After being in Austria for a week– enjoying there the delicious fall-out from the collapse of its rightwing coalition government, when the leader of the coalition’s junior partner was caught in a video-recorded sting in Ibiza offering bribes to a fake Russian billionaire provided she bought the country’s leading newspaper and turned it into a mouthpiece for his party– I’m now in China.
No such sting could take place in China, simply because all Chinese media are owned by the government, and no private individual can buy any one of its segments.
It goes almost without saying that China is fascinating and complex. For one thing, its sheer linguistic diversity is mind-boggling.
China is home to hundreds of languages, the most common of which are Chinese (principally Mandarin). But in addition to these Chinese languages, there are numerous others, such as the Turkic and Iranian languages spoken in the northwest, Indian, Nepalese, and Tibetan languages in the southwest, and the numerous languages of Southeast Asia in the south. Three of these minority languages– Mongolian, Uighur, and Tibetan– are official regional languages.
This linguistic diversity has as its correlate an accompanying ethnic diversity.
No discussion of China can begin without acknowledging its unique political system, and the relation of that system to capitalism.
It is a commonplace in the western media that China’s spectacular economic rise began when it “abandoned” communism in order to espouse capitalism (the Thomas Friedmanite mantra).
This line of argument is stupid and simplistic.
China’s policy throughout the “reform” era has been to deal with the capitalist west in ways that benefit China. If this order in the west is neoliberal, China will engage in trade with the west in its neoliberal context.
But what China won’t do is “internalize” this neoliberalism.
As a result China’s form of capitalism is perhaps best described as a “bureaucratic capitalism”. There are no markets as such in China, apart from run of the mill street stalls and restaurants.
There are private banks, but these are heavily regulated, which is not to deny the existence of a shadow banking system where all kinds of shady stuff can go on.
All land is state owned, even the land on which you build a house (you get a 99-year lease to do this).
China doesn’t have to create markets because its primary form of commercial enterprise is being contractor to western corporations seeking to outsource production, whether by having their own factories in China, or getting a Chinese factory to undertake their production.
According to the US Customs shipping data base, the following US corporations produce 100% of their products, or parts of their products, or ingredients for their products, in China:
Abercrombie & Fitch
AGI- American Gem Institute
Agrilink Foods, Inc. (ProFac)
American Eagle Outfitters
Analog Devices, Inc.
Bausch & Lomb, Inc.
Bed, Bath & Beyond
Big 5 Sporting Goods
Black & Decker
Briggs & Stratton
Campbell ‘s Soup
Chiquita Brands International
Coca Cola Foods
Coleman Sporting Goods
Crabtree & Evelyn
Cracker Barrel Stores
Craftsman Tools (see Sears)
Del Monte Foods
Dollar Tree Stores, Inc.
Edge Electronics Group
Electric Vehicles USA, Inc.
Eli Lilly Company
Family Dollar Stores
Furniture Brands International
GE, General Electric
General Foods International
Holt’s Automotive Products
ICON Office Solutions
J.M. Smucker Company
Johnson & Johnson
KFC, Kentucky Fried Chicken
Lee Kum Kee Foods
L.L. Bean, Inc.
Linen & Things
Lipo Chemicals, Inc.
Martha Stewart Products
Merck & Company
Northrop Grumman Corporation
Nutrilite (see Amway)
Nvidia Corporation (G-Force)
Pacific Sun wear, Inc.
Pan Pacific Electronics
Phillip Morris Companies
Pier 1 Imports
Pitney Bowes, Inc.
Play School Toys
Polo (see Ralph Lauren)
Proctor & Gamble
PSS World Medical
Rohm & Hass Company
Speco Technologies/Pro Video
Smucker’s (see J.M. Smucker’s)
Solar Power, Inc.
Sun Maid Raisins
Tai Pan Trading Company
Toys R Us, Inc.
True Value Hardware
Victoria ‘s Secret
Walt Disney Company
Weller Electric Company
Wilson Sporting Goods
WW Grainger, Inc.
The list does not include products associated with the Trump brand, such as Ivanka’s shoes and accessories, and her father’s menswear and banners for the 2020 election campaign.
The Chinese people I’ve spoken with on this and previous visits, aware of the scale of US’s involvement in China-based production, find Trump’s trade war with China preposterous.
China depends on the US for agricultural staples– corn, soy, and pork products—hence it was easy for the Chinese government to slap retaliatory tariffs on these staples.
US farmers, a key Trump constituency, howled in anguish, and Trump caved-in by bailing them out with a massive compensatory subsidy.
Just as he caved-in over the imposition of tariffs on Mexico. The price of avocados, among other products, would skyrocket if Mexico retaliated, and golf-resort-frequenting Trump supporters with a taste for avocado on toast would not be pleased.
It is easy for some to forget that the Trump fan club encompasses not just the snarling Joe and Jane Bubba we see at Trump rallies (who presumably have no yearning for avocado on toast), but also the likes of the porcine William Barr and Pompeo Magnificus.
The Chinese I encountered were bemused not only by Trump’s trade wars, but also the way his family are able to go on just about any presidential ride at taxpayer expense. All I could say in reply is that bourgeois democracy allows well-positioned people to get up to some pretty naff things.
I was in China when the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest took place. The Great Firewall had extra height added to it for the occasion, but nearly all the Chinese students I met have found a way to deal with their Great Firewall, namely, by acquiring VPNs.
I was told a wide variety of these are available for purchase, because the VPN companies have to play cat-and-mouse with the authorities, as each tries to outwit the other with the next technological advance.
The losers here are the resentful internet users, who have to change VPNs every few months to stay ahead in the game. There is something undemocratic about this (and I’m not talking about the Great Firewall itself), but the fact that only those with the money can obtain VPNs.
China’s desire to prevent the wholesale internalization of the neoliberal order, with its accompanying tight leash on the populace, does have a rationale (at least in the eyes of the authorities).
The dramatic collapse of Russia when the Soviet Union fell, stemming from Russia’s overnight espousal of a full-blown capitalism caused widespread poverty, decreased life expectancy, and the looting of the economy by those in the nomenklatura who already had their hands near the levers of economic power. As we know, with no-one or nothing to restrain them, they became fabulously wealthy oligarchs overnight.
All those I spoke with believe the Communist party’s grip on power will not be affected by a less rigid internet regimen. Younger people, the largest group of internet users, are not thirsting for another type of government, and are content in the main with the status quo.
Those who are dissatisfied with the government are either outright neoliberals who prize and want “market-freedom” above everything else, or else “ultra-leftists” with a yearning for the former days of “real communism” (in essence something like the commune system of the Mao era).
Some of the most interesting (private) discussions I’ve been a part of in my several visits here over the years deal with the question whether there could be a “mixed economy” model in which a commune system, understood as a cooperative set-up, could coexist with the prevailing “developmental-modernization” model.
There was no consensus in these discussions, because a variety of positions were taken, but they have always been serious, indeed often technical, and very thoughtful.
President Xi has nothing to fear about allowing these discussions to take place in a less constrained way. Indeed, it would not be a surprise if such discussions have already taken place within the ruling inner circle.
However, China has been conducting its remarkable economic experiment in a context in which many in the west want it to fail.
An egregious example: the former UK Defence Minister, a fireplace salesman turned politician named Gavin Williamson, soon given the derisive nickname Corporal Williamson by the media, suggested the British navy could defeat China’s navy in a Pacific war.
As the former US tennis star John McEnroe used to say when haranguing umpires over their decisions– “You cannot be serious!”.
Corporal Williamson is a fool, despite the fact that he was one of the initial contenders vying to succeed Theresa May.
But many less foolish people want China to fail.
At stake here are two competing versions of capitalism, one horrendously and cruelly flawed, the other flawed but nonetheless improving the lives of most of its people.
So: the “cowboy capitalism” prevailing in the US and UK, or China’s “bureaucratic capitalism”?
The cowboy capitalist countries are experiencing falling living standards for most of their populations, increased homelessness, decreasing life expectancy, growing household debt, environmental destruction, crumbling infrastructure, proliferating food banks, half of all Americans are one salary payment away from bankruptcy, the reemergence of “Victorian” diseases (rickets, scurvy), the consequences wreaked by incompetent political elites (why on earth is Rick Perry US secretary of the environment, and Failing Grayling—whose incompetence has cost British taxpayers billions—still a cabinet minister?), and so on.
If I was one of the many homeless persons on London’s streets, using newspapers as blankets while sleeping at night, I think I know which I’d prefer.
Admittedly, China still has a long way to go. Workers’ rights can be improved, especially in the factories where outsourced western goods are produced. Food safety and security, while improving, is still a problem. Freer discussion of the regime’s policies can be allowed without threatening Communist Party rule.
A 2017 “Which Countries Are Going in the Right Direction?” poll showed that 90% of Chinese thought their country was headed in the right direction, as opposed to 37% in the UK, and 35% in the US.
The UK’s figure is likely to be even lower now on account of its Brexit fiasco, and US’s likewise as we approach the end of the 3rd year of Trump’s presidency.
Meanwhile it is clear that China, its problems notwithstanding, is trending in the opposite direction to the UK and US.