Last year I had the rare treat of watching North Korea play Myanmar at the Asia Women’s Cup in Chengdu (I ended up rooting for Myanmar because they were the underdogs). I attended the game with two of my close friends, and it ended up leading to an interesting discovery.
I had asked what I hoped sounded like an innocent question, “How does China explain the failure of communism in North Korea?” It assumed a lot on my part, both that China accepted that communism had failed in the DPRK, and that they would have any interest in explaining it.
One of them (who is a Party member) quickly explained that what North Korea has is not true communism. Instead, he offered that China’s model of communism was a much better model.
I started to explain that China isn’t truly communist, but it’s hard to win that argument with a Party member.
My other friend interrupted, since he had heard us discuss communism more times than he could count, and explained that China loved North Korea’s failure, because it makes China feel rich. It seemed too simple at first, but his answer makes more sense than any other I’ve come across.
When you think about it, 40 years ago, China and North Korea would have looked almost identical. North Korea at the time was well supplied by the Soviet Union, and was better off than South Korea. China was going through the dark days of the Cultural Revolution.
Today though, North Korea has only moved backwards. Its lifeline dried up with the end of the Cold War, and its leadership has only clung more tightly to Stalinesque authoritarianism.
Meanwhile China has undergone the greatest transformation ever seen on Earth. Whole cities have been constructed out of swamps. GDP has grown at unprecedented rates for years, lifting tens of millions out of desperate poverty. China’s style of government is even being called a “new model for development,” and “an alternative to Western Style Democracy,” by some (I’m not sure I buy it).
So when Chinese businessmen gaze across the Tumen River into North Korea and see the bold red propaganda looming over the impoverished masses, they see a powerful reminder of just how far their country has come, and they feel proud of what has been accomplished. They see it as a reminder not of the failures of communism, but of the success of Socialism with Chinese characteristics.