Is Capitalism China's Salvation?

By Chun, Lin | Soundings, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Is Capitalism China's Salvation?


Chun, Lin, Soundings


Will Hutton, The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the Twenty-first Century, Little, Brown

Chairman Mao once famously declared, at a time when China was suffering immense rural poverty, that 'only socialism can save China'. Later, due to the Sino-Soviet disputes, the sentiment among many Chinese - however self-deceiving - became 'only China can save socialism'. Furthermore, China's initial market reform project was also firmly socialist in commitment, even though how exactly a market economy might cohere with socialist values was yet to be worked out. And during the optimistic search for a new direction after the cultural revolution, the popularly endorsed ambition - inscribed in the 1978 party resolution - was to build China into a 'highly civilised and highly democratic' socialist society. The debatable meaning of the word at each of these historical moments notwithstanding, 'socialism', as a big idea, has dominated China's ideological discourse and policy considerations for decades. Yet, whilst it walks a different path from the self-dismantling of the Soviet Union and the East-Central European velvet revolutions, the People's Republic has moved just as far away as those other countries from where it all began. More or less lost everywhere in a globalising world, socialism today - even for sympathisers - appears to be no more than day-dreaming, or a euphemism for capitalist transformations. Hence we have Will Hutton's hardly inventive writing on the wall: only capitalism can rescue China from its socioeconomic, environmental and political crises.

Hutton is mostly accurate in his empirical observations on China's structural contradictions and current problems. In particular, he is right to highlight the unsustainability of the country's pattern of development - widely recognised inside China - in terms of its low- wage, low- tech, low-productivity manufacturing at the bottom end of the global supply chain, combined with its high costs of wasteful raw material and energy consumption, heavy pollution, labour exploitation and dependency on foreign trade. Also open to criticism is China's recent, unprincipled participation in global competition for energy resources in Africa and elsewhere. Meanwhile, mounting social discontent and protests are emerging, against a background of widespread incidents of social injustice, rampant corruption, environmental degradation and ethnic/regional imbalances - indicating a profound crisis of legitimacy for the reform regime. And in the larger political context, as Hutton points out, the communist monopoly of power is also responsible for certain institutional weaknesses, such as China's poor legal infrastructure and vulnerable banking system, as well as its repressive approach towards civil liberties and the free flow of information.

What may divide Hutton's readers is not his evaluation of these symptoms but his diagnosis and prescription. Hutton's recommendation for the cure of China's contemporary 'Leninist corporatism' is exclusively exogenous. An 'enlightenment agenda', as he phrases it, must be transplanted only from the west. In other words, China has no viable option but to complete the transition it has seemingly begun to capitalism.

To be sure, Hutton's capitalism is carefully qualified, and he distinguishes between different models (of which, beside the Nordic paradise, the US is 'the living embodiment of the links between the Enlightenment and economic growth'), to argue that it should encompass both profit-driven and non-market welfare mechanisms. His ideal is defined by what he sees as constitutive of core Enlightenment values: political and economic pluralism, individual rights and capabilities, and accountability (along with other legitimating norms) . Given these qualifications and his perfect awareness of typical paths of state -led capitalist development (both earlier in Europe and later in East Asia) and fine comparative discussions of government functions in China (in both pre- and post-reform periods), the logic of his argument is curious. …

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