An American Futurist in China: Alvin Toffler and Reform & Opening


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This week on Sinica, China-watching wunderkind Julian Gewirtz joins Kaiser and Jeremy to chat about his recent paper on the American futurist Alvin Toffler (author of Future Shock and The Third Wave), who found a surprisingly receptive audience in the China of the early 1980s. His ideas on the role of technology in modernization were widely embraced by leaders of China’s reform movement — including both Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 and his right-hand man, Zhào Zǐyáng 赵紫阳. Julian describes how Toffler came to the attention of the reformers, and discusses the lasting impact of his influence.

11:51: As the Cultural Revolution ended, Chinese officials and intellectuals began to look for ideas that could breathe new life into the Chinese intelligentsia and bureaucracy. A translator named Dǒng Lèshān 董乐山 went to the United States, repeatedly came across The Third Wave, and subsequently invited Toffler to come to China. And so he did, with many copies of his book. One thing led to another, and Toffler’s work came under the gaze of the State Council and Zhao Ziyang himself. Jeremy reflects, “This is, in some ways, a story of China for foreigners in the 1980s and 1990s — you could have any shtick if you were a hustler. You could arrive in Beijing with your books and hand them out. The next thing, the Politburo is listening to you. Those days are long gone.”

15:35: In writing his first book, which focused extensively on economists, Julian came across Alvin Toffler’s name repeatedly. Upon delving further into research for his paper on Toffler, he got a bit more than he expected: “To be totally frank, I did not expect, when I started looking into it, that I would end up finding a story, from the Chinese perspective, of very significant interest that was more than just an intellectual craze or fad, but that really connected to fundamental questions about technology policy, how the Chinese state should support new technologies, and in a sense, the future that the Chinese leadership was envisioning for China itself.”

22:31: Technology policy, and mastering the implementation of such policy, has been a focus for Chinese leadership stretching to the beginning of reform and opening. Julian explains the importance of science and technology policy as China opened to the world: “We see a global information technology revolution occurring, and worry among Chinese leaders that, just as they’re opening to the world, just as China is beginning its process of catching up, maybe they’ll be left behind again. And the impetus to try to get ahead of the information technology revolution, which is one of the central goals that Deng and Zhao work on together, is, I think, a crucial aspect of the 1980s that we haven’t really understood so well thus far.”

32:21: Science and technology are venerated in China in a way that draws a stark contrast with the United States. “The nerds are the jocks in high school,” says Jeremy, to which Kaiser remarks, “Exactly. But they don’t ride by in the Camaro and shout, ‘Jock!’” Julian explains what this means on a broader scale: “We need to begin by looking at [Chinese technology] on its own terms, before we import our own ideas onto it. The reason that studying the transnational flow of ideas, someone like Toffler becoming big in China — the reason that can be so revealing, I think, is that it allows us to accentuate dimensions that differ or are unusual, or are surprising to observers from outside, again centering on that Chinese perspective, the Chinese leadership’s view of these things, and how certain ideas play there in a different way than how they play in the United States.”


Jeremy: A 2006 People’s Daily interview with Alvin Toffler, who, contrary to popular belief, has some interesting ideas.

Julian: Poems by W. S. Merwin, “The Hydra” in particular, and Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China, by Xiaolu Guo.

Kaiser: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker, and “The Two Cultures,” an essay by C. P. Snow.

This podcast was edited and produced by Kaiser Kuo and Jason MacRonald.