Kicking away the Ladder? Trade and Chinese-East German Disputes on the Development of Optical Industry

Optical products were among the most important imports for Mao’s China during the early Cold War period. From East Germany (GDR), an industrial socialist nation with an international reputation in the optical industry, most notably Carl Zeiss Jena, became China’s major supplier of optical products throughout the 1950s and the early 1960s. In the economic and technology negotiations between China and East Germany, issues in the optical industry ranked high on the agenda. The former wanted to develop a highly advanced optical industry, while the latter insisted on maintaining the status quo: China continuing to import high-level Carl Zeiss products and East Germany starting to assist China in developing a low-level domestic optical industry. In the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), these East German policies closely resembled the policies of imperialists in China before 1949, aiming to make China an underdeveloped nation forever. Thus, China’s disagreement and conflict with East Germany happened well before the early 1960s, when the split in the socialist bloc became widely seen. The Chinese-East German disagreement in the optical industry seems to have somewhat justified the widely discussed framing of Ha-joon Chang which stated that developed states always prevent developing countries from adopting policies and institutions that they themselves had used to climb to the top—“kicking away the ladder.” However, Chang seldom mentioned the socialist world and intra-bloc disputes over how to develop modern industries in an underdeveloped socialist nation. In the socialist state, economic exchange, solidarity, and mutual development were the leading narratives. Despite the Chinese accusations of East German “imperialist policies,” research still needs to be done on the real purpose of East German policy makers, the Chinese-German negotiation process, as well as its influence on the development of the optical industry both in China and East Germany. Drawing on archival sources from both China and Germany, this paper will explore the aforementioned questions and further our understanding of China’s industrial policy and its limits.