A Socialist visits capitalist China
One evening in early July, the Air China plane took off from London on an eleven hour flight to Beijing, through seven time zones. This was to be my first visit to China.
With a knowledge of Russian, one fact about the flight which particularly interested me was that a very large part of the journey would be across the Russian Federation.
After some snoozing in a window seat, I awoke to see the lights of St. Petersburg, 38,000 feet below, with the Gulf of Finland, to the left and the immensity of Lake Ladoga, stretching north-eastwards, to the right. When covered with ice during World War 2, that lake had played a very important role in providing the inhabitants of Leningrad with a lifeline, during the siege of the city by the German Wehrmacht.
I snoozed a little more, occasionally waking up to see the enormity of the Russian taiga (forest), stretching for hundreds of miles, past the Urals and into Siberia. When I awoke again, it was daylight and a vast lake emerged below – Lake Baikal – the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume, looking quite different, from when I had visited it at ground level in 1989. A flight to Beijing really does give an idea about the size of Russia.
After crossing Mongolia with its mountains and the wilderness of the Gobi Desert, the plane gradually descended into Beijing.
Arrival in China
Thirty-nine degrees Centigrade, with very high humidity. Almost like a wall of heat! Those were the conditions on my arrival in Beijing. The taxi ride along the highway to my hotel was rather reminiscent of urban scenery in New York or Chicago, except that the advertising hoardings were overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, written in Mandarin Chinese characters. Just this one hour journey conveyed an immediate impression of China’s very significant capitalist economic development and modernisation, at least in the eastern part of the country.
Like in Russia and other developing countries, many young Chinese are keen to meet foreigners and to practise their English. All the same, as I had realised before my arrival, the proportion of the population with a significant knowledge of English was not large. Hardly surprising really, because of China’s only relatively recent increased communications with the West. Nevertheless, around the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, there was no shortage of young guides willing to accompany foreigners around, describing the sights. This was very worthwhile and an opportunity to find out more about the way of life.
Impressions of Beijing
Attractive, neatly kept parks such as Zhongshan, with ornate, colourfully painted pagodas, gates and red Chinese lanterns. Tiananmen Square, despite its sinister connection with the events of 1989, is very impressive, particularly when the buildings are floodlit at night.
Pollution. Traffic jams in much of the city, where there are many more cars than 25 years ago. However, a large number of people still commute by pedal cycle, together with many of the young on motor scooters and bikes. Metal fencing, segregating the slower lanes for local traffic, provides some limited protection for cyclists from larger, faster vehicles. In spite of this, travelling by road in Chinese cities is stressful, like in other Asian cities, such as Bangkok and Kolkata.
Some beggars on the streets, hustlers peddling their wares. Many of the “hutongs”, or alleyways, with their old houses are being demolished in favour in modern buildings. Visit the shopping mall and street of Wangfujing, near the centre of Beijing, and you could be in almost any western shopping area, apart from the predominance of advertising in Chinese language characters. However, many signs, such as those indicating street names are transliterated into Pinyin, a form of Chinese using the Latin alphabet. In numerous places, promotion of the products of Sony, Panasonic and Samsung, etc., is visible.
Capitalism in China
Without doubt, capitalism dominates China, just as it does the rest of the world. Of course, the form of capitalism is somewhat different from the West. For many years, from 1949 onwards, state capitalism was very much in evidence. Now, the Chinese so-called “Communist” Party is still the only permitted political party. The inverted commas are certainly needed, since the ruling party is no more communist or socialist than Marks and Spencer in the UK.
A huge wave of privatisation has taken place, with commercialism nearly everywhere: on the streets, in the media, etc. Pretty much the same as you would see in the West.
Journeys on the Beijing metro turned out to be of interest. Well air-conditioned! Yes, the underground in London could learn something from this. As I stood in the carriage, I noticed that many of the passengers were looking at the walls of the passing tunnel, much more closely than would be the case in London. I soon realised why. As the train rushed between stations, electronically projected still and movie images, primarily in the form of advertising, were visible, like on a TV screen, – more of capitalism’s propaganda. As in other world cities, many commuters look fixatedly at the screens of their mobile phones and other electronic devices.
The Great Wall
A visit to the Great Wall gives an impression of how far the Chinese tourist industry has developed in recent years. The Wall is one of the world’s most memorable sights, as it winds its way across rugged mountain ranges. Reading the guidebooks had prepared me for the large number of tourists that would be there, and also for the fact that a northerly direction was the best way to go, to get away from the crowds.
All the same, as I did so, it was strange to look back and to see throngs of humanity slowly moving along the tops of the Wall, snaking in the distance, over the rising and falling slopes of the mountains.
Capitalism packages most of the world’s sights, with coach and car parks, entry fees, souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants, etc. Despite this, with a little planning, it is still possible for a person to ignore most of the commercialised tat and to marvel at what one has come to see.
From Beijing, I travelled to Kunming in Yunnan province. This city lies in the south-western part of the country, about 2,000 meters above sea-level. Here I met up with an English language teacher from Canada and her husband, who were spending nearly a year in China, before returning to North America.
I had talks with local Chinese students in the Yunnan University tea-room and found that they were very interested to hear about ideas from the West, since far fewer Westerners are to be found in Kunming than in Beijing.
During my stay in Yunnan, I made journeys into rural areas. Much of the province is very scenic because of its mountainous nature. In the valleys and flatter areas, much of the land is used for agriculture. Little mechanisation is used in farming, with most of the labour in the fields and orchards being done by hand. The work is very arduous, involves long hours and the income is low. That is why many younger people are migrating into the towns and cities. In some parts of the countryside factories are being constructed where the terrain is favourable.
Similarities Between China and Russia
Because of my interest in Russia, I could not help but notice certain similarities between the two countries. The governments of both have used Leninist slogans in their propaganda. The two have presented themselves, in the past as “ideological adversaries” of the Western powers. Now, they still have authoritarian regimes, with a strong emphasis on nationalism, and are frequently portrayed as political rivals to the West.
State capitalism is no longer so dominant in China and Russia, and, like other parts of world, both have significantly embraced privatisation. Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times (8 January 2008) says:
“The new Russo-Chinese model is authoritarian rather than democratic. It attempts to marry capitalism with a large state role in the economy. It holds out the promise of western consumerism for a rising middle class, while rejecting western political liberalism. Rather than relying on democracy or communist ideology to create loyalty to the political system, the Russian and Chinese elites increasingly stress a combination of economic growth and nationalism.”
At the United Nations, China and Russia often oppose the Western policies of exerting pressure on repressive governments – in Sudan, Iraq, Iran, or Serbia. It should be added though, that in the past, a Sino-Soviet split revealed rivalries between Mao’s China and the Soviet Union. In addition, there is still a strong element of mutual suspicion and strategic rivalry, with the Russians wary of the potential expansion of China into sparsely-populated, mineral-rich Siberia.
Officials of the two countries are often ambiguous in their statements about democracy. They declare that liberal democracy remains a long-term goal – but that their countries “must be given time“. They maintain that they will be “democratic” – but they will not allow that idea to be defined for them by outsiders and foreigners.
Gideon Rachman says: “President Hu Jintao of China has called democracy ‘the common pursuit of mankind’. However, the official Chinese line tends to be that small steps are being taken towards a more democratic system – through village-level elections or contested elections within the Communist party – but that it is vital to avoid the ‘chaos’ that could be unleashed by a naive rush towards democracy”.
China and Global Capitalism
Very clearly, capitalism is a global system. More recent developments in China have shown how much that country is a part of the system. Increased privatisation is an example of this.
The Zhongshan or Mao suit, as it is known in the West, which was widely worn in the sixties and seventies has overwhelmingly been replaced by Western style clothing. Most younger people dress very much like their counterparts in the West.
One amusing instance of how things have changed was when I visited a lake land area on the edge of Kunming. Sitting on some benches was a group of elderly men. One appeared to be in his eighties and was holding an ancient Chinese stringed musical instrument. An example of the older part of Chinese culture, to be sure and yet, as I looked at him, I noticed that he was wearing on his head an American style baseball cap, with the word “Sexy” in English, emblazoned across the top.
Capitalism in China
The form which capitalism takes can vary in different parts of the world. In China, the state still has a more important role to play than in the West. Although the ruling party is the only permitted political organisation, how much longer this continues to be the case, remains to be seen.
According to Forbes Magazine (8 October 2007), in 2007 China, with 108, ranked second behind the US, in the number of dollar billionaires. Yang Huiyan, ($16.02 billion) came top of the Chinese list, while Xu Rongmao ($7.03 billion) came second. During the reform period, inequality has clearly risen terms of wealth ownership and, additionally in such areas as household income, consumption of consumer goods, and social outcomes in education and health. On the other hand, economic growth during the past 25 years has brought about a reduction in absolute material poverty. This, of course happened under capitalism earlier in history, in Europe, for example.
During recent times, many workers have lost their previous job security and subsidised housing. According to Amnesty International (Western Australian, 2 March 2007), millions of Chinese workers who have migrated from the countryside to the urban areas are “overworked, underpaid, denied access to health care, education for their children, and even the right to live permanently in the cities which use their labour, and are treated as an underclass”.
The Amnesty report continues: “They are forced to work long stretches of overtime, often denied time off when sick, and labour under hazardous conditions for paltry wages. As well as being exploited by employers, migrant families face discriminatory government regulations in almost every area of daily life.”
China has its own social cultures, such as “guanxi”, a system of favours, services and obligations between individuals. Nevertheless, as it develops, it has become increasingly a part of the world capitalist system.
For me, the visit to China was both memorable and instructive. Memorable, because of the sights, different culture and helpful, friendly people, whom I met. Instructive in the political sense.
In the West, much of the population has been deceived by mainstream propaganda into mistakenly believing that capitalism can only be accompanied by “political democracy”. Nothing could be further from the truth. During the Industrial Revolution, when capitalism developed in Britain and parts of western Europe, for a long time the right to vote was completely absent for the large majority of people, and trade unions were threatened by governments and employers. Privatised capitalism has co-existed and does co-exist quite comfortably, with authoritarian regimes in South America and Africa, as well as with past dictatorships in Europe, such as those of General Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. The state controlled version of capitalism emerged in the Soviet Russia and later in China. Now, Russia and China persist with authoritarian regimes, with which a more privatised version of capitalism has made a convenient accommodation.
Certainly, China never was even remotely “socialist” or “communist” in 1949 or afterwards.