Meiyouren Yuedu Pinglun
(Nobody Reads the Comments)
“SINCE 1978 China has liberated more people from poverty than any other country in history, partly because China before 1978 consigned more people to poverty than anywhere else in history.” Thus The Economist in December 2011.
In point of fact, China’s GDP was about the same as India’s in 1978, and its recent history had been just as troubled. But of course you would never get the thinking man’s freedom tract, the liberty-or-death bannerman of the WH Smith shelves, blaming democracy for India’s postwar backwardness. That would be heresy. No, instead blame caste, bad planning, the British Empire, the bickering multicultural population (whoops, scratch that), bad luck, or whatever. Anything but India’s short-termist, divisive and ineffectual vote-buying model of liberal democracy, the biggest sacred cow of them all.
But in China, poverty was Mao’s fault. End of. Likewise, the western media constantly bash China over Xinjiang, Tibet and its treatment of dissidents (with good reason, I think). But what about Kashmir, where the Indian army is accused of torture and mass killings over decades, or dalit discrimination, which dehumanises some 100 million Indians? Tens of millions of people condemned to toilet cleaning and garbage disposal, locked out of all chance of social advancement. I know it’s getting better. But that is still what I call a deep-rooted human rights problem. What do the tabloids have to say about it? Pretty much zip.
Nor will you find in their reporting on China any real understanding of why China’s GDP is today five times that of India, and its GDP per capita at least three times higher. Because in the western MSM, you are not really allowed to say aloud that China’s system works, and has made hundreds of millions of people richer, healthier and happier.
Well, I will. I will say it because it is true. China is a country I know well, a country I have sojourned in several times between the 1980s and the present. I have seen the whole story, excerpt-wise, from the Tiananmen uprising to the Belt and Road initiative. I find it incredible that there are still people claiming that China is a house of cards, that it is somehow “fake growth,” that the stats are all cooked, and that communist regimes are simply not capable of delivering prosperity. That when the crud hits the fan, China will collapse and revert to circa 1991. Sorry, but this is a bunch of crap.
Now, I am emphatically not a socialist. I think its success is mainly down to a driven national culture rather than politics (otherwise North Korea and Vietnam would be economic Wunderkinder as well). But China’s growth and wealth are all too real. If anything, I suspect they are understated, partly because services are underpriced in international rankings. (A Beijing barber doing you, say, a purple-dyed mullet will charge one-twentieth what a Copenhagen barber will charge for the same, skilled, service; replicate that distortion across the economy and you see there is a major econometric issue here). But I will leave that to the statisticians. It doesn’t really matter.
Because you only have to spend a week in China — in fact, just ride an overground metro through a suburb, any suburb — to understand. No matter what happens to the economy, the tower blocks and mounted highways are not going to fall down. (Really. China’s big-ticket builds actually have a good safety record overall — there have been few man-made disasters since 1978. Different story at the bottom end of the market, though). Anyway, to save itself after Tiananmen, the CPC bet the shop on infrastructure, at risk of creating massive temporary overcapacity. Their expiation-through-growth gamble worked. Yes, there are “ghost” towns. Some will fail, for sure. But overall they are slowly filling up. With hundreds of millions of rural people still moving into the cities, it is inevitable over time.
I’m not going to bore you with then-and-now stats to prove my point. I will just give it one anecdote. When I was a teacher there, in the late 1980s, I once tried to win over a class I was having difficulty with by inviting them on a bike ride. I told them we would do a local circuit, followed by snacks at a café. The invite was received with sullen silence. I repeated it, to the same reaction, and then dropped it. I felt pretty bad trudging back to my dormitory after the lesson. But on the way, one of the students stopped me.
He said the reason why the students had cold-shouldered me was that only two of them, out of three dozen, actually owned bikes. The others could not afford them. And these were elite kids, the cream of a province of 70 million people. I had embarrassed the whole class and publicly displayed my ignorance of the living conditions of people I was living among. Fast forward thirty years, and many students now own cars. All own mobile phones, and dress well. Though they still have to share crowded dormitory rooms, they live otherwise much as western students do (except that they actually study and don’t spend half their evenings pissed).
The problem with defending China is that most of the criticisms contain truth. Despite the above, it is still chaotic, it is dirty, it is tyrannical, many people are rude and money-obsessed, they do cheat westerners a lot, the bureaucracy is corrupt and awful to deal with, and they do treat animals horribly. But two points: things were incomparably worse 30 years ago, and there is also a hell of a lot good happening in China which gets no press at all.
Not just the mind-boggling infrastructure. There is the introduction of mental healthcare, which simply did not exist when I stayed there first — the loons lived pathetically in the street and scrabbled for food scraps. I know that because I saw it. And the slow rollout of de facto universal healthcare, which is freeing hundreds of millions of people from the fear of losing their savings because granny fell downstairs and did herself a nasty. When did you last read about that?
Probably never, because the western media simply don’t want to report good news from China. Instead, you get centre-page spreads about infanticide, such as the one a British tabloid ran in the 2000s which extrapolated a nationwide baby-murdering scourge from a single case culled from a Chinese provincial paper, which, I bet, none of their editors could even hold the right way up.
That pretty much sums up reporting of China. Find something bad, splash it, and use it to tar the whole nation. When the Chinese moan about western bias and lies, they have a point. Worse, the one-sided dishonesty of western reporting of China seriously undermines its coverage of the many bad things that China genuinely needs to be prodded over.
Before I sidetracked myself with the above musings, I had intended in this article to just give an idea of what Chinese people themselves think about these things. I will do that in the next part.
© Joe Slater 2019