Common prosperity should be valued in China and not disparaged by critics

Sep 14, 2021
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Recent news on China has been replete with items about “cracking down” on the rich, celebrities, the use of videogames by young people and growing inequality.

Meanwhile, China’s President Xi Jinping has been pushing for more emphasis on the common prosperity of all. In August, the State Council Information Office issued a paper on “Moderate Prosperity in All Respects”. With its theme of prosperity, it deserves more examination than our mainstream press has given it.

To be sure, such documents go out of their way to propagate the achievements of the Chinese Communist Party and always present a rosy picture. They are not particularly thrilling reading. But they do contain a good deal of concrete information. This particular document gives ample evidence of advancing prosperity not only in the Chinese economy but in its society as well.

To be fair, Western journalists have given a good deal of publicity given to the elimination of extreme poverty. They usually go on to say that this achievement is more than balanced by China’s terrible human rights record. But it seems to me that to eliminate extreme poverty in a country like China, which was mired in poverty not so long ago, is an astounding achievement. It’s never been done before at anything like the speed China has managed.

The overall assumption adopted in the document “Moderate Prosperity” is that “poverty is the biggest obstacle to human rights”. It follows that greater prosperity has led to better human rights. That’s not something most people in the West want to hear, because of an assumption that human rights should be conceived in terms of the rights and freedoms of the individual. However, it is surely perfectly reasonable to judge human rights by prioritising the well-being of the millions over the rights of the few.

Any concept of prosperity encompasses many factors. At the basic level, it includes gross domestic product per person, which in China has risen from RMB385 in 1978 to RMB72,000 in 2020, impressive even if inflation is taken into account. It also includes food intake and quality, housing, education, literacy, entertainment and health, just to take a few crucial examples.

I single out three statistics from the document that certainly reflect health and prosperity, and overall well-being. One is life expectancy at birth, which rose from 67.8 years in 1981 to 77.3 in 2019, incidentally the same as in the United States in 2020. Infant mortality rates fell from 37.6 deaths per 1,000 live births round the late 1970s to 5.4 per 1,000 in 2020, just lower than the United States, where it was 5.69 per 1000 live births the same year. Maternity mortality also fell sharply from 43.2 per 100,000 in 2002 to 16.9 per 100,000 in 2020. That compares with 17.4 deaths per 100,000 in 2020 in the United States.

In other words, in these crucial areas, China is doing slightly better than the United States, which assumes it has the right to cast judgments on others. Considering the backwardness in the late 1970s and the rapid advance in these matters that surely matter to the average person I don’t find it surprising that the World Health Organisation regards China as a role model for developing countries.

The document also raises some other interesting and important issues. For instance, it has a section on minorities. It will surprise nobody that it gives a very positive picture of minority participation in national government, education levels, standard of living and overall prosperity.

What I find significant is that it still endorses the idea of singling out ethnic minorities for attention. This makes the whole idea that China’s government wants to eliminate any ethnic group simply ludicrous. Since this wish is an essential component of genocide under the United Nations definition of the term, it also gives the lie to the attempt to stigmatise China for the “genocide” of the Uyghurs, which I believe a truly outrageous claim.

And then China gets a very bad press for its environment, with many media caustically pointing out that coal mines are still being developed there. On the other hand, the document has quite a few statistics claiming improvements in the environment, including the quality of drinking and other water, and in the air. Both negative and positive claims could be valid, but there is no doubt that the Chinese government takes the threat of climate change seriously.

In his splendid article in Pearls and Irritations on September 8, Geoff Raby took up several issues involved in “common prosperity”. In general, he seemed to me to cover the relevant ground very well and I have only a couple of comments to add.

He saw the shift from Deng Xiaoping’s notion of making China rich to Xi’s emphasis on “common prosperity” as implying a desire to close the wide inequality gap in China, even though the cost in arousing opposition among particular groups or people could well be high. I think he is right. China has become very unequal in terms of individual wealth, much too unequal. The widening of inequalities cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely, and the political risks of doing so could be fatal.

But is “common prosperity” such a bad thing? Karl Marx in his “Critique of the Gotha Programme” of 1875 called for a very high degree of equality as a hallmark of a fair society. But he wanted shared wealth, not shared poverty. Certainly, Deng Xiaoping never advocated an indefinite process of the rich getting richer at the expense of everybody else.

The media is fond of asking whether we are seeing the beginnings of another Cultural Revolution. To be fair, most commentators are saying it is not. But as one who was actually living in China during the first few months of the Cultural Revolution, I want to be more forthright: the comparison is totally ridiculous.

I’ll never forget the Red Guards ransacking churches, mosques and temples, destroying cultural objects, humiliating artists, teachers and educated people, driving some to suicide, hanging placards around the necks of their targets accusing them of being reactionaries and worse. I was personally not affected and left China very soon after it began, but many of my friends, both Chinese and foreign, suffered greatly. I’d add that the attacks on individuals at that time and now are of a totally different order. We just are not seeing now the kinds of extended public humiliation that results in large-scale suicide within society, as there certainly was during the Cultural Revolution.

Yes, a lot of what the press is saying about how things are in China should be said. But there is much too strong a tendency to paint a over negative picture of China and belittle its achievements.

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