The spectacular- and expensive- opening ceremonies of this summer’s Olympics once again demonstrated the technical and artistic prowess of contemporary China. The Games were yet another indication of the growing power wielded by the country that just surpassed Japan for second place in global economic might. And though its economy is predicted to grow by only 10% this year, it has managed more than a decade of double-digit growth.
More impressive is that China is succeeding in feeding its massive population, which accounts for 22% of humanity, despite the fact that it possess a mere 6% of the world’s arable land. The knock-on effect of their blistering macro-economic performance is that the growth has lifted 350 to 400 million people out of abject poverty.
However, much remains to be seen regarding Beijing’s ability to handle the growing pains that come along with rapid modernisation and industrialisation, including how to reconcile the imperatives and consequences of global capitalism with the renascent spirit of rights and emancipation that resides within the people of the People’s Republic.
The People’s Republic came to power in 1949 following a civil war that lasted nearly thirty years. The Maoists redistributed lands, abolished the feudal system, liberated women, industrialised, invested in infrastructure, and erected a social safety net. Of course, this did not happen overnight- nor without tremendous and atrocious sacrifice.
Explanations for China’s seemingly inexorable rise tend to focus on their embrace of globalisation in the Post-Mao era. The story tends to conclude that China’s saving grace was its ability to transform itself into the world’s greatest factory, a factory that can produce more for less with a willing and able workforce. That, however, is not the whole story. For starters, Maoist China during the 1950s and 60s saw high levels of macro-economic growth.
At its heart- and contrary to popular belief- the revolution that Mao inspired focused more on nationalism than socialism, thus the establishment of a bourgeoisie that was largely supported by the state. The genius of this quasi-capitalism was its ability to incorporate throngs of famished people into a Chinese-style Keynesianism that eliminated social and cultural feudal barriers. All of this was accomplished by the iron fist of the Communist Party- a fist synonymous with authoritarianism, repression, intolerance of dissent, and the occupation and suppression of nations such as Tibet.
After thirty years of accelerated social and economic development, China faces a schism that stems from said development, or rather, its grossly unequal nature. The dominant class now feels confident enough to open completely to the world market and believes their clout is such that the opening will be solely on their terms. Their objective will be to gradually wean China off of a reliance on exporting by developing a one billion strong internal market that can act as a cushion in times of global fluctuations. On the other hand, the vast majority who are not amongst the glorious rich would rather see some of the socialism that their country claims to stand for or, at the very least, a government that addresses the blowback from prosperity in capitalism.
The keys for Beijing will be to protect its strategic industries and regulate monetary flows- both easier said than done in an international economic arena that is built on shaky foundations. Markets inherently carry risks and risk is one thing that Beijing, with its totalitarian streak, is loath to take. But the growing inequity and unrest amongst the Chinese people is a genuine threat to Beijing, which will be risking a lot more if it fails to deliver on its lofty promises to a wilful population that is rediscovering its spirit.
Under an aggressive national capitalism the people have seen material improvements that are a far cry from negligible- and an even further cry from their slavery of sixty years ago. There have been many winners in China, but where there are winners… migrants saturate cities in search of employment that pays a trifle and that, worse, takes place under terrible and often dangerous conditions.
Popular resistance is growing against the oppression and exploitation that tends to follow unfettered capitalism. Strikes and protests are becoming larger and more common as the people rally against rising inequality, a corrupt bureaucracy, and the social and environmental havoc that potentially pyrrhic development has wreaked. As the international stage greets China as a superpower, its domestic stage looks nervously at a potential power struggle that is waiting in the wings.
Pierre Beaudet is a Sociology Professor at the University of Ottawa.