Global politics are still shaped by five seismic events in a single yearby Christian Caryl / July 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
L-R: Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK; Pope John Paul II visited Poland; Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the mujahedin; Deng Xiaoping revolutionised China’s economy; Soviet troops intervened in Afghanistan
In May 1979, a budding American businessman named Tom Gorman arrived at the Canton Trade Fair, communist China’s biannual exhibition for foreign investors. Gorman was one of a small handful of westerners who had been trying for years to do business with the government in far-away Beijing, and like the others he had little to show so far for his efforts. This was, after all, just three years after Mao Zedong’s death and the end of the hysterical xenophobia of the Cultural Revolution. Even the tiny group of Chinese authorised to make deals with overseas companies were so apprehensive about dealing with foreigners that they didn’t even print business cards. Finding the right partner usually required considerable detective work beforehand.
Gorman and the other Americans attending the trade fair that spring were correspondingly shocked when, for the first time anyone could remember, the Chinese came to them. A group of Chinese officials informed the astonished visitors that a wonderful investment opportunity was in the offing—would they like to have a look? The Americans accepted, and soon found themselves bumping down back roads to their destination deep in the countryside. Upon arrival, the Chinese led their visitors to the top of a dike that afforded a panoramic view of a typical south China landscape: rice paddies, duck ponds, and water buffalo, all tended by hardworking peasants in straw hats. This, the Chinese told their guests, was the Baoan Foreign Trade Base, future home of world-class factories and hotels. It was going to be amazing: the visitors should know a good thing when they saw it. But all the Americans could see was an agricultural backwater, bereft of infrastructure or resources. Gorman and his colleagues exchanged glances. They thought the Chinese were crazy.