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China’s system of gov’t is based not on a mandate from the people, nor does it rely on a mandate from heaven (which was the Chinese version of a divine right to rule), instead the current system relies on quality of life improvement spurred by China’s growing GDP (my post on the problem with those numbers) for their mandate to rule.
Over the last 60 years there have been fluctuations in the speed of growth, and its effect on stability. Let’s start by looking at each decade incredibly briefly:
1950’s Civil war ends and life expectancy increases as people finally have safety and regular access to food. China is able to launch massive infrastructure projects.
1960’s Great Leap Forward, followed by millions of deaths in the great famine. This destabilizes China forcing the government to relax some controls on collective farming, but also harshly punishes critics. 1966 begins the Cultural Revolution as quality of life remains relatively flat or worse.
1970’s Cultural Revolution continues until 1976, only ending when thousands of urban youth are sent to work in the countryside. Mao dies and Deng comes to power along with his policy of opening up.
1980’s China grows rapidly for nearly a decade under the new market reforms, but near the end of the decade the economy stagnates with nearly 20% inflation (my post on inflation). It is at this moment that students gather in Tian’anmen Square for democracy and are joined by workers from throughout the city.
1990’s China’s economy begins to grow in ways beyond what most could imagine, opening up new lives to hundreds of millions of people. The economy only faced minor setbacks during the Asian financial crisis, partially because of its previous isolation.
2000’s Growth continues at record rates. In late 2007 high inflation sets in, partially due to high oil and food prices. This was subdued with nationalist spirit for the upcoming Olympics (in my town students were required to participate in mock Olympic torch parades through the city every week).
So we can clearly see that there is a relationship between stability and improvement in quality of life (Note that it is not enough simply to maintain a moderate quality of life). So the big question would be: Does GDP growth related happiness suffer from diminishing returns?
According to this Gallup survey, the answer seems to be a resounding “Yes”. Which is terrible news for the Communist Party.
But how can this be?
Imagine you are a 40 year-old living in China today. You were born during the Cultural Revolution, and have seen GDP per capita increase from $118 to $4,394, a 3,700% increase. You remember a time when just owning a bicycle was a luxury. Private property was not just completely unavailable, but even discussing the possibility could brand you a counter-revolutionary.
Compare that to China’s post-90’s generation, who grew up as the only child in their family, spoiled by grandparents. As we’ve talked about before, owning a car and apartment is now considered a prerequisite for marriage, even though minimum wage has only increased slightly from the time you started middle school. And while your parents probably never owned a land-line telephone, you now own multiple cell-phones. Not only are your expectations higher, but gone is the free housing and heavily subsidized food.
Improving the standard of life currently enjoyed by those living in China’s biggest cities will prove to be a major challenge, but reducing the growing inequality between rural and urban salaries is an even more pressing issue. In the countryside life satisfaction has actually decreased over the last decade.
In the next 10 years it will become increasingly difficult for the Party to maintain its power simply through consumer comfort, since their demands are increasing much more rapidly than their salaries. It seems that when the goods the masses desire are out of reach, the stability on which the Party’s foundation rests begins to crumble.
So life satisfaction has to be met in other ways to ensure the Party’s rule…Continued
I recently finished Jonathan Watts’ book “When A Billion Chinese Jump,” and I must say that it is one of the finest books I have read on China. While the author was attempting to create a complete picture of China’s environmental situation, he actually created a much broader guide through his pan-China adventure in which he visits almost every province.
His journey begins in Shangrila, or Deqing as it was called before the marketing campaign. There he notices that in the rush to create an eco-tourism paradise, the companies are actually destroying the main attraction. There he also takes time to introduce a concept that he refers to as the Daoist approach to nature, a bit of Tibetan culture, as well as sharing interesting conversations he had with passing locals. The scope is far beyond what I had been expecting of a book that was supposed to just be about China’s environment.
I have a feeling my wife is also glad that I have finished this book, as I was constantly interrupting her reading/napping to share yet another crazy fact about China’s environmental policies. Like that in the 1950’s the gov’t covered glaciers in Xinjiang with coal dust so that they would melt faster, allowing them to open up new farms in the desert. Or that during the Great Leap Forward Chinese scientist tried to crossbreed tomatoes and cotton so that they wouldn’t need to dye fabric. And the most startling fact of the book, that when all environmental damage is accounted for, China’s GDP is actually moving in reverse.
Jonathan Watts’ understanding of Chinese history and culture, along with access to dozens, if not hundreds of sources working in various companies, gov’t offices, and social organizations helps him to create a rock solid case about China’s current environmental challenges and efforts to overcome them.
The one fault I found with this book is that he often blames Western powers for building so many heavily polluting factories in China. While this is a valid point, I would have been interested to see him compare China’s environment pre-opening up, to today. I think though that some of these points may have been added to help balance the views in his book.
If I were asked to recommend a few books for understanding modern China, this would be at the top of the list, and hopefully it is being added to 100-level courses in East Asian Studies, as it introduces so many of the concepts that are essential for getting at the bigger picture.
Buy When A Billion Chinese Jump on Amazon
My photos of a few of the places mentioned in this book
Stories from today’s news that wouldn’t surprise you if you had read this book:
Yesterday we looked at some of the key changes Mao made in China during his rule that can be linked to China’s current success. Today we’ll be looking at some of his devastating policies, and how they are explained away in China.
At one point in my life, when I thought communism was a sensible model, I thought Mao had simply been unaware of the damage he was doing. I still don’t think that Mao set out to kill millions of people (although directly he is probably responsible for a few thousand), but that he simply didn’t care about the human cost for his projects. His vision for a stronger nation made him a leader, but personally he cared very little about individual lives. This was something Mao was unashamed of, he once stated,
“He (Qin Shihuang, first emperor of China) buried 460 scholars alive, we have buried 46,000 alive… You intellectuals revile us for being Qin Shihaungs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shihuang a hundred fold.”
Like the first emperor, Mao reunited a long-divided country and launched projects meant to restart a crippled nation. Ultimately both men fell victim to their own vanity and hubris, which brought untold suffering to the masses. Yet, somehow, both remain honored founders of China.
Of Mao’s numerous “mistakes” the great famine is perhaps the best known, and will serve as our example of how his reign lead to such massive man-made disasters.
During the Great Leap Forward Mao ordered collective farms not only to double as steel producers, but also forced new unproven agricultural techniques. The result of these actions led to drastic drops in food production, which led to at least 15 million deaths according to Chinese statistics (other observers estimate that it was closer to 20-45 million).
A popular response/excuse is that Mao simply didn’t know the extent of the situation.
Mao had created such a culture of fear around him by this point that reporting crop failures would have been worse for the local leaders than letting the peasants starve. The Chairman was not a man who could accept criticism, he had made that clear in the crack down that followed the 100 Flowers Campaign, so not meeting the quotas would mean be seen as a personal failure. Local officials only had one option, so they started boasting about their production. This lead the Central Gov’t to demand more grain sent be to the cities.
This would be a tempting excuse, except that it seems like in a country where some were so desperate that they were turning to cannibalism, someone would notice the largest famine in the history of the world.
When talking with Chinese friends individually it seems that every family has quietly shared their stories of suffering through this period. Since these are still private, I think it is hard for the students to realize how widespread the misery was at this moment.
I think, when taken with the full character of the man, it is far more likely that Mao simply did not care that the people were starving. It is even reported that he said, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” During this period, China increased it’s food exports by 50%, and North Korea and Vietnam received free aid.
The Party claims to have learned from these disastrous policies. However, China at the moment is preparing to announce that for the 8th year in a row it has had a record harvest, despite suffering from some of the worst droughts in decades, followed by widespread flooding. Bad news is still not allowed to interfere with the Party’s celebrations (full story from WSJ).
For the past few days we’ve been exploring a few of the myths the Party sees as central to their rule (here and here). Today and tomorrow we’ll be taking on the the most controversial one, that Chairman Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong.
If you haven’t lived in China, you are probably wondering how anyone ever came up with such a precise statistic. One of my American friends liked to joke with his students (not sure if they realized he was joking) that perhaps the Chairman was only 65% right or that it included his primary school test scores, generally, the students didn’t want to discuss these things. The Chairman is still very much officially revered in China; his face is on every bill, his picture hangs in thousands of schools, and receives much of the credit for China’s current prosperity. His reputation remains unassailable even today (more on that from NPR).
To Westerners, Mao’s mistakes are abundantly clear (we’ll be looking at those tomorrow), but we would find it difficult to enumerate his contributions to Chinese society. So in understanding China, we have to understand Mao’s accomplishments which make this claim of 70% palatable to the people.
Prior to the Communist Revolution women’s role in Chinese society was almost completely limited to life within the home. For China’s millions of women in the countryside, where footbinding had only been banned a few decades earlier, their parents controlled their entire lives.
Mao realized that women were one of the oppressed groups in China that could be used to shore up his dominance over the country. In areas under his control he sought to end the practice of arranged marriages, and gave women the right to divorce their husbands. Later he would legally make women equal to men (although this goal has never been fulfilled).
While women’s rights still have a long way to go in China, Mao afforded women rights that would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier. Their equal access to jobs and education are evident still today in that there are many senior doctors and scientists in fields that are still dominated by men in Western countries, not to mention all the female construction workers I see everyday.
Mao established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, for nearly 40 years before that (and much of the 19th century) China was ravaged by war. Virtually everything had been destroyed, some by the Japanese, but most of the damage was inflicted by the heated battles between the Nationalists and Communists. In my small town in Guangxi, the bridge had been destroyed to slow the advance of Japanese troops.
Mao looked at China much like Qin Shihuang (first emperor, ~220BC) had, envisioning massive projects that would fundamentally reshape the country. Many of the projects that he dreamed of, like the Three Gorges Dam and train to Lhasa, were only recently completed.
While the value of some of these projects have been widely debated outside of China, within the middle kingdom they are seen as glorious accomplishments of the Party (can you tell I’ve been reading too much People’s Daily again?).
Of the three major benefits Mao brought to China, this had by far the biggest impact.
Before we get too far into this topic I would like to point out that hundreds of thousands of former landowners were mercilessly persecuted and killed under Mao. For the record, I think that’s bad.
For nearly 3,000 years China had been an agrarian society controlled by a handful of elites. The powerlessness of the peasants is an image that still comes to mind when thinking of China. The landlords had amassed huge land holdings, which were rented at usurious rates to the peasants. For generations people lived in virtual slavery under this system. Mao’s land reforms completely reset China’s hierarchy, which drastically improved the lives of all farmers (that weren’t landowners).
A folk song from Jiangxi province illustrates how just how hard life had been:
“In the Winter I weave baskets to hold rice, but the baskets stay empty. I long for the harvest.
In Spring I have to borrow rice, for every sack I borrow I must return three.
At harvest I pay the rent, there is nothing to spare.
As I put away my sickle, my stomach is empty. When Winter returns I shiver with cold.”
While Mao’s later agricultural collectives were a disaster, his reforms paved the way for Deng Xiaoping to allow small private farms that have fueled China’s economic reforms that have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of desperate poverty.
Tomorrow, Mao’s man-made disasters.
Now I know this is more of an edgy topic, but it’s one of the issues which generates the most anger and confusion amongst Americans when they think of China.
First a little history: China has always had a large, mostly rural, population. As it is everywhere, farmers in China also tended to have large families to help with the work. Up to the 1950’s it was common practice for families to have 6-10 children, many of whom would die before their fifth birthday. On top of the high infant mortality rate there was the Japanese invasion, and then a civil war that kept China’s population from growing despite the birth rate.
Needless to say, when the communists finally won control of the mainland, life expectancy went up, infant mortality went down, and the population started to increase quickly. This became more of a problem when Mao did some quick math (apparently not his strong suit) and thought that since people have two hands and only one mouth a huge population would be a blessing and not a burden. The policy continued for decades.
In the late 1970’s the government double checked the math and saw that Mao had forgotten to carry the one hundred somewhere, and the population was growing more quickly than the food supply. This led to the birth (sorry) of the one child policy. Now I wouldn’t say that it was a good thing, or that it didn’t cause a lot of other hairy problems (most of the stories you have heard are probably true in some scale), but in the long run I would say it was a necessary policy. The policy had come on the heels of several campaigns to encourage couples to marry later and have fewer children, but these simply were not enough to curb population growth.
Can you imagine what the reaction would be in the US if the government even hinted at telling us how many children we could have? In China at the time there was not much discussion as to whether or not this fell under the power of the government. For years the people had been forcibly moved, and had been subject to dozens of social experiments.
As a result of the policy there is an undeniable gap between the number of men and women. Female infanticide did happen, but not so often that it would come close to explaining the entire gap. The biggest reason is that families in the countryside (at the time close to half of the population) were allowed to have a second child if the first child was a girl. It was also legal at first to have sex selecting abortions, although later a law was put in place that made it so doctors were not allowed to reveal the sex of the child prior to birth (still in effect).
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the one child policy as it is today, and later in the week I’ll try to post some of the conversations I’ve had with my Chinese friends about this topic.
Today’s propaganda posters came from www.chineseposters.net