1948  — 2004

Yang Xiaokai

Yang Xiguang

A pioneer of the Cultural Revolution “thinking generation,” Yang became one of the world's preeminent theorists in economic analysis, as well as an influential campaigner for democracy in China.

Yang Xiaokai was born October 6, 1948, into a family that soon became part of the new “revolutionary” political elite in Hunan, where his father, Yang Dipu, became a member of the provincial Party Committee and his mother, Chen Su, was deputy head of the provincial trade union organization. He had two sisters, Yang Hui and Yang Xiaocheng.

Although Yang Xiguang was a brilliant student and natural leader, his family fell afoul of the 1950s-60s political campaigns and came to a tragic end when accused of helping Yang as a Red Guard write an infamous “ultra-leftist” critique of the Party, “Whither China?” His mother committed suicide shortly after his imprisonment in 1968.

Upon release from prison ten years later, Yang changed his name back to “Xiaokai” to find employment in a printing factory, where he met his wife, Jean Wu Xiaojuan. Despite only auditing a smattering of courses at Hunan University, Yang joined the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing in 1980 and took a teaching position at Wuhan University in 1982. With a Ford Foundation fellowship, he then obtained a Ph.D. in economics at Princeton, with a post-doctoral appointment at Yale.

For 16 years after 1988, Yang taught economics at Monash University and earned an international reputation for his revision of classical economics theory on the division of labor, or specialization. Meanwhile, he lectured and wrote on the issues of structural reform in China, where he became well known as a champion of a decentralized, privatized economy.

During his last three years of struggling with lung cancer, Yang Xiaokai became a baptized Christian in 2002, strengthened his family relationships, and faced death without fear. In 2003, he wrote a second testimony centered on how his new biblical worldview had called into question his professional views on the value of modernization.

Extended Story

Yang Xiaokai was born October 6, 1948, in Hunan just after his parents had been transferred from the wartime Communist capital of Yan’an to the northeast, where they had just won a “minor victory,” the meaning of his childhood name. When he began school, he was called by his formal name Xiguang (“light at dawn”). Thus both names reflected the hopes of his parents and millions of others that communism would resolve China’s pressing problems.

Xiaokai’s childhood was infused with his father’s strong sense of duty and Confucian morality, in combination with his mother’s more liberal notions of the value of the individual and compassion for those less fortunate in life. The three children were nurtured in an atmosphere of lively political discussion and intellectual debate. It was expected from the earliest times that the only son would one day make a name for himself.

Yang was a brilliant student and acknowledged leader among his elite classmates. But the unrelenting political campaigns began to shake the family in 1957, when his brother and uncle were labeled “rightists.” In 1959, his father was sent to the countryside for criticizing the Great Leap Forward, but regained political favor for a short time. When both parents came under attack during the Cultural Revolution, Yang too was criticized. In reaction, he joined the Shengwulian, part of the leftist “rebel” faction of Red Guards identified with the “bourgeois bad classes,” who were opposed by the “proletarian” Red Guard and military “conservative” faction.

The name Yang Xiguang became famous all over China and beyond during the Cultural Revolution, when his criticism of the CCP as a “new red class” of oppressors appeared in an essay “Whither China?” calling for a violent revolution modeled on the Paris Commune. Circulated among hundreds of thousands as an example of “ultra-leftist” counter-revolution, his critique came as an early enlightenment to many later democracy activists. He has been viewed as an early forerunner of China’s “thinking generation,” which spearheaded the 1980s democracy movement.

In 1968, Yang was denounced personally by both Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai and spent the next ten years in prison labor camp, in great danger of execution during the swings of the political pendulum. His arrest was a tragedy for his family, as suspicion fell upon his parents as likely authors of such a sophisticated essay. His mother committed suicide the year of his arrest. During the following decade in prison, Yang read widely and even learned advanced mathematics from a professor he admired who was a devout Christian. He learned other subjects as well from fellow inmates, whom he later commemorated in Captive Spirits: Prisoners of the Cultural Revolution(Oxford University Press, 1999). Yang began to ponder abstract questions of political economy, thinking that would surface years later as path-breaking work in theoretical economics.

When Yang Xiguang was finally released from prison in 1978, he changed his name back to Yang Xiaokai in order to find a job, with the help of family connections, as a proof-reader in a printing factory. There Yang met his wife-to-be, Wu Xiaojuan, known later as Jean, who also worked at the printery. He attended lectures at Hunan University and then moved to Beijing in 1980 to join the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He married in February 1981 and the next year accepted a position at Wuhan University, until leaving for the U.S. the following year after he was awarded a Ford Foundation Fellowship to study for a PhD. at Princeton University. He later brought his family, now including first-born daughter Xiaoxi, to New Jersey. One of the first Chinese to earn a PhD degree in the U.S. since 1949, Yang then obtained a post-doctorate position at Yale.

The family, now including James, born in 1987 and named after Yale economist James Tobin, moved to Melbourne in June 1988, where Yang taught for 16 years at Monash University. He produced a large body of English-language scholarship in economic theory including Economics: New Classical versus Neoclassical Frameworks (Blackwell, 2000). His contributions covered the areas of economic development, theory of the firm, theory of business cycles, operations theory, theory of bargaining, as well as mathematical applications in economics game theory, graph theory and topology.

Only five years after receiving his PhD in 1988, Yang Xiaokai was inducted into the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia and twice was nominated (2002-3) for the Nobel Prize in Economics for his breakthrough in updating classical economics theory on the division of labor, or specialization. Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard University’s Economics Department has written “Yang is one of the world’s most penetrating and exacting economic theorists, and one of the most creative minds in the economics profession.” Nobel Laureate James Buchanan noted “I think Dr Yang is doing the most interesting work in economic theory that I know of at this time.” ?

Meanwhile, Yang Xiaokai never lost his desire to promote reform in China, and wrote and lectured widely in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. He developed a reputation among Chinese as a champion of decentralized politics and a privatized economy. His book, “Modern Economics and the Chinese Economy,” was a number-one best seller in China in 1997-98. When he passed away, Southern Weekend (15 July 2004), the most influential reformist magazine in China, carried a long, laudatory obituary.

During his struggle with cancer from 2001 - 2004, Yang Xiaokai also became the most prominent mainland Chinese, and most prominent democracy activist, to become a Christian. With the onset of life-threatening disease in 2001, Xiaokai came to reflect upon his life to that point. “I was a self-centred careerist,” he wrote. “I put my career before anything else. I did not spend much time with my kids. I was full of hatred towards those who persecuted me in China … I was totally consumed by my aspiration for secular prestige.” Yang’s daughter, Xiaoxi, was diagnosed with and then cured of a brain tumour. She accepted Christ as her savior following the witness of some Christian friends during her ordeal. Her father soon contracted lung cancer, and reached out and received the same saving grace from God in the summer of 2001.

Yang was baptised 17 February 2002 and his Christian conversion changed his outlook on many things, both personal and professional. For the second time in his life, he felt an overwhelming need to make up for lost time. He strengthened his relationship with Jean, who claims these last three as the best of their 23 years of married life together. He tried hard to re-connect with his children, now including Eddie, the youngest, born in 1994.

In a second testimony in 2003, Yang Xiaokai criticized his first testimony as being a mix of belief in God and a belief in materialism stemming from his typical Chinese search for “wealth and power,” belief that knowledge is power, and hope that a “successful” religion will promote economic development in China as it had in the West. But his reflection on the book of Genesis called into question this modernization paradigm, which valued Christianity as conducive to good economic performance. He was shocked to learn that God doesn’t want humans to know too much (Adam and Eve) or become too powerful (at Babel). He concluded that the source of power is God, not human knowledge. Economic development may lead to less, not more happiness for the individual, as evidenced by the loss of family life and the cancer that came with his “efficient” but highly stressful work habits. Similarly in society, the division of labor may create more hierarchy, competition and jealous, and greatly magnify the costs of mistakes by CEOs.

Yang Xiaokai’s faith also changed his attitude to death. “I have become very peaceful in my mind,” he said at his Baptism service, “and no longer fear death.” Only days before his death, he said softly “I just want to go to heaven now.” This brilliant thinker left the message that his discovery of Jesus Christ was the most important thing he ever discovered and that the truth of the Gospel was the most important truth ever revealed to him. After a lifetime of searching for significance in the world of ideas, he found ultimate significance in the person of Jesus Christ. Yang died at age 55 on July 7, 2004


About the Author

Carol Lee Hamrin

George Mason University Research Professor and Senior Associate for Global China Center