Before the First Opium War from 1839-1842, China had long had substantial commercial activity. After the country was forced open, one of the Western ideas to which China was exposed was economic liberalism. This thinking had never cohered as a doctrine in China, even though aspects of it could be found in older Chinese thought.
After 1842, many influential people in China came to see economic liberalism as the key to saving China. Similar claims would be made at various times for social Darwinism, women’s rights, Christianity, and ultimately Marxism, under which economic liberalism was tarred as nothing more than a façade for colonial exploitation. As China was then driven to extreme poverty after 1949, in desperation its leaders awkwardly harnessed economic liberalism in practice to Marxism in theory. The harnessing of liberalization unleashed prosperity and substantial social changes. But the CCP leadership wants, above all, to maintain power, and they fear that China now has too much economic liberalism.
About the author:
Evan Osborne is professor of economics, Wright State University. He reads and writes Chinese, and has published on Chinese history from the late Qing to the present. He has also done work on ethnic conflict and more general social conflict, and on the economics of art, empirical analysis of litigation, development economics, and sports economics.