Never Turn Back

China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s

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Pub Date 18 Oct 2022 | Archive Date 18 Oct 2022

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Description

The history the Chinese Communist Party has tried to erase: the dramatic political debates of the 1980s that could have put China on a path to greater openness.

On a hike in Guangdong Province in January 1984, Deng Xiaoping was warned that his path was a steep and treacherous one. “Never turn back,” the Chinese leader replied. That became a mantra as the government forged ahead with reforms in the face of heated contestation over the nation’s future. For a time, everything was on the table, including democratization and China’s version of socialism. But deliberation came to a sudden halt in spring 1989, with protests and purges, massacre and repression. Since then, Beijing has worked intensively to suppress the memory of this era of openness.

Julian Gewirtz recovers the debates of the 1980s, tracing the Communist Party’s diverse attitudes toward markets, state control, and sweeping technological change, as well as freewheeling public argument over political liberalization. The administration considered bold proposals from within the party and without, including separation between the party and the state, empowering the private sector, and establishing an independent judiciary. After Tiananmen, however, Beijing systematically erased these discussions of alternative directions. Using newly available Chinese sources, Gewirtz details how the leadership purged the key reformist politician Zhao Ziyang, quashed the student movement, recast the transformations of the 1980s as the inevitable products of consensus, and indoctrinated China and the international community in the new official narrative.

Never Turn Back offers a revelatory look at how different China’s rise might have been and at the foundations of strongman rule under Xi Jinping, who has intensified the policing of history to bolster his own authority.

Julian Gewirtz is author of Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Past & Present. He has been Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Lecturer in History at Columbia University. He is currently serving as China Director on the National Security Council (NSC); his work on this book was completed before his government service and does not necessarily reflect the views of the US government or NSC.

The history the Chinese Communist Party has tried to erase: the dramatic political debates of the 1980s that could have put China on a path to greater openness.

On a hike in Guangdong Province in...


Advance Praise

“A gift to our understanding of today’s China. Gewirtz has brilliantly, vividly revealed a hidden history of elite debate over the defining question of modern China: could it ever be both rich and free? This eye-opening examination of China’s tortured relationship with reform repairs our understanding of the 1980s and gives us a powerful lens through which to glimpse the future.”—Evan Osnos, author of the National Book Award–winning Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

“The decade of the 1980s was one of the most transformative in modern China’s history. Yet the story we know about it leaves out a key figure: top Communist leader Zhao Ziyang. Showing how Zhao was crucial to the most important decisions of the time, Gewirtz fundamentally changes our understanding of this period, forcing us to rethink an era that continues to shape our world.”—Rana Mitter, author of China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism

“I lived in 1980s China and covered it for the New York Times, yet I learned so much from Gewirtz’s outstanding, brilliantly researched book about the infighting in that period that resulted in the brutal suppression of the Tiananmen democracy movement. Many of those Chinese debates of the 1980s about political and economic reform persist today in Beijing and will determine the country’s future—and that’s why this book is so important.”—Nicholas D. Kristof, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and coauthor of A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity

“In my judgment, this is the definitive book on China in the 1980s in terms of the depth of research and originality of the argument. It is also elegantly written and a pleasure to read. Gewirtz debunks the official narrative constructed by the Chinese Communist Party that has erased the critical contributions made by Zhao Ziyang, the reformist leader purged during the 1989 Tiananmen crisis.”—Minxin Pei, author of China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay

“An enormously important book on how the People’s Republic became the China we know today. Gewirtz not only presents the alternatives to repression and conformity; he explains why the panoply of pluralistic thinking, so rich and vibrant after the death of Mao’s revolution, was destroyed by senior Communist leaders during the 1980s.”—Odd Arne Westad, author of The Cold War: A World History

“A bold and innovative argument about one of the most important policy debates of our time: how China doubled down on autocracy while still developing into an economic and technological superpower. Gewirtz shows how this history was not an inevitable straight line from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, but was filled with twists and turns. For those seeking to understand China’s rise today, this book is essential reading.”—Michael McFaul, author of From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia

“A gift to our understanding of today’s China. Gewirtz has brilliantly, vividly revealed a hidden history of elite debate over the defining question of modern China: could it ever be both rich and...


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EDITION Hardcover
ISBN 9780674241848
PRICE $32.95 (USD)

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