BY EFFIE DEANS
I don’t think many people in Britain had heard of Wuhan or Hubei province before the present outbreak of Covid-19 (Coronavirus). The fifty largest Chinese cities each has a population greater than two million, yet few of us could name more than two or three. Chongqing, for example, was first settled in 316 BC and has a population of 30 million, but how many of us could point it out on the map? The danger isn’t so much a virus as our near complete and utter ignorance.
I only know one word in Chinese. I don’t know how to say “hello” and I don’t know how to say “goodbye”, but I do know how to say “little bottle” [小瓶, Xiǎopíng]. It’s possibly the most important word in modern Chinese history.
The Communist revolution in China was one of the greatest catastrophes in human history. Between 1949 and Mao’s death in 1976 the Communist party directly or indirectly killed between fifty and one hundred million people. Mao repeated the same mistakes that Stalin had made in the 1920s and 1930s, but with even worse results. The Great Famine caused by the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) starved forty-five million Chinese people. Collectivisation in China did more damage even than in the Soviet Union.
One of the aims of the Great Leap Forward was for China to overtake Britain’s industrial output in fifteen years. It seems unimaginable today that China could have been behind run down Britain in 1958. Now we depend on Huawei to build our telecommunications network and if the Chinese economy contracts because of Covid-19 we will all catch a cold.
But China is where it is today, not so much because of what happened before the death of Mao, but because of what happened afterwards. China in 1976 was backward, poor and going nowhere. It was just another failed communist state with inefficient industry. It sold almost nothing to Britain.
One person is more responsible for the rise of present-day China than anyone else. Deng Xiaoping. His first name Xiaoping sounds like the word for “little bottle”. He had rather a lot of bottle.
It was a miracle that Deng survived long enough to introduce the reforms that changed China. He went through the Long March, the Second World War and the Revolution. He was purged. He had to denounce himself and publicly criticise himself in struggle sessions. He was exiled and made to work in a factory in the provinces. But he survived. He took on and defeated the original “Gang of Four” including the infamous Madame Mao (Jiang Qing), responsible for many of the excesses of the Cultural revolution. Deng won and saw them jailed.
Deng had one goal. He set out to make China a Great power, strong and prosperous. He did this by doing what no other communist succeeded in doing. He made communism work by getting rid of all those aspects of communism (nearly all of it) that didn’t work.
China remains nominally communist, but what this means in practice is that it kept only the totalitarian aspects of communism, one party, a ruthless security service and intolerance of dissent. Everything else was purged. The result was not so much socialism with a human face as capitalism with a communist face.
Deng introduced market reforms and he set about learning from the capitalist world. He learned about our technology and our business methods and he set China on a wealth creation path that was simply unimaginable in 1976.
The crisis came in 1989 with the Tienanmen Square protests. Almost no one in the West understood what was really going on. It is quite clear now that the prosperity of modern China and indeed the rest of the world which depends on Chinese prosperity is due to the fact that these protests did not succeed.
The revolutions of 1989-1991 did not always bring democracy and prosperity. The Soviet Union did not become free, nor did its population become wealthy. It ceased to exist and in most of its territory one form of tyranny was replaced with another. Russia ceased to be a great power and most of its people are worse off now than they were in 1991. Communism was replaced by criminality. The same most likely would have happened to China.
China just as much as the Soviet Union is made up of peoples who do not speak the same language and who frequently cannot understand each other. It has a variety of peoples who are held together by force. If the Tienanmen Square protests had succeeded there is no guarantee that the borders of China would have remained intact, nor that the market reforms that Deng introduced would have continued or succeeded. After all Gorbachev’s attempt to reform the Soviet Union failed. Russia today is neither open nor restructured.
Deng’s repression of protest was therefore from his own perspective necessary in order to achieve his goal of Chinese greatness. We may condemn the repression of democracy in China, but I wonder if with the benefit of hindsight, the Chinese, including many of the 1989 protesters, might not prefer their present situation to that of people in Russia.
The lesson of modern Chinese history is that the combination of Mao’s authoritarianism and ruthlessness mixed with Deng’s understanding of the reforms necessary for China to reach greatness has succeeded beyond any possible expectation. China long ago surpassed Britain economically and will in time surpass even the United States.
But China’s rise to greatness is not that of a friendly power. It is mercantilist, exploitative and has no scruples whatsoever. It will crush its own people if they try to rise up but will prefer to keep them content with prosperity. It will do everything in its power to overtake the West, because this is the goal that Deng set for China and the path it has been on ever since.
The combination of tyranny and free markets is very powerful indeed, perhaps more powerful than democracy and free markets, because China can do what is unpopular, but necessary while we cannot.
But there is a contradiction at the heart of China, which is demonstrated not merely by the Tiananmen Square protests, but also by the more recent protests in Hong Kong. Free markets give rise to a desire for democracy and genuine freedom and cannot properly function without them. The limit to Chinese prosperity may be in the very attempt to combine authoritarianism with free markets, which has up to now brought it such success. Free markets plus tyranny may work so long as prosperity makes people forget their lack of freedom. The same is the case in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. But what happens if economic growth in the end depends on the freedom to innovate, create and come up with new ideas? What if state control and tyranny limits and curtails the ability of markets to create wealth. Chinese wealth creation may just not have hit the buffers yet. The strain of trying to be both capitalist and communist may cause a crisis in Chinese communism, capitalism or both.
Chinese people whether in Hong Kong or on the mainland would be wise to be careful. Their protests will be crushed just as ruthlessly as those of 1989. But at some point, China will have to face the contradiction that Deng could not. That will require not a little bottle, but a great deal of bottle, because anything could happen including lots of broken glass on the streets. The danger is not so much virus. We will require little of Deng’s bravery to pass through this crisis safe and well. The danger is that China goes the way of the Soviet Union or worse, because that would infect us all.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.