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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.3 (Summer 2016)
Politics & Culture
The Corporatist PRC: Capitalism’s Planet-Devouring Silkworm
Communism in China has always been a pretext for the continuation of imperial governance; but today’s corporatist PRC has learned to solidify its domination by borrowing tactics from an increasingly decadent and corrupt West.
The notes for this monograph were begun in mid-January, shortly after the Taiwanese elected their first-ever female president, Tsai Ing-Wen. The very next day after the election, a virtual decree was delivered by Beijing: the new head of state was to reaffirm Taiwan’s membership in a single Chinese nation and its subservience to the will of the mainland Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The terms of this warning (for it was nothing less) were not exactly as represented here, but words were not minced in making them palatable or diplomatic.
Despite their reputation, based mostly in popular cliché and stereotype, for being very subtle negotiators (a virtue lately extolled in them by Henry Kissinger),1 the PRC’s ruling aristocrats rarely show signs of chessplayer-like statecraft these days. They have stepped up their bullying of Japan over the mineral-rich Senkaku Islands, and conflicts with fellow nuclear powers India and the United States over air space and sea lanes date back to the mid-twentieth century without any current indications of settling down. The Philippines and Malaysia have also long been subject to China’s saber-rattling aggression over the Spratly Islands.2 There is disagreement among level-headed observers over whether North Korea’s government could readily be called to heel by Beijing, but significant resistance to Kim Jong Un’s disquieting activities from that quarter would obviously calm him down. Instead, this tinpot tyrant is given a long leash to toy with nuclear and missile technology. A cynic might well wonder if the dog’s handler is allowing him to bark viciously as a distraction from the handler’s own undertakings. (This is apparently the kind of stage-management that Kissinger had in mind when praising China’s clever maneuvers.)
It should be clear to anyone who refuses to dwell in fantasy that the CCP desires world dominion at least as much as radical Islamists desire a caliphate. Communist evangelism is by no means a thing of the past. All that remains to determine is what kind of dominion the Party envisions (obviously not a pure Marxist kind), and at what cost. The nation’s immense military build-up may be intended as a stick to wave closely over the world community’s head as globalist commercial activity provides the carrot. Then again, with the CCP at the helm, one can scarcely be confident that a tidy little war against Japan would not be waged just to make a point, especially with the US having lost so much prestige and credibility internationally over the past decade.
Those who are old enough to recall the Cold War will concede that it grew very warm in Korea and Vietnam. This was primarily China’s doing, and that fact should not be buried in revisionist history. Though the sins of Western colonialism in these areas were not negligible, it was the West that lifted from the oppressed the infinitely more brutal burden of Japanese imperialism; and the Western investment in colonial exploitation collided impactfully with public conscience and economic obstacles after World War II, at any rate. (Witness Britain’s hasty withdrawal from India and Britain and France’s slightly more gradual retreat from Africa and the Middle East.) The Chinese Communist intrusion into Southeast Asian spheres of European colonialism was far more counter-imperialist than anti-imperialist. The tally of mass murders committed in local populations to prop up new China-friendly regimes was exponentially greater than the sum of dissidents executed under a century of European colonial administrations.
It seems apparent, as well, that communism alone is not the culprit for these incredibly sanguinary chapters of twentieth-century history. Both China and the Soviet Union encountered resistance from pockets of local traditionalism in stabilizing their “worker republic” empires, and neither government showed much, if any, concern for what might be called elementary human decency. Nevertheless, the Soviets, under Stalin and his eager lieutenant, Nikita Khrushchev, starved a “mere” 400,000 or so Ukrainians in the decade of the thirties, while Mao’s Great Leap Forward managed to starve about 36 million from 1959 to 1961. Khrushchev’s suppression of the Hungarian insurrection of 1956 left about 2,500 locals dead, and Brezhnev’s of the Czechoslovakian revolt in 1968 claimed 108 casualties. In contrast, the crackdown administered by Mao’s successors in Tiananmen Square in 1989 resulted in untold thousands of deaths (no accurate, reliable count has ever been made available) and at least 10,000 jailed (many of whom were never again seen alive).3 Note that the Chinese side of the ledger in these comparisons tends to involve later dates, shorter time periods, and less actual armament among insurgents, so that one might have hoped that better technology, more public relations pressure, less real threat, and less time to do damage might have left the Chinese looking better than the Soviets. Yet Soviet oppression, brutal though it was in every instance, produced microscopic casualty lists compared to the butcheries of Mao and his apprentice-dictators.
There is no intent here of advancing any racist sort of doctrine. On the contrary, the Chinese who have escaped their homeland’s ruthless regime to resettle in the U.S. have shown themselves to be extraordinarily industrious, conscientious, fair-minded, and zealous after basic human rights (in this author’s experience). Yet at the top of the PRC seems to nestle a culture more beholden to Genghis Khan than Karl Marx in many practical respects.
Though a generation separates the current leadership from Tiananmen Square, furthermore, the CCP has continued to groom its elite from among proven loyalists, usually promoting those more advanced in years in its own variety of conservatism. College students will typically join the Party simply because they know that membership opens doors and enhances chances of success.4 When the good citizens of Hong Kong protested massively for months last year because Beijing insists on screening (i.e., selecting) candidates for major elective offices, the Party machine opted to let the demonstrators swarm the streets until local merchants began to complain… but no political change whatever followed. On this particular occasion, the decision was evidently made (because the whole world was watching, thanks to Hong Kong’s global profile and its abundance of international observers) to handle dissidence with kid gloves instead of a bamboo rod. Of course, the rod may have come later, literally in the dark of night, as when five leading newspapermen disappeared from the city this past January.5
A preponderance of evidence suggests, in short, that Chinese communism is not an ideology. It is an ideological pretext—an intellectual smokescreen—for a modern continuation of imperialistic ambitions that have determined the region’s seesaw history for millennia. China has never fully justified the designation of “nation” at any stage. A dizzying variety of ethnicities, religions, languages, and dialects within languages, it cannot be said even today to include without protest the people of Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, or even Hong Kong on the basis either of clear geographical or of compelling cultural logic. Its boundaries have historically shifted back and forth across the Qin Mountains purely in response to force majeure. Except for the Qinling Range, China has been relatively unprotected by formidable continental barriers and vast oceans (unlike India). It has thus lain open to nomadic raiders from the north and west and ruthless pirates from the east and south for time immemorial. As a paradigm of the peaceful, inward-turned culture that just wants to be left alone, the Chinese heartland is satisfying only in remote, insular pockets, and then usually for no more than a few centuries at a time. China as a forgotten Shangri-La of pagodas and tea ceremonies is a reality only in Western mythology.
The political heirs of Mao sense this, as Mao himself must have. In the West, and especially in the academy, the twentieth century’s most energetic butcher is often represented as having thrown off the foreign oppressor and reclaimed his land for the people who drew their livelihood from her soil. In fact, the Maoist regimen has been very consistent on two points (and perhaps only two): eradicating cultural attachment to the past and driving forward with brutal single-mindedness a Western/high-tech program of prosperity. Marxist rhetoric was a convenient delivery system for selling the masses on the new dynasty’s unspeakable purges and abrogations of basic human rights. (Yet it would be more correct to attribute the ideological marketing campaign to winning over the intelligentsia of Western powers that might otherwise have intruded: the consent of native masses was never courted or needed.) Chinese scholars and teachers were slaughtered in the Cultural Revolution. Religions—some quite traditional, some volatilely charismatic—are still seen (not without reason) as competing with the State for the abject devotion of citizens; believers are often proclaimed outlaws, and if apprehended may serve long prison terms which they never live to complete.6 Independent farmers have been ordered off their land with little or no compensation for decades to make way for dams, highways, factories, and other hallmarks of the modern industrial inferno. Environmentally unique areas are ravaged for their coal or “rare earth elements” (e.g. mercury and cadmium) and often transformed into “cancer villages” where life expectancy is less than thirty years old.7 Water quality is terrifying, and air pollution regularly shows up very distinctly as sinister yellow smudges on satellite photographs of major population centers.8 Bold commentators who editorialize or simply circulate videos regarding these conditions are severely reprimanded, perhaps jailed. The Internet is rigorously controlled.
None of this would indicate to the impartial observer that the CCP has any regard for the ordinary person (though the ideological observer would buy the Leninist argument, perhaps, that eggs have to be broken to make an omelet). It should be clear enough from the Soviet experiment that applied communism infantilizes the man in the streets, dictating to him where both his duty and his personal advantage lie from the “dearest leader’s” superior perspective. Yet the CCP’s model is again somewhat distinct from the Soviet in its utter absence of self-criticism, its utter indifference to the vision’s collateral damage. The Soviets invested heavily in a high-tech arms race because many of the Party bosses fully believed that they might otherwise be victims of a nuclear aggression. The CCP continues to allocate money to arm even at a time when the U.S. is clearly downgrading its conventional military strength.9 Likewise, a dull Soviet leadership pledged itself to fulfilling yearly production quotas (resulting in such needless environmental disasters as the destruction of the Aral Sea) to win a silly public-relations battle with the West. The intent was to demonstrate how communism could take an economy from the Middle Ages to the Space Age while skipping all the intermediate steps. In today’s China, the CCP’s agenda has gone well beyond playing catch-up. Bullet-trains, mile-high “mini-city” skyscrapers, digital technology, artificial intelligence, alternative energy sources, and other projects are being pursued all at once. The State (through publicly owned and controlled banks, for the most part) is underwriting massive corporate endeavors in these cutting-edge areas with no apparent concern for social or environmental (or even long-term economic) risks. Stunning technological achievements are seeing daylight even as thoughtful misgivings are being suppressed and genuine safety issues ignored.
Thus a highly ironic picture emerges of a China whose susceptibility to the very worst excesses of runaway capitalism surpasses anything seen in the West since the days of the robber barons. The CCP does not stand in the way of unprincipled monopolies: it arranges and co-owns them. It does not seek to combat the bribery and corruption that create safety and environmental issues from short-cuts: it facilitates unholy pacts between producers and regulators. It does not allow the marketplace to determine by plebiscite a product’s development or measure a new ultra-modern residential complex’s appeal: it channels money into the latest oil/steel/electricity-guzzling project and leaves the rural class to become urban helots or starve.
Everything that people of conscience now fear about the heedless generating and selling of advanced technology in the West is coming to maturity on steroids in the PRC. The full cast of unbridled capitalism’s stock villains—marketplace manipulation, unethical courtship of government patronage, suppression of workers’ wages and rights, intimidation of individuals and small communities that pose minor obstacles, promotion of crude pop-culture, nourishment of mass cynicism and escapism, celebration of materialist values, and carpe diem abuse of the natural environment—is visible in today’s China as it has never been visible anywhere else in human history.10
The notes referred to at this article’s opening originally outlined a paper that would end about here, and would warn against trusting the People’s Republic of China any more than absolutely necessary. That warning is still valid, but tailoring it to yield specific recommendations proves much harder. Here follow some of the ideas (the foolhardy along with the more promising) that occurred to this auther and to others consulted:
1) Assess the total amount of profit China has enjoyed from stealing America’s intellectual property; take a round, low estimate that could not excite any reasonable disagreement and then subtract this amount from our national debt to China.
2) Proceed instantly to start paying off our debt to China while cutting back severely on expatriate industrial activity (outsourcing) in the PRC.
3) Severely restrict and enforce the kind and degree of economic collaboration taking place between the US and the PRC. Our doing business with China has been the primary means by which our cutting-edge technologies have been stolen. Prosecute those who violate these laws, filing charges of treason when justified.
4) Rebuild of our manufacturing base here at home, especially the steel industry and related industries necessary for producing armaments. This is a matter of the utmost importance to national security.
5) Allow China to expand her sphere of influence in Southeast Asia without seeking confrontation. We can and should favor Japan, Australia, India, and other peaceful nations seeking our support with special trading privileges and perahsp technological assistance. At the same time, we should not pledge ourselves to entering World War III over the colonization of the Senkakus, or even the invasion of Taiwan.
6) Patch up our differences with Russia. The USSR’s alliance with the PRC was always wobbly, and today’s Russia is drawn into the Chinese orbit only by its economic and social crises—not by any conviction based on principle. The new Russia is in fact far more conservative than the European Union in many cultural and moral respects. We should not be allowing the EU’s inept, elitist leadership to exploit us as a military force over issues of regional sovereignty.
7) Vigorously continue to pursue technological superiority over China, especially in strategic matters. We owe it to the world as well as ourselves to be able to short-circuit (perhaps in a literal sense) any initiation of mass-destructive aggression that the PRC’s temperamental leadership may choose if pushed to the point where they find their privileges in jeopardy. We should meet such crises with jamming, infecting, and sabotaging rather than with nuclear exchanges that will leave the world uninhabitable for most forms of biological life; and we should never forget that factions within the CCP are as capable of inaugurating Armageddon as the enfant terrible Kim Jong Un.
8) Model for the world new ways of creating a high-tech economy which do not involve dense urbanization (with its degradation of the natural environment) and a path to democracy which does not depend upon a piratical capitalism (such as compromised the experiment in freedom after the USSR’s dissolution). Reject the PRC’s “Nimrod model” of building a mile into the sky, and reinvent human-scaled villages that blend with their natural setting.
As the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump has unfolded, tough talk against the PRC has become so fashionable that one now begins to step back and consider the likely consequences of actions urged by the talk. The first three very trenchant suggestions above would probably prove anything but helpful. Propaganda notwithstanding, China is facing her own array of looming economic catastrophes. Uprooted rural populations pouring into cities in search of work cannot afford the cost of living there created by the emergent middle class, the amount of arable land is insufficient and shrinking due to madly expanding industrial ventures, the metal and fuel necessary to prop up such expansion are in desperately short supply, mega-projects funded by government banks cannot begin to pay for themselves, and so on. China is more than a boastful, saber-rattling warrior; it is increasingly a starving tiger whose only food source is human beings. Provocations must be weighed with extreme care. A tiger faced with a slow, agonizing death will probably prefer to run the risk of a few bullets to taste blood.
Leading by example (Number Eight) is certainly appealing; but here we run up against a second important lesson to learn from “red capitalism”. Once again, this lesson appears nowhere close to being learned by most North American politicians, pundits, or electors as the big talk of an election year gets bigger and louder. It is that yesteryear’s Cold War polarization of communism and capitalism serves no useful purpose any longer. If the PRC is our enemy, it is mostly so in how much it has come to resemble our own worst characteristics; and we, at the same time, veer toward statism at an accelerating rate. As the tiger prowls, the great white hunter is oddly starting to grow stripes and long teeth.
To put it bluntly, capitalism and communism have both gone whoring in the other’s brothels, and are now as cute a pair as the devil and his wife. The successful capitalist’s greed knows no bounds, and so he is quite willing to have the State make laws that would have strangled his own venture in its infancy—but that now strangle his competition. (Example: many mega-corporations in the US donate generously to candidates that advocate raising the minimum wage.) State officials, in turn, are very happy to have at their back investment bankers (like Warren Bufffett), pioneer technologists shoring up their spot on top of the heap (like Bill Gates or Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin), and industrial capitalists (whose names hide from public view on lists of shareholders, like those who hold a controlling interest in Lockheed Martin). Such patrons are capable of giving solid form to political daydreams of conquest. (Where would Hitler have been without Daimler, Porsche, and Messerschmitt?)
In the pastoral setting of a primarily agrarian society, it is true that small entrepreneurs participate in fertile competition. Until the State moves in with its onerous tax burdens and “quality control” shakedowns (when bribery and conspiracy inevitably begin to mushroom), small shops on Main Street and spinning wheels in cottages do a handsome business. Jonah Goldberg has stressed that free enterprise, not capitalism, is the proper term for such empowerment of ordinary people. The problem, as he highlights, comes when resources must be found to curry favor with the political machine, for “most businesses are like beehives. If government doesn’t bother them, they don’t bother government. If government meddles with business, the bees swarm Washington”11—or, of course, wherever the society’s political nerve center is to be found. The activity of a truly free marketplace is characterized by the absence of crushing regulation, not the presence of enormous, game-changing investments, requisitions, and strictures fashioned by corrupt lawmakers.
Even today, interestingly, China appears to be fueling a diehard free-enterprise spirit off the grid (in remote areas) and under the radar (as black-market activity). The CCP is also having to concede in some instances that freedom is simply a more efficient means of achieving results. Fenby observes that “the economic revolution of the 1980s involved a high degree of decentralization under which provinces and individuals were left to get on with the job so long as they delivered growth.”12 China’s parochial past is a snake of many heads (to recast the image of Fenby’s title). Even Mao’s tens of millions of executions have not stilled its writhing. Ordinary Chinese want self-determination, despite a history littered with emperors.
Are we of the West still the ones to give it to them or model it for them? When and if the tiny Chinese entrepreneur ceases to operate from a stall or a cramped store front, it will be because the equivalent of Wal-Mart, General Electric, and Time-Warner have shut him down, not because some local cop with a night stick and red armband has written him a summons. This story of collapsing economic freedom has already been written in the US, so its ending should be familiar. The Western example shows that oppressive laws passed by legislators receiving monstrous corporate donations may not even be corporatism’s instrument of choice. Far more small businesses have been done in by the Internet than by OSHA over the past decade. The beauty of this ultimate silken blow in economic Kung Fu is that it appears to be dealt by a rise of individual liberty. Few seem to notice how easily Internet traffic is being channeled to an elite minority of producers whose cutting-edge sites monopolize attention. Fewer still notice (especially if they are not studying events in China) how insidiously easy it is for the State to slip her fingers around the Internet’s reins. The EU is actively seeking to prosecute hate speech on Internet chat sites like Facebook as these words are written. When Fenby mentions the CCP’s completely engineered “counter-blast from the heads of the five main religions accusing Washington of ‘attempting to smear the image of China’”,13 he is illustrating China’s default strategy for handling criticism of its human rights record: accuse the accuser of hate speech. Soon the CCP may be taking lessons from Westerners on how to operate this strategy most successfully.
Ultimately, then, the one great lesson to carry away from a study of that hypocritical, corrupt, elitist, arrogant, delusional, and dangerous form of governance which belongs to the long-suffering People’s Republic of China must be that our own government is becoming just such a dysfunctional nightmare, and that living under its rule will not be pleasant.
1 See the third chapter of Kissinger’s On China (London: Penguin, 2011).
2 In a move eerily reminiscent of imperial Japan’s industrial build-up in the thirties, when an entire island was artificially created to house a Mitsubishi plant, China has been artificially reshaping the Spratlys in order to legitimize its claim to them. See, for instance, Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield, “To Bolster Its Claims, China Plants Islands in Disputed Waters,” The New York Times (June 16, 2014).
3 These figures were verified from sourced articles on Wikipedia and are also consistent with multiple other sources.
4 Cf. Jonathan Fenby, Tiger Head, Snake Tails (New York: Overlook Press, 2012), 25: “40 per cent of the [Party’s] 1.2 million new members in 2010 were students…. membership is seen as a useful career card.”
5 Cf. Michael Forsythe, “Many in Hong Kong Fear Beijing’s Reach After Editor and Colleagues Disappear,” The New York Times (January 7, 2016).
6 For example, Economics professor Ilham Tohti is serving a life sentence for verbally defending the cause of Uyghur separatism, part of which issue involves removing repression of Islam. Liu Zhenying (Brother Yun), celebrated for his escape from a maximum-security prison, will likely spend the rest of his days in exile for spreading the Christian gospel.
7 Cf. Eamon Morris, “Chinese Cancer Villages,” The Spokesman (23 May, 2016), http://www.thespokesman.org/news/2016/05/23/chinese-cancer-villages/.
8 Many news outlets (e.g., BBC Sport, “Pollution Risk for Olympic Events” [8 Aug., 2007], http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/front_page/6934955.stm) carried stories about the toxic air in Beijing as the 2008 Olympics approached. There was much worry over the risk posed to participating athletes. The smog was notoriously “mopped up” by temporary, highly artificial means for the opening ceremonies, and then a trenchant ban on car traffic kept the air relatively safe for the ensuing weeks, until the visitors went home.
9 CNN reports that the Chinese military budget is to grow by 7 to 8 percent in 2016, which is “the slowest pace in five years” (http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/04/asia/china-npc-military-budget/index.html). Contrast this “moderation” with U.S. military spending, where the overall budget, rather than merely showing a decelerating rate of growth, has declined steeply since 2010.
10 The degree of materialism among the evolving middle class in this society for which the CCP triumphantly claims full credit would be highly amusing if it were not so appalling. One recent documentary whose title I cannot recall spends a few moments studying the cards that single girls post on bulletin boards with the help of traditional matchmakers. I believe the acronym written on almost every card (an acronym because everyone knew what the letters meant) demanded that the beau have a job, an apartment, and a Mercedes. Fenby (op. cit., 25) quotes a young woman on a dating show who declares, “I would choose a luxury house over a boyfriend who always makes me happy without hesitation. And my boyfriend has to have a monthly salary of 200,000 yuan.” The same paragraph concludes with a six-year-old girl on another TV program who freely volunteers, “When I grow up, I want to be an official… a corrupt official… because corrupt officials have a lot of things.”
11 Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism (New York: Broadway, 2009), 305. The entire chapter on “Liberal Fascist Economics” (284-316) is a small masterpiece.
12 See Fenby, op. cit., 87.
13 Fenby, op. cit., 149.
“I write under a pseudonym because I fear that freely expressing my opinion on important issues of the day may jeopardize my academic position. This fear, I promise, has a substantial basis. My purpose is not to hide behind a nom de plume while talking gibberish, as some accused me of doing in a recent piece [see Fall issue, 2015] reflecting on a pair of Martian photographs. I was not suggesting that aliens may land any day, and I do not know where that suggestion could have been implied in the article; I was there, as I am here, trying to promote a deep, healthy skepticism of the veracity, transparency, and trustworthiness loudly advertised by the paternalistic forces of government that rule our lives.
“My special thanks are due to the editor for assisting me in some major rewriting and for creating some of the paragraphs toward the end as my intentions grew muddled. As important as this article’s subject is, I remain doubtful that it has any clear or short-term solutions.” ~ Pancratistes