[Paleopsych] Economist: Modern China: Fear of the future

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Wed Aug 24 23:00:29 UTC 2005

Modern China: Fear of the future
    Aug 18th 2005

    The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market.
    By John Gittings.
    Oxford University Press; 384 pages; $30 and £18.99

    WHITHER China is arguably the most vital, if the least fathomable,
    strategic question of the 21st century. John Gittings, a veteran
    journalist and prolific writer, has produced a new study of China's
    Communist era and its likely trajectory. Unfortunately, his book will
    have many readers still scratching their heads.

    Mr Gittings is sceptical of the view that China's huge internal
    stresses--from dysfunctional banks to religious unrest--have pushed it
    to the verge of catastrophe. Yet his argument is hedged with
    sufficient caveats that the pessimist could still feel vindicated.
    "The Chinese miracle is a precarious one: the leadership...only has a
    few years to get it right," he suggests. The leadership needs to
    initiate "serious reforms" of the political structure within this
    period. But the leadership Mr Gittings describes is one that has a
    congenital disinclination to reform itself.

    The author's biggest concern is about the ravages to China's
    environment caused by breakneck industrial growth. Environmental
    degradation and rising pollution, he argues, represent a far more
    serious threat to the Chinese people than either political or economic
    instability. He even proposes a nightmare scenario in which China will
    run out of water. Mr Gittings is altogether too gloomy on this issue.
    Another, and in this reviewer's opinion, more likely, scenario is that
    China's huge environmental problems will cause widespread suffering.
    But they will also become part of the powerful cocktail of emerging
    challenges to an unreformed party that will force it to change the way
    it rules.

    Increasingly frequent protests, triggered by environmental issues and
    the formation of non-governmental pressure groups, are already making
    the party rethink the way it handles public concerns. Rather than let
    itself run out of water, China will bite the bullet and use pricing
    mechanisms and penalties on polluters (both sadly inadequate now) to
    improve and ensure conservation. It will have no choice.

    Mr Gittings hints that he was among the "sympathetic foreign
    observers" who admired the achievements of Mao Zedong. He is far more
    critical now, though he stops short of condemning Mao in the
    unrelenting manner of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their recent
    biography. China, he says, cannot be understood if Mao is regarded
    simply as a despot who was interested in nothing but power. Yet Mr
    Gittings's mostly dry, historical account provides few new insights
    into what really motivated Mao. And there is nothing on the horrors of
    that era that matches his vivid, first-hand account of the bloody
    suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

    The book accurately describes China's precipitate abandonment of
    socialism in all but name by Deng Xiaoping and his successors, and the
    iniquities of the unfettered capitalism that has replaced it. But it
    laments too much the abandonment of collectivised agriculture.

    Mr Gittings believes that China's post-Mao policies have caused the
    "effective privatisation" of land. If only this were true. It may have
    caused the demise of collectivised farming, but peasants certainly do
    not own the tiny plots of land they work. Privatisation would give
    peasants collateral with which to borrow, encourage investment in high
    value-added agriculture and promote urbanisation. Unfortunately the
    idea is still anathema to the Communist Party, which has deprived many
    peasants of affordable health care and education (as Mr Gittings well
    describes), but continues to deny them the opportunity to use their
    land as capital with which to make a new start in the cities. Would
    that it were not so.

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