China: How Much Success?

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)

The communist transformation of China is certainly the largest, and arguably the most ambitious, of the many state-administered “social experiments” which have characterized our century. The “experiment” on the mainland has been in progress nearly thirty years; it is not premature to ask whether it seems to have been successful.

In this series of essays, which began two issues ago, we have been examining one aspect of the overall Maoist strategy: the struggle to eliminate desperate poverty and to raise material standards of living, in China. In the first part (NYR, April 3) we saw that highly idealized accounts of China’s progress, such as Father Imfeld’s China as a Model of Development or Professor Gurley’s China’s Economy and the Maoist Strategy, do not provide us with the sort of information we would need to trace improvements in health and nutrition, the two most important aspects of a people’s material well being. The late Professor Eckstein’s China’s Economic Revolution is more useful and informative. While facts are hard to come by, it seems clear that accounts partial to the Maoist regime have over-estimated the improvements in health, and underestimated the extent of hunger.

In the second part (NYR, April 19) we looked at literacy and the status of women. Here again it seemed that, while China’s problems were exceptional, its achievements had been exaggerated. In this issue, we shall look at the extent to which economic inequalities have persisted in communist China, and speculate on how relevant the “Chinese model” is for other poor countries.

The People’s Republic is widely regarded as the world’s most egalitarian society; is this reputation justified? Imfeld certainly believes it is; after all, he reasons, “The whole aim of socialism or communism can be summed up as creating a state of equality between peasants, workers, and intellectuals.” But what sort of equality? The word “equality” can be conveniently redefined to suit the needs of its users. No one even slightly familiar with contemporary China could seriously argue that equality before the law, equality of access to decision making, or equality of diverging ideals—the right to dissent—are cherished goals of the communist government. Quite the opposite: these, and many other sorts of equality, have been dismissed as “bourgeois rights.” The equality which Mao recognized, and seemed to push for with a sincerity unmatched by any other modern leader, was equality of standards of living.

How successful was Mao’s campaign to narrow the economic differences among the people of China? His strategies for eliminating material inequalities are well known, and Gurley does them justice in a skillful and sensitive survey. What Gurley does not make clear, however, is the world of difference between a strategy and its successful implementation. If we are willing to judge China by what it delivers to its people, not by what it wishes for them, we can find plenty of evidence that China is materially a less egalitarian society than …

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