Quo vade China? (Reflections about a Giant)
Thursday, January 01, 1970 (02:33:25)
Posted by spainsun
Well, well, well, three weeks in the Kingdom of the Middle won’t make a Sinology scholar out of me but even a mere sniff at the Chinese culture at its home will add a lot of perspective to any knowledge gleaned from the dry pages of books and news articles.
I will never be able to claim I did more than scratch the outermost layer in which the Chinese culture keeps itself wrapped away from the eyes of the curious Western intruder but I’m certainly more savvy and less apprehensive of the Chinese peril now than before I left .
Wrote By Corneliu Cazacu.
I know I could start out like any other traveller by reciting the names of the places I’ve just seen, add some historical facts and some landscape descriptions in between, and thus satisfy the curiosity of a reader that hasn’t set foot in China.
However, the main question that plagues me after this trip is not how China managed to make such giant strides but why there is such a huge difference in the respective achievements of China and of India.
I must confess I haven’t had the time to adventure in the backward Western parts of China, in Xian, Inner Mongolia or Tibet, and the only villages I’ve seen - from the speed of the train - were the ones around Canton and Shanghai but it doesn’t take a lot to imagine what utter countryside poverty is and the parallel should be drawn between the aspects of progress and not the ones of stagnation.
In New Delhi, the capital of India, I saw monkeys frolicking between the classicist columns of the Ministry of Defence in the midst of the Government Buildings and, everywhere outside the main axis that crosses the centre, cows resting or walking around lazily among dilapidated one- or two-storey buildings. In any other large city, like Agra or Varanasi, I’ve seen never ending slums looking for a city rather than a modern city as we know it.
In contrast, in Shanghai or Guangdong, let alone Shenzhen, I saw numerous 20- to 30-storey skyscrapers not only downtown but also in the outskirts of the city, as well, elevated motorways worthy of any US intersection, modern shopping malls with live classical music celebrating the advent of Mother’s Day on Labour Day (no flags adorned with the hammer and sickle symbol, no grey or dark buttoned up workers’ uniforms, no propaganda speeches on giant screens), fashionable (and alas expensive!) bars, restaurants and clubs on a par with the best Western ones I've visited.
How come the „vibrant biggest democracy in the world“, as Indians proudly describe their system, is clearly outperformed by a country whose authoritarian rule is based upon the totalitarian one-party system stifling any form of dissent?
Any ideologist would argue that the progress made by China, with its yearly growth rates of more than 9%, is the logical result of the spreading of free-market, liberal philosophy – a statement which is and is not true.
There is no doubt that the present Chinese economic boom is due to the economic liberalisation policy but in reality China has only four Special Economic Zones, out of which the most well-known, Shenzhen and Zhu Hai, located as economic outposts of Hong Kong and Macau, respectively, number less than 3 million people. It is hard to believe that four enclaves with less than 7 million people altogether can provide an economic growth of 9% for a country of 1.3 billion people. And yes, in reality the free-market experiment is spread all around China and obvious in every city in the multitude of privately owned shops and restaurants, private factories having grown like mushrooms around the big cities.
This leads to the obvious conclusion that, although the political system is still tributary to the one-party ideology and claims to be „Communist“, the economic system is hybrid and clearly developing in the direction of the free market.
And here comes the big question: Is a totalitarian/authoritarian system, in particular a Communist one, inherently more business-unfriendly than one based on pluripartitism?
If one were to compare India and China the answer would be no. Several other countries besides China have fared quite well under authoritarian regimes (e.g., Singapore under Lee Kwan Yew or Chile under Pinochet) and the power of the people to express their views on the election polls did not seem to affect the economic performance of the country and preclude it from achieving high growth rates.
Would China be better off at this stage with a pluralist system? Would such a western-inspired democratic system ensure higher annual growth rates than the astonishing 9%? The answer can only be highly speculative and would not necessarily have to be positive.
Actually China is a showcase for the ideal symbiosis – seen with an investor’s apolitical eyes and not with those of the politically conscious Chinese citizen - between capitalism and communism, with the ensuing advantages: a free flow of investment with minor hindrances - once the pieces of the deal fall together, little taxation (if any) on the final products, a large reservoir of docile low-paid workforce that just made the leap from the squalor of Communist agriculture and for which a monthly salary of 80-100 dollars/EUR is a huge step forward, an opening to the world’s biggest potential consumer market.
It came to me as a surprise how Americanised/Westernised the Chinese are, or do their best to become. It is impossible nowadays to see a single silk, cotton or linen shirt with a Chinese-cut other than in souvenir shops for Western tourists and even the black fabric, thin-soled “Mao“ shoes have left room for Nike, Adidas or Reebok sports shoes. What’s astonishing, especially for somebody who’s seen enough media propaganda and manipulation in Ceausescu’s Romania, is that even the TV programmes seem to impose this consumerist trend. Soap operas may have a streak of patriotic pride when they show medieval tales of love and adventure with characters dressed in colourful, ancient garbs in the Chinese kingdoms of yore but there is definitely no reference to the Communist past in any of the five-six parallel series running constantly on the national and regional channels. NBA finals coverage stretching over at least four hours a day and Premiership or Champions‘ League games seem to be more important than the war tales involving Communists and KMT nationalists which unfold in a single half hour series. Ads for hair shampoo and whitening lotions, real estate, cars, clothing, travel interrupts any transmission every 5 minutes and last longer than the very morsel of programme.
English is not very widely spoken in China, but every time somebody is relatively fluent, the accent is American and Chinese youth seem to idolise America. I had my own (funny) experience with a ferryboat captain who took me for an American, then finding out I was Romanian asked me further: “You have a good job, you can travel, you have time ... you must be a Communist party member!“. I’m sorry I disappointed the good man on both counts.
What is the conclusion?
Should I be in the possession of a magic wand with unlimited powers to change anything under the sun I’d free the Chinese from the yoke of the Communist rule right away. But what I wish for the Chinese people might not necessarily be the best thing for the Chinese themselves and would most likely anger the investors looking for stability regardless of the former of government. And to be honest, looking at the Romanian post-1989 experience, I’m not sure total liberalisation will not lead to the democratic domination of China’s political life by the Communist party – as the country’s best organised power structure – and a redistribution of the wealth favouring the same party cadres.
Save for a natural cataclysm or an unforeseen inner conflict China is going to become one of the great powers of this century. It has all the preconditions to evolve in the direction of a consumer society like any other Western one, and it will most likely discover pluralism once the free market forces expand all over the country.
It’s up to the Western governments to steer this evolution by promoting economic, political and cultural cooperation and from time to time leading by example and teaching the value of the law, or to hinder it by behaving in an outright confrontational way and push China in the direction of an alliance with a similarly authoritarian Russia.