By Dan Siegel
China may be returning to the days when its ideal communist was both “Red and expert,” and The Wall Street Journal is worried. In a recent article, the newspaper profiled one of China’s rising new leaders, Bo Xilai, Communist Party chief of Chongqing and a likely candidate next year for a position on the party’s Politburo Standing Committee. If chosen, Bo may help bring about a new synthesis of the political trends that have shaped China for the past six decades. The Journal is concerned that the ascendancy of new leadership may retard what it describes as the liberal economic policies that have fueled China’s growth since the end of the Cultural Revolution and the ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s.
China’s economic development was on full display during a recent visit. The country is exploding with new construction, apartment blocks going up everywhere, highways that rival the best in Europe, and the world’s most modern railroad system. Nine hundred million of China’s 1.3 billion people use cellphones, including young hipsters in the cities and farmers tending water buffalo in the beautiful Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces in northern Guangxi province. The government says that the poverty rate is down to 5 percent, and wealthy Chinese are the world’s greatest consumers of handbags by Prada.
But unrestrained capitalist development has its downsides. The Chinese readily admit the damage their economic expansion has done to the environment. Blue sky is a rarity, even in smaller cities like Lijiang, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau just a few miles east of the border with Burma. In cities like Shantou, one of the first “special economic zones” in the southeast, the air is black and you can taste the grit. The rivers and many coastal waters are polluted, and biologically dead zones surround many industrial areas.
Suicides by stressed-out migrant workers drawn to make their living working weeks of more than 100 hours manufacturing parts for Apple iPhones are not uncommon. The sad faces and shabby luggage of the workers arriving in Shantou contrast sharply with scenes of lively crowds in Beijing and Shanghai. The anger of people whose children have been stunted by lead leaking from urban factories is easy to understand.
But even in the midst of economic expansion, China is far from the model of unbridled capitalism the Journal presents. Government agencies at the national, provincial and local levels control the banks, so decisions about investments, interest rates and markets are all influenced by social policy. Resources are moved efficiently to meet political objectives. Responding to the country’s pollution crisis, the Twelfth Five-Year Plan will focus on cleaning up the environment. The decision to create a network of low-pollution bullet trains mobilized a workforce of more than 100,000.
Understanding the tension between the two, the Chinese Communist Party has aspired to be both “Red” and “expert” since the 1950s. The party has carefully nurtured its cadre to ensure the organization’s commitment to the welfare of the majority, but at the same time recognizes the need for its leaders to embrace and implement the most advanced concepts in science, technology and management. The partnership of the “idealistic” Mao Zedong and the “pragmatic” Zhou Enlai long put human faces on the two sides of the CPC’s ideal.
Chinese history since the 1949 revolution has reflected the tension between these two poles. The Great Leap Forward in the 1950s flowed from Mao’s conviction that great economic gains could be accomplished simply through a huge collective effort, notwithstanding what was then the country’s low level of technological, manufacturing and infrastructure development. The idea was that backyard blast furnaces could make up for the lack of a modern steel manufacturing industry.
The Cultural Revolution was an attempt to curb what Mao and his allies viewed as a resurgence of class privilege and attitudes two decades after the triumph of the revolution. Its violence and excess are well chronicled.
The defeat of the Gang of Four and the triumph of Deng ushered in the most dynamic period of economic development China, and perhaps the world, has ever seen. The debate among economists today is whether China’s economy will surpass that of the United States by 2016 or whether it will take five or 10 years longer. There can be no argument that the Chinese combination of socialist planning with capitalist creativity is producing economic benefits faster, and spreading those benefits further, than the dominant model in the West, particularly in the U.S.
The rise of new leaders like Bo Xilai means that China may be pursuing a course correction rather than a wholesale reversal of the policies that have generated the economic success of the last few decades. In Chongqing, Bo has led efforts to crack down on corrupt businessmen who produce shoddy and dangerous products, bribe politicians and cheat their employees, and his campaigns have swept up corrupt politicians and party insiders as well. At the same time, he has championed the creation of housing and social welfare programs to foster decent living standards for people with modest incomes.
Bo is well known for his promotion of sayings from Chairman Mao’s Red Book and songs extolling the role and mission of the CPC. In Chongqing, he uses social media to share inspirational messages about the role of the party and its commitment to the improvement of society. In doing so he is carrying out the traditions of earlier party leaders who worried that the country’s economic and social development deviated from the party’s political and ideological perspectives. The challenge that Bo and other new leaders face is to persuade the younger generations of the prosperous new China to temper their ambitions for successful careers and material enrichment with a commitment to the welfare of all Chinese.