If one wants to understand communist China of the twenty-first century one could do no better than look at capitalist England of the nineteenth! Yes, it’s all there; economic prosperity, certainly, but one based on huge disparities in personal wealth, on an unequal distribution of power, which allows corruption to flourish, and an intolerance of any form of sedition or radical dissent, perhaps the greatest irony of all.
As the Chinese Communist Party celebrates the ninetieth anniversary this week of its foundation the party mood has been somewhat dampened by nervous apprehension in official circles. The Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East, brought on in part by social networking, has been the occasion for a fairly serious crackdown on dissent. Prominent intellectuals have ‘disappeared’ as has the inoffensive little jasmine plant from local markets, a bit of a problem in a country that drinks so much jasmine tea!
Paranoid the Party may be but it does not have too much to fear as long as the economy continues to provide a reasonable cushion, assuring an adequate living standard for most people who have more interest in full rice bowls than human rights. But that’s the problem: things are beginning to overheat, with the relentless forward expansion starting to run into trouble. And the biggest source of trouble just at the moment is inflation.
That the Yuan, the Chinese unit of currency, is losing value is bad enough. What makes it worse is that counter-inflationary measures, which include wage freezes, are creating even more difficulties for a country where people spend half of their earnings on food. So, as the price of food creeps up and incomes stand still - which means that they are declining in real terms - the pain begins to spread.
Add to this the other faces of modern communist-capitalism; add to this the world that Charles Dickens described in his novel Hard Times, then one sees cities ever more crowded, ever more pressure on housing and urban resources, poor working conditions and higher and higher levels of pollution, all along with official indifference coupled with outright abuse. The mixture is toxic.
Actually, in a number of ways, the world of Hard Times was marginally better than the world of modern China. Britain was most certainly not a full democracy at the time but there were still effective sources of public scrutiny over the actions of government. In China, a one-party dictatorship, scrutiny and criticism are all but impossible.
Even so, some secrets do not stay hidden forever. We now know, from a report of the Chinese central bank, that over the past fifteen years some 18,000 officials have skipped the country taking with them a cool £80billion ($128billion), the proceeds of embezzlement and corruption. This is bad enough in itself but it also compounds the basic economic problem: money taken out of the system forces the government to print an ever increasing number of bills; the more bills in circulation the greater the inflation.
In a less paranoid political system such issues would be aired and resolved openly. In China the answer is crackdown and repression, not just on dissidents and bloggers but also on workers who attempt to take any kind of industrial action, brought on by anger over declining wages or appalling factory conditions. People are angry because wealth is being taken, and the wealth that is being taken is theirs.