Broken China? for Decades, Beijing's Communist Rulers Have Taken Credit for the Country's Spectacular Economic Growth. Now Environmental Devastation Threatens Stability and Prosperity, They May Finally Have to Act-Or Face the Anger of the People

By Lovell, Julia | New Statesman (1996), October 26, 2009 | Go to article overview

Broken China? for Decades, Beijing's Communist Rulers Have Taken Credit for the Country's Spectacular Economic Growth. Now Environmental Devastation Threatens Stability and Prosperity, They May Finally Have to Act-Or Face the Anger of the People


Lovell, Julia, New Statesman (1996)


Throughout the post-Mao period, China's Communist government has tried as hard as it could to take credit for the country's head-spinning rates of development. In 1983, years after savvy peasants had smashed Mao's huge, lazy collectives into small, profit-hungry family plots, it acclaimed the virtues of household farming, which generated agricultural surpluses to finance industrialisation and imports. In 1988, the party announced that China's mass of new private businesses--which had been making brisk money all decade manufacturing basic commodities such as fertiliser, bricks, cement and washing powder for flush consumers--were a good thing. In the 1994 Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader modestly asserted that, while ordinary farmers had had some decent ideas, it was the government that had "processed" and universalised them.

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Thus, the official version of China's economic miracle is tidy and centrally managed: a neat succession of excellent plans dropped providentially on the heads of the masses by party sages. The reality was far more chaotic, as hardworking entrepreneurs exploited the small windows of liberalisation that opened after Mao's death in 1976. A fanatical economic meddler, Mao had condemned any kind of saleable sideline--keeping pigs, growing vegetables, catching fish--as counterrevolutionary. After he died, farmers, tired of this nonsense, set about growing and raising whatever they profitably could on privatised plots of land. In a few years, meat consumption had doubled, and so had fruit and sugar production.

Socialism gets dumped

So, from its beginnings, post-Mao China's development was driven by ordinary individuals, seizing opportunities where they could. For much of the 1980s, the party followed rather than led grassroots economic reforms, until in 1992 it finally shed its ideological misgivings about preaching unbridled capitalism. "Slow growth is not socialism," said Deng in 1992; "better, faster, deeper" development was needed.

By 1999, businessmen were being welcomed into the bosom of the party, as representatives of society's most advanced productive forces. Through the 1990s, many urbanites seemed to have at least two jobs: an undemanding, badly paid, state-funded one, and another in the speculative market economy. Waiters shifted cheap cooking oil on the side; steelworkers diversified into venture capital and massage parlours; novelists churned out soap operas. One short story starred a tractor-builder hiring out a derelict bus as a love nest for trysting adulterers.

The results have been, on the face of it, spectacular. With annual growth averaging close on 10 per cent since 1976 and perhaps 500 million people dragged out of poverty, China officially overtook Germany at the start of this year to become the world's third-largest economy. The privatisation of state-allocated housing in the 1990s helped fuel a huge construction boom, underpinned by armies of unskilled, mistreated rural labourers, who flooded the cities in search of better incomes. Every time [return to China, since my first visit at the end of the 1990s, the song of the angle-grinder is never far away. Once, while studying at a southeastern university, I barely slept for weeks as 24-hour building works roared outside my window. (If the noise outside died down, the silence was filled by bemused questions from my Chinese room-mate on whether I genuinely had doubts about the Marxist theory of socio-economic change.) Building jobs that would take months, even years, in the west--encumbered with prohibitive labour costs and regulations--shot up in weeks. In the construction frenzy that preceded the Olympics, flimsily harnessed workers were to be seen scrambling up and down the wind-buffeted roofs of 24-storey buildings all around the capital.

Leaving behind the material austerity of the Mao years--during which the average couple counted themselves lucky if they could distribute a few handfuls of boiled sweets to wedding guests--China has become the factory of the world since 1997, and its moneyed citizens have looked eagerly around for things to do with their cash. …

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Broken China? for Decades, Beijing's Communist Rulers Have Taken Credit for the Country's Spectacular Economic Growth. Now Environmental Devastation Threatens Stability and Prosperity, They May Finally Have to Act-Or Face the Anger of the People
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