Lawrence C. Reardon, associate professor of political science, University of New Hampshire and Woodrow Wilson Center/George Washington University Asian Policy Studies fellow

Lawrence C. Reardon's book, The Reluctant Dragon: Crisis Cycles in Chinese Foreign Economic Policy, examines China's pre-1979 foreign economic policies and the debates that they provoked. At a May 23, 2002 book launch sponsored by the Asia Program, Reardon challenged the widely held view that Chinese leaders primarily pursued an autarkic development strategy based on the strict Maoist idea of self-reliance in the pre-1979 period. According to Reardon, pre-1979 Chinese elites had two differing opinions on inwardly oriented development. One believed in the semiautarkic strategy, regarding self-reliance as an achievable goal in the short-term with minimal dependence on foreign markets. The other believed in the import substitution strategy, considering self-reliance as a long-term goal achieved via a planned import program. The dominance of one opinion or the other at times resulted in the cycling of Chinese development policy throughout the pre-1979 period.

Reardon argued that Chinese leaders had gained considerable knowledge and experience in dealing with the international marketplace before 1979. Beginning in the 1950s, Chinese elites imported large-scale turnkey plants from the Eastern- and subsequently the Western-bloc nations as well as welcomed limited investment from overseas Chinese. China established its export commodity processing bases as early as 1960. Even during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese revolutionary leadership operated the Guangzhou Trade Fair and used its financial and trading connections with Hong Kong, Reardon observed. China's Special Economic Zones (SEZs), established in 1979, therefore, were not a new, radical experiment, but the culmination of twenty years of experience. According to Reardon, while the SEZs were the most prominent symbol of China's bold experimentation with outwardly oriented development, they also exhibited many inwardly oriented development characteristics in their early years.

Reardon concluded that pre-1979 Chinese leaders enjoyed a high degree of policy autonomy as well as the capacity to carry out an inwardly oriented development policy, which was very similar to the East Asian model. However, the cycling between semiautarky and import substitution was a uniquely Chinese experience. An understanding of the legacy of China's pre-1979 foreign economic policies, according to Reardon, could better explain the country's shift toward an outwardly oriented development regime two decades ago as well as its current reluctance to completely adhere to international norms of economic behavior.

Drafted by Gang Lin, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program