More than 265 participants gathered at the Westin Philippine Plaza Hotel from August 24-29, 1987 for the Third International Congress of the Professors World Peace Academy. The theme of the conference “China in a New Era: Continuity and Change” was the focus of discussion for more than 100 of the world’s leading China scholars. Dr. Ilpyong J. Kim, Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, was the organizing chairman for the conference. Both Dr. Ezra Vogel, Professor of Asian Studies at Harvard, and Dr. Donald Zagoria, who has served as consultant to the U.S. Department of State and National Security Council, gave plenary addresses to the Congress. In addition, PWPA Presidents and Secretaries-General representing over 80 countries were an integral part of the discussions.
The conference was opened by Neil Salonen, President of the International Cultural Foundation and Morton Kaplan, President of PWPA International. Several honored speakers gave opening remarks to the Congress including the Rev. C.H. Kwak, Chairman of the Board of Directors of PWPA. Philippine Vice President and Foreign Minister Salvador Laurel, in welcoming the participants, noted that the Philippines was a particularly appropriate place to convene a meeting addressing the topics of transition and development. Further, Vice President Laurel recognized the important role which PWPA had played in the Philippine transition to democracy, a reference to the efforts of Philippine Ambassador to the U.N. and past president of the local PWPA chapter the Hon. Salvador Lopez.
The conference was organized around 16 panels of scholars, each panel addressing a particular aspect of China’s modernization process. The topics encompassed an entire range of social, political and economic issues which China is facing. For example, University of California professor, Lowell Dittmer’s panel analyzed “Political Development After Mao”, while a panel chaired by Dr. Stuart Fraser of Latrobe University discussed issues of population and education. Other panel topics included an analysis of the “Chinese Communist Party at 65” chaired by Dr. Donald Klein of Tufts University, “China’s Foreign Policy” led by University of Arizona’s Allen Whiting and “Agriculture and Society” led by Dr. William Parrish from the University of Chicago.
As the conference drew to a close, several themes seemed to present themselves as the major conclusion of the week’s discussion. First, the People’s Republic of China is indeed embarking upon a “New Era” in her social, political, as well as economic life. Throughout the course of the Congress’s deliberations, however, one was constantly reminded of two factors in this modernizing process. Firstly, there is no such thing as “reform” in the economic sphere alone. Economic reforms, especially in the context of the Chinese case, have serious social and political ramifications. Secondly, while certainly embarking upon a new era any forces for change must be held within the context of China as one of the world’s oldest civilizations.
With regard to changes in the economy of China, several themes became especially clear as a result of the panel discussions. While “reform” has been undertaken in both the industrial and agricultural sectors, China remains a predominantly agrarian economy. The principle aspects of “agricultural reform” include a de facto decollectivization of farming through the introduction of the “Productions Responsibility System.” This program stipulates that after selling a certain amount of product to the state for a fixed price, a farmer may sell any surplus on what amounts to a free market. This introduction of “limited entrepreneurship” has, almost immediately, resulted in an enormous increase in agricultural productivity. For the time being, agricultural reform has solved one of China’s most basic yet critical problems; that of feeding one-fifth of the world’s population.
Reform in the industrial sphere is proceeding along much the same lines as agriculture, a decentralization of responsibility, including allowances for limited entrepreneurship and the introduction of new technology. Unlike agriculture, however, the scholars foresee a much longer period before any significant results can be recognized. Further, industrial development was envisioned as proceeding along distinctly regional lines. The already designated “Special Economic Zones” were depicted as evolving into a highly developed corridor from Dalin to Canton (and eventually to Hong Kong).
Within the sphere of social development the conference participants identified two principal goals. Controlling population growth, all of the scholars agreed, is a critical aspect of any development program for China. To that end, the one child per family policy was lauded as being extremely successful. In addition, a continuing process of improving education, especially higher, education will be necessary for a “Modernized China.”
The discussion concerning changes in Chinese political life touched upon a much less easily definable, and certainly more controversial aspect of “reform.” Certainly the decentralization trend in agriculture and industry translates into a de facto loosening of political control. Ensuring the continuation of the development process in the long term will require more substantive reform as economic rationality re-places purely ideological forces in politics. In this respect, the role of the party was identified as being in a review process. Machiavellian real-politik is also evidenced by removal of old cadres, albeit under generous terms, from political life. The progress of all types of reforms rests not only in removing older cadres from office but also in attenuating their influence, and reinvigorating the system with younger more vital cadres.
The optimism which the majority of conference participants registered for China’s present course was not without qualification or recognition of inherent difficulties. Indeed some scholars proposed that some of the present successes in agricultural productivity may be at the expense of future productivity. Peasants, eager to realize their newfound possibility of profits are consistently overcropping their fields. Further, the breakup of the commune system provides little incentive for individual peasants to maintain crucial projects previously administered by the communes, notably irrigation. These public works projects are therefore falling into disrepair. The growing regionalization in agriculture and industry looms as a serious challenge to the stability and unity of the nation as a whole. The “one child per family” policy will place a serious strain on the traditional family structure in China.
Finally, the verdict is not yet in on the political consequences of the Modernization process. While increased participation and debate was noted with approval, especially in the context of the “Open Door Policy'” so too must recent campaigns against “bourgeois liberalism” be recognized as part of an ongoing political debate in China.
The attempted coup which took place in Manila on August 28, while most unfortunate in its consequences, provided a living laboratory for the conference participants. It reminded all once again of the fragile nature of all developing nations. As Professor Kim remarked in his closing address, “It is difficult enough to know what tomorrow may bring here in Manila, never mind chart the future course of the world’s oldest civilization. We do leave here however with a better understanding of the challenges which China faces.”
Written by Kevin DelGobbo, research associate in political science.