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
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
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
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.
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.