June 1, 2013, by Tony Hong

Why China?

By Professor Stephen L. Morgan,

Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

Professor of Chinese Economic History at the University of Nottingham.

‘Why China?’ is a question many have been asked over the years. For today’s student or business person the answer might seem glaringly obvious: China is now the second-largest economy in the world and an increasingly major player in geopolitics beyond its immediate backyard of East and Southeast Asia. Why would one not take an interest? The rapid, amazing and almost unbelievable change that is – and have been for a long time now – sweeping across this vast country of 1.3 billion people invites curiosity. Let’s learn the language; let’s investigate the culture, economy and society.

That has not always been the case. More than 30 years ago when I was first in China the country was tentatively throwing off the attitudes and the clothing that had marked the dull egalitarianism of the China of Mao Zedong, the Great Helmsman. The Gang of Four was on trial. Big character posters and political cartoons were posted on streets pillory these leaders of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-75).  Most people in the winter of 1980-81 still wore the green and blue “Mao” tunics; most people were hungry and lacking in nutrition, though not starving as had millions in the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward (1958-60); and fledgling private markets (ziyou shichang自由市场) were mushrooming around China. The country was then in lower half of the World Bank’s list of low-income countries. It was poor, dirt poor. Now it is a middle-income country.

Today it is hard to imagine the level of poverty in the early 1980s. The reforms that Deng Xiaoping is credited with were beginning to unleash rapid growth in the countryside. Peasant farmers were being freed from the commune, the collective organization of agriculture between 1957 and the early 1980s, to take charge of their land plots to grow what they could grow best for the most return. In other words, the peasants were responding to market incentives. And rural China took off. Grain output, cotton output, vegetable output … these all soared, raising incomes in the countryside and improving food supplies in the cities.

Watching this from the vantage point of being a graduate student at Nanjing University in the 1980s was exciting. I was witness to weird and bemusing stories of successes and foibles as millions of Chinese embraced the new freedoms. What we saw was the re-emergence of a market economy in China, but an unusual market economy, that’s for sure.

The economy was not capitalist, but one run by the Chinese State. That is one of the conundrums in trying to understand the “rise of China” these past three and half decades: The emergence of a new style capitalism in which the Communist Party is charge. It has often led to theories of suspect credentials and ethics such as the in-vogue idea of “the China model”, one of many variations on neo-authoritarian theories to explain the growth, enrichment and new global reach of China that has emerged.

For me the model is nothing but a thin justification for the dominance of the Party-State in the new market economy. It is not a model as in providing guidance for others who might wish to emulate China; rather, it is a hymn to the power of the Party. It is an ideological construct in the true Marxist meaning of ideology that seeks to legitimize Party-State rule and its economic authority.

Chinese history, though, points out to us that the current situation is not as strange as it might seem at first glance. In the 18th century when Qing China was at the height of its power and wealth the market was vibrant. The emperor in Beijing ruled from above, and from afar, at least for most peasants and merchants. The huge domestic market of China had quasi-international trade in grain and luxury goods that dwarf anything in Europe and the Atlantic zone. There was a complex system of local-, intermediate- and long-distance trade, and a variety of formal and informal institutions that governed the market place. Yet it was not capitalist, at least in the sense of the commercial and industrial capitalism, which was emerging in Western Europe at the time and which would come to dominate the global economy for the next two centuries.

There was an ethos or ideology that informed the Qing State in its governance of society captured in the statecraft motto “jing she ji min 经世济民”: manage the world to succor the people. The Chinese approach – in fact, the East Asian approach – to economic management is one that emphasizes State overlordship of the economy and society; competitive markets are at the end of the day measured not in terms of their efficiency in the allocation of resources, as Western economists would champion, but in terms of the maximization of collective good and welfare as perceived by State. In many ways today’s Chinese State is not so different in its approach to managing the economy and society as the Qing, and as with the Qing it shares many of the drawbacks, such as the peculation and graft of officials from lowly officers to senior ministers.

So, why China? Like an unclimbed mountain to a mountaineer, it is there to be climbed and to be understood. We live in a world that is seeing China remerge as an economic and political power again after 200 years of eclipse. Whether one thinks of China as a culture, a state of mind, a huge experiment … being part of a group of students and scholars seeking to understand these exciting transformations around us is what Contemporary Chinese Studies is all about.

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