China: The State of the Revolution

excerpted from the book


The Costs and Consequences of American Empire

by Chalmers Johnson

Henry Holt, 2000

The friendly relations the United States enjoyed with China during the last eighteen years of the Cold War era, following the historic Nixon-Kissinger realignment, were based on a common opposition to the USSR. The collapse of the Soviet Union therefore ended China's main usefulness to the United States as an ally, while enhancing its new status as a possible long-term rival to American hegemony. In the wake of the Cold War, with the Pentagon intent on maintaining near Cold War levels of military spending, enemies on the global horizon were much needed. With the Soviet army increasingly seen as a disintegrating "paper tiger," China's economic emergence as a major power in the Pacific offered one possible fit with the Pentagon's need for a major enemy.


U.S. policy toward China, whatever the disagreements about it' within the government, is driven by a familiar global agenda aimed at preserving and enhancing a Washington-centered world based on our being the "lone superpower." Whether it is called "globalization," the "Washington consensus," "soft power," or the "indispensable nation," it still comes down to an urge to hold on to an American-inspired, -financed, and -led world order. Whereas such hegemonism vis-a vis Germany, Japan, Latin America, Russia, or the United Nations is only likely to result in imperial overstretch and the probable long-term decline of the United States, attempts to establish American hegemony over China hold out more explosive futures and are in any case doomed to failure.


Ever since the industrial revolution, the cardinal source of friction in world politics has been the economic inequality it produced. This inequality allowed the first industrializers to use their new power to colonize or in other ways subjugate and exploit the non-industrialized areas of the world. Nationalistically awakened elites among these subjugated peoples then sought in various ways to overcome their relative backwardness, to equalize relations with or achieve supremacy over their victimizers.

But how can peripheral societies, even when they achieve national independence, break out of their economic and political dependency? In the view of the prominent political scientist Andrew Janos, history offers examples of two grand strategies for dealing with this issue. The first was for dependent or "late-developing" countries to attempt through war and revolution to reconstruct their environments. This strategy required a militarization of society and the use of a mobilized people to attack and transform the environment. The execution of this strategy has taken the forms of aggression and conquest (Nazi Germany, Japan from 1931 to 1945), support for world revolution (Lenin's and Stalin's Russia), fomenting "people's wars" (China and Cuba), aggressive neutralism (India), and other projects aimed at altering an environment in which "advanced" countries exploit "developing" ones.

The second strategy has been, in Janos's words, a "drive to imitate the technological innovations of the advanced countries." This strategy has generally been internally oriented. It is best illustrated by Japan's state-guided industrialization from 1868 to approximately the Great Depression and again from 1949 to the present. It may involve only the state's use of tariffs to shelter its own economy from the penetrative power of stronger national economies. This was the strategy of the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in accordance with the ideas of Alexander Hamilton and Friedrich List. A version of this strategy also became policy in West Germany after its defeat in World War 11. But such a strategy involving state guidance of the economy, cartelization, and the strategic allocation of industrial finance may so come to dominate a social system that development itself becomes the main legitimating and organizing principle of society, replacing or displacing democratic representation, tradition, or any other set of political or cultural principles. When that happens, the ensuing regime can be termed a "developmental state."

Needless to say, in comparing the ways each strategy has been used during the twentieth century, it seems clear that the developmental state has proven far more successful than any attempt to forcibly reconstruct the external world, although it is a tricky strategy to execute and has many hidden consequences. It is critically dependent on a permissive international environment, such as the one the United States enjoyed in the nineteenth century or Japan vis-a-vis the United States after 1952.

These two strategies also define the history of the People's Republic of China since its birth in 1949. From the time Mao discovered that it would not be easy to duplicate a Stalinist program of development in China-that is, when he discovered that his Great Leap Forward campaign to move the country toward heavy industrialization through extreme levels of collectivization had by 1962 resulted in the deaths by starvation of some thirty million people-he experimented with altering the external environment on the cheap. He tried to militarize (he called it "revolutionize") his own society and to reconstruct the external world by sponsoring or endorsing "people's wars." Even though in Vietnam this approach succeeded in tarnishing the image of the United States as a superpower, it did not really alter the balance of power, and the Vietnamese soon resented Mao's claims of paternity to a strategy they had embarked on without Chinese help. Mao's massive domestic upheaval, the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," which started in 1966 and lasted in one form or another almost a decade, was his revenge against the Communist Party after he lost control of it in the wake of the Great Leap Forward. It further discredited him, and communism, in the eyes of his main supporters; after his death in 1916 and the return to power of the purged Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the country devoted itself to reform and recovery from the Cultural Revolution. China began, in short, to experiment with the second strategy for breaking out of its backwardness.

By the end of the 1980s, China had begun seriously to incorporate the lessons of high-speed economic growth pioneered in American-dominated East Asia. Its still ruling Communist Party also began tacitly to stress nationalism rather than communism, which was then collapsing in Russia, to garner political support. On the basis of this new nationalism, China began to reach out and accept investment and other forms of assistance from the fifty-five million overseas Chinese, particularly those living in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. It also slowly opened the country to foreign trade and investment with capitalist countries, so long as the terms were mutually beneficial. This strategy held the possibility of ultimately delivering on the second goal of the Chinese revolution- namely, the creation of a per capita income approaching that of the other major powers. Since China is by far the world's largest society in terms of population, if it succeeds it may also become the world's most powerful nation.

China's attempt to emulate the economies of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore is, however, fraught with difficulties, above all how to control the increasing gap between rich and poor in a previously Communist country. In terms of relations with the rest of the world, China's products will never enjoy the virtually unrestricted access to the American market and its sources of technology that Japan and others enjoyed in exchange for their support during the Cold War. This was made clear during 1999 when the United States was caught up in a politically driven panic over allegations of Chinese industrial espionage and imports of technologically advanced equipment for purposes of reverse engineering. On the other hand, China has one major asset not available to most developing nations: the overseas Chinese. This reservoir of talent, capital, and experience is open to a China that stresses nationalism rather than communism. China has so far been very cautious in lifting currency controls and import barriers that protect it from the full pressures and volatility of the international market, a precaution that served it well during the East Asian financial crisis of 1997 and after. China has no choice but to continue to open up to international trade; its development strategy will not work if, as in the Maoist days, it once again isolates itself from the rest of the world. At least for now, however, the news from China is reasonably positive. The peaceful reversion of Hong Kong to mainland rule in 1997 and its maintenance as a global financial center were a clear sign of China's determination and its capacity to succeed economically.

Throughout much of recorded history China was the world's largest economy. Today, as it reemerges on the world scene, the World Bank estimates that it has already passed Germany to become the world's third-largest economy, after the United States and Japan, as well as the fastest-growing economy. The Chinese State Statistical Bureau has calculated that during 1995 it grew by some 10.2 percent, down from the 11.8 percent increase of 1994 but still above the govemment's target growth rate of between 9 percent and 10 percent. The global economic crisis that began in 1997 has slowed but certainly not stopped growth. Even if in the future China grows at only 7 percent a year, it will surpass a U.S. economy growing at a 3 percent rate sometime between 2020 and 2030. Needless to say, extending present trends statistically into the future is a deeply perilous activity. It is perfectly possible that environmental degradation, or natural disasters, or a downward spiral into depression and poverty due to fast and messy industrial modernization will cause pressures of a sort we cannot even imagine today and sooner than we think. But thus far, China has a better development strategy than any it has experimented with since 1949.

Since economic reform began in 1978, China's annual average per capita income has risen 6.7 times but still remains unimaginably small: $464 in China's cities and $186.75 in rural areas, according to 1995 official estimates (but perhaps as much as $2,000 per capita in terms of purchasing power, given the low prices of basic human necessities). By contrast, Japan's per capita income in 1993 was $31,450 and that of the United States $24,750. China's labor costs are still just 10 to 15 percent of those in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea but on a par with those in India.

The Chinese Communist Party, the world's largest political organization, no longer has much legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people. Although it came to power in 1949 as the leader of the largest and most complex revolution of all, it squandered its great popularity: in rural China because of the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward; among hard-core Communist revolutionaries because of the Cultural Revolution; and, finally, among urban intellectuals and a burgeoning middle class because of the repression at Tienanmen Square in 1989 and the nearly simultaneous collapse of communism in Europe.

The Chinese Communist Party continues to rule through a combination of inertia, improving economic conditions, favorable comparisons with the past, nationalism, and a complex set of inducements and penalties. There is every reason to believe that it will be able to do so for the foreseeable future, despite occasional periods of instability. Taiwan, whose government comes from a similar background (single-party rule by Sun Yat-sen's political party, the Kuomintang, which Chiang Kaishek inherited), offers strong evidence that the mainland could also slowly evolve into a prosperous, relatively open society. Pressure for democratization will probably become a serious internal issue, if it ever does, only around the year 2010, when some 30 percent of the mainland population might have reached a per capita income of about $4,000. Until then, the bulk of the Chinese population will probably remain content with economic progress, better health care, and other practical concerns.

From the Politburo down, most Chinese now believe in pursuing economic reforms, even if different groups support the reform process for different reasons. There is also something of a consensus on the necessity of maintaining a powerful, independent political authority to implement such reforms. The Chinese leaders are firmly convinced that authoritarian rule is indispensable to the success of their market-driven policies, and there is evidence that the Chinese population accepts this view because of the economic achievements of recent years. In this view, without authoritarian political control, economic reform will rapidly breed new economic interests and corruption, already a serious problem. Long-term success requires some authority capable of occasionally cracking down on corruption, complete with public executions as warnings to others. The more corrupt interests become entrenched, the more resentment against them is likely to generate a cycle of political protest, followed by economic instability. Always before the Chinese leadership is the example of the virtual collapse of the former Soviet Union and the resulting impoverishment of large sectors of the Russian population when authoritarianism was allowed to lapse and the economy was "reformed" in accordance with the theories of American economists. ,

In general terms, the greatest weakness of the development-state strategy is that it both causes and can be crippled by domestic political turmoil. In the other East Asian economic success stories, turmoil has been kept in check by authoritarian political systems of various sorts, the reasonably equitable distribution of incomes, and the promotion of distinctive "Asian values" focused on condemning the alleged selfishness of Western individualism and sometimes of Western democratic institutions as well. Asian leaders have often argued that democracy undercuts development. Lee Kuan Yew, the legendary first prime minister of the rich city-state of Singapore and a persistent critic of U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia, is the most articulate exponent of this view. As Lee has put it, "With few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries. Democracy has not led to development because the governments did not establish [the] stability and discipline necessary for development." It should be noted that in the l990s, Singapore, which may not be as pleasant a place for an individualist to live, nonetheless has had a higher per capita income ($23,565) than Australia ($19,960), something that lends a certain credibility in Asian eyes to what its leader has had to say.

All of the Asian capitalist developmental states have been characterized by what I call "soft authoritarian" governments. Democracy- understood as a political system in which the force of public opinion makes a difference, a balance of powers exists within the government (what Americans call the "separation of powers"), and free elections can actually remove unsatisfactory officials-exists only partially in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, thanks to the pervasive, potent influence of unelected bureaucrats. In none of the three has an independent judiciary or the rule of law ever fully developed. In South Korea and Taiwan, movements for democratic reform have in recent years finally succeeded in bringing formerly "hard" authoritarian governments under more popular controls. In Japan, public opinion exerts a powerful influence over the government, but mainly through informal and traditional channels rather than the formal institutions of parliament and the courts.

If the government of Japan and its emulator states-South Korea, Taiwan, and even Singapore-can be characterized as soft authoritarian, at least during their decades of high-speed economic growth, then China may be an example of "soft totalitarianism," on a par with governments like Suharto's in Indonesia or Chiang Kai-shek's in Taiwan, and considerably softer than the truly totalitarian worlds of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

A soft totalitarian regime directly restricts freedoms of speech and the press, thereby curbing the effect of public opinion on the government. Under soft authoritarianism (as in Japan, for example), such freedoms exist on paper but are attenuated in part by cartelization of the news media-press clubs in Japan can impose collective or individual penalties on journalists who report news that irritates the state-and also by narrow channels of access to advertising, state-owned broadcasting, and state licensing of school textbooks. The public is better informed in soft authoritarian countries because there are always ways around press clubs and cartels, but public opinion remains only a mild constraint on the government. Whereas a soft totalitarian state will employ direct suppression of offending books, imprisonment of authors, state control of Internet servers, and dismissal or imprisonment of dissidents, soft authoritarianism achieves its ends through peer pressure, bullying, fear of ostracism, giving priority to group norms, and eliciting conformity through social sanctions of various kinds. Under both types of regimes, elections are usually to one degree or another only formalities, behind which permanent state officialdoms actually govern.

Such educational achievements-close to 40 percent of Taiwanese aged eighteen to twenty-one are enrolled in institutions of higher learning-are almost unimaginable on the mainland. China, with a total population of 1.2 billion, has the staggeringly low total of about 7 million college graduates to help run a massive and massively modernizing economy and society.

The real economic model for mainland China, although never mentioned for all the obvious reasons, is undoubtedly neither Japan nor South Korea but Taiwan, where the state and the ruling Nationalist Party own outright or directly control about 50 percent of all corporate assets and account for close to 30 percent of Taiwan's, gross national product. Numerous and successful state-owned enterprises are the single most striking feature of Taiwan's economic landscape.

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