Unlikely Partners:
Chinese Reformers, Western Economists,
and the Making of Global China

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“Gewirtz has added a brilliant new chapter to the story of China’s economic revival. This intelligent, thoroughly well-informed study reveals the essential role played by Western advisors who sought not to change China, but, rather, to be partners in its success. A powerful case for openness.” –Evan Osnos, author of the National Book Award–winning Age of Ambition

“[Unlikely Partners] vividly brings to life China’s economic debates from Mao’s death in 1976 until 1993 . . . A gripping read, highlighting what was little short of a revolution in China’s economic thought.” –The Economist

“Shedding light on how China achieved radical economic change in less than two decades, [Gewirtz’s] book is instructive for anyone who wants to know how other countries can emerge from poverty and place themselves on the path to development… President Xi Jinping would be wise to heed the message of Gewirtz’s book: that China does best when it is open to foreign ideas.” –Howard French, The Wall Street Journal

“A crucial reminder of how this reform involved a significant degree of intellectual exchange with Western experts . . . Gewirtz’ study of the role of Western economists in China’s post-Mao economic reforms stands, in a unique way, as a marker of the historiographic shifts in how Western scholarship has addressed the role of the West in China’s modern development . . . Gewirtz more than meets this demand with sourcing that if anything is more dominantly Chinese. Beyond simply using Chinese materials, though, the book also benefits from the wide range of materials Gewirtz consulted, from personal interviews to scholarly articles and newspaper accounts, all of which he pulls together to provide a clear window into this important period of Chinese economic transformation. One of Gewirtz’ talents is an ability to construct, from what often seem to be dense economic reports, a smooth narrative of the important interpersonal exchanges and meetings that facilitated that transfer of Western economic expertise into China.” –Edward A. McCord, Critical Asian Studies (vol. 49, no. 2, pp. 268–274).

“Gewirtz provides a dramatic and freshly detailed account of the terrifying years from 1976 to 1993, when China’s central leaders held their breath and pushed their country into the unknown by beginning to liberalize its economy . . . [I]t delivers a great deal of insight into how China’s mix of socialism and capitalism works.” ­–Andrew Nathan, Foreign Affairs

Unlikely Partners (Harvard University Press, 2017) recounts the story of how Chinese politicians and intellectuals looked beyond their country’s borders for economic guidance at a key crossroads in the nation’s tumultuous twentieth century. Julian Gewirtz offers a dramatic tale of competition for influence between reformers and hardline conservatives during the Deng Xiaoping era, bringing to light China’s productive exchanges with the West.

When Mao Zedong died in 1976, his successors seized the opportunity to reassess the wisdom of China’s rigid commitment to Marxist doctrine. With Deng Xiaoping’s blessing, China’s economic gurus scoured the globe for fresh ideas that would put China on the path to domestic prosperity and ultimately global economic power. Leading foreign economists accepted invitations to visit China to share their expertise, while Chinese delegations traveled to the United States, Hungary, Great Britain, West Germany, Brazil, and other countries to examine new ideas. Chinese economists partnered with an array of brilliant thinkers, including Nobel Prize winners, World Bank officials, battle-scarred veterans of Eastern Europe’s economic struggles, and blunt-speaking free-market fundamentalists.

Nevertheless, the push from China’s senior leadership to implement economic reforms did not go unchallenged, nor has the Chinese government been eager to publicize its engagement with Western-style innovations. Even today, Chinese Communists decry dangerous Western influences and officially maintain that China’s economic reinvention was the Party’s achievement alone. Unlikely Partners sets forth the truer story, which has continuing relevance for China’s complex and far-reaching relationship with the West.

“Julian Gewirtz’s “Unlikely Partners” charts, with an extraordinary attention to detail, these world-historic decisions and focuses on the role that foreign economists played in the early stages of China’s transformation . . . [A]n indisputably necessary book for anyone who wants to learn more about China and about that extraordinary period of intellectual ferment . . . It is an immense work that deserves highest praise.” –Branko Milanovic, globalinequality

“I loved this book. It is a tour de force on China, the theory of policy advising, and the history of economic thought, all rolled into one.” –Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

“A fluent account of the partnership between Chinese and foreign experts in the ‘golden age’ of the 1980s that helped set the stage for the country’s ascent . . . A fascinating example of the power of international collaboration.” –Jonathan Fenby, Financial Times

“This book provides important insights that explore the implications of China’s rise in the twenty-first century as it reminds us that the origin of China’s current prosperity is not nationalism but internationalism.” –Hiroki Takeuchi, H-Diplo

“Gewirtz’s account of China’s transition from Marxist central planning to ‘socialist market’ economics is masterful: detailed, balanced, and illuminating…This is a revelatory account of China’s economic evolution, its debt to Western economic thought, and its love-hate relationship with capitalism.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A thorough and fascinating account of collaboration between Chinese and foreign economists, which helped to shape the economic policy reforms in China in the 1980s and years thereafter.” –China Information (vol. 32, no. 1).

“A remarkable book, written with poise and confidence, that shows how closely Chinese reform was tied to ideas from the capitalist and socialist blocs during the Cold War, and illuminates the beginnings of an economic idea that would transform China and change the world.”—Rana Mitter, Project Syndicate

“A great book and a delight to read. It roars along at an exuberant, enthusiastic pace; each time I put it down I was eager to pick it up again. Gewirtz tells an important and bold story, making a substantial contribution to understanding China’s economic transformation.” –Barry Naughton, author of The Chinese Economy

“Gewirtz takes us on a grand tour of the historic efforts made by Chinese leaders to confect a new economic model, reminding us also of the critical role played by foreign ideas and advisors. If you are confused by the complicated evolution of China’s economy, this wonderfully meaty book will serve as a fascinating road map.” –Orville Schell, Director, Center on U.S.–China Relations, Asia Society

“China’s reforms have been written about from many different angles, but no one until now has delved into the intellectual interchanges that really changed the thinking of a generation of economists who are still influencing China today. It is a great story, and Gewirtz tells it with great verve.” –Joseph Fewsmith, author of China since Tiananmen

“Gewirtz has written an insightful and well-documented review of China during the very important period of change from 1976 to 1993. This work provides an excellent basis for understanding past developments and for assessing the impact of any policy changes that may be coming in the years ahead. I enjoyed the book greatly.” –James D. Wolfensohn, President, World Bank Group, 1995–2005