Wednesday, January 17, 2007


The Great Leap Backward

This piece reminds us how similar the histories of all nations are. Will Hutton in The Guardian Life in the China of the first half of the 20th century was cheap, as writer Lu Xun wrote after witnessing the nationalists clinically murder students in Shanghai in 1926. After the imperial throne fell on New Year's Day 1912, China imploded into territories dominated by warlords over whom the nationalist government never established proper dominion. China was in economic stasis.... The peasants were wedded to obsolete farming techniques on tiny plots; the Confucian gentry were wedded to a system that allowed them to become absentee landlords for around half of China. They continued to run the country at the behest of the warlords...Japan's invasion in 1931 could not be effectively opposed. ... The negative side of the Maoist balance sheet is well-known: mass murder, famine, injustice, and economic waste. But there are less well-known positives. Industrial output climbed 13-fold, albeit from a tiny base. The rail network doubled. Half of Chinese land became irrigated. There was a dramatic lowering of illiteracy. Near universal healthcare was established. Life expectancy rose; and despite Mao's appetite for imperial-style concubines, women were given the same right to petition for divorce and education as men. Their position was transformed. ... Few western critics today appreciate the scale of the task confronting any moderniser of China in 1949. Western economies created the surpluses to finance industrialisation through incredible exploitation - of their own working class, and in the US via slavery. It was never likely that China could achieve self-sustaining economic growth without great collective pain to achieve its own surpluses, or that this could be done without the involvement of the state. ... But the lesson Deng drew - that the party can remain in Leninist control of a market economy that needs no democratic institutions -was as wrong as Mao's. Today's China is in many ways going back. The healthcare that covered nearly all of rural China under Mao now covers just 5%. China spends less on education than other developing countries. Inequality is high. The country is sliding down international indices for good governance, corruption and business competitiveness. To return to Mao's solution to these issues would be wrong and immoral; but neither can China continue as it is. The best option is to embrace democratic institutions - and the path to doing that is not to repudiate Mao but to see him for what he was. Wrong and cruel, but part of China's groping to find a way to cross the river. Just as China under its corrupt warlords could not resist the Japanese, the United States is losing the war on terror thanks to the greed and ineptitude of its corporate warlords. Our economy is stagnating because the class ossification that empowers Paris Hilton while keeping middle class families mired in debt is so like that of imperial China. China and the US are sliding into corruption together. The question is whether we can renew our commitment to democracy-- and whether they can make a commitment to it.
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