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.
FYI, Tom, I noticed your poll on the sidebar asking what we’d like to see more of – my answer is all of them – with life in the countryside ranked last (tough choices all). Please feel free to delete this.
As for the view of North Korea, an interesting topic and one I’ve not really heard discussed previously with friends either in China or the US. I think I’ll have to start some discussions and see what the current opinion is amongst friends here… Thanks for provoking the thought!
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I really like your blog! I have been interested in China since the Cultural Revolution. We lived in Singapore during the 1960’s and were aware of some aspects of life in China. Now I am retired I am learning Chinese and visit Beijing for short holidays where I have some wonderful young friends. I read all I can about China and hope that you keep up the good work. You remind me of the American writer Peter Hessler in your sensitive approach. Well done!
Thank you very much for your kind comparison. I am hoping to provide daily readers with a well rounded view of China. A bit of culture, some glimpses of daily life, and a different sort of news than what we usually get. Thank you again for your support.
What do you mean that China isn’t truly communist?
That should be pretty clear from his post. But, communism is an economic model of communal use and ownership. This is not what China practices – it is far closer to the capitalist model where ownership resides in the hands of the elite (often the government leadership and the few entrepreneurs who can join the party).
I think that it is not a question of communism for either North Korea or China. What was practiced in China and still is being practiced in N. Korea is really Stalinism. China has given up on Stalinism due to the excesses of Stalinism under Mao. North Korea is still a Stalinist state that acts as a buffer between S. Korea and China. China would prefer N. Korea to take the path of “Communism with capitalist characteristics” i.e. One party state controlled economy. But N. Korea is still controlled by the Stalinist Kim clique for now. Both China and S. Korea (and probably the Japanese as well as Underworld gangster organizations) are all vying for position in what they all see as the inevitable downfall of the Kim controlled N. Korea.
We tend to think of North Korea as a non entity that will disappear once the Stalinist style government disappears. That N. Korea will either become attached to China or South Korea. But it is also possible that N. Korea will transition into a proper state of its own. N. Korea has a long history of resisting invading forces. Not always successfully, but this history is written strongly in the psych of North Koreans.
One would think that it would be natural to join up with S. Korea, but S Korea is seen as too strongly aligned with and under the influence of foreign (i.e. Western) cultures.
N. Korea, like Cuba, is struggling to maintain its identity as it is being pulled into the modern world. How this will play out is really up in the air. But you had best believe that there are internal factions in N. Korea each pushing for advantage, with the knowledge that someday one of the factions will end up like the CCP after the Stalinist clique in N. Korea disappears.
Great stuff Yamabuki. I think for many Chinese people though it is a reminder of the not so distant past, but for the government (and all gov’ts in the area) it is the future that is most important.
I think 40 years ago China & DPRK didn’t look identical. The latter, with the cheap fuel supply from the USSR, should have been BETTER than China. I’m too young to experience it first-hand, but from old documentaries, DPRK at its peak was probably doing as great as any capitalist country. It’s really sad to see an economic “miracle” degenerating into its current shape.
And IMHO there’s no way to define “true communism”. As far as I know, Karl Marx gave nothing but a hypothesis and vision of what a communist future *should be*. However he didn’t contribute much on exactly how to get there. Stalin, Mao and Kim all filled the missing link by making things up to their own benefits. However it’s hard to say who’s right or wrong since there’s no such thing as “original tenent” in this case.
You are correct, 40 years ago N. Korea would have been much better off. I meant that N. Korea today looks like China did 40 years ago. And while there is no definition of “true communism” I think we can agree that China is not what Marx had in mind.