After 50 Years of Communism, China Is on the Brink of Another Revolution ; `China's Rulers Have Failed to Articulate a Coherent Vision of Its Future or Its Place in the World'

By Shambaugh, David | The Independent (London, England), October 1, 1999 | Go to article overview
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After 50 Years of Communism, China Is on the Brink of Another Revolution ; `China's Rulers Have Failed to Articulate a Coherent Vision of Its Future or Its Place in the World'


Shambaugh, David, The Independent (London, England)


THE PEOPLE'S Republic turns 50 today. A half-century ago, Chairman Mao proclaimed a "New China" that had "stood up" in the world, and promised a future of development, national dignity, and power. President Jiang Zemin plays to these same symbols as he reviews a lavish parade of floats and military might in Tiananmen Square.

There is no denying that China has come a long way in 50 years. Its military has moved from muskets to missiles, while most of the economy has developed from pervasive poverty to the threshold of modernity. The standard of living for hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens has never been better. While per capita income remains officially around $900, it is estimated that at least a third of the working population earns the equivalent of $30,000 per year. Even by official estimates, per capita income quadrupled between 1978 and 1995. Daily per capita caloric intake has increased to near-developed country standards, as has average living floor- space and life-expectancy, while infant-mortality has declined to 30 per 1,000 births. Access to all levels of education has increased, and health care provision is nearly universal.

Despite continuing human-rights abuses, Chinese citizens have never known greater personal freedom in their daily lives. These have been fuelled by improved communications, individual awareness, and contact with the outside world. It is also the result of the decline of government writ. The totalitarian state Mao built has retreated steadily over the last two decades, and today it is a corroded and corrupt form of its earlier Orwellian incarnation.

While Mao and his comrades unified the country and delivered it from the vestiges of imperialism and poverty (the Chinese Communist claims to legitimacy) in 1949, China's achievements have come at profound human, economic and environmental costs.

The loss of life as a result of Chinese Communist "campaigns" numbers in the tens of millions. Moderate Western estimates of those who were killed or perished as a result of successive Maoist initiatives include: 1.5 million in "bandit extermination" (1950- 51); 2 million in "three-anti, five-anti" (1953); 3-5 million in "land reform" (1951-57); 4 million in the movement to "suppress counterrevolutionaries" (1955-56); 300,000- 500,000 in the "anti- rightist movement" (1957); 30 million in the Great Leap Forward (1958-91); at least 50,000 in the "Cultural Revolution". The 1,500- 2,000 killed in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown pale in comparison. These numbers bespeak the brutality of the last 50 years of Communist rule - to say nothing of those whose careers and lives were ruined as a consequence of these campaigns or having "bad class background."

China's autarkic path under Mao, and its isolated place in the world, also cost the nation tremendously as the rest of East Asia enjoyed the fruits of the economic "miracle". By a variety of agricultural and industrial indicators, the nation's economy only achieved levels of output in 1985 that it had known in 1957, before Mao drew China inward and subjected the society to his social- engineering.

Today, thanks to sustained foreign investment and a series of economically reformist leaders, China enjoys the world's highest growth rates, is the eighth largest trading nation, holds the world's second largest foreign exchange reserves, and is the largest borrower from the World Bank. Despite the current effects of the Asian financial crisis, two years of deflation and a downturn in growth, and chronically unreformed sectors of the economy, prospects that China will become a world-class economic power over the next two decades remain unchanged.

As economic development has brought many benefits, it has also bred significant problems. Social stratification and dislocations have risen. In fact, China is currently experiencing the largest number of urban strikes and incidences of rural unrest since the Communists came to power in 1949.

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After 50 Years of Communism, China Is on the Brink of Another Revolution ; `China's Rulers Have Failed to Articulate a Coherent Vision of Its Future or Its Place in the World'
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