The China paradox: communist capitalism?

The one-time "workers' paradise" is now an economic superpower. The Chinese people are pursuing profits. Will they be able to pursue freedom, too?

Aly Song/Reuters/File
A migrant construction laborer works on a residential building in Shanghai, China.

It wasn’t the most charming example of “Chinglish” I’ve seen. It didn’t hold a candle to delightfully mystifying phrases like “Far Out But Classic” or “Show Mercy to the Slender Grass.” But the words I saw stenciled over and over again on concrete fences outside Shanghai, China, in the mid-1990s seemed to capture the Chinese spirit:

“Praise profit. Praise profit. Praise profit. Praise profit. Praise profit.”

The same nation that Mao Zedong had exhorted only two decades earlier to “Practice Marxism and not Revisionism” was being commanded into full-throated pursuit of capitalism.

China is the wonder of the age. If you were around in the 1960s, the China you knew was both tragedy and threat. Every few decades it seemed to devour itself. Millions died in Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Millions during his Cultural Revolution. Heavy-handed propaganda skewered capitalists, imperialists, and the always handy “running-dog lackeys.” 

Then came one of the most astounding turnarounds in history. In the same way that communist leaders once ordered the proletariat to build a socialist workers’ paradise, the Communist Party ordered millions of Chinese to go out and make money. The Chinese people didn’t look back. China became the hottest economy on the planet. Its exports are ubiquitous. Its appetite for raw materials enormous. China finances a big chunk of the US national debt. Increasingly, Europe is looking to it for help with its debt. Chinese dealmakers can be found in remote parts of Africa, Manhattan, and the Amazon.

At home, the Chinese people are growing in material wealth, creature comforts, education, even physical stature thanks to higher protein consumption. China’s rise has been a material blessing to millions of its people. What China wants most is for nothing ever to change – for growth to continue and prosperity to increase. For despite its remarkable economic progress, China has 500 million citizens who still make less than $2 a day. If the Chinese economy ceases to grow, those 500 million will be stuck in poverty. A mild slowdown could return millions to poverty as well.

But as with Japan in the 1980s or the United States in the first decade of the 21st century, China is by no means guaranteed continued good times. Some elements of the Chinese boom are looking like a bubble. Vacant malls, excess factory capacity, and ghost cities are plentiful. Five of the 10 largest office buildings under construction globally are in China. 

Everything China has done over the past six decades has been massive – a massive attempt to create a communist society and now a massive effort in pursuit of profit. This is not a nation reflecting the will of its people. It is a government command center telling its people what to do. Right now, that looks like a shiny, happy world of capitalism. Less than 50 years ago, it was a mad world of little red books, ruinous five-year plans, and socialist conformity.

If the current freedom to choose consumer goods becomes an expectation of free speech or self-government, the command center is in trouble. That is why China’s rulers imprison dissidents, monitor and regulate Internet usage, and control what is said on TV and in the press. While the Communist Party is more lenient than it was during Mao’s day, it is still careful not to let anything challenge its authority. 

You won’t see the party exhorting the people to praise freedom. But if China is to become a balanced culture rather than one swinging between extremes, it must allow democracy alongside material well-being. To pull that off would be a real cultural revolution and a genuinely great leap forward.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. 

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