What is “development” and where does it come from?
I’m currently reading “Civilization: the West and the Rest” by Niall Ferguson in an attempt to answer the stated question of this blog entry, “Will China Ever Develop?” It seems to me the answer is “probably not”. The reason I come to this conclusion is simple, China doesn’t have what it takes. Basically, China and its culture effectively died with the Fall of the Ming dynasty and what we are left with today is a nation desperately trying to modernize by building fancy sky scrapers and copying every bit of technology it can get its clutches on, but that’s not how the West won the great culture race and invented the developed world.
As Niall argues, the developed world came into existence because of “competition, science, property, modern medicine, consumerism, and work ethic”. Outside the veneer of these existing in Chinese cities like Shanghai, for most Chinese they are completely unidentifiable in China today. Competition doesn’t exist because the economy is essentially controlled by the Party. Science exists only in a copied memorized format, with no new scientific development taking place in China at all. Modern medicine may be available in the cities, but for most Chinese, the vast majority who are malnourished, the pay as you go medical system is far beyond their meager means. One point five billion consumers was a pipe dream Western firms got heady on when they came to China in the early 90’s. Twenty years on, and it hasn’t materialized. As for work ethic, it’s also a no show, with ethics in general being a very foreign concept indeed. Since the founding of New China, Chinese and the rest of the world have been told about China’s impending development starting with the disastrous Great Leap, but the required precursors of development have never materialized.
China has modernized, at least a few of its Eastern Cities have, but the general structure of Chinese society, mainly the relation between subject and state, hasn’t changed since the time of Confucius which is repeatedly evidenced in the Party’s propaganda about a “harmonious society”. In China, a “harmonious society” has existed as long as autocracy has. It’s the way in which dictatorial emperors could ensure and legitimate their rule. Visit the Forbidden City in Beijing and marvel at all the “harmonious” rooms in name at least. Basically China can never develop because Chinese people are not very free, they are only free to follow the rule of the Party. The party has taken the place of the Emperor and the Dynasties of old. True, they are now being ruled by a western institution, Communism, but the West has already proven what a failure it is. The top down leadership that Communism and Chinese Confucianism promotes is a key ingredient for stagnation, maintaining the statuesque, harmony if you will, not development. If anything must change in order for China to develop, it’s the government. Sure things may look peachy now in places like Shanghai that serve as gleaming monuments to Party rule, but it only takes a minor earthquake to bring the shoddily built façade crumbling down.
A good example of the failure of Confucian communist social order and economics is China’s recent drive to build a “Culture Industry”. When this propaganda hit the news about a year ago I had an Orwellian moment, “Culture Industry huh??? Since when is culture and industry” I thought as I read the Chinese headlines. One aspect of what the news was talking about was essentially government spending and construction here in Shanghai. They said they were going to build a Chinese Broadway in Shanghai on the now dilapidating Expo grounds. They are going to build a bunch of theaters and then call it “Broadway”. I guess no one told them that the real Broadway is so much more than theaters and was not built by a top down government directive. The most important part of Broadway is the shows of course, soothing that requires creativity. Chinese, of course, possess some creativity and could possibly create a great live action stage show, but the next part of the program, supporting and only allowing shows/topics pre-selected by the Communist Party receive “culture industry” money has ensured that nothing worthwhile watching will ever see the stage. Other “culture industry” things being funded in the hundreds of millions of dollars are state run propaganda mouthpieces like Xinhua and CCTV. One news report I saw talked about mobile phone games as being a key example of China’s “culture industry.” I lol’d when I read that! (If anyone is wondering where the term “Culture Industry” originates, here it is: The term culture industry was coined by the critical theorists Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), and was presented as critical vocabulary in the chapter “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, of the book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). This is rather fitting I must say!)
Another key problem China faces in climbing the hill of development is education and language. Chinese education and the standardized Chinese script it is delivered in has a long and entwined history. Basically Chinese script is to China what Latin was to Europe not too long ago, a language of exclusion. Chinese script was standardized and developed for the express purpose of excluding the masses from partaking in education in an effort to maintain strict social segregation and subjugate the majority of Chinese to ignorance and serfdom. The traditional form of education also developed in relation to the complicated nature of the script to the point where “learning” was transplanted by and equated with memorization. In order to learn Chinese script, it takes 5 to 7 years of dedicated memorization and repetition. After the script had been learned in pre-modern times, the way to be “educated”, and therefore a member of the ruling class, was to memorize the classics. After the classics were memorized, tests, more accurately called “recitals’ were taken to secure public office. After a test was passed, if it ever was, many people studied for the tests their entire lives and never succeeded until they were old men, then they’d get a job with the government and their families could prosper.
Although today in China this ancient system of test taking for public service as the only means to social mobility has been abandoned in its ancient form, the language and the methods developed for it are still in use. Chinese are still using a language system that is anything but efficient and easily accessible and the entire education system is one of memorization for tests. Chinese educated people are only taught to copy and repeat, they are never taught to think. In short, Chinese Education is a massive failure and will never produce the innovation required for China to develop. After-all, if all you can do is copy and recite what someone else said or wrote, then when will you ever say or write anything original? Never.
A key ingredient in order for China, or any other country, to become a developed is a free press. In the rise of the West to their position as Masters of the World, the printing press played a key role in the dissemination of ideas, both scientific and sociopolitical. In China, the press (TV, Internet, Books, Newspapers etc.) are all strictly controlled by the Party. Even this blog I am sitting here writing from China about China is illegal. Nothing can be published about China by those in China without approval of the Party. How can China hope to develop technologically and socially if the people bound within its borders are subjugated to basic thought control? Chinese love their country and want to live in a better society, but this is impossible when the state controls everything that can be disseminated for public consumption. In China you’ll read countless stories about China’s “indisputable right” to occupy the South Sea or to claim Taiwan and Tibet are “inseparable parts of China” which often whips the average Zhou into a frenzy of self righteous indignation, but it is forbidden to publish the names of the children killed by illegal school construction in the Sichuan Quake of 2008 or poisoned by Melamine milk. Which of these issues are really important to Chinese people? Which, if they were addressed by the authorities, would make Chinese people’s lives better/safer? The answer is obvious, but such considerations and responsibilities are not of importance to the Party. They are more concerned with protecting “face” and doing their best to start a war in the South Sea which won’t do any good for any Chinese living in China. No country has ever developed from the top down. Development is not something that can be achieved without the leaders submitting to the rights of the citizens and a free press is the necessary precondition for this required submission to occur.
On the ground in everyday life, Chinese social structure still clings to outdated, and downright childish, notions like “face” (From my personal experience I understand “face” as meaning “looks good on the outside, crap on the inside.) and “guanxi”. What these translate to is a country inhabited by people and lead by a government who behave like spoiled teenagers in cliques and gangs. Never being able to admit fault or guilt (face) and only caring about the advancement of one’s social group (guanxi) will not help China develop as a nation or society. Every modern Western country you visit, no matter how boisterous and lawless compared to the others, has a considerably higher degree of social and personal responsibility, People follow rules and care about others when in public. A Western business person is not going to poison milk killing babies and the average citizen is not going to drive their motorcycle down a busy sidewalk honking at pedestrians. Why? Because citizens of developed countries have an idea of the “public good” and do things to improve it or preserve it. What happens to people you don’t personally know is in every Westerner’s mind, of importance and their own personal desires are subjugated to this greater social good. This is a key aspect of developed countries that is unfathomable to the average Chinese.
Never admitting a mistake or taking responsibility is another key social problem. A high speed train derails and the government’s first response is to claim it as an act of god and then to bury the wreckage before the cars have even been adequately searched. An average Zhou drives his car through a red-light and kills drives over a kid on a bike and claims the light was green. Everyone is simply out for themselves and China and its people be damned. A somewhat funny example of this is Qingdao’s recent program to provide free toilet paper at public washrooms, most of which was stolen. China is the only country I am aware of undeveloped to such an extent that toilet paper cannot be provided In public washrooms! This Chineseness has to wither and die before any part of this nation can be developed. In other words, development starts with the people and works its way up. Unfortunately, the government, more accurately, ‘the mob” known as the Party operates in the same way and does everything in its power to stop such development from occurring.
After reading everything I have written up to now, the knowledgeable may shrug and say, “well, that’s China”, and they are right. That is China, but it doesn’t have to be. Some of you out there may think I am a China hater, I’ve been called as much and worse on numerous occasions, I’ve even received death threats believe it or not, for committing the infraction of losing China’s face and voicing my own opinion. The reason why is simple, Chinese culture, what is left of it anyway, is backward and undeveloped. A backwards writing system, face, guanxi, and an inborn callousness for their fellow human being are basically all that remains of “Chinese Culture”. Everything you see in China today, most prominently in its coastal cities like Shanghai, is Western. Cars, tall buildings, communism, pants, cell phones, restaurants, TV, bicycles, light bulbs, honking horns, stock markets, bridges, etc. etc., basically, modernity, is Western. What is Chinese are the personal behaviors and ideas incompatible with modern living and development. As long as Chinese behaviors and ideas continue, China will never be “developed.”
How China can be “Developed”
In my opinion there are three things that can lead to China becoming a developed nation. The first, as I’ve already pointed out, is the destruction of the last remnants of Chinese culture, its written script, face, and guanxi. The second, as you may have guessed, is the destruction of “The Party”. The third, which I believe to be one of the most important and which I am going to talk about here may come as a surprise, the destruction of China…
How can China develop if it is no more you may be wondering? The answer is simple, just like Europe did. The key ingredient for development that does not exist in China today is competition. This has resulted from the fact that China has come to be forcibly ruled as a single nation. In reality, China is a country of many nations, languages, and indigenous culture all being pounded down under the iron fist of Communism and its citizens being brainwashed to support it. If the boundaries of China were broken and the people contained herein were to form their own states, there would be local competition on this landmass and development would have a much easier chance of occurring. Many countries that have managed to escape Communist Chinese rule on China’s borders are indeed much more developed. South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan are the obvious examples, but even nations such as Vietnam are much further along the road to modernization in many respects. For example, in Vietnam toilet paper can be made available in public toilets, derailed trains are not being buried, victims of earthquakes can be published, and babies are not being poisoned by melamine milk. Also, things like the internet and the press are free from outright government control and the average citizen gives a damn about their fellow countrymen.
The obvious question would be to ask is “why?” Why is Vietnam, according to me at least, much more developed than China? The main reason is that Vietnam, like Japan, Taiwan, Singapore etc., is a much smaller nation more or less made up of a single homogenous cultural group. China, with its seemingly ever expanding boarders (no doubt they’ll claim Mongolia is China in the coming years), is essentially a nation of many different peoples none with the right to self determination. Like the dynasties of old, the average Chinese citizen today sees nothing of personal benefit coming from helping or supporting their fellow citizens or their government. Everyone is out for themselves because China is a country of strangers forced, for the most part, to speak a foreign tongue and forced to support a foreign dictatorship.
If China were broken up into its rightful states, each with its own language and public institutions, the average citizen of these states would through time realize the benefit of helping others and perhaps more importantly, developing their own unique ideas and innovation. Looking at a lot of problems China has, like the corruption that lead to the Wenzhou train disaster or poisonous milk being fed to babies, these happen as a result of China’s unmanageable size. A centralized system in such a large land and huge population is basically an untenable situation. Face and guanxi rise to the foreground as individuals are so disenfranchised my the enormity of the forced state that they rely on other means to navigate the social realm. Face only works if there are enough people around whom you are unknown to and guanxi is only useful as a social organization technique when the centralized system of control fails to be instituted within the masses.
Imagine a China where the North West is Manchuria, Beijing to the Western coast is a separate entity, Shanghai Hangzhou and Suzhou areas are another free state, Xiamen and the area to the south of Shanghai another, Guangdong another, Tibet, inner Mongolia, Xinjiang etc. others. In such a China, authority and culture would be much more localized. No criminal business man in some far flung province could poison the milk of anyone but his immediate neighbors. There’d be no vast high speed train network controlled by a single corrupt official residing in Beijing skimming millions of dollars. The people average citizens would encounter on the street, on the metro, or in other public places would be locals and connected through language, history and nationality. In short, the region known as China today would be a much better place to live and a much more modern one.
Governments of these free states would promote things such as science, education, and the free press as ways to gain advantage over their immediate neighbors. All this competition would produce new things that would be disseminated by the peoples of all Chinese nations benefiting the entire Chinese population. The current excesses of corruption and the retardation of society would be a thing of the past. People living in the Chinese region would live better lives and have a genuine pride in their nations’ histories and cultures. I firmly believe getting rid of the Party and the unified nation of China would be the last best chance for people here to realize their dreams of modernity. After-all, this is how Europe progressed. If Europe had been ruled by the Romans, as much a stagnate empire as the Chinese dynasties, then the modern world would probably never have come into being.
The Future of China today.
Much has been made of “China’s rise’, especially in the western press over the past decade or so. Confident and misguided commentators constantly and consistently predict that by some year in the not too distant future, China will be the world’s number one economy, that Chinese companies will be the leaders of the new capitalist order, that the West is in decline and we Westerners should learn from the “China Model”, yada yada yada. Of course, they are all completely wrong. Most, if not all of them, have never set foot in China and have no idea of the reality of life on the ground here. The most disorganized inefficient chaotic state on the planet today is never going to be the leader of anything. It’s as simple as that. Lacking in innovation, organization, and vision, China, its government, and its companies are more a anomaly of the modern world rather than the new masters of it.
For starters, there is no “China model”. State intervention in economics is a purely Western concept. About the only thing that can be classified as “Chinese” about China’s current development is inefficiently and often ineffectively throw masses of illiterate peasants at any problem. Sure China can quickly build massive cities, high speed rail lines, and damns, but it can never invent them nor build them to last. Chinese development as it stands today is a crumbling façade, a “face” of development. Modernity has been downloaded in China, not produced by it. Global leaders, whether they be individuals or nations, require vision and innovation, two things which China’s development model seriously lack.
China, socially, culturally, economically and technologically, is permanently faced towards the past. The entire agenda of the nation regardless if it’s economic policy or the style of government, is constantly refereeing to the past. What China does in all aspects is what already has been done elsewhere. Compared to America’s rise, primarily in the 1950’s, China hasn’t achieved any of the development of mind and country required to be the global leader of anything. As a nation, rather than inventing things like refrigerators, banking, or enshrined freedoms of the people, they are copying some of the technologies of the west, albeit poorly for the most part, and doing their damnedest not to bring in line with international standards institutions like banking or guaranteed human rights. People and nations do not follow other nations or leaders with a lack of vision and devoid of new ideas. Left to its own devices, China and its economy will once again stagnate and revert to its previous status as the Sick Man of Asia.
Probably, within the easily foreseeable future, long before the pundits predict China will rule the world, China will falter and fail. Internal strife and warmongering with its immediate neighbors seems to be what will cause its eventual demise. The Party, like its subjects, has drunk the Kool-Aid and actually believe their own hype and the hype of uninformed Westerners looking in from the outside. In the Chinese mind, citizen and Party alike, China’s rise and its so-called eventual reunification are concrete because history tells them so. They believe they can copy the west in technological achievement without any of the social institutional achievement and miraculously do development better than its progenitors and indeed rule them. Like Icarus with his new found ability to fly, China, propelled by their own delusions and Western invented development is fast approaching the sun believing Chinese wings won’t melt.
Some interesting info here about some of the topics I have touched on in this blog: Undermining Democracy: China