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Has China Failed? An Exchange

To the Editors:

The two articles by Nick Eberstadt that have already appeared (NYR, April 5 and April 19) offer a welcome cautionary look at the rosy depictions of the People’s Republic of China which have blossomed with multilateral manuring by Dick and Henry and Jimmy and Zbig. Eberstadt, however, paints his picture too black through the improper use of statistical data that is surprising in a population specialist.

I cite only one of many examples: on page 44 (April 19) he discusses the proportion of women in China’s colleges, estimating this at between 49 and 40 percent of the total college attendance. At the higher figure, he says, “China would be similar to countries like Swaziland, Kuwait, Brazil, Jamaica, and the Philippines….” At the lower, “China is on a par with Argentina and Mongolia, and behind such countries as Lesotho, the Dominican Republic, Thailand, and Madagascar.”

Eberstadt surely must know that the comparisons must take into account the social structures, populations, and economies of the various countries. A country in which, say, only 1 percent of the college age spectrum—and that vastly different in income from the rest—attends college presents a very different case from one in which even only 10 or 20 percent—but from a more homogeneous social and economic mix—go to college.

Harry Grundfest

College of Physicians and Surgeons

Columbia University

New York City

To the Editors:

Americans have a grand passion for averages even though, when pressed, they will readily admit that averages can be very misleading. The Chinese for whatever reason seem less afflicted by this obsession. Perhaps, some first-hand observations of conditions in China would lessen Dr. Eberstadt’s dependence upon dubious averages.

To cite one example, he cites a figure of 2100 calories as the average daily intake of the Chinese, whose numbers he seems to estimate at about 900 million. This figure, as he notes, is taken from the Joint Economic Report, “Chinese Economy Post-Mao,” 95th Congress, Second Session. A look at the source should convince any careful researcher, however, that the figure is almost meaningless; it is not based upon actual consumption but on food rationing allotments and, since many foods are not rationed in China, the result tells more about the rationing of grains and oil than about the daily diet of adult Chinese. Even here, however, one should be wary: the Joint Economic Report says that 15 to 20 kilograms of grain are provided per adult in the ration system but, in computing its figure of 2100 calories, it bases itself on the lowest level, 15 kilograms, and not the highest level of 20 kilograms, a difference of one-third. The Joint Economic Report airily assures credulous readers, “Per capita food consumption levels in China appear on the average to have changed little since the 1950s” and while Dr. Eberstadt seems to accept this assumption, many Chinese have told me otherwise and, since I was in China during the three bad years of drought, 1959-1961, I can understand why the Chinese would smile broadly at the assumption on an “average” that has remained constant for nearly thirty years.

At another point, Dr. Eberstadt attributes to China a “GNP per capita of about $300.” So far as I know, the Chinese do not calculate any GNP. Perhaps they do not share our ardor for this much-abused index of well-being, which can be propelled upwards by the forced buying that follows widespread destruction from fire, earthquakes, etc.

To be sure, China, as a developing country, has many problems to solve. It is not an easy task to feed, clothe, house, and provide medical services for a people of nearly a billion in number. But I doubt that 95 percent of the Chinese would seriously consider Dr. Eberstadt’s suggestion that they “abandon the socialist experiment.” An old Chinese said to me, “We know something about your capitalist freedom—the freedom to be unemployed, the freedom to go hungry, the freedom to go broke. We want socialist freedom.”

Charles J. Coe

Brooklyn, New York

To the Editors:

Despite a variety of sources and a reasonable amount of statistics, Nick Eberstadt’s article on China does more to obscure than deal with the problem of China and the lives of its people. The comparisons to Taiwan and South Korea—offered by the author as a yardstick—appear meaningless. Do the governments of those two nations, blessed with some amount of foreign aid and a manufacturing/industrial sector that brings in seemingly significant amounts of foreign capital, face the same problems in feeding and caring for their people as the rulers of the People’s Republic? Jumping around within provinces in India or comparing India and China without sound statistical yardsticks does little to further understanding of the problem. After reading the article it is difficult to tell what the problem and possible solution is.

Mr. Eberstadt would have performed a far greater service had he chosen to marshall his knowledge differently. Given the varying quality of Chinese agricultural land, what are reasonable per yields for crops—within broadly defined regions and for the nation as a whole? How does potential yield per acre in China compare with other nations—as India—within the same statistical grouping? What are good estimates for China’s real yields per acre? How close does Chinese agricultural yields approach potential yields? Given the cost of modern American farming practices (fertilizers, seeds, machinery, etc.), how would the cost of modern techniques compare with the possible increased yield? If the Chinese are producing at near 100 percent theoretical yield then no effort of the regime—or any regime—would bring significant results. It may be that China continues to have the same problem it has had since the Ch’ing (as Elvin points out in The Pattern of the Chinese Past), there are too many people and too little land. If Chinese agriculture is efficient and such other nations as Indonesia or India is not (given potential yield per acre), then few comparisons between these nations are helpful. I do not know the answers but given all the work Mr. Eberstadt has done, surely the figures must be at his hand. Is the solution to China’s problem—if there is one—development of a strong export market to earn foreign currency, to buy foreign techniques, to purchase foreign grain because China cannot increase total agricultural yield (though possibly cutting down on cotton to increase rice or similar tradeoffs)? Calorie counts are important; how does Chinese caloric intake given their size and bone structure compare with other peoples’ caloric intake and body structure? What is the significance of the heavy reliance on foodgrains for calories in China? Does it mean the Chinese are freer of the problems our society has owing to its high intake of animal protein and fat? Is there a nutritional difference between forms of protein? Is it simply a boredom with the sorts of food they eat? Would the Chinese be better off having fewer pigs and eating the grain the pigs consume?

The questions are many and the task before Mr. Eberstadt is great. Certainly he faces a near-impossible task attempting to provide some ideas about life expectancy, infant mortality, birth and death rates. When he turns to agriculture surely he could have been more rigorous in his method and allow us clearer insight into the problems of Chinese agriculture. Even if Mao’s boast that the Chinese eat well is not true, are they eating as well as can be expected with their vast population and limited agricultural land base?

Charles M. Dobbs

Department of History

Metropolitan State College

Denver, Colorado

To the Editors:

In his discussion of economic equality in Chinese villages (NYR, May 3), Nick Eberstadt misses the central point in my article, which he cites and blithely dismisses for having data from only six cases (though he accepts a portion of a somewhat contrary argument made by Professor Martin Whyte on the basis of one case). That point is quite simple: the size of the gap between highest and lowest incomes, which Mr. Ebertstadt, along with many others, uses as his main measure of inequality can be very deceptive because it says nothing about how many people are at or near the extremes and how many are grouped in the middle. In the villages I studied, the poorest 40 percent of the population received an average of 25 percent of the collective income, and the middle 60 percent received 57 percent, nearly their theoretically equal share. While I have not seen good data on intra-village distributions for other countries, it is difficult to imagine distributions too much more equal than these.

Mr. Eberstadt also forgets that in Chinese villages land, tools, draught animals, and other productive resources are collectively owned. This means that economic inequalities among individuals in a village stem not from inequalities in ownership, but primarily from the fact that at any given time families differ in the number of workers relative to the number of people to be supported. But these “hand-mouth ratios” tend to even out over the family’s life cycle, since mouths do usually grow into hands. In China, then, lifetime incomes are probably much more evenly distributed than in countries where productive resources are privately and unequally owned, even though statistical measures of the magnitude of inequality in any one year may be similar. Perhaps more important, this tendency of income inequalities to even out over a lifetime clearly affects the subjective importance which Chinese peasants attach to them. A cadre interviewed in China in 1977, echoing statements made by several others, said that a very poor family in her village was not worried about a large debt it had accumulated, because “when it reverses its position (fanshen) it will be a family to be reckoned with.”

Marc Blecher

Department of Government

Oberlin College

Oberlin, Ohio

To the Editors:

In his argument that China’s agriculture shows declining factor productivity, Eberstadt cites India as an example of improved efficiency. However, Eberstadt could not have used Mellor’s data to show that India’s agriculture is increasingly efficient, because Mellor’s analysis is based on the assumption of constant returns to fertilizer. (See Mellor’s New Economics of Growth, p. 311.) The chart Eberstadt refers to shows that fertilizer has played an increasingly important role in India’s agriculture, not because it is used with increasing efficiency, but because it is used in increasing quantities. My attempts to do the type of comparisons suggested by Eberstadt indicate that fertilizer may be used more efficiently in China than in India, and that the efficiency may be increasing in China while decreasing in India. In both countries, however, continued agricultural growth will require massive investments.

The attempts to demonstrate declining agricultural efficiency in China are flawed by the inability to count the myriad “outputs” of the rural economy. They emphasize grain, but little is known about fruits, vegetables, poultry, pork, agriculture, cottage industry, and the value of housing and infrastructure, which have not been adequately surveyed in China, much less reported. Moreover, how should improved stability of yield, which is more important than growth in avoiding catastrophic famine, be valued?

Benedict Stavis

Department of Agricultural Economics

Michigan State University

East Lansing, Michigan

To the Editors:

At the risk of seeming ungrateful to Nick Eberstadt for his fine series on China, I must point to what seems to me a basic inadequacy in his analysis.

Eberstadt focuses on sensible and important criteria for measuring China’s successes, or otherwise, in areas which are comparable to other countries: hunger, literacy, status of women, economic equality, etc. But by itself, this focus is unduly restrictive. China’s unique failures lie in the monstrous edifice of totalitarian control: the prohibition against internal travel; the party monopoly of the media; the huge forced labor establishment, which, according to Bao Ruo-Wang, may include as much as 10 percent of the working population. On matters such as these it would make no sense to ask, for example, whether China has done better or worse than India.

It does not appear that Eberstadt is ignorant or even that he would disagree on these points. But he somehow manages to bracket the totalitarian aspects, to keep them in suspension, as when he mentions the restrictions on travel, in his third article, by way of a mere obiter dictum.

The Western world has always thought that the full hell of existing totalitarianism is unmentionable. Even Hitler’s concentration camps, about which we German Jews tried to warn the world while they still existed, were not acknowledged by the liberal West until it was too late.

Werner Cohn

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

The University of British Columbia

Vancouver, Canada

Nick Eberstadt replies:

In their thoughtful letters Messrs. Blecher, Coe, Cohn, Dobbs, Grundfest, and Stavis raise a number of questions about the factual accuracy, methodology, and even the philosophy of my pieces on China. Let me respond to each letter in turn.

Mr. Grundfest’s objections, I feel, are based both on a misunderstanding of the purpose of my section on the status of women and on faulty assumptions about the nature of Chinese higher education. As he intimates, college students in China are more “representative” of the Chinese population as a whole than are the student bodies of most other poor countries—after all, it would be hard for the Chinese mix to be less “representative.” But China is by no means a land of complete educational equality. It is the privileged elite in China’s nominally classless society (city dwellers, party members, intellectuals) who can get their children into college; it is the common people (illiterates, farmers, parents without political connections) who cannot.

Mr. Grundfest is incorrect in assuming that a far larger proportion of young people receive higher education in China than in the other nations with which I compared it. Of all the countries in the comparison (Kuwait, Lesotho, the Dominican Republic, etc.) only Swaziland had a lower ratio of university students to total population in the early 1970s. It is my feeling that most of these countries have their educational priorities backward—they are investing too much in higher education, not nearly enough in transmitting basic skills—but this is another issue altogether.

In discussing the status of women, I was trying to examine the extent to which women were discriminated against solely on the basis of their sex. “Unrepresentative” social or economic mixes are the result of class discrimination, not sex discrimination. The measure I used gives us an idea of how much more likely a man is to receive a university place than a woman, and thus serves as a relevant, though imperfect, index of sex-based discrimination against women in universities.

Mr. Coe should recheck Chinese Economy Post-Mao. He will see that the estimate of 2100 calories per day does indeed take into account nonrationed foodstuffs, including fruits, vegetables, eggs, and fish. Although I have not checked with Groen and Kirkpatrick, who produced the 2100 calorie estimate, I assume the reason they use a figure of 15 kilograms of grain per person per month is because they are calculating average availabilities. Average availabilities are a composite of availabilities for adults and children. The 20 kilogram figure cited was for adults, who need considerably more food than the two-fifths of China’s population which is under 15.

If Mr. Coe’s Chinese friends are under the impression that food production per person has risen dramatically over the past generation, they have not been keeping up with their own government’s reports. Last November Hu Ch’iao-mu, Teng’s top economic adviser, announced that average per capita grain production in 1977 was about the same as in 1955.

GNP figures for poor countries are unreliable under the best of circumstances; estimating the GNP per capita for a poor nation which does not believe in the free release of information is of course a far more tenuous exercise. My point in using a GNP per capita figure was to show that the Chinese are very healthy for a poor people. If Mr. Coe takes exception to my particular statistics, I am sure he would agree with my conclusion.

Finally, Mr. Coe should reread my section on agriculture: I did not recommend that China “abandon the socialist experiment.” I specifically refrained from recommendations of any sort in all three of my articles.

Mr. Dobbs’s complaint, as I understand his letter, is that I did not write a series about obstacles to development in China, and the strategies which might surmount these. He is correct: I did not write that sort of series. My articles addressed a question which, surprisingly, has gone unexamined in China studies, namely: what material benefits has the communist Chinese government delivered to its people, and in particular to the poor, over the past generation?

If Mr. Dobbs would like to pursue the topic he seems to be most interested in, he will find no shortage of material: a good starting point would be the incisive work of such scholars as Shigeru Ishikawa, Dwight Perkins, and Thomas Rawski. The past two volumes of the Joint Economic Committee’s series on China could be helpful in answering further questions.

Marc Blecher (whom I incorrectly referred to as Martin Blecher in my final China piece) raises two technical points about the measurement of inequality. Mr. Blecher seems to feel that there is one measure of economic inequality which is superior to all others under all circumstances; this, of course, is not so. Inequality is a many-sided phenomenon; the choice of its measure depends upon which of its many aspects one wishes to illuminate. In my essays I was most concerned with the plight of the poorest of the poor; hence, measuring the income of the bottom fifth against the top fifth seemed the proper way to proceed. In measuring the top fifth against the bottom fifth we are by definition including 40 percent of any population in our comparison; I am surprised that Mr. Blecher objects that my top-to-bottom measure “says nothing about how many people are at or near the extremes,” but in fact my measure by its very definition includes two fifths of any population: the richest and the poorest.

The measure which Mr. Blecher prefers, the Gini-coefficient, is a standard measure for overall economic inequality. In principle, this is an extremely useful measure; for calculations about contemporary China, however, it suffers from two drawbacks. First, it is highly sensitive to error, and error cannot help but enter into Mr. Blecher’s reconstruction of income levels of Chinese villages from interviews with refugees. Second, sophisticated statistical exercises such as the calculation of the Gini ratio generate an aura of precision and reliability, and the data for China simply do not warrant this. As Mr. Blecher realizes, we do not have comprehensive, let alone representative, data on the distribution of collective income in China, despite his important effort to fill this gap. We have almost no information, furthermore, on the sources of income which are likely to be the least evenly distributed: remittances from overseas relatives (these are not insignificant), employment outside the village, income from private plots (typically a fifth to a third of village output), and the like. Sophisticated calculations, under such circumstances, seem unwarranted and may even mislead the average reader.

Mr. Blecher’s second point confuses me. He argues that China’s level of economic inequality would appear to be lower if we looked at lifetime earnings rather than focusing on earnings at any given point in time. The reason, of course, is that at any given time young unskilled workers are just entering a period of peak earnings; over the course of a lifetime, however, such inequalities cancel out. While Mr. Blecher is quite right in asserting that “life-cycle” incomes are more evenly distributed than “cross-section” incomes in China, he seems to imply that China is unique in this regard, and here he could not be more incorrect. The phenomenon to which he alludes can be observed in every society, rich or poor, communist or capitalist. To give but one example: Alan Blinder’s analysis of income inequality in the United States suggested that “point in time” Gini-coefficients were about 50 percent higher than “lifetime” Gini-coefficients.

For Mr. Blecher’s technical arguments to be valid (i.e., for lifetime incomes in China to be “much more evenly distributed than in countries where productive resources are privately and unequally owned, even though statistical measures of the magnitude of inequality in any one year may be similar”) two conditions would have to be met. First, China would need to have an exceptionally distorted age distribution, which would artificially heighten apparent income differences through an overrepresentation of workers at both the bottom and the top of their earning careers. Second, China would need to have a pattern of wages whereby earnings rose or fell with age at an exceptionally rapid rate, thereby suggesting through “point in time” measures that income was unequally distributed, even though earnings over the course of a lifetime would appear quite equal. In point of fact, there is nothing exceptional about China’s age distribution and although our information about wage patterns in China is incomplete, what evidence we do have suggests that China’s “age earnings profile” is smoother, not steeper, than those of most capitalist countries. If there is any substance to his argument at all, then it would seem that Mr. Blecher has got things the wrong way around. As a political scientist, Mr. Blecher should realize that collective ownership of productive resources is hardly a prima facie argument for income equality: both South Korea and Taiwan, for example, have less skewed distribution of income than Yugoslavia—or in all likelihood, the Soviet Union.

Mr. Stavis is correct: I could not have used the data to which he refers in Mellor’s The New Economics of Growth to build an argument for declining efficiency in Chinese agriculture. If he were to reread my article, he would see that the source I quoted was Mellor’s piece in the September 1976 issue of Scientific American. Using Mellor’s data on fertilizer, irrigation, and labor force, I could put together a rough index of “agricultural inputs,” against which the output of foodgrain could be compared. Clearly, if production is rising at a more rapid rate than “input,” overall efficiency is increasing: one is getting more “bang for buck.” If, on the other hand, it takes an increasingly rapid rate of growth “inputs” to maintain a given rate of growth in foodgrain production, the efficiency in the system, for whatever reasons, is declining. My calculations for India and China showed that, under a variety of assumptions about the value of these “inputs,” efficiency and foodgrain production would have risen by 8 to 10 percent in India, and fallen by 10 to 15 percent in China, over the past generation. As any economist who has played with data knows, a further refinement of my method could change those numbers. Any further refinement, however, would be likely only to make the point of those numbers all the more clear: that a unit of agricultural expenditure is producing more foodgrain today than a generation ago in India, and less in China.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Stavis that there is all too little information on the Chinese economy: in fact, I tried to make this point at the beginning of my first piece. It would be useful to have information on luxury foods (pork, fruit, poultry), construction (housing and what he calls “infrastructure”), rural industry (steel, cement, glass), and the like. While such information would be valuable in and of itself, however, it would contribute little to our understanding of the foodgrain system. The argument that we cannot judge efficiency in rice farming because we know too little about, say, copper smelting, strikes me as a non sequitur.

Mr. Stavis’s final argument seems to me to be rather misleading. As I understand his letter, he is implying that there is a tradeoff between efficiency and stability of yield, and that the Chinese have opted for the latter so as to avoid “catastrophic famine.” As an expert on Chinese agriculture, Mr. Stavis must surely know that it is in the regions where average yields are highest and where production is most efficient that production is also the most stable, and further, that the process of agricultural modernization increases stability of yield in China by making the fate of the harvest less dependent on unpredictable weather conditions.

Mr. Cohn’s points are well taken. The political atmosphere in which one lives determines to a significant extent the quality of one’s life, and can make meaningless for the individual whatever material improvements a government may be able to deliver. I can only say that I was working under the assumption, perhaps naïve, that my readers understood the nature of the Chinese political system, and would be able to discount the material benefits China has provided its people accordingly. Western societies have an unfortunate habit of ignoring the abuses totalitarian regimes inflict on their subjects. We must be willing to learn about what Mr. Cohn refers to as “the hell of totalitarianism,” be it in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, South Africa, or “Kampuchea,” and if I can supply information to people like Mr. Cohn who can speak so eloquently about it, I will be satisfied that my pieces have served a purpose.

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