The People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s drive to fully participate in the world economy has roots in the 1950s

Last 4 March, on the opening day of the China’s annual National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang affirmed, “We will … oppose protectionism in its different forms [and] become more involved in global governance.

The speech came less than two months after President Xi Jinping’s “robust defence of globalisation” and free trade at the World Economic Forum in Davos – which some have taken as a sign that “the world has turned upside down”.

China’s strong will to participate fully in trade cooperation and global governance was first formalised when the PRC became member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in December 2001. Generally this has been seen both as a consequence and an achievement of the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, which introduced market institutions and culminated in connecting China with the world economy. This narrative implies that only a “liberal” economy turn could bring Socialist China back into the world system.

In addition, the mainstream discourse sees the starting point for the building of China’s relations with the West in US President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in February 1972 – “the week that changed the world”.

Historiography to date has largely corroborated these views, despite the public fact that by 1972 all West European countries had already recognised the PRC, exchanged ambassadors, and developed substantial relations with it.

Even earlier, in 1966, a cornerstone book by Alexander Eckstein –Communist China’s Economic Growth and Foreign Trade (McGraw-Hill) – had demonstrated that since the second half of the 1950s the volume of trade between China and European non-Socialist countries increased more or less continuously, reaching a peak in imports in 1959 and in exports in 1960.

In the recently-published Modern Asian Studies’ special issue ‘Circumventing the Cold War’, a group of European historians prove that already in the period mid-1950s–mid-1960s

  • the PRC had embarked on the road of economic cooperation and trade with capitalist countries

  • in this pursuit Beijing authorities actively cultivated contacts with the West Europeans

  • West Europeans were pioneers in reaching out to communist China because they recognised both the economic potential of its market as well as China’s coming (major) role in global affairs.

The special issue is the result of a joint research effort in which political, economic, and cultural aspects are linked into a coherent framework of analysis. The articles by Valeria Zanier, Laura De Giorgi, and Sofia Graziani demonstrate that from the mid-1950s to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, increasing exchanges with non-Socialist European countries provided China with a path to modernisation alternative to the ‘Soviet style’ experience.

These articles also provide evidence of how connections with Western Europe throughout the decade functioned as levers for a cautious yet determined reconfiguration of hierarchies in the Socialist world that were meant to both attenuate Soviet control and place China in a complex network of global relations.

The PRC decision-makers looked at Western Europe as a fertile terrain to develop new economic and cultural relations, and to project the image of an independent Socialist state, as well as one interested in bridging the East-West political and ideological divide.

Civil actors such as businessmen, artists and intellectuals, and youth associations were key targets of China’s “people-to-people diplomacy”. At the same time, most of them were also the agents of West European efforts at circumventing the Cold War barriers defined by the superpowers, be they political, economic, or cultural. Indeed, a multiple web of Sino-European trade, financial, and cultural exchanges emerged since from the mid-1950s.

The articles by Giovanni Bernardini, Carla Meneguzzi Rostagni, Roberto Peruzzi, and Angela Romano prove that relations other than diplomatic were carefully opened and nourished between West Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and France on the one hand and Mao’s China on the other.

The action of non-governmental actors in developing Sino-European relations gets centre stage in these articles, which also reveal and analyse the connections between their activities and West European governments’ policy towards communist China.

These articles also assess West European governments’ complex relationship with the United States, give new evidence of their overlooked capacity to pursue autonomous foreign policy action, and hence shed new light on the role of Western Europe in the Cold War.

The articles challenge the idea of West European governments being mere followers of the American leadership even at the time of tight Cold War constraints; quite the contrary, West Europeans were keen to bypass and then dismantle the US-led system that confined the PRC to the enemy camp.

The articles collected in Circumventing the Cold War show that major West European actors felt confident to bet on China when the country was still backward and it was difficult to anticipate its future successes. At the same time, Circumventing the Cold War shows how China’s leaders allowed their country a much ampler space for manoeuvre, which went beyond the Socialist camp and opened to cooperation with capitalists.

Indeed, the articles show that PRC leaders continuously considered alternative paths to modernisation that could benefit development in the long run and hence strengthen China as a world actor. These findings shed new light on China’s rapid success after the onset of the Reform and Opening Up in late 1970s and its rise on the world stage.

Dr Angela Romano

Dr Angela Romano is Senior Research Fellow at the European University Institute and project manager in the ERC-funded project ‘Looking West: the European Socialist regimes facing pan-European cooperation and the European Community‘ (or PanEur1970s). She was previously Honorary Fellow at the University of Glasgow and Marie Curie post-doctoral Fellow at LSE.

Her main research interests include history of the Cold War, European integration processes, and the CSCE process. She has published widely on these topics, and is currently finalising her second monograph (Routledge, late 2017), which analyses the role of the European Community in Cold War Europe, 1969-83.

Dr Valeria Zanier

Dr Valeria Zanier is currently a Research Fellow at the Department of International History, LSE. Her core academic interests are the history of contemporary China and the role of entrepreneurs in processes of political and economic modernisation.

On these topics she has published several articles in international journals and a monograph. She is now completing her new book on China’s economic relations with the ‘free world’ during the Cold War.