Thursday, January 18, 2007

What is it about China that brings out the worst in left-wing commentators?

First, Stiglitz wrote what, I think, stands as the most idiotic article written by an occasionally serious academic and now Will Hutton brings us this analysis of the work of Mao. Most of the errors come from assuming that, had Mao not made it to the top, the Chinese would have spent the second half of the twentieth century twiddling their thumbs and waiting in vain for their socialist saviour to arrive. Only a cursory glance around the rest of East Asia today or China before and after Mao is needed to see that this would probably have not been the case.

"In the first place, there is context. Life in the China of the first half of the 20th century was cheap, as writer Lu Xun wrote after witnessing the nationalists clinically murder students in Shanghai in 1926. After the imperial throne fell on New Year's Day 1912, China imploded into territories dominated by warlords over whom the nationalist government never established proper dominion."

After millenia of royal power under the absolute system established by the first emperor to expect a clean transition would be optimistic but there are degrees of autocracy. The Kuomintang were not pleasant people but they were at the relatively human end of unpleasant autocrats and not in the same league as the big three mass murderers of the twentieth century that Mao forms a particularly lethal third of.

"China was in economic stasis. The Confucian gentry - mandarin officials, landlords and merchants - had so effectively delivered the stability that hundreds of millions of peasants craved, that together they became an obstacle to vitally needed change. The peasants were wedded to obsolete farming techniques on tiny plots; the Confucian gentry were wedded to a system that allowed them to become absentee landlords for around half of China. They continued to run the country at the behest of the warlords, still genuflecting before Confucian maxims that were now hopelessly outdated. Japan's invasion in 1931 could not be effectively opposed.

There was a craving for a decisive rupture with all that had produced this. Radical egalitarianism, a kind of transformed Confucianism, seemed the only way to respond. The Confucian mandarinate had to be broken. The land had to be taken off absentee landlords. Savings had to be mobilised in a collective effort to create a modern industrial base. There seemed no other viable prospectus."

This is just untrue. The Chinese economy grew at 13-14% in the 30s; faster even than it is today and far, far faster than under Mao's leadership. There was also significant progress in political reform with China holding its first and, so far, last elections, albeit only for local positions.

"Mao gave vent to this ambition. The negative side of the Maoist balance sheet is well-known: mass murder, famine, injustice, and economic waste. But there are less well-known positives. Industrial output climbed 13-fold, albeit from a tiny base. The rail network doubled. Half of Chinese land became irrigated. There was a dramatic lowering of illiteracy. Near universal healthcare was established. Life expectancy rose; and despite Mao's appetite for imperial-style concubines, women were given the same right to petition for divorce and education as men. Their position was transformed."

When you can see faster industrial growth before and after Mao why are we giving him such credit for the fact that China did manage some growth during under his leadership? For the rail network to double is similarly unimpressive. Britain's rail network doubled in a matter of years rather than decades without state involvement during our Industrial Revolution. I don't know much about irrigation but I would guess that is a similar story.

To claim falls in illiteracy as a Maoist achievement is pretty bold. As this article by Jasper Becker for the South China Morning Post describes significantly more was spent by Chiang Kai Shek, during a civil war, on education than by Mao during peacetime.

Healthcare under Mao was shockingly bad. While it may have been universal it was largely run by amateurs with neither proper equipment or training. It may have done as much harm as good.

As for women's rights. Movement on this, the abolition of footbinding for example, had begun in the last imperial years and, if one looks at the rest of Asia, there seems little reason to think that, without Mao, this process would not have continued.

"And if Mao created an economy that while desperate for reform at least existed to be reformed - a statement that could not be made in the hyperinflation of 1949 when the Communists took over - he also bequeathed an ideological legacy that would permit reform. The Maoist communist concept of the so-called mass line meant that ideology and policy would emerge from respecting local differences and conditions. As a result, state planning and collectivisation of agriculture could be reversed more quickly in China than in the Soviet Union, under the guise of respecting local autonomy and creating local responsibility. Deng Xiaoping, the mastermind of the reform programme, was punctilious in describing the first phase of market-led reforms and decollectivisation in these Maoist terms."

Hyperinflation just before a revolution? Remarkable. Is this, perhaps, not entirely independent of the popular knowledge that Mao was likely to come to power?

The idea that Maoism was particularly tolerant of local differences is truly staggering. Go to Tibet where the insistence that the proscribed high agriculture was the only path to prosperity wrecked its environment and starved its population. The Mao personality cult was an attempt to ensure that even differences between individuals were subsumed as far as possible in a collective never mind broader regional or cultural differences.

"Few western critics today appreciate the scale of the task confronting any moderniser of China in 1949. Western economies created the surpluses to finance industrialisation through incredible exploitation - of their own working class, and in the US via slavery. It was never likely that China could achieve self-sustaining economic growth without great collective pain to achieve its own surpluses, or that this could be done without the involvement of the state. Spontaneous market-led industrialisation is a myth."

During the Industrial Revolution British living standards, at the absolute low end of mainstream analysis, stagnated. This despite a population rising at the sort of rate which should have created awful Malthusian pressure. The working classes did just fine. US capital for industrialisation came largely from a combination of international borrowing, huge investment from the UK, and the transfer of savings within the North.

If you don't buy my analysis of Western industrialisation just ask yourself this question. Why, of all the East Asian countries, did China need to starve millions to death in order to obtain a surplus? Why was this not necessary in Taiwan (the closest to a "if Mao had never lived" case for China), Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong? Also, if hurting the poor is what allows rapid growth why did China grow more slowly than these countries which didn't starve their people to death?

"This is certainly how Mao saw the task, with egalitarianism and collectivism the means. The German sociologist Max Weber, in a famous essay, argued that statesmen facing these kinds of challenges - of winning a war or of master-minding economic development - have to be judged by different moral criteria. Their decisions are means to achieve this ultimate end, and their choices have to be judged by this criteria rather than their inherent moral worth. Truman, for example, justified dropping the atom bomb on the Japanese because of the value of the ultimate end. Mao would justify his radical egalitarianism in the same way. We know that he was wrong. He, authentically and passionately, did not."

Even under this criteria Mao is a failure. His objective was that China should become economically and, most importantly, militarily powerful in order to be able to confront the West. Thanks to the failure of his economic policies China, at the end of his rule, was far less able to stand up to the West than it might have been had it managed an economic performance even close to that seen in the rest of Asia.

"The condemnation of Mao that convinces the majority of Chinese they need to change has to be more subtle than simply joining, say, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their book on Mao and seeing him as unrelievedly evil. Most Chinese are never likely to accept the verdict, not least because it is only a partial version of the truth. The better course is to build on Deng's description of Mao's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution as China's " treasure", because they proved that radical egalitarianism was wrong."

This is just as absurd. Why exactly, for China, but not for the rest of humanity, were the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution necessary to make the case for liberal democracy? Giving Mao credit for his actions being so shocklingly awful that people then chose a different path is like crediting Hitler with modern German liberal democracy.

"But the lesson Deng drew - that the party can remain in Leninist control of a market economy that needs no democratic institutions -was as wrong as Mao's. Today's China is in many ways going back. The healthcare that covered nearly all of rural China under Mao now covers just 5%. China spends less on education than other developing countries. Inequality is high. The country is sliding down international indices for good governance, corruption and business competitiveness. To return to Mao's solution to these issues would be wrong and immoral; but neither can China continue as it is. The best option is to embrace democratic institutions - and the path to doing that is not to repudiate Mao but to see him for what he was. Wrong and cruel, but part of China's groping to find a way to cross the river."

What? How on Earth is a more positive view of one of the most illiberal tyrants of the twentieth century the path to a greater respect for liberalism?

Also, Deng while wrong was not nearly as wrong as Mao. There are degrees of wrong and the wrong that kills millions of the people you are supposed to lead is the greater.

I continue to be amazed by the extent to which left wing academics are willing to attempt the most incredible intellectual acrobatics to cover for the Chinese Communist party's enormous abuse of its own people. Hutton defends Mao, Stiglitz eulogises the modern leadership. Instead of advocating that China continue to grope towards liberal democracy Hutton should note that the best solution, at every stage of the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries was, and is, to open its eyes, look at the success stories all around it and learn some lessons.


Dave Cole said...

The pull-out quote in the paper version - industrial production rose 13-fold under Mao - made me suspicious of the article from the beginning. It's pretty easy to increase your output 13-fold when you have a military dicatorship and are starting from such a low base.


Bishop Hill said...

"I don't know much about irrigation but I would guess that is a similar story."

I had always assumed that the cultivation of rice was impossible without irrigation.

Susan's Husband said...

I think should also note, vis the claim that American industristialization was funded by slave labor, that it was the non-slave holding North that industrialized and the slave holding South that remained agriculturally based.