Present-day China without Rose-tinted Spectacles,
Chinese Past Varnished
The plan of the International Forum on Globalization to draw up a report on the impact of economic globalization on China doubtless commands respect. Its outcome, however, useful though it may be in its analytical part, is untenable both in its excursions into history, and in its envisaged list of solutions.
A logical part of the debate on the impact of globalization are reflections on the developments taking place in China over the past 27 years, that is, during the years that have elapsed since the official declaration of the policy of “opening to the world and reforms”, a period which has witnessed a transition, within the boundaries of a closed totalitarian society, to the system of market economy and its integration into the broader international context. In late 2005, a look at globalization from the Chinese perspective was all the more topical as it came in parallel with the World Trade Organization´s meeting in Hong Kong. Discussion of the Chinese issue opened with a report submitted by Dale Wen, a native of the PRC who obtained a doctorate in the U.S. and is currently engaged as an IFG visiting fellow. The ensuing debate was joined by, among others, Prof. Han Deqiang from Beijing, known as a radical opponent of China’s market-oriented reforms and a representative of the so-called “New Left.” Wen’s report sums up the changes brought to China by globalization, deals in detail with its negative consequences, and prognosticates possible future development.
Dale Wen refers to the drastic widening of the gap between the rich and the poor; the destruction of the rural economy and its concomitant tendency to ever more frequent upheavals in rural areas; the rapidly deteriorating working conditions of the industrial labour force; the continuing drop in the accessibility of medical care; and the harm caused to the environment. She illustrates her assessment of the negative impact of rapid economic growth by a number of alarming examples. Among others, she mentions the enormous problem of air pollution (seven out of the world’s ten most heavily polluted cities are located in China); the uncontrollably rising production of glasshouse fumes; the desperate shortage of water in some rural areas of northern China (during the big draught of 1997, the Yellow River went dry along the last 700-kilometre stretch of its course for a period of 226 days); and the high level of pollution of water sources (40 percent of China’s water courses being so badly polluted as to make hazardous any type of contact with the human organism, and the level of subterranean aquatic sources´ contamination by chemicals being estimated at 25 percent). In addition to that, Wen relates to various less generally known yet equally serious consequences of extremely rapid industrialization and an economy oriented one-sidedly towards immediate profit making: namely, the degradation of farmland by excessive use of agricultural chemicals, and the rapid desertification brought on by unsparing farming methods practiced in steppe-covered areas. The drop in the overall area of quality farmland confronts China with a serious problem which may eventually lead even to a catastrophic food shortage.
Dale Wen devotes a good deal of space to dealing with the social impact of the economic transformations. She points to the unscrupulous exploitation of industrial workers and their being deprived of their rights, bringing their status down to a point verging on that of slave labour; as well as the rampant unemployment and deepening pauperization in certain rural areas. She quotes from data concerning inflation which she, in accord with stands formulated by other Chinese experts, singles out as one of the major factors underlying the mass demonstrations of spring 1989. Taking avail of official Chinese and international statistics, she documents convincingly the overall drop in the quality of life being suffered by a substantial proportion of China’s population. Among other things, she points out that by 2005 China reached the rate of 0.45 on the UN measure of inequality, a degree signalling a serious polarization of society, its destabilization, and high probability of conflict. Corresponding with this assessment are figures from 2004 when, according to official Chinese statistics, the country witnessed 74,000 cases of socially motivated unrest. Dale Wen likewise brings to attention the deterioration of the status of women in society. Her report does not pass unmentioned such shocking cases of totally uncontrolled and unscrupulous business enterprise as was that of trading in human blood in Henan province during the 1990s, which has resulted in a mass-scale spreading of HIV AIDS and consequent devastation of whole villages.
In another part, the report deals briefly with the international impact of the rapid growth of Chinese export-oriented industries. Due notice is taken of the way Chinese exports have been contributing to the liquidation of home industries worldwide, a situation whose repercussions are particularly harsh in the countries of the world’s poor South. Simultaneously, globalization also exerts a pressure in the opposite direction, in the form of imports of subsidized agricultural products to China, which have had a crushing effect on the local production of certain crops and thus contribute to the worsening of the situation in the rural areas. At the same time, to be sure, the free trade and the influx of foreign investment are not necessarily instrumental in the development of the Chinese economy. The larger part of the profit incurred goes to the multinational corporations which in their turn make an expert use of tax reliefs and a wide variety of tricks with a view to minimizing their tax burden. The economic growth which is being watched with envy by economists around the globe is thus regarded by Dale Wen as only a minimum step towards the improvement of the conditions prevailing in China itself.
In the final section of her report, she mentions the part of civic associations and local initiatives focusing their action on the protection of the environment and of the interests of the citizenry that are most blatantly harmed by the above-listed negative aspects of industrialization. Regrettably, this information is only very brief and lacking in specific elaboration.
The report is on the whole constructed upon fairly well known facts published previously by both Chinese and international official sources which have been noted for their extremely cautious attitudes. Thus, its elements concerning the negative impact of the economic reforms and the growing tensions in Chinese society, however apocalyptic they may appear to be, are by no means exaggerated. The objective and reliable assessment of the situation in today’s China presented by this report nonetheless does suffer from one crucial shortcoming: namely, that of the problem’s ideologization along the lines of the current of thought designated by the Chinese themselves as the “New Left”. This is evident from its omission of the role played by the political system in China which has a significant share in the industrialization’s catastrophic impact, environmental and social alike, its idealized view of the early stages of the building of socialism (“Mao’s era”), and its excessive reliance on the present-day political and party leadership for the solution of the emergent problems. The author more or less ignores the fact that the harsh impact of globalization on China has been made possible – and has even doubtless been enhanced – by the specific institutional framework of totalitarian society, which in itself spawns the ideal preconditions for wanton exploitation of all of the country’s resources, both natural and human. The problem of corruption and arbitrariness characteristic for the government is touched upon only marginally, without being correlated with the system which makes these phenomena possible. Furthermore, no mention at all is made of the persecution of civic initiatives and the criminalization of spontaneous grassroots endeavours to stand up to the pressures resulting from the runaway industrialization. The less well-informed reader will not learn here that Chinese peasants have been rebelling not so much because following the removal of import tax barriers they are not in a position to compete with the imports of lower-price subsidized produce, but above all in protest at the local government’s arbitrary impositions of a wide variety of additional taxes and levies, as well as its abuse of power in expropriating farmland and authorizing the operations of industrial plants which have been degrading water sources. Problems thus stem not just from a situation where international corporations have been devising shrewd ways and means of tax evasion (which, to be sure, is still facilitated by the corruption rampant among Chinese officials), but also from the fact that Chinese politicians and entrepreneurs have been successfully draining money away from China to the West. In fact, it is also this particular aspect of Chinese-style globalization that has become the target of the harshest criticism from the part of unofficial domestic sources.
Part of the Chinese-tailored “New Left” ideology is a thoroughly unrealistic view of the situation in the 1950s and ´60s. Characteristically, those passages in which the report’s author looks back at that period, with a good deal of nostalgia, as a time of social equality and harmonious economic development, virtually lack any reference to source material. The author describes the era of the early 1950s industrialization as a period which “may not have been ideal, and yet one whose achievements were impressive.” There she quotes from statistics documenting growth of industrial production and GDP, without realizing that a similar practice of quoting statistical figures is nowadays embraced by admirers of the Chinese economic miracle in the age of globalization. What is most conspicuously absent is a reflection on the concomitant phenomena of the Mao era industrialization, including the introduction of a system of paramilitary surveillance of the entire population, and systematic liquidation of China’s educated strata. Wen’s assessment of the system of company self-management, which she argues was instrumental in creating in China prior to the introduction of market-oriented reforms an atmosphere of the workers´ shared responsibility for their company’s successful operation, belongs in the realm of fables. Likewise detached from reality is the author’s positive assessment of agricultural collectivization. Her arguments that under the system of people’s communes “the majority of rural people experienced secure … lives with social benefits including public health care and education,” and even that they led (in contrast to what has been happening since the collapse of the communes) “dignified lives”, are indeed untenable. Despite the persistent silence surrounding this theme in China itself, existing eye-witness accounts as well as those archival documents that have been made at least partly public, have by now yielded enough information to make possible the charting of the catastrophic consequences of collectivization for the life of the Chinese village community. The system of communes, which in fact transformed the rural folk into slave-labour force whose maximum level of exploitation was to be facilitated by such measures as was, among others, the requisitioning of kitchenware and compulsory use of communal canteens, actually started to disintegrate spontaneously after the devastating famine of the late 1950s and early ´60s. According to the most conservative estimates, the aftermath of this megalomaniac experiment then took a toll of 20 million lives. Characteristically for the situation in present-day China, sources documenting the period of famine stayed closed to public scrutiny until their secret smuggling out of the country by refugees following the bloody suppression of the demonstrations of 1989.
Critical voices being raised in the face of the current situation in China from the positions of the New Left have failed to take into account the crucial correspondence between Mao’s industrialization aimed at transforming the masses of China’s population into as many nuts and bolts in the machine of a new China, and the present building of capitalism from the top echelons of power. At the base in both cases stands a disproportionate trust in the adoption of Western models, an all but religious faith in the necessity of a radical and speedy modernization – coupled with absolute power wielded by a single political force, which makes possible the conducting of social experiments regardless of the people’s individual interests and needs.
The author’s formulations bespeak her considerable trust in the new party policies. She makes several mentions of the official line on “scientific development” which was recently proclaimed by President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and cites beneficial measures aimed at making up for the worst effects of the recent chaotic development of Chinese industries.
However, she fails to tackle a crucial circumstance which has accompanied the recent change of the Chinese leadership’s rhetoric: namely, the mounting pressure exerted by the official circles vis-a-vis grassroots attempts at seeking solutions at that level. It is in fact the present leadership that has tightened its control over the media and that has been stage-managing the persecution of journalists who strive to inform about the arbitrary conduct of local authorities and entrepreneurs; that has been imposing harsh restrictions on civic associations which have been formed spontaneously (and semi-legally) during the last decade. It is indeed this blind faith in the coming of an enlightened leadership and in a switch of the country’s situation coming from above, which I believe to be, along with the author’s distorted view of the pre-globalization era, the main problem and the source of the one-sided bias of Dale Wen’s report.
- Text vyšel v Literárních novinách 2006-10 na straně 8.
- Publikováno online 5.3.2006