Both utopianism and realism have influenced China's development in recent decades. It is unclear, however, what is meant by these terms in the Chinese context. How important was utopianism in shaping the Chinese communist revolution, as well as post-1949 socio-economic and political developments? Is realism a more useful perspective in tracking the trajectory of Deng Xiaoping's reforms since 1978? These and related issues were explored by two China experts at a November 17 seminar hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program.

Shiping Hua argued that the utopian factor is important in understanding the Chinese experience in the last century. Leaving aside the pre-1949 Chinese communist revolution that was obviously inspired by a utopian blueprint for the future, Hua discussed instead China's Late Qing Reform (1898), which, according to him, was also informed by utopianism—to realize "great harmony" in an ideal society. With such a goal, the Late Qing reform contrasted with Japan's Meiji Restoration (1868) that simply aimed at making Japan a powerful nation. Hua also compared the Chinese Great Leap Forward (1958) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) with Lenin's New Economic Policy (1924) and Khrushchev's Thaw (1956). According to him, while economic and political equalitarianism, respectively, informed the two movements in China, pragmatism made the Soviet Union's economic and political policies less colored by the communist utopian ideal. Although Deng Xiaoping's reforms have created a society with an income gap larger than many western countries, the official discourse has not given up the communist ideal. In contrast, Gorbachev's political reform in the former Soviet Union clearly moved away from utopian communism, Hua maintained.

Brantly Womack contended, on the other hand, that realism actually dominated ideological trends in China over the past century. According to Womack, if utopianism is called "nowhere-ism," realism can be called "this world-ism." In other words, realists take reality seriously, without indulging themselves in the illusion of another non-existing world. The main goal of the Late Qing Reform as well as the "self-strengthening movement" in the 1870s was to create a powerful China, and the ideal of "great harmony" was embraced by only some reform leaders. Womack observed that Chinese realists made great efforts to accommodate reality in pursuing their revolutionary goals. For example, the Kuomintang regime accommodated warlords for many years during the period of the Republic of China, and Mao's communist revolutionary movement started from rural China—betraying both Leninist revolutionary theories and the instructions given by Stalin's Soviet Union. Womack argued that Deng Xiaoping's reform strategy was famous for its pragmatism. Reform measures were first experimented within particular regions, and then, if they worked, implemented nationwide.

While the two speakers differed on the impact of utopianism and realism on China's development, they both agreed that Chinese political culture is changeable. China's developmental goal may still be colored more or less by the utopian factor, but its developmental strategies are now more pragmatic than in Mao's era, thanks to the lessons that country has learned from its painful experience of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.