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Has China Failed?

China’s Economy and the Maoist Strategy

by John G. Gurley
Monthly Review Press, 325 pp., $5.95 (paper)

China’s Economic Revolution

by Alexander Eckstein
Cambridge University Press, 340 pp., $7.50 (paper)

Chinese Economy Post-Mao, A Compendium of Papers Volume 1:Policy and Performance States, November 9, 1978

printed for the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United
US Government Printing Office, 880 pp., $7.00

In recent years a comfortable assumption for those concerned with the plight of the world’s poor has been that Mao’s battle against poverty in China was extraordinarily successful. Events in China since Mao’s death force us to re-examine this assumption. At the top, dissatisfaction with the results of Mao’s social and economic policies is now evident: to cite just one example, Teng Hsiao-p’ing has publicly referred to the last ten years of the late Chairman’s rule as a “lost decade.”

At the bottom, dissatisfaction with what the Maoist system was able to deliver seems no less apparent. In the big cities, Western reporters have seen protests against “unacceptably low” living standards; from the countryside have come rumors of rising crime rates and even insurrections in response to standards of living considerably lower than in the big cities. Capitalist China was notorious for the abject poverty in which so many of its people lived. We may now wonder to what extent abject poverty was actually alleviated, and to what extent material standards of living were actually improved, between the Liberation in 1949 and Mao’s death in 1976.

Extracting information on the plight of the poor from any less developed country is a difficult task; our problems for China are compounded by the fact that the Chinese government does not believe in the free release of information. After 1954, when the Soviets straightened it out, the State Statistical Bureau would have been in a position to supply us with accurate and detailed information on economy and society, but by 1959 the bureau was scrapped.1 It had done its job too well: the numbers it was churning out were too embarrassingly at variance with official pronouncements about the progress of the ill-fated Great Leap Forward. For the past twenty years—two thirds of the history of the People’s Republic—statistics have been erratic and occasionally contradictory.

Passionate anticommunists sometimes insist these numbers have been systematically falsified, but this seems extremely unlikely: a more germane question might be whether the central government has either the technical competence or the political inclination to gather detailed information from the more than half a million villages which have been wielded into fewer than sixty thousand communes. But certainly the information we get can be disingenuous and self-serving. Unless for example one is familiar with both the specifics of Chinese agriculture (details of which Peking supplies in relative abundance) and the rhetoric which surrounds them, one might not realize that the announcement of a “bumper crop” often means that output has fallen, nor would one necessarily realize that 1977, the reference year for How China Became Self-Sufficient in Grain,2 saw the greatest grain trade deficit in Chinese history.

Notes and observations from visits to. China may flesh out the picture; it is unwise, however, to put too much faith in them for our particular purposes. Carefully supervised and highly impressionistic tours can be useful for understanding, for example, the structure of organizations, the patterns of political participation at the grass roots, or the criteria by which income is allocated in the commune. Such tours do not provide a basis for judging the extent of serious poverty or the current standard of living in China. Most visitors spend their time in the cities, which house only about a sixth of China’s people, and these at a distinctly higher level of comfort than their rural comrades. When visitors are allowed into the countryside, it is usually to see showpiece projects.^3

Even if visitors were not steered toward the ideal in China, however, there would still be problems in piecing together a representative picture of living standards. In land mass and population China is larger than Europe, and its regional differences are no less pronounced. Even the cleverest and most intuitive analysts could not be expected to report back on living conditions and poverty in Europe after a three-week vacation in Switzerland; this, however, is more or less what we ask of our China hands.

Al Imfeld, the author of China as a Model of Development, is oblivious to such problems, basing his entire work as he does on a few of Mao’s more memorable essays, a dozen issues of the Peking Review, and a travelogue by the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia. Like so many other well-meaning Sinophiles who deliberately confuse a Chinese ideal with Chinese reality, Father Imfeld seems quite willing to believe anything he is told, and as a result makes numerous errors of fact and interpretation. John Gurley’s China’s Economy and the Maoist Strategy is more useful. But from an economist who understands the uses and pitfalls of information on China and also happens to be sensitive to the problems of inequality and poverty, we might have expected more. Gurley seems content either to present a general, and idealized, picture or to foist statistics on steel production and electrical capacity on us. For a poor agrarian nation, such figures only tangentially reflect changes in conditions of poverty or levels of comfort.

Alexander Eckstein was until his recent death one of the world’s foremost analysts of material change in contemporary China, and China’s Economic Revolution is full of interesting and valuable information. Unfortunately, Eckstein concerns himself more with changes in the economic system than with what these changes have meant for the Chinese people. Nonetheless, his book contains a wealth of material that can help us to get some idea of how successfully Maoist China came to grips with its own poverty.

By what means can we judge changes in the standards of material life in China? Although the choice is somewhat arbitrary, I think we can get a fair picture if we can piece together what has happened on five fronts: population, hunger, literacy, the status of women, and the degree of existing inequalities. In this first of two articles we shall look at population and hunger.



What can demographic statistics tell us about living conditions in China? Most obviously, they are the base from which to make “per person” comparisons. Saying that China is better off than India simply because it produces twice as much grain is ridiculous; at the very least, we need to know how many mouths the grain must feed in each country. Another use of population figures, however, is far less obvious.

In death and birth rates lie clues about the state of health, and perhaps even of social development, in China. The death rate, after all, reflects life expectancy, and life expectancy is the single best index of national health. The birth rate, which at first glance may not seem to indicate much about social wellbeing, carries meaning of its own as well. Birth rates depend on family size, and for most of man’s history high birth rates and large families have been the rule. There was (and in many parts of the world, still is) logic behind this: in a world of poverty, parents are desperately dependent on their children for their own survival. When parents are young, their children can help make ends meet by working around the house or in the fields; when parents become too old or sick to work themselves, their only hope for support is their children. A significant drop in the birth rate means, among other things, that parents are no longer driven by the need for children and their labor which characterizes hand-to-mouth existence. It seems useful to try to find out what we can about China’s population, and its birth and death rates.

Although it should be much easier to count heads than to compute a nation’s GNP, demographers insist that population figures in most poor countries are nothing more than broad approximations. Some estimates in the recent past have been astoundingly off base. Ethiopia’s population in the early 1950s, according to contemporary estimates, was about twelve million; it is now believed to have been nearer to twenty million.4 On the other hand, Nigeria’s census takers seem pretty consistently to have overcounted their people, in some regions by factors of more than two.5

Fortunately, China had one of the oldest and most talented bureaucracies in the poor world, which even after twenty years of disruption through civil war and Japanese incursions could still make a pretty creditable count in the early years of the communist regime. Their figure for 1953, 582 million people, has not been seriously disputed. Their estimates for birth and death rates, however, have been adjusted by outsiders, who have pointed out that the sample for the calculation of vital rates contained a disproportionate number of city dwellers, who tend to live longer and have lower birth rates. The adjustments put China’s birth rate for 1953 in the middle forties per thousand, its death rate in the low twenties per thousand. These rates would not have been much different from India’s or Indonesia’s in the early 1950s, and in those two nations life expectancy for males was under forty, while the average number of children per family was six.

With figures for the present population, we run into difficulties. Although Sinologists suspect that at least one census may have been attempted during the past quarter of a century, no census figures have been released.6 If China’s public food rationing system covers its entire population, one would think there would be fairly accurate and consistent statistics. In fact, ministries in Peking happily work with figures which diverge by as much as one hundred million people.7

While there are many guesses about China’s current population—different branches of the UN, for example, have made at least three—not all guesses are equally educated. Population experts must take into account the fact that the regime releases population statistics not on typical regions which represent the average, but on those it considers models. Neither the Worldwatch Institute in Washington nor the US Agency for International Development, which distributes America’s foreign aid, seems to appreciate this. They give very low estimates of birth rates, death rates, and population growth for China;8 if they checked their figures for internal consistency, they would find that they have estimated life expectancy in China to be well above Sweden’s.

More reliable estimates have been put forth by John Aird of the US Census Bureau9 and Leo Orleans of the Library of Congress.10 They both estimate China’s current population to be more than 900 million; Aird puts it at over one billion. (Teng Hsiao-p’ing, incidentally, recently cited a figure of one billion to foreign guests.) If Orleans’s estimate is correct, China’s population has been growing by an average of 1.8 percent a year; if Aird is nearer the mark, the rate has been about 2.2 percent. Eckstein’s guess of 2 percent a year since the Liberation seems both cautious and reasonable; it would imply that China’s population today is in excess of 950 million.

  1. 1

    See Choh-ming Li, The Statistical System of Communist China (University of California Press, 1962).

  2. 2

    Foreign Languages, Peking, 1977.

  3. 4

    Compare the 1950 estimates from the UN’s World Population Prospects As Assessed in 1973 (United Nations, 1977) with their earlier volume, The Future Growth of World Population (United Nations, 1958).

  4. 5

    See Michael Crowder, The Story of Nigeria (Faber & Faber, 1978).

  5. 6

    See Judith Banister, The Current Vital Rates and Population Size of the People’s Republic of China and Its Provinces (doctoral dissertation, Food Research Institute, Stanford University, 1977). Officials from the PRC are supposed to be consulting with the UN Fund for Population Activities about the possibility of a national count some time in the next few years, to be administered with some foreign assistance.

  6. 7

    See The Economist, December 31, 1977.

  7. 8

    See Lester R. Brown, World Population Trends: Signs of Stress, Signs of Hope (Worldwatch Paper No. 8, Washington, DC, October 1976), and Ray Ravenholt et al., “World Fertility Patterns” (USAID, 1977).

  8. 9

    John S. Aird, “Population Growth in the People’s Republic of China,” in the Joint Economic Committee’s Chinese Economy Post-Mao (US Government Printing Office, November 9, 1978).

  9. 10

    Leo A. Orleans, “China’s Birth Rate, Death Rate, and Population Growth: Another Perspective” (Library of Congress, September 1977).

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