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 / Winter 2006 / Issue 45(originally published by Booz & Company)


Alvin Toffler: The Thought Leader Interview

The Politburo’s Judgment

S+B: Elsewhere in this book, you point out that China is ahead of India in the race to the knowledge economy. India is a democratic society, an English-speaking society — those would seem to be phenomenal advantages, and yet it appears to be trailing China. Why?
Well, the other side of democracy is autocracy, and I believe the Chinese made a very conscious and strategic move. We Americans look at China’s rapid development and say it’s because they’ve moved to a market economy. Baloney. China had nothing remotely resembling a market economy, let alone a significant Third Wave knowledge-based sector, when this whole process began.

The real reform movement started later, and Heidi and I, it turns out, played an unexpected role in China’s transformation.

On January 1, 1983, we entered China as guests of something called the Chinese Society for Future Studies, which had never existed until a few months before then. To a good Marxist, the pathway to the future is known — it’s capitalism, socialism, then communism. So the fact that they had created this institute inside the Chinese Academy of Social Science struck us as interesting.

We went to Beijing, Suzhou, and Shanghai, lectured about The Third Wave, and went home. Two years later, we were flying to Paris for a conference, and I was leafing through L’Express magazine, and it said the second-best-selling book in China, after the speeches of its supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, was The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler. We almost fell out of our seats.

S+B: Why did this book — about the information-based civilization that would supplant agricultural and industrial civilization — interest the Chinese?
We started to find out much later, when we got a visit from the Chinese sociologist who had been our guide during our 1983 trip. After we had left he had given some speeches about The Third Wave and written some articles about it. He immediately got a frightening letter from the prime minister’s office wanting to know the names of people he’d spoken to and demanding a copy of everything he’d written. Then he got a similar letter from the office of the chairman of the Communist Party. Having lived through the cultural revolution that saw millions punished or killed for being intellectuals, he was understandably nervous about his identification with us and our ideas.

A few months after these events, we’ve been told, 3,000 copies of The Third Wave were published in Chinese, but were available only to senior Communist Party leadership. It was immediately attacked as Western “spiritual pollution” and taken off the shelves. But Heidi had brought over a videocassette of the TV version of our book. She had recently produced it jointly with Japanese and Canadian television channels. And copies of that program began to circulate in China.

Meanwhile, inside the Politburo there was apparently a six-month-long debate going on about party ideology and the ideas in The Third Wave. We knew nothing of this at the time.

In October 1983, then Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang called the policymakers together in Beijing and said they must study The Third Wave. People were still afraid, so they went over his head to the chairman of the party, who at that point was Hu Yaobang. And he apparently said that too many people in the party were afraid of new ideas.

The authorities, in short, had decided the time had come to experiment with economic reform — a major break with the Communist Party’s previous ideology. They wanted mass support. As a result, both our book and our film about technological change and the emerging future became useful tools for them. Millions of copies of The Third Wave were printed all over China — schoolbook editions, regional and other editions. Meanwhile, cassettes of the television special reached every part of China, and even today people come up and say things like “I bicycled 10 miles to see your Third Wave film.”

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