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. 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, 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 …

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