted a panel Wednesday titled “China’s Third Revolution? Reform, Conservatism or Decay under Xi Jinping,” featuring Batten School Dean Harry Harding. His talk focused on his suggestion that modern China has experienced two revolutions thus far, but is in need of another to address deep-seated issues in the nation.

“By revolution, I mean fundamental changes in the social, political or economic aspects of society,” he said. “This can be the result of violent overthrow by the government by insurgency or upheaval, but may also be peaceful.”

The first revolution in 1911, which launched the People’s Republic of China, swept away the “imperial institutions” that had previously controlled Chinese society. Harding said though China made significant advances during the first revolution, progress had deteriorated by the time of Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. The political system under Mao created “much suffering” in Chinese society, as purges and corruption affected the majority of civilians, he said.

In late 1978, Deng Xiaoping initiated “top down” reforms, which Harding called China’s second revolution. This included a “substantial dismantling of state-planned and owned economy,” Harding said. “This incoming foreign investment would enable China to follow other Asian ‘Tigers’ in the labor-intensive export strategy,” Harding said.

Civilians during the second revolution experienced “somewhat greater freedom of press and certainly greater freedom of private lives,” he said. This revolution created the “Chinese economic miracle” of 1978, which, until recently, lifted millions of people out of poverty.

Thirty years after this revolution, Harding said China is becoming “trapped,” receiving poor returns on investments and slow economic growth despite outwardly apparent economic success.

Having exhausted their previous model of economic growth, Harding said he believes a stagnant China needs a “third revolution.”

“There is a sense that the old system, a product of the second revolution, has exhausted itself and we need a third,” Harding said.

Harding described a new economic strategy which would replace export-oriented growth with growth through domestic consumption, resulting in a freer and more rational banking system.

“I call this open market socialism, [in] which [it] will remain that state-owned enterprises will be [the] center of economy,” Harding said. “[The] market will be the primary allocator of resources and open to [the] outside world.”

Engineering graduate student Peng Su, originally from China, agreed with Harding’s theories, though he noted China is also facing problems of political and economic corruption.

“The biggest problem is the political system and the corrupted officers,” he said. “The officers have control over everything: the banks, the schools, the business. … The government owns everything and it is so easy for them to make themselves rich.”

Su also said many people in China have a capitalist mindset, which may complicate the development of a new model going forward.

“When I talk to my brothers and my cousins, they talk about how to make money,” he said. “There is a strong desire in China to make money for a better life and live just like American people. Chinese people want to live in their own house, and drive their own car, too.”

Third-year College student Mike Breger, editor-in-chief of the Wilson Journal, an undergraduate research publication specializing in foreign affairs, also lauded Harding’s presentation.

“I’m a history major, and I thought the coverage he provided was really necessary for understanding the current situation and bigger problems in China,” he said. “Without that background of history, people can’t understand the issues facing China today.”

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