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Saturday, October 21, 2006

China's New Left

An email suggests this article on the New Left's struggle to build a social model in China that moves away from neoliberal ideas:

China's New Left calls for a social alternative, by Pankaj Mishra, The New York Times Magazine: One day earlier this year I met Wang Hui at the Thinker's Cafe near Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he teaches. ... Co-editor of China's leading intellectual journal, Dushu (Reading), and the author of a four-volume history of Chinese thought, Wang ... has emerged as a central figure among a group of writers and academics known collectively as the New Left.

New Left intellectuals advocate a "Chinese alternative" to the neoliberal market economy, one that will guarantee the welfare of the country's 800 million peasants left behind by recent changes. And unlike much of China's dissident class, which grew out of the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 ..., Wang and the New Left view the Communist leadership as a likely force for change.

Recent events - the purge of party leaders on anticorruption charges late last month and continuing efforts to curb market excesses - suggest that this view is neither utopian nor paradoxical. Though New Leftists have never directed government policy, their concerns are increasingly amplified by the central leadership.

In the last few years, Wang has reflected eloquently and often on what outsiders see as the central paradox of contemporary China: an authoritarian state fostering a free market economy while espousing socialism. On this first afternoon, he described how the Communist Party, though officially dedicated to egalitarianism, had opened its membership to rich businesspeople.

Many of its local officials, he said, used their arbitrary power to become successful entrepreneurs at the expense of the rural populations they were meant to serve, and had joined up with real estate speculators to seize collectively owned land from peasants. ... The result has been an alliance of elite political and commercial interests...

Wang readily acknowledges that China's efforts at economic change have not been without great benefits. He applauds the first phase, which lasted from 1978 to 1985, for improving agricultural output and the rural standard of living. It is the central government's more recent obsession with creating wealth in urban areas - and its decision to hand over political authority to local party bosses, who often explicitly disregard central government directives - that has led, he said, to deep inequalities within China.

The embrace of a neoliberal market economy has meant the dismantling of welfare systems, a widening income gap between rich and poor and deepening environmental crises not only in China but in the United States and other developed countries. For Wang, it is the task of intellectuals to remind the state of its old, unfulfilled obligations to peasants and workers. ...

For Wang, the problems associated with China's uneven development were first identified by the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He described how a "broad social movement" began to grow out of the distress caused by the shock therapy of market reforms.

The students demanding freedom of speech and assembly were certainly the most visible. But there were, he said, many more Chinese in the cities - workers, government officials and small businessmen - demanding that the government control corruption and inflation, which had shot up to 30 percent after price controls on basic commodities were lifted.

Wang himself was one of the last protesters to leave the square on the morning of June 4, 1989, as the tanks of the People's Liberation Army closed in. He had decided to stay and to try to persuade the students not to sacrifice their lives. "I knew," he said, "that if the result was violence, it would be disastrous for the whole country." ...

Wang said that his fears had proved right: violence shrank the space for political debate, and the Chinese government used the period of intellectual silence that followed to begin dismantling more aspects of the welfare state, like the state-owned enterprises that had long offered cradle-to-grave benefits to workers.

When Wang returned to Beijing in late 1989, the authorities were waiting for him. After interrogations lasting for many months, he was sent to the central province of Shaanxi, where dozens of other young scholars from Beijing were already undergoing - in the uniquely Chinese way - "re-education" by exposure to rural conditions.

In Wang's case, punishment by pedagogy seems to have been more successful than the Chinese authorities could have anticipated. He dates his "real education" to the time he spent in Shaanxi, one of the poorest regions of China. He was shocked by the obvious disparity between the coastal cities, then enjoying the first fruits of economic change, and the provinces. He was shocked, too, by his own ignorance and that of his colleagues in the 1989 social movement. "We had no idea that the old order in much of rural China was in deep crisis," he said.

The commune system in Shaanxi was dismantled as part of Deng Xiaoping's reforms, and land was redistributed. But the area produced nothing of much value, not even enough food. Deepening poverty led to a sharp increase in crime and social problems; violent conflicts broke out over land; men took to gambling, beating up and selling their wives and daughters.

"It was during that year," Wang said, "that I realized how important a welfare system and cooperative network remained for many people in China. This is not a socialist idea. Even the imperial dynasties that ruled China kept a balance between rich and poor areas through taxes and almsgiving. ...

When Deng sought to bury the ghosts of Tiananmen for good by calling for speedy market reforms in 1992, he may well have calculated that the prospect of personal wealth - and access to Western brand-name goods - would compensate many newly enriched people for the lack of political democracy. If so, he seems to have been proved right. The largest public disturbance in China since Tiananmen occurred in August 1992, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese tried to buy shares in the newly opened stock exchange of the southern city of Shenzhen.

The effort to create wealth in urban areas through export-oriented industries - part of the "let some get rich first" policy announced by Deng and affirmed by his successors - has given the Chinese economy an average growth rate of 10 percent and made it the fourth largest in the world. Yet China remains one of the world's poorest countries. More than 150 million people survive on a dollar a day. About 200 million of the rural population are crowding the cities and towns in search of low-paying jobs. ...

Much of this, Wang said, could be laid at the feet of the "right-wing radicals" or neoliberal economists who cite Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek ... and who argue for China's integration into the global economy without taking into account the social price of mass privatization. And it is they, Wang added, who have held favor with the ruling elite and have dominated the state-run media.

Only in the last decade, Wang said, have intellectuals of the New Left begun to challenge the notion that a market economy leads inevitably to democracy and prosperity. China's intention to join the World Trade Organization (which it did in 2001) provoked unexpectedly sharp debates among scholars. As Wang described it, the terms of the debate had changed: "Many people knew by then that globalization is not a neutral word describing a natural process. It is part of the growth of Western capitalism, from the days of colonialism and imperialism." ...

In January of this year, Wang published a long investigative article exposing the plight of workers in a factory in his hometown, Yangzhou, a city of about one million. According to Wang, in 2004 the local government sold the profitable state-owned textile factory to a real estate developer from Shenzhen. Worker-equity shares were bought for 30 percent of their actual value, and then more than a thousand workers were laid off after mismanagement of the factory led to losses.

In July 2004, the workers went on strike. In what Wang calls an agitation without precedent in the history of Yangzhou, the workers obstructed a major highway, halted bus traffic and attacked the gates of local government buildings.

Wang told me that he was helping the workers to sue the local government. "People claim," he said, "that the market will automatically force the state to become more democratic. But this is baseless. We only have to think about the alliance of elites formed in the process of privatization. The state will change only when it is under pressure from a large social force, like the workers and peasants."

This spring it began to become clear that the New Left's advocacy of a welfare state is being echoed within the Communist leadership, which is fearful of social instability and eager to consolidate its power and legitimacy. In March, the National People's Congress convened in Beijing and unexpectedly became a forum for the first open ideological debate within the party for years.

Legislators accused government officials of selling out China's interests to market forces. Such was the antimarket mood... Describing major new investments in rural areas, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao emphasized that "building a socialist countryside" was a "major historic task" before the Communist Party. He also outlined steps to balance economic growth with environmental protection.

"It is a huge achievement," Wang said with a smile on his face, "that the premier should openly admit that health care and education is a failure. It has never happened before."

Wang said he thought that the government was sincere about eradicating rural poverty. But he was still cautious. "There has been so much decentralization in China," he said, "that it is not easy to translate central government policy into action." ...

The dangers of failing to improve conditions for the majority are clear to Wang: "If we don't improve the situation, there will be more authoritarianism. We have already seen in Russia how people prefer a strong ruler like Putin because they are fed up with corruption, political chaos and economic stagnation. When radical marketization makes people lose their sense of security, the demand for order and intervention from above is inevitable."

    Posted by on Saturday, October 21, 2006 at 12:03 AM in China, Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (18)


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