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China: A giant reaches a fork in the road

If a cat has nine lives Karl Marx must have ninety-and-nine. Every few years a sombre congregation of conservatives and liberals pronounce him dead, chant solemn requiems and bury his legacy deep. And back he comes, bouncing along, much reinvigorated from the sojourn.

Recent reincarnations have been in two continents, or rather one continent, Latin America, and in a country whose significance is of more than continental enormity. Morales in Bolivia and Venezuela's Chavez egged on by that old curmudgeon Castro and to the 'oh dears' of Argentina's Kirchner and Brazil's Lula, are making quite a splash. A social revolution is in the making, but that's not today's topic.

Ideological debates in China

What is of greater import is the developing ideological clash in China. By about 2017 China will be the largest economy in the world (in PPP terms), hence it is of prodigious practical and global significance.

Furthermore, in the domain of international scholarship, discourse on the nature of the state, democracy, socialism and capitalism, are being resurrected. A January headline in the South China Morning Post screamed, 'Millions pledged to revive Marxism' and said "Communist Party leaders have pledged unlimited funds for reviving Marxism".

For a start, between 100 million and 200 million yuan ($12.5 to $25 million) has been earmarked; massive investment of human and financial resources for research institutes and training theorists are planned; 100 to 150 new Marxism textbooks will be compiled. There is a lot more in the works.

An Academy of Marxism has been established at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the study of Marxism, though long compulsory in Chinese schools and universities, is to be beefed up with international conferences and translations of foreign Marxist works.

The Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee leads the initiative and for the first time in its history the Central Committee has issued an edict on the development of the social sciences. None of this implies that the state wishes to ease repressive control of public expression and mass communications, but in the end, intentions aside, loosening up is inevitable.

Why the flurry? Deep contradictions about equity, ethics and morality have surfaced and conflicts between classes and interest groups are pulling China in different economic and social directions.

Napoleon's somnambulant giant has not only woken up and bestirred the world; he has reached a fork in the road and is rubbing his eyes looking this way and that.

Pulling in different directions

China's economic growth in the last three decades has been astonishing, mind numbing. More than 400 million people have been pulled out of poverty, great cities have arisen and a super-power is in the making. This is only half the story. The social conflicts and inequity that have come in its wake are alarming and destabilising. Crass consumerism has led the new middle class into an amoral ethical limbo. The environmental damage from the mindless pursuit of growth has been appalling.

There were 87,000 disturbances to public order, that is mass incidents such as protests, riots and mass petitions in 2005 according to the Public Security Ministry. The number was a mere 10,000 a decade ago. The most common causes of unrest are disputes over land requisition by provincial authorities, developers or industries, protest against corrupt party officials, migrant workers petitioning for back-pay, laid-off state workers demanding welfare and protests against rampant water and land pollution.

In three decades China has transformed itself from one of the most equal societies in the world to one with great income disparity, worse than India. The decent care-for-all medical system has broken down, resources for education are inadequate and the spread of a market economy has undermined the welfare net that protected the populace.

The most serious cause of mass protests is land. In theory all land belongs to the state but for decades villagers held guaranteed tenure in leases that were renewed for 10, 15 or 30 years. But now new projects, highways, power stations, private industries and property developers get "state owned land", legitimately. Some 40 million rural households have been evicted.

There is a spreading revolt against officialdom, corrupt and ad hoc to the wealthy. Giving peasant individual private property rights and creating a rural land market won't help. The poorest will sell and migrate to towns and scrape around in rags.

Big landowners will reappear and one of the greatest achievements of the Chinese revolution will be subverted. Cleansing government and the party and rooting effective leadership in grassroots democracy can deal with the problem. Modernisation cannot be stopped, but fairness, compensation and alternative settlement can be handled in an entirely different way.

The widening equity gap in China takes two forms; the rich become much richer while the poor only become a little less poor. Secondly, some coastal provinces (Guandong, Fujian and Zhejiang) prosper at break-neck speed and big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin and Guanzhou glitter, while the rural hinterland and the west fall behind.

Godless morality

China has always been a godless society, the great and ancient codes of Lao-tzu, Confucius and Mencius were ethical and rational - no priests, shrines and mumbo-jumbo cluttered the moral landscape. But this meant that when the acquisitive and matter-of-fact benefits of the market took charge displacing the ideological mores of the first post-revolutionary years it was 'rational' for self-centred greed to fill the void in the value system.

No emerging middle-class has been as ethically empty as China's new and powerful incumbent. Pursuit of personal wealth, asset stripping, and let us face it, corruption, became the new religion. This is why the ideological campaign in China is being painted on such a big canvas.

It is not only about how much freedom to give market forces, or how much of the national economic surplus to invest in welfare or the western provinces, or about creating an internal market to help spread wealth. It is also a fight for the soul of the people; hence universities and public buildings are festooned with banners about standing up for what is right.

Who stands where?

Hu and Premier Wen Jiabo seem to have sided for now with an influential left faction in the party and government that includes members of the National People's Congress (parliament) and academics from top universities.

The faction has broad-based support among the people and has shown its clout by repulsing a new law to strengthen capitalist property rights. Wen's new budget will pump 340 billion yuan ($42 billion) into rural areas and promote "a socialist countryside" - not enough given the scale of the problem, but not peanuts either if media reports of 10 trillion yuan over two decades materialise.

Those who benefit from the status quo have cried "demarketisation" and "anti-reform". President Hu Jinto and Wen however have their antennae anxiously tuned to warnings of growing social unrest.

The Chinese economy is growing too strongly and the regime is too well entrenched to fear any insurmountable challenge in the foreseeable future. But as Pallavi Aiyar writing from Beijing said recently in the Hindu "China is witnessing an ideological debate that many had dismissed as no longer relevant. It has instead proved to be not only relevant but the key to deciding the shape of the country's future".

The nature of the state remains ambiguous in China; not definitively socialist or capitalist - neither bird nor mammal, a duckbilled platypus. The eventual outcome will be resolved by internal events and global dynamics. Whichever way it goes, to comprehend what's happening, the old Moor's dialectic is indispensable.



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