14    Seeing Ourselves in China’s Mirror

William Krehm

It is easier to see the mote in another’s eye than a beam in one’s own. To understand our home society better we may note how in China a melange of left-overs from Marx, Mao tze Dung, Hobbes, Darwin and Bush II, have been stirred into a witches’ brew to justify the rapid enrichment of those in power.

The New York Times (29/2, “China’s Wealthy Live by a Creed: Hobbes and Darwin, Meet Marx” by Yilu Zhao) tells a ghoulish tale that echoes throughout much of the West.

“This is the dark side to China’s new wealth. Envy, insecurity and social dislocation have come with the huge disparity between how the wealthy and poor live. Clear signs of class divisions have emerged under a government that long claimed to have eliminated classes.

“China still calls itself socialist, and in an odd sense it is. While the income structure has changed, much that was intended to underpin social order has not.

“The criminal justice system, for example, has remained draconian. When caught, burglars invariably receive lengthy sentences. But there is no shortage of burglars, and the reasons is clear: 18% of Chinese live on less than $1 a day, according to the United Nations. The poor are visible on the edges of any metropolis, where slums of plywood apartments some-times abut the Western-looking mansions.

“The most recent measure by which social scientists judge the inequality of a country’s income distribution indicates that China is more unequal, for example than the United States, Japan, South Korea and India. In fact, inequality levels approach China’s own level in the late 1940’s when the Communists, with the help of the poor, toppled the Nationalist government.

“In 1980, when the turn toward a market economy started, China had one of the world’s most even distributions of wealth. Certainly, China before 1980 was a land of material shortage. As a child in the 1970s and 1980s, I can recall, every family collected ration coupons to get their flour, rice, sugar, meat, eggs, cloth, cookies and cigarettes. Without coupons, money was largely useless.

“Today huge supermarkets offer French wines and New Zealand cheeses. China’s business elite have come to believe that the world is a huge jungle of Darwinian competition, where connections and smarts mean everything, and quaint notions of fairness count for little.

“I notice recently that on my most recent trip to China from the US, where I moved nine years ago. So I asked a relative who lived rather comfortably to explain. Is it fair that household maids make 65 cents an hour while the well-connected real estate developers become millionaires or billionaires in just a few years?

“He was caught off guard. After a few seconds of silence, he settled on an answer he had read in a popular magazine.

“‘Look at England, look at America,’ he said. ‘The Industrial Revolution was very cruel. When the English capitalists needed land, sheep ate people.’ (Chinese history books use that phrase to describe what happened in the 19th century, when tenant farmers in Britain were thrown off their land so that sheep could produce wool for new mills.)

“‘Since England and America went through that pain, shouldn’t we try to avoid the same pain, now that we have history as our guide?,’ I asked.

“‘If we want to proceed to a full market economy, some people have to make sacrifices,’ my relative said solemnly. ‘To get where we have want to get, we must go through the “sheep eating people” stage too.’

“In other words, while most Chinese have privately dumped the economic prescriptions of Marx, two pillars of the way in which he saw the world have remained. First is the inexorable procession of history to a goal. The goal used to be the Communist utopia; now it is the market economy of material abundance. Second, just as before, the welfare of some had to be sacrificed so the community could march toward its destiny. Marx is used in the end to justify ignoring the pain of the poor.

“What the well-off have failed to read from history, however, is that extreme inequality tends to breed revolution. Many of China’s dynasties fell to peasant uprisings, and extreme inequality fed the Communist revolution.

“While the domestic product has grown at least 7% a year for the last decade, the income of the rich has grown much faster than that of the poor. Political and business elites are merging, as state factories are sold at cheap prices to managers who often have government ties.

“A December article on the People Daily Website, the Communist Party newspaper, gave examples of politician-businessmen buying multimillion-dollar properties for cash in and around New York City and Los Angeles.

“Meanwhile as the Communist Party recruits successful businessmen as new members, blue-collar workers have lost their moral and social standing. Millions have lost their jobs, and older laid-off workers have been described in many publications as ‘historical baggage.’

“Often they are of the generation born just after the Communists took power in 1949.

“Sun Liping, a sociology professor of Tsinghua University in Beijing, is one of the few scholars who openly talk about them. ‘They are not “historical baggage,”’ he said of the unemployed. ‘The wealth of the Communist country, the assets of the state factories, were created by them.’ He said the reason that the unemployed are not yet despondent is that they ‘have put their hopes on their children.’

“There are other ways in which the oddly mixed and cynical legacy of Chinese Marxism presents difficulties for anyone who would try to redis-tribute wealth. The reform era began with concepts like ‘truth,’ ‘kindness,’ and ‘beauty’ already devalued. In the Maoist period people learned to scoff at such notions. For a few decades, Communist ideals like saving humanity from capitalist oppressions had displaced Confucian teachings like respecting the elderly. That left a moral vacuum when Communism’s grip loosened, and nothing has emerged to fill it. We have a very cynical population.”

And over the devastation that was left, the West has poured the lava of consumerism, exponential growth, overnight enrichment. The vices of two opposing systems powered by high-technology have interacted to produce a stricken field.

William Krehm

— from Economic Reform, April 2004