Baby Dragon: The Hows and the Whys of Chinese Development
In the early decades of the 20th century, Chinese youth were driven to find suitable models of development to restore the self-respect and dignity of a China that had been weakened consistently over centuries by self-serving, debauched, imperialism. There had been a history of brutally crushed protests (The peasant led Boxer Rebellion and the May the Fourth one), against a monarchy and aristocracy, incapable of stopping the exploitation by the Japanese and the Europeans, and the economic and technological regression of China. Mao Zedong and many like him, were impressed by the achievements of Lenin’s state, which had not only transitioned successfully from a similarly incapable monarchy to a stable socialist state, but was also now competing with the bourgeois powers’ economies, having shifted from a feudal agrarian society to a ‘classless’ hub of industrial activity (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-72). This narrative, contrasted with the nationalism of Chiang Kai-Shek, and was wrestled with in the civil war preceding 1949, following the war against Japanese occupiers in which the communists and nationalists had been competent if not uneasy allies. With Chiang unable to form a stable central government, or resist the brutality of the Japanese, he had little credibility left, and was eventually driven by Mao’s forces to Taiwan. As Moak and Lee (2015) put it:
“Chiang’s reason was that he lacked the resources, but promised to expel the Japanese once he defeated the Communists, rebuilt the economy, and produced sufficient weapons. To the majority of Chinese, his decision amounted to subjecting the population to Japanese brutality for a very long time, if not indefinitely” (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-73).
Following the revolution of 1949, Mao knew he had to deliver on some key fronts. While China was pulled into the Korean wars, its pace of modernisation did not suffer (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-78), rather it was also infused with the need for a strong national defence to prevent foreign interventions. So, while it spent a great deal on infrastructure for transportation and energy generation, it also ensured that defense equipment manufacturing was scattered across the country (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-78), wary of Soviet and American behaviour, leading to some dispersed growth. With its first five-year plan however, it realised that industrial growth alone, or even as the main focus, would be insufficient; China was not Russia, and an import of 10,000 scientists (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-79) alone would not make it so. As with any nation constrained by finances, it had to make hard choices. Agricultural production could not be delayed; the peasants who had brought the Communists to power needed to be lifted immediately out of poverty. They needed clothes and food, which had been neglected in the modernization effort (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-79). Hence in the second plan, the paltry 15% allocated to agriculture was substantially increased, under the Ma Yinchu “walking on two legs program”, where the industrial sector was to grow capital-intensively and the agricultural sector, labor-intensively (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-80). This was however cut short by the disastrous Great Leap Forward. This period saw a rise in distrust of the Soviets, pushing Mao to consolidate his power in the party, purging those who he saw as “betrayers of the revolution”, while also aiming for rapid economic and industrial growth. While it was not without its successes, this was a problematic time; communal farming was not as much of a success as anticipated, and the heavy emphasis on steel with an ambition of surpassing UK production levels, had resulted in a forging of production numbers to meet quotas (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-82). The personality cult he developed around himself, similar to the authoritarian structures of the Soviets, meant that criticisms were difficult to stomach (the abrupt end of the “One Hundred Flowers Revolution”). This centralisation of power and decision-making authority is one of the major reasons why China could make decisions about development fast, and implement them even faster, but on the flip-side, if these decisions were flawed, there was no deliberate mechanism to address or stop them from implementation. The period preceding the cultural revolution saw him take stock of some of these economic failures and briefly allow Zhou Enlai and others to address them (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-83). However, with the revolution came another period of economic and this time ecological degradation as well. The Sparrow campaign which resulted in a famine and ecological damage of devastating proportions went alongside a destruction of factories and the careers of many professionals, and unspeakable brutality against those deemed revisionists or betrayers.
With Deng finally taking over the reins in 1977, was the beginning of a period of economic stability, of a certain degree of “pragmatism winning over ideology” (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-89). He was aware of the technological supremacy of the Americans and knew that collective farms would not be the answer to China’s woes. Technological power like all other forms of power was hard won; the Japanese had sent their primitive “ghetto bass speakers” to the Chinese and not their newer advanced models, (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-105) in the name of aid. Thus, developing home-grown technically skilled manpower, was the only answer. These Chinese students called “turtles” were educated in the U.S., and many came back to partake in China’s development (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-108). This “marriage made in heaven” with the Americans would also impact the way the Chinese experimented with their economy, baby steps in rural economic reform (for eg: “household responsibilities”) such as decollectivisation in some communes (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-). The rural economic boom that followed put more money in the hands of the agrarian class, raising their living standards while also leading to the development of consumer industries whose goods they spent. These were accompanied by the setting up of SEZs on coastal areas which became major centers of industrial and financial activity.
While Deng’s reforms, or “socialism with chinese characteristics” meant an increase in market-driven reforms, subjecting China to the vagaries of the global market, and was based on keeping worker wages at some of the lowest in the world, it propelled the emergence of huge middle class and made China one of the fastest growing economies of the world. It is true that there are many diversions from Marxist doctrines in this method of development — Marx would not approve of the rising inequalities across regions and classes of society and Polanyi, of the immense commodification and misuse of natural resources. However, Moak and Lee repeatedly make the case that for an immensely feudal, unequal and weakened economy like China, an immediate transition to capitalism would not have worked. They feel that state socialism with centralised planning has met the key needs of the Chinese people. Democracy may not always have the answers; in China poverty alleviation, inequality reduction and the large scale transformation of a very populous society was better achieved through centralised growth planning. The communist approach in China was one of “gradualism” and “experimentation” (Moak and Lee, 2015, p-18); they were willing to learn from successes (American and Japanese technological progress) and failures (collective farming in Russia) of ofther nations. It is not however, that this model did not have flaws. The silencing and “disappearing”of critics, censorship and propagandist narratives in the media and personality cults around the leaders, point to a continuing resistance to, and even fear of, alternative ideas, most prominent in the crushing of the Tiananmen Square Protests.
China’s development model through the first 40 years of its liberation is not a straightforward one. Phases like the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, not to mention the two perilous wars that preceded its birth, caused much economic strain, on a poor and populous nation with limited resources. The communist model of the Leninist-Stalinist style was therefore adopted in the aim to bring about large scale positive changes in an immensely unequal society as soon as possible. This model had its successes, in that it lifted more than 500 million people out of poverty, drew China from backwardness to global techno-economic domination with double digit growth for over a decade. But the immense increase in inequality, corruption, ecological commodification (of natural and even human resources), and destruction were not ideal. More disturbingly, the continued dependence on the global market as an export-driven economy, would also produce unique problems, and an uneasy relationship with the West.
N., L. M., & Moak, K. (2015). China’s economic rise and its global impact. In China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact (pp. 1–117). Taylor & Francis.