The issue of China "joining the world" is an old one. There have long been contacts between China and other civilizations, yet the Middle Kingdom was for most of the time either superior or passive (or a blend of both) toward others. And once they discovered Chinese civilization, Europeans for their part often took China for fantasy rather than reality. Voltaire, like foreign self-styled Maoists today, tried to join China to the world philosophically by finding preferred universal values there, using reluctant China as a distant lever against a close-at-hand society he disliked.

If the question of China joining the world used to be one for armchair theorists of culture, it is today a hard political, strategic and economic issue. We need to know how far China will keep herself under the banner of "self-reliance" in order to assess the prospects for global interdependence. Mao Tse-tung laid the foundations for a modern China-thus in touch with the world. But he insisted on a China true to herself-thus apart, at least in spirit, from the world. Where will the emphasis lie tomorrow?

Consider what is at stake:

-The People's Republic of China (PRC) has nuclear weapons instantly deliverable to most of Asia and most of the Soviet Union.

-The shape of Southeast Asia's future will depend a great deal on whether or not China sustains cooperative relations with the smaller countries around her and with Japan.

-The U.S. anxiety over the power of the Soviet Union would be intensified by any Chinese initiative leading to détente between Moscow and Peking, equally so by any forced or voluntary withdrawal from the international scene on the part of a defeated or shattered China.

-Chinese policies on international trade, finance, aid, and environmental issues have become of substantial international concern.

China's cherished principle of self-reliance was highlighted by the terrible earthquake around Tangshan in Hopei province last July. All foreign offers of help were declined, including one from the International Red Cross. Was this the correct spirit which alone can lead to development with dignity, or was it a macabre and backward-looking nationalistic celebration?

Self-reliance has also been lavishly used during 1976 as a verbal rapier passed through the ribs of Teng Hsiao-p'ing. The fallen vice premier was accused during the spring of wanting to "give up China's independence" (by making a deal with Russia?) and of wanting to "sell out China's natural resources" in order to buy high-technology capital goods from Japan and the West. But suddenly, in October, barely one month after the death of Chairman Mao, the chief leftist accusers of Teng were themselves dismissed from office and criticized for errors of line and conduct. If Teng is not vindicated in 1977, his policies probably will be. How then will self-reliance fare under the new government of Hua Kuo-feng and his military backers?


The PRC's principle of self-reliance seems to have four sources.

(1) In the period of the Manchu Dynasty's encounter with the West, after 1840, China became subject to the will of foreigners. Having known the pain of dependence, the Chinese breathe with determined pleasure the air of total independence. Moreover, the methods by which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led the Chinese people to "stand up" again owed little even to the U.S.S.R., which was supposed to be revolutionary China's sponsor in beating back the West.

(2) Self-reliance owes something to China's long tradition of cultural self-containment. China knew an isolated greatness centuries before the coming of the European nation-state or the Industrial Revolution. As late as Voltaire's day, even an educated Chinese did not know, or feel the need to know, where Britain or France or America was. Mao's success within the CCP during the 1920s and 1930s was due largely to his modification of European Marxism to accommodate Chinese cultural traditions and the social realities of peasant China.

(3) A key tenet of the Marxism to which history and culture pushed Mao is that internal factors are always decisive in a nation's affairs. The people and only the people are the motive force in history, said Mao, thus laying the foundation for a socialism of national self-reliance. Revolution cannot be exported; foreign aid can only be a marginal force in development; neither foreign bases nor bombers coming from afar can tip the scales of war against an army which moves among the people as fish in water.

(4) Objective facts of China's ponderous size and agricultural economy have made self-reliance in part the rationalization of necessity. Even a loan ten times the meagre US $300 million which Mao wrung from Stalin in 1950 would only have been a drop in the bucket of China's investment need. It is very difficult, too, to conceive of any foreign nation credibly guaranteeing to defend effectively China's 3.6 million square miles against aggression. As for food, China has no option but to provide her own. To import more than a tiny percentage of the food needs of 900 million people would not be possible because such a quantity of extra grain is not available in the world and China could not pay for it if it were.

Now the first three of these four sources of the principle of self-reliance are not immutable. In fact self-reliance is being severely modified economically and politically, though not as yet militarily.

China's trade with the world rose very sharply in value during the 1970s, from US $3.86 billion in 1969 to about US $15 billion in 1975. China is obtaining short-term loans by buying turn-key plants from Western Europe, Japan and the United States, on schemes of "deferred payment" which provide for 20 percent down and the balance to be paid over a five-year period starting from the date of completion of the imported plant-also by paying eight percent interest to overseas Chinese who open time accounts in Chinese yuan at Bank of China branches in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

A certain institutionalization of China's international economic involvement also appears to be taking place. Ports and other foreign-related communications facilities are being greatly improved. More than 1,000 foreign technical personnel are living in China (shades of the Russian presence in the 1950s-but the current helpers are from Europe, Japan, and the United States). Futures markets in yen and dollars have been established for traders with China who wish to protect themselves against changes in the value of the Chinese yuan. Peking trading corporations have recently taken some steps toward international practices in the packaging and labeling of products. Nearly 50 trade exhibitions in China over the past five years have introduced millions of Chinese people to the idea of China using and even relying on non-Chinese products.

Behind all these developments lies an apparent rejection of strict self-reliance in the sense of buying only what cannot be made and selling only what is left over, in favor of a tentative acceptance of the law of comparative advantage in international economic relationships. Thus China has exported cotton cloth and rice even though they are rationed at home; goods have been bought from Thailand which China seems hardly to need; copper has been imported from Chile which China could produce at home if she chose to invest more in mining.

One also sees on the political level a certain acceptance of an interdependent world. The PRC has since 1971 played a more constructive part in international organizations than most governments during the 1950s and 1960s predicted it would. Peking diplomats have not "disrupted" the United Nations. Chinese newspapers devote a great deal of space to telling the people about the United Nations. Peking has not sought to establish any rival international organizations. It voted at Stockholm in favor of a fund for the environment and has supported measures devoted to tackling problems on an international level. It accepts, as one might not expect of a regime with an autarkic tradition, the validity of a search for a "new international economic order."

China's tacit reliance on the forces and vibrations of the triangle of global power is also a departure from the tenet of self-reliance. Chou En-lai publicly stated that new links with the United States made China feel more secure in the face of threats from the Soviet Union. China's concern to oppose Russia all over the world has led China to modify Mao's principle that each people can defend itself and to quietly support American and other Western foreign bases.

So Peking relies on the United States against the U.S.S.R. and takes as the fulcrum of its foreign policy not the national autonomy of each small country but rather a tacit grouping of whoever will resist Russia by whatever means.


The Chinese leadership has not been completely united, however, about these departures from self-reliance. Three strands of dissent have at various times been evident.

A surge of hinterland chauvinism appeared during the Cultural Revolution and traces of it still exist. Some Red Guards called for an immediate takeover of Hong Kong, saw no need for Chinese embassies abroad, supported the right of ethnic Chinese in Rangoon to wear Mao badges and offer allegiance to Mao.

The hinterland chauvinist is reluctant to view China as merely one nation among others. He clings to wisps of the old Middle Kingdom self-understanding of China as coterminous with civilization. That the hinterland chauvinists of the 1960s were youthful means we should not declare this strain of thinking extinct, though the October 1976 fall of Mrs. Mao and the Left must reduce its high-level influence.

A more recent view holds that China should not rely on one superpower to help ward off the other. Related to it is a fear that to play an active part in the global triangle is to risk a loss of revolutionary principle. China should be even-handed toward Russia and the United States, this view runs, and call a plague on both their houses. This would mean either having very little to do with either superpower or having similar dealings with both.

Number 10 and number 11 in the list of 11 renegades in the official history of the CCP-Lin Piao and Teng Hsiao-p'ing-both apparently thought Mao had tilted too far toward the United States. Differences of opinion in Peking over the 1976 purchase of Spey aircraft engines from Britain suggest that some in the Politburo were uneasy about turning to the West for military help against the Soviet threat. As for the danger to revolutionary principles in playing the global triangle, Angola is the most recent of several issues over which China has lost sympathy in the left-hand corner of the Third World.

A third note of unease at nibbling departures from self-reliance was sounded during a 1976 debate about the proper way to modernize. In this and earlier debates we may identify three gradations of China's possible relation to the world economy: self-reliance as complete uninvolvement or isolation, self-reliance as freedom from outside influence, and self-reliance as freedom from outside control. No one in Peking favors total uninvolvement in international economic relationships. Not even Teng's fiercest critics, and certainly not Mao, thought China should not buy and sell abroad. All voices in the debate are on a spectrum that runs from "freedom from foreign influence" to the more relaxed position of "freedom from foreign control."1

The issue between these two positions is where do the norms come from. Those who are wary of foreign influence (e.g., the "gang of four" Shanghai extremists) start with a Chinese vision of the modernized future and then ask if anything necessary for its achievement must come from outside China. Those who insist only on no foreign control (e.g., Chou En-lai and Teng Hsiao-p'ing) believe that a full vision of a modernized China itself involves learning from others.

A related tension exists over the speed of development in advanced sectors of the Chinese economy. Some stress the rate of growth and cut a few corners of socialist theory in doing so; others stress the moral concerns of egalitarianism even at some cost to the rate of growth.

How serious are these three doubts concerning China's departure from self-reliance likely to prove into the 1980s? As a framework, I suggest that the PRC's basic drives since 1949 have been to recover from the past and to recover from poverty.


The past means feudal China which has not been easy to throw off: Confucian hierarchy; women as chattels; an ignorant peasantry cut off from culture; no idea of progress but rather belief in a Golden Age long since gone.

The past also means the 100-year period after 1840 when this rigid Old China encountered the West and was carved up like a melon by foreign intruders, resulting in loss of control, racist insults, and an economy twisted to suit the interests of far-off rentiers and traders, and laying bare a terrible gap between the pride of China as a civilization and the abjectness of China as a feeble nation. The dull weight of feudalism; the national nightmare of imperialism-flight from these twin demons has given New China its magnificent sense of purpose.

Recovery from poverty is equally central to the Chinese revolution. None of the Chinese leaders, "left" or "pragmatist" or People's Liberation Army (PLA) officers, romanticize backwardness. Making the revolution has called for firm values; but the point of the revolution is to modernize China. Arguments flare about how to do so. But no careful reader of China's press could deny that its preeminent topic is development: finding new oil; a bridge completed; health care in the villages; making colleges serve China's concrete needs; new soft drink machines and other consumer items in the cities.

Development is the name of the game. The single largest factor behind the China-Russia split has been the economic gap between the two nations. Peking officials become passionate when relating how the Russians mocked at China's backwardness ("Khrushchev even said: 'These Chinese you know-five of them share one pair of trousers'."). "Goulash" as a yardstick for successful socialism is mainly annoying to those socialists who feel relatively short of goulash.

The point is that recovering from the past has an ambiguous relation to recovering from poverty. The first is a political task; the second is largely economic. You see the ambiguity in China's attitude to the West. The West exploited China. China had to oppose it; throwing the West off was a way of dealing with the past. Yet the West was rich and modern. The Chinese Communists chose a path of modernity which the West already traverses in an economic and technical sense. Recovery from poverty means drawing nearer to the levels and social experience of the West.


Ever since the start of the Cultural Revolution, political values and economic tasks have had a tendency to tug against each other.

Was the evil against which the Cultural Revolution was directed a hangover of Old China? Mao said yes. When he disagreed with Liu Shao-ch'i on priorities he declared Liu a bourgeois. Mao saw himself driving a few last nails into the coffin of the past. Liu on the other hand saw the issues in shades of gray, as organizational problems rather than as black and white class judgments.

Can youth be trusted to grow up as sturdy pines of socialism? Mao had his doubts. They live an easy life. The heroic deeds which were a daily routine for the makers of the revolution are for these young moderns only items in a history book. But the young have their own measuring rod of virtue. A Canton boy whose father was a worker is convinced he was "born Red." To imply he is a weak socialist because he did not make the Long March seems like telling a Christian he is a fake because he did not live in the time of Jesus. The boy probably respects performance at a given task more than ideological labels written during past battles.

Has Russia's social system become fascist? Mao thought so. While at the start of the Cultural Revolution the U.S. threat to China was the key foreign issue, by its end the Soviet threat had largely replaced it. Instead of debating whether Moscow could still be of any help in meeting an American attack, as in 1965, the dominant Chinese leaders were starting to ask, by 1969, whether Washington might be an indirect help against the Soviet danger. Mao viewed Russia in the time-tested framework of imperialism.

But some PLA officers have found it difficult to accept that Russia suddenly replaced the United States as the primary menace to world socialism. Some leftists worry that supporting "stability," wherever the alternative may be increased Russian influence, means selling out on anticolonialism and world revolution. Isn't the main remaining neocolonial issue in Asia the separation of Taiwan from China? And who else but America is responsible for it?

Can China advantageously mount cultural exchanges with the West without being tainted? Economic officials, who mostly focus on recovery from poverty, say yes. China has recovered enough from past political weakness, they feel, to engage with the West free of danger to either her sovereignty or her psyche. Besides China needs know-how from foreign sources.

But some on the Left, in Public Security organs, or with long historical memories, are dubious about people-to-people delegations going to and fro. They argue that the era of anti-imperialism must still be sustained. They feel a greater urgency about the politics of recovering from the past, it seems, than about the economics of recovering from backwardness. You can be Red and backward, they maintain, but if you are not Red you are nothing.

Should China accept foreign credits in order to be able to import capital technology? Yes, say trade officials who have bought US $3 billion worth of turn-key plants from abroad in the last three years or so. They would like to accelerate China's promising oil industry by "deferred payment" imports of equipment.

No, say the ideologues and hinterland chauvinists who give a "no foreign influence" interpretation to self-reliance. They would, if pressed, rather cling to the long-resonant but now strained slogan "No debt abroad or at home" than push the rate of GNP growth up from six to eight percent.

How many hours a week should the student of chemistry or Japanese spend reading Engels' Anti-Duhring and Lenin's State and Revolution? Once more the answer hinges on the changing meaning of, and the relation between, recovering from the past and recovering from poverty.

With the leftist "gang of four" calling the tune in culture, students have often over the past decade spent one quarter or more of their class time on Marxist texts. Marxist ideas are viewed as a weapon against class enemies who try to use intellectual activity as a means of capitalist restoration.

But pragmatic Marxists who worked with Teng fear the Cultural Revolution sapped the quality of Chinese higher education. Turning colleges into worker-peasant-soldier study groups set back the modernization of China by years, they feel, and may even detract from China's self-reliance by forcing the import of expertise that could have been developed at home. "Those ignorant of a profession," said some pragmatists in a swipe at the idea of Redness as panacea, "cannot head departments." Teng felt political study became ritualistic and he complained that "scientists today are not given time for research."


Our framework suggests that, over and above questions of faction or personality, China's relations with the world will be influenced by the working out of two contradictions. Recovery from the past is largely accomplished but recovery from backwardness is not; in the political-strategic realm China is a kind of superpower, whereas in the economic realm she is a Third World nation. Second, having become a major political-military power, China will have to modify principles which drew their point from China's weak and exploited condition.

Certain specific natural and socio-political factors also bear on the fate of self-reliance. (1) Nature itself may play a part through drought, flood, and earthquake. Such natural disasters affect export capacity, as has been the case after the Tangshan earthquake, though they can produce unity stemming from a sense of siege-also evident at Tangshan.

(2) Future weapons development by China and other nations will play a role. Possession by China and her most likely enemies of long-range missiles has probably called into question some military postulates derived by the PLA from "people's war." Do younger Chinese defense strategists believe applicable to missile warfare Mao's idea of drawing the enemy in and surrounding him? Or that of waiting for a moment of one's own choosing for a counterattack?

(3) Within five years, at most, there will probably be a degree of détente between China and Russia. Peking need not construe this as a sacrifice of self-reliance, but on the contrary as a welcome end to the risks of relying on America to ward off Russia. Nor would it bring a sharp change in Chinese international economic policies. The Soviet and Chinese economies do not fit each other's needs. China must continue to look to the West and Japan for high-technology capital goods, and to the Third World for sale of her light manufactures.

But a return to Sino-Soviet civility-ideological intimacy will never return-would signal in China, whether as cause or consequence of an improved relationship with Moscow, a less distinctive Maoist path of development and less reliance on "people's war" in military strategy. Sino-Soviet détente would also ease the pinch on resources for China's agricultural mechanization and industrial modernization. It would make China less interested than during the mid-1970s in importing defense-related equipment from Western Europe. It would probably be accompanied by a greater selectivity in Third World activism: Peking might well focus mainly on Asia and less on Latin America and Africa and the Middle East.

(4) A kind of middle class starts to assert its interests and express its opinions. The events surrounding the fall of Teng saw informed public opinion play a new role in China; 1975-76 equally brought insistent pressure from skilled workers for higher rewards. Additionally, there is a growing Chinese elite with recent international experience in trade, diplomacy, and cultural and technical exchanges.

All this means that methods of Party decision-making may have to become more democratic, that the economic demands of sophisticated workers will bulk large in debates on allocation of resources, and that breathtaking changes of line in any sphere of Chinese policy may become less frequent than in the era of the Great Helmsman above and undifferentiated masses below.

(5) In the balance between Peking's power and that of leading provinces and regions, the general trend has recently favored the periphery, and there are already signs that the death of Mao, as expected, will accentuate the trend by virtue of the reduced authority of Hua's central government. The center-periphery issue is politically a complex one. The Cultural Revolution Left, for example, favored an economically decentralized China but at the same time an ideologically centralized China. Regional PLA commanders often differ on this issue from central military administrators in Peking. The main points are that an internationally involved Chinese economy must needs be a rather centralized one, that Teng was criticized for trying to increase central control of the economy, and that this criticism of Teng brought at least a temporary timidity to some of China's international economic dealings during 1976. The wiping out of the Cultural Revolution Left in October 1976, as noted, will probably set in motion a retreat from the anti-Teng line.

(6) The PLA has kept its fingers mostly out of politics during the 1970s because it had burnt them doing the opposite in the Lin Piao era. It did not play a big role in the fall of Teng. Not the Army, but the leftist militia with Shanghai as its model took the lead in putting down the Tian-an men demonstration last April.

But after the Tangshan earthquake, at the time of Mao's funeral, and especially in the three months since then, the PLA has come to the fore again. Should the PLA become the major voice in the Chinese government, which it might now that Mrs. Mao and the Left have fallen, détente with the U.S.S.R. might come sooner rather than later, with consequences already summarized, and we may find that the army officers, being less sophisticated modernizers than Chou and Teng, might wish to press on with international economic relationships but nevertheless show less skill in doing so.


What is the likely future balance between self-reliance and interdependence? China's involvement in the world economy will continue to lag behind China's role in world politics and strategy. Recovery from the past has proceeded further than recovery from economic backwardness. Peking is no longer merely passive but diplomatically active. The scope of its concerns has become global and no longer merely national in the minimum sense of keeping the world out.

Even in China's international economic relations the steady trend is away from self-reliance. This is because the principle of self-reliance is in large part a self-protecting mechanism for the relatively weak-and China is ceasing to be weak even in economic terms.

I have referred to self-reliance as a mechanism. Indeed the Chinese term itself indicates a method, and not a goal; tzu-li keng sheng literally means "regeneration through one's own efforts." It can be distinguished from tu-li tzu-chu which means "independence" or "autonomy." Self-reliance is a method with moral and even embattled overtones. Independence or autonomy is, of course, the description of a condition.

An ideological principle such as self-reliance must be viewed in a specific sociological context; the principle changes as the situation changes. Ideology is not merely a decoration without impact on policy. Nor, however, is it to be equated with policy. It relates in important and complex ways to policy. It changes over time and it more nearly equates with policy at some times and in some spheres than in others. Self-reliance is not a fixed aim, then, but a principle of struggle for a specific situation of China's relative weakness that now passes.

Most of the sources of the principle of self-reliance have dried up. The era of imperialism that dates back to 1840 is largely spent as far as China is concerned. The CCP has, unlike even the strong dynasties, broken down China's cultural aloofness and accepted that China's history is part of world history. Even Mao's nativistic principles may soon be elevated to the level of a general ethic and thus cease to be the actual source of policy.

The fourth source of self-reliance-objective facts of China's size and agricultural character-appears the most persistent and will continue to be the major constraint against any clear-cut abandonment of self-reliance.

Yet the very success of the CCP in its pursuit of the modernizing task-the reason for existence of all Marxist regimes-chips away at what the generation of the Long March would recognize as self-reliance. Mao's Party, which in defiance of Stalin took China back into her own depths, has also set the agenda for China to join the world.


1 See M. Oksenberg and S. Goldstein, "The Chinese Political Spectrum," in Problems of Communism, March-April 1974, for an excellent analysis which uses somewhat different terms.

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  • Ross Terrill, Associate Professor of Government at Harvard, is the author of 800,000,000: The Real China; Flowers on an Iron Tree and R. H. Tawney and His Times. He visited China in 1964, 1971, 1973 and 1975. This article was prepared for a conference on "Interdependence and Self-Reliance in the Pacific Region," arranged by the Asia Society and held at Penang in Malaysia in November 1976.
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