He Qinglian: the chronicler of China's Great Leap Backward
For much of the past three decades China was viewed by the world as the engine that drove global prosperity. Communist China was credited with lifting the greatest number of people out of poverty in the shortest possible time in all of human history. The world was mesmerised by China’s stunning economic performance. Meanwhile, in 2006 China laid a railway line to Lhasa, the highest in the world. The Olympic Games held in Beijing in 2008 brought all these economic and technological achievements to a dazzling climax. China’s place in the world was firmly established and was well deserved.
However, the recent downfall of Bo Xilai, the party chief of Chongqing, the sprawling metropolis in China’s most populous province, Sichuan, from the pinnacle of power and the brave dash of the blind human rights activist, Chen Guancheng, to the American embassy in Beijing exposed the dark side of China’s economic growth. China’s economic growth comes at huge human cost and is based on pervasive corruption.
Even in the days when China dazzled the world, there were China scholars who wrote about the connection between the country’s economic growth and the corruption it spawned. The connection between the two became even stronger when in 1992 during his famous southern tour Deng Xiaoping, to prevent the Chinese Communist Party’s possible fall from grace and power, urged the Chinese people to go into the business “even more boldly” and “even faster.” That’s a fine sentiment and no one can disagree. But what was left unsaid was how the Chinese people could become rich and within what rules? To spell out these details would be to dismantle the one-party state. In order to save the Chinese Communist Party, China’s paramount leader threw the Chinese people to the vultures of a predatory state.
Today the Chinese people are suffering from the decision Deng made of sacrificing China for the sake of the Party. Since then, the Party treated the Chinese state as an economic pie to be divided among its different interest groups. Two broad interest groups emerged. The Party and business elites, working in collusion, started plundering the wealth of the state.
Here’s how the Party does it, as told by Bao Tong, an aide to the late Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, to Ian Johnson in an interview published this month in the New York Review of Books. “If I were in the current system,” said Bao Tong, “I’d be corrupt too… If you’re in that system, they’ll say, oh, your son should be a CEO. If you say, no, he shouldn’t, then they say, how can he not? If your son can’t be one then ours can’t be one either. Then they’d push you out of the boat.”
One of the most detailed examination of the link between corruption and economic growth in the People’s Republic of China was done by He Qinglian in her book, China’s Pitfall published as far back as 1998. It is a credit to the Chinese leaders that this book was allowed to be published in China at all. Within two weeks of publication, the Chinese public snatched all 100,000 copies. Later, 330,000 pirated copies came out.
In her book, He Qinglian says that China’s economic dynamism is based on “a process in which power-holders and their hangers-on plundered public wealth. The primary target of their plunder was state property that had been accumulated from forty years of the people’s sweat, and their primary means of plunder was political power.”
In a lengthy review of He Qinglian’s book for the New York Review of Books, Chinese writer Liu Binyan, and Perry Link wrote, “The fiftieth year of the People’s Republic, for example, will lead to comparison between the Communists and the Nationalists whom they displaced. The corruption of the Nationalists was ugly in the late 1940s, but many say it is far worse now. Problems of inequality, vice, and crime, which the revolution swept away in the 1950s, have returned. A popular saying goes:
For forty-some years, ever more perspiration,
And we just circle back to before Liberation;
And speaking again of that big revolution,
Who, after all, was it for?”
This saying encapsulates China’s entire history and the cyclic nature of that history. Droughts, floods and corruption lead to massive peasant rebellions that in turn lead to the creation of a new dynasty, which ushers in unification, peace and prosperity. Then inertia sets in and the ruling elite degenerates into so many corrupt regimes of the past. The cycle of rebellion, renewal and disintegration starts afresh. Who is to say that the Chinese Communist Party can escape this cycle without reforms of renewal and restoration of faith?
But to answer the question, who, after all, was the revolution for? This question was answered by the two reviewers quoting another popular Chinese saying. This saying is called A Short History of Comradely Sentiment. It runs:
In the 50s we helped people.
In the 60s we criticized people.
In the 70s we deceived people.
In the 80s everybody hired everybody else.
In the 90s we “slaughter” whoever we see.
The two reviewers explain. “The word ‘slaughter’ (zai), which corresponds in both sense and tone to ‘rip off’ in American English, is now widely used. Few people in the outside world appreciate how pervasive the attitude and practice of zai have become in China. Probably in no other society today has economic good faith been compromised to the extent it has in China.”
NOTE-- The writer is the Executive Director of Tibet Policy Institute of Central Tibetan Administration.
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