At 50, China Cheers a Communism Mao Might Not Recognize

  • Share
  • Read Later

There's something wrong with this picture: Fifty years of communist rule in China — and it faces the biggest unemployment problem of all time.

The communist system, after all, may be riddled with problems that make its collapse inevitable, but unemployment has never been one of them. Mao Zedong's promise of the "iron rice bowl" was the traditional communist guarantee of full employment. However decrepit the economy might be, everyone would always have a job, no matter how economically redundant. You pretend to work and we pretend to pay you. And yet on Friday, even as portraits of Mao were driven through the streets of Beijing, 100 million Chinese face the prospect of joblessness with no social safety net.

Unemployment, of course, isn't the only discordant element in modern China's claims to Mao's communist legacy. In 1979, then-leader Deng Xiaoping coined the rather novel (for a communist) slogan "To get rich is glorious." And today's China is anything but classless; in fact, its income inequalities are more pronounced than those of some of its avowedly capitalist Asian neighbors. Marx, Lenin and Mao would spin in their graves at what passes for communism in China at the end of the 20th century.

Mao might have led the revolution that's being celebrated with a weeklong holiday, but China has Deng to thank for turning it into an economic powerhouse. Following the disastrous famine that accompanied Mao's "Great Leap Forward" attempt to force the pace of industrialization in the '50s and the fratricidal mayhem of the Cultural Revolution, Deng quietly laid Mao's legacy to rest following the Great Leader's death in 1976. Deng's "long march" was down the road to capitalism. And with 20 years of an astonishing average annual growth rate of close to 10 percent — over the last decade alone, China's GDP has increased by more than 300 percent — Deng's quiet revolution has transformed one of the world's poorest countries in 1949 into its seventh-largest economy 50 years later.

But behind those impressive numbers lies a social revolution more profound than any ever seen in the Western world. Hundreds of millions of people once anchored by the certainties of guaranteed jobs and social services for life are now being cast adrift to fend for themselves in the turbulent waters of the market economy. "By closing down thousands of state enterprises that were losing money, China is creating unemployment on a scale never seen before anywhere in the world," says TIME correspondent William Dowell. "That creates an enormous threat of social instability, which makes the government very insecure about its ability to hold the whole society together. And that insecurity feeds their authoritarianism."

That much was evident in August when the government banned the Falun Gong religious cult, whose members had sought comfort in its otherworldly explanations of the traumatic social changes under way in China. But the communists are struggling to come up with a coherent ideology to offer a society that it's trying to lead away from the party's own traditional beliefs.

A fall-off in foreign investment, Asia's economic decline, the unchecked corruption allowed by a mix of private and state ownership, and major weaknesses in the country's industrial, financial and legal infrastructure all threaten China's ability to maintain the breakneck pace of economic growth necessary to absorb its burgeoning unemployed population. And that makes fear of instability the dominant motif in the thinking of China's leaders.

"With potentially critical problems ranging from infrastructure and corruption to separatist movements and religious activities outside of its control, the government is constantly trying to repair parts of the system that are breaking down," says Dowell. "But it's an extremely difficult system to maintain."

China analysts and even many Chinese citizens outside of the Communist party debate whether Beijing's reforms will be doomed without a Western-style democratic system, or whether the modernizing authoritarianism begun in the Deng era is essential to prevent the wheels from coming off the world's most populous country in the speed wobble of the most volatile social revolution in history.

Even as China's leaders become communist in name only, they have no intention of letting go of their tight grip on the reins of power. The experience of South Korea, Indonesia and even Taiwan shows that the expansion of prosperity under the tutelage of authoritarian regimes tends to cultivate the seeds of democracy. But the process can take decades. And it'll be a bumpy ride.

Photo Essay: China at 50