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“Unlikely Partners” and the History of Chinese Economic Reform: Book Review

Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China. By Julian Gewirtz. Harvard University Press; 389 pages; $39.95.

In the early 1980s, China’s economists faced a steep learning curve. Unfamiliar with the latest trends in economic theory, they sought to revitalise their economy beyond the strict limitations of a centrally-planned system. They devoured translated editions of foreign economic textbooks, and invited foreign economists from all over the world to present their ideas of economic theory. At a presentation by James Tobin, the Chinese economists were amazed at his ability to offer policy recommendations after only a cursory glance at a set of data. In the face of conservative opposition, it was their fortitude and initiative to implement these new ideas that enabled China to experience such impressive and sustained economic growth.

Julian Gewirtz’s book traces the ideological debates that characterised the political struggles of these Chinese reformers. In particular, the efforts of Zhao Ziyang, Chinese Premier from 1980-1987, are highlighted. Zhao actively sought and acted upon the advice of international economists from the likes of James Tobin despite latent suspicion of Western economic theory amongst more conservative leaders. Other notable economists like Janos Kornai and Ota Šik, who both hail from states with planned economies, were generally more well-received given their greater consideration of the fallibilities of planned economies and the limitations of rapid reform.

Through the lens of China’s economic reform, Gewirtz presents an insightful account of the dynamic history of economic thought in China that is an invaluable resource for gaining a better understanding of how China managed its astounding economic reform.