“Reform’s Long Shadows” International Workshop

"Reform's Long Shadows" Global Reactions to Perestroika and ‘Reform and Opening Up,’ 1978-1991

Exploratory International Workshop

From October 5 to 7, 2023, we hosted Prof. Dr. Timothy Nunan and international participants at an Exploratory Workshop in Geisa.

The dual projects of “reform and opening up” in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and perestroika in the Soviet Union (USSR) transformed Chinese and Soviet society. Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang transformed from a backward, agrarian society recovering from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution to a country embedded in the global capitalist economy—if also one that would not hesitate to crush challenges to the Chinese Communist Party’s rule. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to revive the socialist dream led to more ambiguous results. Gorbachev’s economic reforms led to the disintegration of the Soviet economy, while attempts to introduce glasnost’, or openness, into the Soviet system, undermined Communist Party rule and opened a Pandora’s box of historical and nationalist resentments. In the last decade, historians have begun to write histories of the socialist 1980s that draw on archives, memoirs, and document markets in the former USSR and China.

To that end, Prof. Dr. Timothy Nunan (University of Regensburg) has organized, with the support of the Point Alpha Research Institute, a two-day workshop that brought scholars of international history together to Geisa to explore how state and non-state actors around the world understood and adapted to the processes of reform in the USSR and the PRC from 1978 (the rise of Deng Xiaoping) to 1991 (the dissolution of the Soviet Union). This workshop broke with convention in not being centered on workshop papers or an edited volume. Instead, our aim is to produce a small collection of translated primary source documents that can be used in future teaching on the 1980s.

Invited scholars were asked to prepare English-language translations of a primary source document that illustrates how actors from North Korea, South Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Tanzania, Brazil, and Hungary perceived Soviet and Chinese reform. Over the course of our time in Geisa, invited scholars will also draft a short blurb situating and contextualizing the document for readers. A series of intense conversations and feedback over a weekend allowed the participants to produce an ultimate “deliverable,” namely a collection of sources and a jointly authored introductory essay highlighting themes across the various sources. Over the autumn and winter, these resources will be uploaded to the Wilson Center Digital Archive, available for use by students and university educators.

More ambitiously, the networks formed over two days in Geisa may be used for future third-party funding applications. Indeed, given the small size of the workshop, it would be impossible to curate a selection of documents that reflects all of the global dimensions of reactions to Chinese and Soviet reform processes. It is our hope that our discussions in Geisa and the subsequent publication of the documentary collection will spur future initiatives exploring the complex international legacies of “reform and opening” and perestroika.

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