Posts Tagged ‘Communist Party’

China Daily recently reported  on new compulsory ethics classes for government officials. It said, “The ethics campaign, which will be ‘of great significance’ in lifting public confidence in the government and in civil servants as well as in consolidating the Party’s governance position, will be carried out from 2011 to 2015”

Lift public confidence in government? Maybe. Consolidate the Party’s governance position? Uh, I guess…if somehow that isn’t already 100% done. Do anything to actually improve officials’ ethics? *crickets chirping*

Any economist will tell you that the only thing that changes behavior on a wide scale is incentives. I’ve written about these absurd campaigns before and how they always neglect the only two things that actually deincentivize corruption: An untied press and an independent judiciary.

So I always wonder who these campaigns are really for. Are they just a show to pacify a public increasingly aware and intolerant of corruption? Or does the Party genuinely believe that officials can be trained to act ethically without actual public oversight?

I often think the latter is possible. Though absolute power has proven to corrupt absolutely time and time again, people always think they can be the ones to break the pattern. Hell, if you put me completely in charge I bet I’d create a utopia given my benevolence and 100% correct beliefs. So maybe the higher-ups see the Party as a flawed entity which can consciously overcome its shortcomings and become the benevolent force Mao (supposedly) envisioned.

But that same China Daily piece had another quote that shed further light: “Laws overlap ethics, but the law cannot fully cover all ethical issues, such as extra marital affairs, which tend to lead officials into corruption.”

While I’m sure there are exceptions, the idea that affairs “tend to lead officials into corruption” seems completely backwards. That’s not what the Party wants people to think though. They love showing how many mistresses fallen corrupt officials had; or how frivolously they lived. It shows that their corruption is a personal level moral issue; not a nationwide systematic one.

Lai Changxing, who was responsible for the “biggest economic crime in the history of the People’s Republic of China” in a black market import racket, used to keep an extravagant mansion/brothel where he’d entertain government officials with wild sex parties. After they all fell off the horse, the mansion was turned into a museum open to the public to showcase Lai’s and the officials’ depravity. (It was later shut down after guests swarmed in and marveled at how awesome being a corrupt official is).

So this new ethics plan seems to target the alleged route of corruption in the Party’s narrative: immoral lifestyles. That’s the narrative they’ve been pushing so now they have to show they’re doing something about it.  And they’ve given themselves five years to implement it – probably about as long as they can plausibly draw it out.

But the real question is if, and for how long these campaigns can actually placate the masses’ impatience with corrpution. Stay tuned…

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For those who haven’t heard of the horrific incident in Foshan, here’s a link with a video that will absolutely ruin your day and faith in humanity. It shows a two-year old girl getting run over TWICE and ignored by 18 bystanders. She’s not expected to live.

It’s hard to say how much of the bystanders’ ambivalence was universal human psychology and how much can be attributed to distinctly Chinese characteristics, but it’s becoming harder to downplay the latter. This is just the latest in a string of despicable stories to come out of China in recent years.  Consider these, some of which are just one instance of recurring events:

This list, unfortunately, isn’t even close to being exhaustive. It would be very tenuous to connect these all directly to any single factor, as most regard fear of legal liability as the main culprit in the Foshan story, for example, while the one-child policy is oft-cited for the child-trafficking problem. And of course, these things happen in other countries too, but their sheer scale and consistency in China is hard to write off, as many Chinese themselves have noted. There could be one thing at least partially contributing to all of this:

Hell.

Or rather, a lack of it.

I’m a devout atheist and tend to think dogmatic religion plays a largely negative role in society, but I can’t count the number of times in China I’ve shaken my head and wished more people believed in hell.

In any collectivist society, shame among peers tends to have much more influence than internal guilt. So if it’s unlikely that they’ll be caught, punished and shamed, people have less incentive to refrain from despicable actions. There’s even a Chinese proverb alluding to the idea saying “Neng pian jiu pian” (If you’re able to cheat, just cheat). You can couple this with the moral void that’s been left in the wake of socialism’s demise and the tunnel vision focus on money that emerged in the 1990’s.

The idea of hell as a means to keep people honest might be pretty intuitive (if not a bit Machiavellian) but University of British Colombia psychologist Ara Norenzayan published a study entitled Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. He gave subjects a math test they could easily cheat on and those who believed in a vengeful god typically chose not to cheat. “Fear of supernatural punishment may serve as a deterrent to counter-normative behavior, even in anonymous situations free from human social monitoring,” the study said.

Studies by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and Harvard have also separately found a correlation between belief in hell and lower levels of corruption and higher economic growth.

According to the Boston Globe, “[Harvard researchers Barro and McCleary ] collected data from 59 countries where a majority of the population followed one of the four major religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism.[…] Their results show a strong correlation between economic growth and certain shifts in beliefs, though only in developing countries. Most strikingly, if belief in hell jumps up sharply while actual church attendance stays flat, it correlates with economic growth. Belief in heaven also has a similar effect, though less pronounced. Mere belief in God has no effect one way or the other.”

“The expectation that there is a cultural belief in hell or perpetual and eternal punishment for wrongdoing will act as a disincentive to wrongdoing,” Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary of the U.S. National Council of Churches, told USA Today.

The Chinese Communist Party has traditionally held a less than hospitable attitude toward religion and regarded the Marxist view that it’s “the opiate of the masses” as a bad thing. But there are signs they’re starting to see the (again, perhaps Machiavellian) advantages to the opiate concept. This seems especially true with Christianity, given its belief in hell and less potential for the political complications associated with Islam in China.

In Nanjing the government has built a 5,000 seat mega church and given other funding to help boost Christianity. In the manufacturing hub of Wenzhou, where it’s estimated as much as 20% of the population is Christian, the government is starting to seriously study the link between Christian enterprises and economic success. One Christian factory owner told BBC, “I’m not saying those people who aren’t Christians are all bad, but from the percentage of the workers who are Christians, they seem to be more responsible. Also when they do things wrong, they feel guilty – that’s the difference.”

During the Mao-era, throwing the doors open to religion would have been unthinkable. Communism was the religion and Mao its god. Any other faith would have been competition. But now, with the death of religious socialism, supernatural religion’s spread is inevitable and SOME in the now strictly utilitarian Party seem to be recognizing that that might be in their best interest.

For many of China’s tens of millions of religious followers, the repression of their faith itself is the biggest grievance with the Party. Standing aside or even assisting religion would likely pay the government far greater dividends than holding the Maoist religion-as-a-threat attitude. It seems it could also have very real economic and socially-stabilizing benefits.

In a 2006 interview with Reuters, Li Junru, deputy head of the Communist Party School  made a very telling statement. When asked why India can handle democracy while China needs an authoritarian government, he explained that India has religion to control the people.

One has to imagine the Communist Party sees the appeal of biblical verses like Hebrews 13:17, which says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Today, as Libyan rebel forces close in on Tripoli, it seems yet another nation will overthrow their authoritarian rulers in the Jasmine Revolution. Since the movement broke out in December, political forecasters have devoted plenty of ink to speculation over if and when China’s authoritarian government will collapse.

For the record (and anyone at the Ministry of Truth who may stumble upon this), I don’t at all wish for a collapse or overthrow of the Communist Party. Gradual reform leading to real public accountability would be much better than the abrupt dismemberment they’re setting themselves up for with the current iron fist approach.

But in the fairly-likely event that they do dig their own grave, where does that leave a post-Communist Party China?

The Party would have you believe that the country would dissolve into absolute chaos; that they’re the Elmer’s glue holding the whole rickety apparatus together. Without them, people would take to the streets to pillage, rape, torture, kill, etc.  Plenty of foreign observers share that bleak outlook too.

But a few weeks ago I spoke with Uri Dadush, former World Bank director of international trade and author of the book Juggernaut: How Emerging Markets Are Reshaping Globalization. He said China’s GDP is projected to grow at around 5% annually for the next 40 years. “Even if there is a political crisis, that doesn’t mean that China will not grow,” he said.

In economic terms, revolutions aren’t as catastrophic as they appear to be, especially in recent history. This chart maps Egypt’s annual GDP growth for the past 50 years. This measure shows how much the GDP grew in a given year compared to where it was the previous year. It’s good for highlighting economically disruptive events.

Clearly, Egypt has always been a fairly turbulent country capable of enduring crises and quickly bouncing back, never dipping below 0% growth. But the most significant part is if this chart were extended to today. It would show a dip to 2% growth in the fiscal year ending this June, which included the Jasmine Revolution. Before the revolution, it was predicted to grow at around 5%. The government overthrow may have very briefly slowed growth and had some opportunity costs, but it was hardly chaos. Now Egypt’s economy is humming again and will probably hit 5% growth again by year’s end.

Here’s China over the past 50 years:

The two largest dips were during government directed campaigns; the Great Leap Forward being especially catastrophic. Then in 1987-1988 there was massive (over 20%) inflation of the Yuan which partly enabled the Tiananmen Square uprising. The crackdown did scare away some investment. Growth slipped a bit but remained positive and quickly rebounded.

An even better indicator of national well-being is per-capita GDP, because this shows how the wealth of the average person is growing or stagnating. A flat line here is bad; people aren’t getting any wealthier. A downward slope is very bad; people are becoming worse off. If you look at China by this measurement the story is very promising.

There’s a very gentle negative slope during the 60’s and the power struggle of the late 70’s, then it’s all upward. Tiananmen didn’t even leave a mark.

Let’s look at another country’s per capita GDP growth and see if you can spot when the revolution took place:

There’s a sharp decline beginning in 1996 ravaging the average person’s net worth by over 33%, but if you think that’s where the political upheaval was, guess again.

The Asian Financial Crisis devastated Thailand, but when a military coup a decade later overthrew the ruling Prime Minister after a year-long political crisis, there wasn’t even a blip. Per capita income continued to grow to its highest levels ever.

These economic charts don’t tell whole story, but they do tell a lot of things. They tell that, even in the midst of political crisis, people still buy things and people are still working at the store to sell to them. Then there’s a whole network of manufacturing and investment behind those people that continues to expand. So the idea that a political crisis throws the country into violent chaos is greatly exaggerated. And what may have caused a serious disruption even 30 years ago might be hardly noticeable now thanks to globalization.

Mr. Dadush explained, “The drivers of economic growth are very fundamental. They are much deeper than even big political developments. They have to do with technologies and ideas that have already been invented. Once they’ve been invented it’s very difficult to stop their spread. If you have more or less the conditions and you have educated people you can absorb these things and you will have economic growth. Educational openness to the world, the absorption of ideas and technology are very fundamental forces. They can be delayed by political disaster but they cannot be stopped.”

There are plenty of non-political things that can tank the economy, like a housing bubble, demographic decline, foreign financial collapses, protectionism, environmental catastrophe, natural disasters, etc. But contrary to what the Party would like everyone to believe and what all those (totally existent) foreigners who dream of seeing China in chaos believe, political upheaval doesn’t seem to be a serious threat to the economy or the common person’s well-being.

This doesn’t necessarily apply to developed countries as strongly though. Once they’re developed they rarely see more than 5% growth in a given year and become more vulnerable to market and political fluctuations, as you can see in this chart of the US and Japan:

But it will be a long time before China gets to that point as a nation; around 40 years according to Dadush. So China could bounce back much more easily from any political crisis than these nations could.  A prolonged civil war might be different, but that’s very unlikely. Even then, it wouldn’t be as destructive as one would imagine thanks to the fundamental global business presence.

Whatever replaced the CCP would certainly have significant long-term economic impacts, but the simple act of a power switch (non-violent or otherwise) would hardly knock growth and the institutions supporting it out of place. Even in a country that, as we all know, has its own “special circumstances.”

I’m sure economists (which I am not) and others can poke holes in this theory. Tunisia isn’t bounching back quite like Egypt, but it wasn’t growing as much to begin with either. And Libya is still in a drawn out civil war (again, extremely unlikely in China) and its recovery is yet to be seen. But none of these countries come close to having the business apparatus and distribution network in place that China does, which are both hedges against “chaos.”

However, the most important thing these economic charts don’t address is happiness during and after a revolution, which obviously doesn’t equate with economic stability. Economic growth still allows for unchecked corruption, wealth inequality, trampling of human rights, perversion of justice, unfair trade practices, arbitrary violence and wholesale withholding of important information. It would indeed be a shame if the Chinese people were ever subjected to that.

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Chart Sources: World Bank data powered by Google Public Data Service (a great resource for comparing countries’ economic and social aspects)

Tom from Seeing Red in China just ran a great piece called “This system cannot last forever – China’s coming change” where he uses nice graphs and timelines to illustrate what many already suspect: the Communist Party’s economic-based legitimacy check is almost fully cashed. This graph tells the story best:

This shows that, in spite of incredible economic growth, Chinese aren’t any more satisfied with their lives now than they were 12 years ago. The post-1979 boom that lifted people out of poverty is bringing diminishing returns to life satisfaction.

It makes sense. Compare someone who lived through the Japanese invasion and Mao’s idiotic campaigns to someone born in the 90’s who grew up watching American movies and having their teeth brushed for them. The latter, which takes their economic standing for granted, could very well be the undoing of a Party that derives its legitimacy from pulling the nation out of poverty. So if that happens, what comes next? Here’s a few possibilities:

Scenario #1: The Party says, “This absolute power thing has been swell, but now it’s time allow real freedoms, which will move our economy up the value chain. It’s also time to give the public a real check on our power by allowing them a mechanism to throw out those who don’t represent them.”

It’s possible, but anyone who’s studied basic world history can figure out about how likely that is. Especially given that the only Politburo member who even pretends to want substantial reform is leaving next year.

Scenario #2: Give Marxist ideology another whirl.

That crapped out about the time Mao died, but the New Leftists are trying to revive it as a source of legitimacy. This might make for some fun nostalgia, but not very likely to sustain the government on its own. And it’s not like the CCP hasn’t been vainly trying to convince the public that socialism is still relevant all along anyways.

Scenario #3: That just leaves the CCP’s fail-safe pillar of legitamacy: Good old-fashioned nationalism. Anti-Japanese, and to a lesser extent Anti-American and European nationalism have worked wonders thus far. The “Century of Humiliation” narrative has left latent animosity toward these places and embedded a sense of gratitude toward the Party that rescued the country from the foreign imperialists.

But how far can this same old tactic go when it’s not accompanied with economic legitimacy? Not very. If the Party thinks its power has a clear and present existential threat, desperate times might call for desperate measures – wag the dog-type measures that seek out the nationalistic furvor a war brings.

The tried and true enemies of the US and Japan wouldn’t work for this. Either case would be economic suicide and put the Chinese Navy up against the US’s. Getting an naval ass-kicking wouldn’t do much to endear the Party to the people.

There’s Taiwan, which might make more sense. But again, economics and the possibility of a US military intervention makes it unlikely – on top of the fact that it could turn into a drawn out occupation with a resistant population. A failed attempt at taking Taiwan would just make matters worse for the CCP.

So that just leaves the South China Sea with a big target on Vietnam. China claims pretty much the entire sea, so military enforcement of these claims would be seen as perfectly legitimate and non-imperialistic by Chinese. The international community would cry foul, but if it got to this point, a bad reputation would be the least of the CCP’s concerns. And American military intervention on behalf of Vietnam would be tough sell to the broke American public.

Vietnam regularly patrols the sea, so getting a USS Maine-like incident to spark a war wouldn’t be hard. China is already the biggest baddest navy in Asia and has just rolled out its new aircraft carrier. It could be combat ready in five years, with a supporting fleet in ten – right about the time China’s economic growth is expected to slow considerably and the post-90’s kids will be adults.

Keeping the war naval would keep civilian casualties low, the PLA would get to show off its new toys, victory would be swift, and the average Zhou in China would get a patriotic hard-on. It would be the Persian Gulf War on steroids.

There would even be the added benefits of complete control over the sea’s resources and a warning to other neighbors that China is serious about its claims.

This strategy would only be a temporary solution to the Party’s legitimacy predicament though. The Persian Gulf War sent George H.W. Bush’s approval rating soaring to almost 90%…then he lost his re-election bid the following year. But, as James Fallows put it, China’s government is basically guiding a raft down white water rapids. It does everything it can to avoid the rock in front of it, which just allows it to confront the next rock behind it.

Wagging the dog would buy the government time, which would allow them to regroup and think up the next hair-brained scheme, which if history (or present) is any indicator, would involve a Stalinist clampdown. OR they could go back to scenario #1 and initiate substantive reforms. Hell, they could even do that now and avoid the whole thing. But if I were Vietnam, I wouldn’t get too attached to the South China Sea.

In a somewhat philosophical departure from this site’s usual content, I want to look at some of the ideological foundations of China’s “New Left.” Since Reform & Opening Up began in 1979, outsiders have tended to think true socialism in China is dead and exists in name only.  For the most part, Chinese leaders have outgrown the lust for socialism and the New Left, which advocates a return to Maoist egalitarianism, is a regressive force that wants to undo China’s capitalist development. But China has never really taken its eye off the ball of true socialism.

To understand where the New Left and the entire Communist Party are coming from you have to understand Marx’s stages of human development (abridged courtesy of Wikipedia):

  1. Primitive Communism:  Co-operative tribal societies (hunter-gatherer clans).
  2. Slave Society: a development of tribal progression to city-state; aristocracy is born.
  3. Feudalism: aristocrats are the ruling class; merchants evolve into capitalists.
  4. Capitalism: capitalists are the ruling class, who create and employ the proletariat.
  5. Socialism: workers gain class consciousness, and via proletarian revolution, depose the capitalist dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, replacing it in turn with dictatorship of the proletariat through which the socialization of the means of production can be realized.
  6. Communism: a classless and stateless society.

It’s important to note the difference between the socialism and communism stages. Communism is the ultimate endgame when the entire world has embraced socialism and there’s no longer a need for classes or countries. Communist Parties like China’s hoped to inspire international revolution with their socialist model and eventually achieve communism. But this doesn’t look to be on the horizon any time this millennium and is no longer any kind of immediate focus for China.

Moving to the socialist stage is still very much China’s intention though. China’s initial socialist movement, as well as every other that’s been attempted, failed to adhere to Marx’s order of development. They all tried to jump straight from feudalism to socialism without ever mastering capitalism. This was one of the implications of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.” He hoped China could successfully leap over the capitalist phase into a socialist utopia. We all know how that turned out.

So when Deng Xiaoping initiated “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” (AKA capitalism) it was an acknowledgement that China couldn’t rewrite the laws of Marxism. They’d have to go through the capitalist phase before they could achieve socialism.

Marx wrote that capitalism will then slowly dig its own grave because the rich will keep getting richer and the poor will keep getting poorer. Eventually the workers will notice the “unpaid labor of the working class” going to the capitalists (like seeing their bosses and leaders buy lavish homes which would take them several lifetimes to afford). The workers have then gained “class consciousness” and see the capitalists for the exploiters that they are. This is when they take back the fruits of their labor and achieve socialism through revolution.

Back in modern China, with inflation, corruption, environmental degradation, and already enormous income inequality worsening, the New Left thinks the time has come to transition from the capitalist stage of Marxism to the socialist egalitarian stage. There are those die-hard Maoists in the movement who never wanted to embrace capitalism, but for much of the New Left, they simply think this is the right time in history to take the step which was taken prematurely under Mao.

But there’s a problem. In Marx’s vision, the capitalist stage of development is under a democracy that’s basically controlled by the capitalist businessmen (sound familiar?). After the workers overthrow this system, the socialist stage dissolves the state and becomes a grouping of autonomous collectives, each democratically governing itself. Mao tried a bastardized version of this which was both premature and under central government control.

The problem is that China straddles these stages now. There’s no democracy to overthrow in the Marxist sense – only a failed socialist system that now has all the symptoms of an exploitative capitalist society…minus the democracy.

Some believe that socialism can be achieved through evolution without revolution, which is what the CCP is banking on. But traditional Marxists would say that’s impossible, since those leaders guiding the evolution would be corrupted and simply become capitalist oppressors themselves (again…sound familiar?).

So the Communist Party is in a sticky philosophical situation. How can they fall in line with the Marxist view of development? China has gone through many cycles in history where the ruling dynasty is overthrown by a peasant movement which then redistributes the wealth. Then that government inevitably becomes too tyrannical and corrupt, then the process repeats itself.

Wen Jiabao seems to think democratization first is the key. “Without democracy, there is no socialism. Without freedom, there is no real democracy,” he said recently in an interview with Xinhua. “Without the guarantee of economic and political rights, there is no real freedom. To be frank, corruption, unfair income distribution and other ills that harm people’s rights and interests still exist in China. The best way to resolve these problems is to firmly advance political structural reform and build socialist democracy under the rule of law.”

He also once repeated the words of Deng Xiaoping saying, “It will take a very long historical period to consolidate and develop the socialist system, and it will require persistent struggle by many generations, a dozen or even several dozen.”

Wen may see democracy as an end in-and-of-itself, or he may honestly believe it’s just the next step toward socialism. But either way he doesn’t seem to think the time is ripe for the socialist stage now. However, New Leftists like Bo Xilai seem to think they can guide a socialist transformation under the current authoritarian apparatus and start it now.

I’ve written before about both Bo and Wen, whom I suspect as individuals are using a lot of empty rhetoric and gimmicks for their own purposes. But their stated ideology is worth looking at because it represents two competing views within the Party.

So could either of their views altering Marxism work in China? Or could the true Marxist vision of socialism work?

Most would probably be inclined to say, “No, just look at history.” But again, socialism has never been tried in the way Marx laid it out. Attempts have always been bastardized in some form. Some would argue socialism is already starting to happen with the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. They have some of the world’s highest tax rates, greatest income equality and all kinds of socialized welfare programs. Interestingly enough, they’re also ranked among the highest in per-capita income and happiness. And they’re evolving this way naturally – without the Marxist need for a revolution.

However, there are plenty of fundamental problems with Marxist socialism. He never anticipated how connected and interdependent the world has become. It isn’t clear how a nation of autonomous communes could be reconciled with an international market that depends on uniformity in currency, law, communication and transportation. And how can there ever be a Marxist revolution without some individuals hijacking the ideology in order to carry out their own agendas – as has happened with every other attempt? (See: Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Kim Il Sung, etc.)

Then there’s the classic Achilles heel of socialism: Greed. Marx’s vision included “labor vouchers” that would be awarded to workers based on the amount of labor they contribute, which could then be exchanged for goods. Marx thought that this would be liberating for the formally exploited, as it would give them freedom to pursue their own interests and develop their own talents. But it failed to address what would motivate someone to spend seven years in medical school if their quality of life would be comparable to a high-school dropout.

So the pure Marxist vision of socialism would probably have to be tweaked if it were ever to work in practice, if indeed it ever could work. The New Left is convinced it can work, and will work, sooner rather than later. But with China still far from catching up to even the developed capitalist societies of the world, it’s hard to imagine a successful transition anytime soon. And it’s very hard to imagine China’s Communist Party will be the one to break the historical cycle both in China and the previous socialist movements of the world.

But to assume it’s totally impossible and that true socialism is dead in the world would be a bit hasty. The Communist Party still sees it as the ultimate prize and is being much more patient and flexible in its approach than any other nation ever has been. On the other side of the world, The U.S. and the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) seem like they’ll continue to vote and protest themselves lower taxes and greater benefits until they’re bankrupt; which seriously calls into doubt Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” theory that capitalist democracy is the end-all-be-all of human development.

Of course, it’s very possible that no system will work in the long-run and humanity is screwed. People at the bottom of any system may continue to want more than they can produce. Those at the top may continue do whatever gives them with the most power – whether that means pandering to those at the bottom or using an iron fist and bastardized ideology keep a hold over them. It would be presumptuous for any ideology to declare victory now or for the foreseeable future, but whatever happens, it should be an interesting century for philosophers.