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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 49, November 29, 2014

Learning from the Chinese Experience

Monday 1 December 2014, by Bharat Dogra


1. Ideology Matters—China from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping by Manoranjan Mohanty; AAKAR Books, Delhi; pages: 208; price: Rs 295.

2. China’s Success Trap : Lessons for Development Theory by Manoranjan Mohanty; Founder’s Day Lecture, Madras Institute of Development Studies; pages: 28; price: Rs 20.

Keeping in view the increasingly important role of China in the world economy and politics today, there is a widespread and intense desire to have a proper understanding of China’s development experience. In the available literature on this subject, the writings of Prof Manoranjan Mohanty have a very special place. Firstly, this is because of his scholarly study of this issue over a long period supported by several visits of China and interactions with reputed Chinese scholars. The second reason for the special place of Manoranjan Mohanty’s work on China is that he has been very receptive to a wide range of social movements several of them closely involved in the search for the alternative development paradigm which is badly needed in resolving the most pressing problems of the world at present. This makes him particularly suitable for the crucial role of examining China’s development experience from the most valuable perspective of how helpful and compatible the development experience of China has been for the agenda of resolving the most critical issues of the world before it is too late. Another strength of Prof Mohanty is his strong base in both the theoretical and practical aspects of socialism, with special emphasis on what he calls ‘socialism in the 21st century’.

From these perspectives there is much that the serious reader will find of enduring value and interest in two recent publications by Prof Mohanty. To a lesser or greater extent, all the 14 papers in the first book titled ‘Ideology Matters’ help in answering several important questions regarding the evolving development experience of post-revolution China. This understanding is further enhanced by the inclusion of important statistical appendix and documents.

Pointing out that the remarkable economic growth of China has been accompanied by a big increase in incidents of mass protest, the author says: “But this very success seems to have led China to a series of social, economic and political dilemmas which are not easy to solve. The mode of economic growth has been such it has created its own momentum, powerful production structures and strong interest groups which have long-term domestic and international commit-ments. Yet social inequality, regional disparity, environmental degradation and political alienation are growing at such a rate that the prevailing course of development needs urgent reorientation. This is the ‘success trap’ in which China is placed at this current historical conjuncture. Undoubtedly, China has achieved enormous successes, but the manner in which they have been achieved has led it to a trap. The main course of development cannot be reversed, yet the problems have to be addressed.”

This idea is developed further in the second publication under review. Here the author states: “The emergence of the success trap is clearly discernible in course of the reform process over the past three decades seen both in the macro and micro perspectives. While many reports on the extent of inequality, regional disparity, corruption and alienation have come out within China as well from abroad, Hu Jintao’s own enumeration of the problems in the Report to the Eighteenth Party Congress leaves us in no doubt about the serious magnitude of these issues. Yet, both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have reaffirmed the continuation of the same reform strategy. Calling the reforms ‘the biggest dividend for China’, Li has also admitted that there was ‘great room for improvement’ in the country’s socialist market economy. In other words, they all see that there are serious problems resulting from the strategy, yet they had to continue on the path.”

The author rightly concludes, “At a time when many Third World countries are enthusiastically announcing their desire to emulate the Chinese reform model, it is very important to grasp the totality of the Chinese experience—both the success story and the success trap.”

In the historical review in ‘Ideology Matters’, more details were certainly needed on the highly controversial issues of The Great Leap Forward leading to the Chinese famine of 1958-61. Millions of people are reported to have died in this famine. Even if the number of deaths was only one-tenth of the estimates commonly provided, the incredibly high human costs of the ‘Great Leap’ and the associated famine certainly raise very disturbing questions for any overall positive assessment of the leadership of Mao.

Coming to crucial future issues, it would’ve been of great value if a more detailed assessment was made of the implications of China’s insistence on high growth rates for the most critical worldwide challenge of climate change.

The strength of their book is that the author doesn’t hesitate to take up provocative questions. What is more, he tries to provide clear answers. For example, in the first book, there is a section with the question: Is contemporary China a socialist society? The author writes: “At the end of over three decades of reforms how far has the Chinese society moved in the direction of socialism? The answer to this question depends on one’s definition of socialism. Keeping in view the notion of socialism that underlies the discussion in this volume, the answer is that today’s China is a fast developing capitalist society with many unique features, one of which is that it is ruled by a Communist Party. Much of the new policies were launched in the name of handling contradictions during the early stage of socialism. The assumption was that it was going to be a long period of transformation, as we analysed in this volume. But the trends of the past three decades show the strengthening of the structural logic that fosters a new bourgeoisie, new values of capitalism, power structures that sustain them and firm linkages with the global capitalist system.”

While ‘Ideology Matters’ is no doubt a very valuable book for understanding China’s post-revolution experiences, this understanding would be further enhanced greatly if the author writes a new overview, rather than collecting the papers published at various points of time.

Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.