A Fellow Traveller’s Tale8 min read

How Mao Cost a Cambridge Economist the Nobel Prize – by Julian Gewirtz


In the autumn of 1975, there was one name “on everyone’s list for this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics,” Business Week magazine trumpeted: the Cambridge economist Joan Robinson. The week before the prize announcement, the magazine predicted that Robinson would be the first woman to win the prize. A major interpreter of John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx, she was one of the most prominent economists of her generation.

But when the names of the winners were read out at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Robinson’s name was not among them. When she died in 1983, just shy of her eightieth birthday, she had not won the prize – despite words of support from laureates as different as Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman.

What went wrong? More than perhaps any other factor, one man was to blame: Mao Zedong. Robinson’s writing in praise of Mao’s China – from her defense of the ruinous Great Leap Forward to her zesty praise of the Cultural Revolution – was likely what lost her the Prize. Fang Qin, an economist at Fudan University in Shanghai, put it plainly: “She is considered the most important female economist in history, but she did not win the Nobel Prize because she publicly praised the Cultural Revolution.”

In commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution last year, a great deal of insightful analysis focused on what the anniversary means for China. With the persecution of well over 30 million Chinese and the deaths of as many as 1.5 million people, it is China’s tragedy above all else. But foreign observers of China also have a responsibility not to overlook a set of thin but lurid threads woven into that decade’s grisly tapestry: the stories of Western fellow travelers who cheered on Mao’s campaigns.

There were many such individuals, primarily intellectuals on the left who saw in Mao a redemptive possibility for the international communist revolution. Joseph Needham, the eminent historian of Chinese science who proudly led the British-Chinese Friendship Association, is among the best known. But for sheer incongruity – and for the damage to her reputation it caused – Robinson stands out. Described by her student Amartya Sen as “totally brilliant and vigorously intolerant,” the poshly educated Robinson was an economist, not a sinologist, but she carried on what she called a “romance” with Mao’s China for more than 25 years.

Joan Robinson (Spartacus Educational)

In late 1967, fifty years ago, Robinson journeyed to Beijing to see the Cultural Revolution. She was enraptured, writing that it was “picturesque and startling.” She praised the atmosphere as “frank and open,” and warned that the Cultural Revolution’s success in eliminating the class enemies threatening the regime might not be permanent. “Mao himself is realistic,” she wrote, “and cheerfully remarks that it may well be necessary to have another Cultural Revolution after fifteen or twenty years.”

Robinson revered Mao. He “has revealed to China that she can become a great industrial nation,” she wrote in the 1950s, adding, “China seems to me to provide the final proof that Communism is not a stage beyond Capitalism but a substitute for it.”

For her entire career, Robinson had attacked what she saw as the profound flaws of capitalism and fervently defended communism – but, being a first-rate scholar, she longed for evidence, which Mao’s China might provide. If China could provide this “final proof” for her communist belief, what were a few dead landlords?

The Cambridge professor had first been swept up in admiration for Mao in the early 1950s, shortly after the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. Attending the National Day celebration in Beijing in 1957, standing on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, she watched processions of workers, dancers, tanks, and over 7,000 soldiers pass by crowds carrying patriotic bouquets of red and yellow flowers. That day she shook hands with Mao but later admitted she had been “too shy to make a remark.”

On the 1957 trip, Robinson was the guest of two Western-educated propagandists, Ji Chaoding and Solomon Adler. They seemed intent on cultivating Robinson as a prominent international ally of the regime. “My impression was that Chinese leaders considered [her] to be the best of the British economists,” Sidney Rittenberg, an American who worked as an interpreter for Mao and other top Chinese leaders, told me, describing her as “a quiet, rather severe lady” who “was considered a highly honored guest.”

A major interpreter of Marx and Keynes, Joan Robinson was at the peak of her powers in the year when she shook hands with Mao. In 1956, she published The Accumulation of Capital, a groundbreaking theoretical study of the principles underlying how developing economies grow. The book’s contributions were the primary reason her name was much discussed as the first woman who might win the Nobel Prize in the notoriously male-dominated field of economics.

But thanks to a dizzying combination – the intimate propaganda of Ji and Adler, the spectacle of National Day, the whirlwind meeting with Mao, and, most of all, her desire to believe in China as the “final proof” of the superiority of communism over capitalism – Robinson proved an easy mark.

Just a few years after her 1957 visit, Robinson lent her approval to the Great Leap Forward, a utopian campaign to create self-sufficient local communities that could feed their people and produce surplus but that failed spectacularly, exacerbating a massive famine and leading to the deaths of tens of millions of people. Robinson even chastised rumormongering “critics” who were “shedding crocodile tears over the ‘famine’.”

Then came the Cultural Revolution. Although others on the left in Britain supported Mao’s regime, the Cultural Revolution proved to be a source of division among British sinophiles. Needham voiced his “reservations” about the Cultural Revolution, especially after a furious group of Red Guards had stormed into and set fire to the British Charge d’Affaires office in Beijing.

Robinson, however, appeared to have no such reservations. She was nonplussed by the reports of purges of intellectuals and fierce violence (“China’s Red Guard Drive Reported Costly in Lives; A High Purge Toll in China Reported,” blared a front-page headline in the New York Times in September 1966). Admitting that “violence and disorder” were present, Robinson focused on the existential threat that the so-called rightists posed to Mao’s achievements: “A decorous, legal procedure could never have done the job.”

Even when Robinson returned to China in 1978, with Mao dead and his policies dispensed with by Deng Xiaoping, her views did not change substantially. Yet in her diary from this 1978 trip, for perhaps the only time in her writing, she admitted that she had allowed herself to ignore the realities of what was happening in China during the Cultural Revolution. Learning “the history of the decade, 1966-1976, has been a profound shock,” she confided in her journal. “How could it happen that, under cover of Mao Tse-tung thought, a medieval drama of ambition and treachery could play itself out?”

In the years after Robinson’s final visit to Beijing, many more economists would travel from the West to China and play a far wider range of roles. Some would advise China’s rulers on their economic policies, bringing ideas that became central to Chinese policy debates or laid long-term foundations. Others would provide window-dressing to bolster the leaders’ credibility with the aura of a distinguished Nobel laureate or an eminent professor. But Robinson stands out because of how deeply she wanted to believe in the China she thought she saw – a fact attested to by the hundreds of notebook pages she filled with the figures and statements of various cadres, taking down hundreds if not thousands of their words of praise for Mao.

The goal of remembering Robinson’s reaction to Mao’s China today is not to blame her, but to illustrate one end of the spectrum of the Western experts who engaged with the Chinese Communist Party: an extreme case of an intellectual, no matter how brilliant, who went to China to observe a highly distorted vision of what was occurring and to report that information back at home. It cost her dearly. Robinson’s story is a reminder of the enduring need for a vigilant, critical eye in consuming information about China, especially when that information comes with the imprimatur of the CCP.

In the Deng era, many Chinese leaders – especially the premier, Zhao Ziyang – sought to engage in meaningful dialogue with foreign economists and draw substantively on their expertise. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping said plainly that his goal was to “turn China into a great modern and powerful country within this century.” The “one-way street” model that Robinson exemplified was no longer the order of the day, and the intellectual direction was one of which she disapproved. “It was deflating to be told that the Cultural Revolution is over and that the new aim of policy is modernization,” she reflected that same year. “We know only too well what it is like to be modern.”


This article is adapted from Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China (Harvard University Press, 2017)