ad info

CNN.comRed Giant
50 and Beyond
Inside China
The Red Giant
Opinion: China's prisons

Opinion: China and human rights

Opinion: The Tibetan tussle

Opinion: Is China really a Communist state?

Mao quotes generator

Gallery: Cultural Revolution posters

Timeline: China and the world this century

Asian Superpower
Imperial Icon
Site Map

Revolution is no dinner party, but China's reform is


Officials grow rich at public expense

By Cheng Li

(CNN) -- "Revolution is not a dinner party," wrote Mao Tse-tung when he was a young Communist leader of a peasant rebellion in his native province.

But when he later became the founder of the People's Republic of China, this famous aphorism, probably better than anything, illuminated Mao's vision of Communist China.

In Mao's view, collective political consciousness was far more important than individual material incentive. In contrast to the Nationalist regime that was known for rampant corruption and economic disparity, Mao planned to build a new China that was socially pure, economically equal and internationally respected.

Although corruption and disparity were greatly reduced during the Mao era, his economic and political vision had a catastrophic effect. The Great Leap Forward, which gave undue prominence to heavy industry at the expense of agriculture and light industry, led to a three-year famine during which approximately 30 million people starved to death.

Great Leap Forward
Workers irrigating a field during the Great Leap Forward  

Maoists called the period a three-year natural disaster, but it was a man-made disaster. Or, indeed, a Mao-made disaster.

During the Cultural Revolution, a decade characterized by national madness and fanatic violence, human suffering was justified in the name of revolution. Indeed, the most popular song then was called "Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party."

'To get rich is glorious'

Deng Xiaoping thoroughly changed Mao's course for China with a new catch-word, "reform," and a new aphorism, "To get rich is glorious."

When the reform began in 1978, it clearly had the "mandate" of the Chinese people. Turning away from an emphasis on revolutionary campaigns against "class enemies" of the Mao era, Deng and his associates stressed economic development and social stability.

The switch from a planned economy to a more market-oriented economy, and from autocracy to the "open door," brought a thrilling economic boom. Between 1979 and 1997, the growth rate of China's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was 9.8 percent annually, about three times greater than the world average.

During the same period, 170 million people were lifted out of poverty. Chinese citizens' bank savings increased 220-fold, from 21 billion yuan (roughly U.S. $2.5 billion) to 4,628 billion yuan (about $560 billion). Never in history had so many people made such economic progress in a single generation.

This rosy picture of the reform's success, however, has been increasingly challenged by the dark side of the swift socio-economic transformation.

Newly rich, and corrupt

Shanghai and Gansu
Shanghai's bustling port (top) and Gansu's barren plains (bottom)  

The glaringly lit skyscrapers of Shanghai and Shenzhen mask the barren soil of Guizhou and Gansu; the emergence of the "entrepreneurial class" hides the reality of sweatshops; and the development of township and village enterprises (TVEs) is achieved at the expense of environmental degradation of precious rural land.

If these problems are not serious enough, there is also high unemployment and rampant corruption. Unemployment has risen to its highest level since 1949 and is the subject of studies and media reports.

Unemployed workers miss the old days of the "iron rice bowl," the time when the state provided jobs and social welfare for urban workers. Under Mao, they were poorer, but at least more equal and less insecure economically.

But for the new rich and corrupt officials, the reform has literally been a "dinner party." The use of public money (gongkuan) for private entertainment has been so common during the reform era that the Chinese government has issued as many as 36 orders in recent years to prevent local officials and managers of state-owned enterprises from using public money for banquets.

According to a 1993 study, 100 billion yuan (about U.S. $18 billion at the time) of public money was spent on dinner parties in 1992 alone.

A volcano of social disturbance

Mao addressing followers in December 1944  

Despite acknowledgment of the problem, corruption has gotten worse since. Among those who have been caught is the former mayor of Beijing, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

A new Chinese idiom common in conversation and local media vividly reflects the extent of the problem: "Workers, farmers, merchants, officials and soldiers, all are crazy about eating and drinking. East, west, south, north and central, everywhere spending public money."

The Chinese regime seems to be sitting atop a volcano of mass social disturbance, much as its nationalist and imperial predecessors did earlier this century.

"If the ultimate result of the reform is the resurgence of bureaucratic capitalists and enormous disparity in society," says an outspoken Shanghai intellectual who cannot be identified for understandable reasons, "I would say that the reform is a complete failure. What China really needs is perhaps a revolution, not a reform."

Today's progress at tomorrow's expense?

Despite their desire to remain firmly in control, technocratic leaders in post-Deng China seem to be more tolerant of criticism from public intellectuals, more willing to admit problems and probably more capable of dealing with these tough challenges.

Do you agree with the opinion you just read? Tell us your thoughts.

If reform is a dinner party of prosperity, it should be for more than just a small number of people in this most populous nation in the world. The success or failure of the reform depends on how quickly China can establish a social safety net, an effective legal system and a real banking system.

Most important, it depends on whether the government and the Chinese people learn lessons from history and work to ensure that today's progress does not come at tomorrow's expense.

Cheng Li is professor of government at Hamilton College. Observations from his three-year field work in Shanghai in the mid-1990s form the core of his book, "Rediscovering China: Dynamics and Dilemmas of Reform" (Rowman and Littlefield, 1997). His latest book, "China's Leaders: The New Generation," is forthcoming.

Back to the top   © 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.