Skip to main content

Inequality in Communist China: Theory, Practice, Reality

Charles Horner

I want to begin laying some groundwork for thinking about how “inequality” works in different political systems.

It isn’t clear to me whether my invitation to speak here today also entitles me, if I may use that provocative word in a conference about inequality, to assign readings. But a goodly amount of what I’m going to say turns on how certain words are used. So, if I may, some recommended reading now, and some more later on. The first is chapter six of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871). This is the chapter wherein Alice meets Humpty Dumpty and has an exasperating conversation with her egg-shaped interlocutor. She finds he’s frustratingly hard to pin him down. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question,” replies Alice, “is whether you can make words means so many different things.”

The Communist Party of China, since its founding in 1921, has been on one side of this argument. It believes that it can make words mean what it wants them to mean whenever it wants to. So three other recommended readings for now. The first is the last section of a book by a man named Perry Link, titled An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics, Harvard University Press, 2013. Anyone who wishes to understand the People’s Republic of China needs to read it because it explicates the edifice of semantics on which the regime was initially built and now sustains itself. The second is an article by Geremie Barme, titled “New China Newspeak,” China Heritage Quarterly, No. 29, March 2012. The term “Newspeak,” comes from George Orwell’s 1984; it’s the language invented by the totalitarian regime in the novel.

The third is by a professor here at Kenyon, Anna Sun, entitled “The Diseased Language of Mo Yan.” It’s in the fall 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review. Mo Yan is the Chinese writer who won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. Professor Sun’s article is, of you will, a case study of how New China Newspeak has corrupted literature in particular.

Now, let’s talk about “Communist China.” What is that exactly, or even approximately? The Communist Party has a website where you will find, among other things, an English translation of the Party’s constitution. There we learn that the Party exists to exercise a dictatorship, its dictatorship. In l921, the Party had seven members, now it has about eighty million. In 1921, its prospects were not especially bright; today it runs the affairs of a place that is widely bruited as the next global hegemon. How did it do this? It is important to understand that the Party thinks of itself as primarily an intellectual activity, that is, as an organization which is constantly analyzing its own situation and then acting on its analysis. The Party lists a bunch of things that guide its unceasing study, but the three most important are what it calls Marxism-Leninsm, Mao Zedong Thought, and Deng Xiaoping Theory. Marxism describes how the world works and Leninism describes how to set up a political party that can gain and the hold onto power in the world that Marxism describes.

Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was, says the Party, a great proletarian revolutionary because he figured out how the Party could gain power. In the Party’s lingo, he developed the correct line. Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) was also a great proletarian revolutionary because he figured out how the Party could retain power when, in the late l970s, things were on the verge of falling apart. Deng pushed through reforms which have made the country today unrecognizable from the vantage point of l976. At the time, he is said to have swept away the doubts of colleagues who were skeptical that Mainland China could ever duplicate the economic achievements of other places in so-called Greater China—Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore—by saying, “Why not? We’re Chinese just like they are, aren’t we?” Maybe an apocryphal anecdote, maybe not. In the event, it turns out that Communist China is just what Communist Party chooses it to mean, no more and no less.

“China,” as it turns out, also means what the Party chooses it to mean. But in historical fact and also in contemporary fact, “China” can mean more than one place, or more than one thing, or more than one way of doing things. “China” is a big place with a long history. Until 1912, when the last dynasty collapsed, it aspired to an emperor-centered system, but there were centuries-long periods when there was no emperor. The many dynasties which did rule had vastly different approaches to how they went about business. Half the time, the country was ruled by people who weren’t Chinese at all—the best known being Mongols, whose dynasty lasted from 1280 to 1368 (Kublai Khan, Marco Polo’s host was one of them) and Manchus, whose dynasty, the last one, from l644 to l912.

Even “China,” as the name of a place, is an elusive concept. The “China” the Manchus entered in 1644 was half the size of the China they bequeathed to their successor, the Republic of China. Today’s People’s Republic of China (PRC), founded in 1949, includes that territorial legacy, which is to say, some tracts of land which are not by any stretch of the imagination “Chinese”—such as the 600,000 square miles (three times the size of France) of Turkic Muslim lands, known in Chinese as “Xinjiang”—“New Territories.”

There are, today, good reasons to keep this in mind, because it’s easy to get confused, especially when the men now in charge in Beijing want to confuse us. I myself try to avoid using the word “China” when I really mean something else, for example, right now, the People’s Republic of China (PRC.)

I think of PRC less as a place, and more as a thing—an apparatus, an organization, a modus operandi —set up in 1949, not by a Mongol khan or by a Manchu clan, but by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which as I said earlier, now numbers about eighty million, as its way of maintaining a monopoly on political power in a place with a population of about one billion, three hundred and fifty million. This is a daunting task. Just as the Qing dynasty of 1705 was, as a regime, a beast different from the Qing dynasty of 1905, so too is today’s PRC very different from the PRC of l949. But for both regimes—to borrow from Wordsworth’s 1807 poem “Rob Roy:”

the good old rule
Sufficeth them, the simple plan,
That they should take, who have the power,
And they should keep who can.

As I said, “China” and “PRC” are not the same thing—although, once again, the regime in Beijing wants us to think so. Recently, Xi Jinping, head of the Chinese Communist Party, paid his respects to probably the only two Chinese people most of you have ever heard of. Last February, he visited the birthplace of Confucius and praised the great sage of 2,500 years ago. Before that, on the day after Christmas, which was Mao Zedong’s 120th birthday, he visited Mao’s Mausoleum in the center of Beijing, where he and the Party’s six other highest-ranking officers bowed three times to Mao’s statue and “jointly recalled Comrade Mao’s glorious achievements“—according to the official account.

I will now assign two more readings that will show you the breathtaking audacity of Xi’s linking of these two men, that is, how he is seeking to link “China” and the PRC, and then speculate why. The first— The Analects of Confucius —is short. In his own words, Master Kong (as he’s known to the Chinese) advocates, among other things, a mode of governance that relies not on coercion, but on the leadership’s cultivation of personal virtues in citizens; that rejects big armies and state aggrandizement; that even rejects capital punishment. In fact, Confucius can be thought of as a part of a rich and varied “small state” tradition” in China which, across the centuries, argued for, and in behalf of, what we now call civil society and individual autonomy. Indeed, in some eras—and the last dynasty was one such—China was actually a comparatively lightly governed place, not at all the “oriental despotism” of some imaginings.

The second book of your assignment is longer, and much harder to get through. It’s called Tombstone, by Yang Jisheng. It is an account of Mao Zedong’s policy of forced collectivization of Chinese agriculture in the l950s, and how the manmade famine it created claimed tens of millions of lives. It is the greatest single crime in the history of the world.

We can thus think of Confucius and Mao as polar opposites, and yet the current Beijing regime seeks somehow to meld them. To what end? Does it somehow seek to split the difference between radically different approaches to, among other things, social justice and income inequality?

Besides, there’s more to “China” than just Confucius. For centuries, there was an ongoing argument with the Confucians conducted by those who believed that only a big, powerful and, ultimately, ruthless, state could prevent chaos. And there was also religious-based fanaticism and political upheaval based on it. For example, we like to think of gentle Buddhism but, across the centuries, millenarian strands of the faith produced, spectacular uprisings bent on social leveling in preparation for the rule on earth of Maitreya Buddha. Better known is the Taiping Rebellion of the mid nineteenth century, a kind of proto-socialist egalitarian crusade, but based on a bowdlerized version of Christianity; it was led by a man who thought himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ. It took the dynasty fifteen years to suppress the uprising, and at a cost of about fifteen million lives. So Mao is hardly the first Chinese to mobilize violence in support of, well, less income inequality.

Similarly, there has been more than just Mao to “PRC.” In the late l970s, as I mentioned, with Communist Party rule on the brink of collapse, the Party’s then-head, Deng Xiaoping, pushed through a reform plan. He called it “socialism with Chinese characteristics;” it has produced a state-directed form of market capitalism. The purpose of the reform was to perpetuate the Party’s control; it has been very successful, creating what the world knows as “Rising China.”

The economy of today’s People’s Republic of China (PRC), that is to say, Communist China –not Hong Kong China, or Taiwan China, or Singapore China, but Communist China—probably has the most unequal income distribution of any of the world’s major economies. The wealth disparity is even more pronounced and, beyond that, there are great regional disparities; the most extreme of these are in the most politically sensitive border areas, where they exacerbate increasingly-violent ethnic tensions.

Now, as a sinologue, I welcome the assistance of the social sciences in helping me understand, well, China. I welcome the assistance even of economists but I often wish that they would not discuss the Chinese economy and, especially, that they would not discuss the nature of inequality in the PRC economy. For example, Joseph Stiglitz is an eminent economist, Professor of Economics at Columbia University, a former Chief Economist at the World Bank, a Nobel Laureate in Economics. Accordingly, he has authority, which means that his observations on the political issues of the day should be taken, and are taken, very seriously. It happens that, about a week ago, Professor Stiglitz was in China and gave an interview on April 2 that was printed in the English-language edition of a magazine called Caixin, (财新) (“Economic News”)

If you read the interview, you will see that it is tantamount to a discussion among economists, and there are indeed many American-educated ones in the PRC, products of our finest graduate departments. Yet nowhere does the reader get a sense that Professor Stiglitz understands—though he may well understand, maybe he just won’t say—that there is a difference between the origins, causes, consequences, and remedies for “inequality” in a polity that is a constitutional democracy with competitive elections, zillions of newspapers, magazines, and broadcast stations and networks, not one of which is controlled by a one-party regime, independent university faculties, and so forth—that is, a place like the United States—and the origins, causes, consequences, and remedies for “inequality” in a polity that is one-party dictatorship.

One way to express the difference is visually: when he was Chief Economist for the World Bank, Professor Stiglitz worked in a city that had monuments honoring Jefferson and Lincoln and people like that. During his visit to Beijing, he was in a city that had monuments honoring Mao Zedong.

In our country, people who find income inequality worrisome talk a lot about “individual greed” as a kind of psychosis. But in today’s PRC, the accumulation of enormous personal wealth is inherent in the system, “socialist” as it may be. The system itself necessitates that it work this way, and for two reasons. The first is that wealth buys protection from a state which is not constrained by what we think of as the ordinary workings of politics, and the second is that it is the inevitable result when members of a Communist Party go into business in a system which the Communist Party itself has set up to give itself the most privileged and influential position in the marketplace, not only to steer the economy in the direction that the Party wants it to go, but also to amass enough cash to lubricate the system as a whole.

Just this past March 30, the government leaked a story to Reuters about a man named Zhou Yongkang. Mr. Zhou had once headed one of the country’s two gigantic oil companies and then went on to run the country’s secret police. Reported Reuters:
Chinese authorities have seized assets worth at least 90 billion yuan ($14.5 billion) from family members and associates of retired domestic security tsar Zhou Yongkang, who is at the centre of China’s biggest corruption scandal in more than six decades, two sources said. More than 300 of Zhou’s relatives, political allies, protégées and staff have also been taken into custody.

With due allowance for exaggeration for effect, and also keeping very much in mind that this is not the result of a good government movement but, rather, the visible tip of what has to be a bitter struggle for control of the Party and therefore of the country, one close observer of the contemporary Chinese scene puts it this way:
This level of corruption is quite rational in today’s China; it is the reality of today’s China but it isn’t as if one man was pilfering from the company’s coffers and ended up with $14 billion. The number is huge but this is what a modern Chinese patronage network which extends all the way into the top ranks of the Chinese Communist Party looks like. These are networks of friends, families, and related entities which can include hundreds of people and who, if not in day-to-day direct control of state-owned enterprises, are nonetheless very much sitting in the flow of a river of money and investment.

This is one way that the PRC party-state has inserted itself into the society, ostensibly to create a stronger and more consequential country. If you lived in the PRC, you would certainly prefer this way to Mao’s way, but it is not without its costs. The PRC party-state is not a well-meaning state, but even well-meaning ones—like our own—ought to be alert to the perils of self-certainty when unconstrained by a loyal and robust opposition.

Related Articles

China is Complicit in North Korea's Human Rights Abuses

Melanie Kirkpatrick & Victor Cha

Wherever you are vacationing this summer, chances are you will encounter someone with his nose buried in David Baldacci's latest best-seller, "The Tar...

Continue Reading

China Needs a New Way to Manufacture Export Growth

John Lee

China’s emergence as a central hub of global export manufacturing is well known. Becoming increasingly dominant in market share at the lower value-add...

Continue Reading

韩连潮:习近平反腐有底线,会封顶

Lianchao Han

Watch Liancho Han's interview on VOA Chinese about corruption in Xi's China...

Watch Now