Talking Point

From Mao to now

How China’s changed – for better and worse – since October 1, 1949

Chairman Mao declares the founding of the People's Republic of China

Sixty years ago, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, its GDP per head was $439. Less well known is that the country’s GDP per capita in 1820 was $600 – i.e. considerably higher than when Mao Zedong took power. Somehow China got poorer for 130 years.

The Great Helmsman had his own explanation for this. In a 1949 speech he said: “The Chinese have always been a great, courageous and industrious nation; it is only in modern times that they have fallen behind. And that was entirely due to foreign imperialism and domestic reactionary governments. Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. The Chinese have stood up.”

Next Thursday the country will celebrate the 60th anniversary of that ‘standing up’. The founding of the People’s Republic will be marked with a huge parade in Beijing (for more on which see page 13).

So has a lot changed in those 60 years?

A great deal. But first, Mao’s legacy needs to be put in context. For many Chinese he resembles the first Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi. Like Qin, who unified China in 221 BC, Mao’s great achievement was to reunite the country. After 150 years of being beaten up by foreign powers (such as in the Opium Wars) and sovereignty breaches, this was a time in whichMao evicted foreign influences and reinstated a strong central government. Like Qin, he ended a warlord era.

For a nation with a proud 5,000 year history, Mao’s most tangible triumph was to restore China’s status as an independent power, and with it some of the dignity that was lost in the era of the ‘unequal treaties’ (primarily with Britain) and through the Japanese invasion.

Sixty years on much of that ‘century of shame’ has been erased. Ceded territory – namely Hong Kong and Macau – has been returned. And if China still feels inferior to the West, you wouldn’t have guessed it from last year’s Beijing Olympics – whose momentous Opening Ceremony celebrated the antiquity and creativity of Chinese civilisation.

Today China is the half of the “G2” with the money – the banker to the US through its $800 billion holding of Treasury bonds. That’s thanks to an economic renaissance that few would have predicted in 1949. As Mao told Indonesia’s President Sukarno shortly after coming to power: “Frankly we haven’t a lot of things for export apart from some apples, peanuts, pig bristles, soybeans.” How times change: in the first six months of this year exports were $521.7 billion, taking China ahead of Germany, as the world’s top exporter.

And later this year, China is expected to eclipse Japan as the world’s second biggest economy. This is a particularly significant milestone: in the decades before 1949, a swaggering Japanese army had occupied large parts of Chinese territory, including Beijing and Shanghai. But the prevailing mood in Japan today is more introspective – the country worries about falling behind its neighbour. Just last week the Nikkei newspaper reported that Nissan sold more cars in China – in the January to July period– than in Japan itself.

This week in New York, new prime minister, Hatoyama Yukio ingratiated himself with China’s leader, Hu Jintao, saying he would like the East China Sea to become the ‘Sea of Fraternity’.

What has propelled the changes?

Perhaps one man above all: a Sichuanese named Deng Xiaoping. After Deng ousted Hua Guofeng, Mao’s designated successor in 1978, the command economy’s days were numbered. Instead, China began to embrace capitalism, unleashing a new generation of hard-working entrepreneurs.

China studied America carefully too. Both were continental economies, it noted. It reflected that America’s post-war dynamism had been propelled, in part, by the construction of an interstate road system. So China went on a road building spree itself. Currently it has 60,300km of expressways and by 2030 it will have 86,000km – more than the entire US interstate system.

The other major driver of change was urbanisation. When Mao spoke to the crowds from Tiananmen Gate in October 1949, around 90% of the population lived in the countryside.

Since 1978, there has been a mass migration to the cities. China now has over 100 cities with a population of 1 million or more; and over 45% of the population lives in urban areas. By the end of last year there were 607 million city-dwellers. That migration – unsurpassed in human history – gave the economy a unique advantage: a massive supply of cheap labour for its export-oriented factories.

Nearly 59 years after the revolution, China’s GDP per person was up substantially: to $3,315. Deng – who died in 1997 – can probably take credit for lifting more people out of poverty than any other person.

Three decades of 8%-plus annual growth has also created a new middle class, and a new consumer society. For example, China now leads the world in mobile phone subscribers (703 million of them).

The Chinese consumer had become an important force in the global economy too – driving demand for products as diverse as cars (surpassing the US in auto sales) and Louis Vuitton bags.

This must have had some less desirable consequences too?

China has changed a lot since 1949: for the better and, sometimes, for the worse.

Chinese cities speak volumes about China and the consequences of its development. Historically, Chinese architecture has tried to be in harmony with nature. The old siheyuan (courtyard buildings) were laid out in a horizontal arrangement. But you will be hard-pressed to find many siheyuan in Chinese cities today, where the preference is now much more for the vertical. Just look at Shanghai’s Pudong area. China is in love with the towering building, and the modernity it conveys.

In fact, 2,000 years of architectural heritage has been swapped for skyscrapered ‘modernity’ in just over 20 years. And it has all happened in a fashion so unsentimental that it would prompt an official at Britain’s National Trust to shake his head in disbelief. But there is little nostalgia for the old in modern China – who wants a dirty decrepit siheyuan, when you can have a modern apartment with a flushing toilet, goes the thinking.

The changing face of the urban landscape is a physical manifestation of the sweeping changes that have affected Chinese society as a whole.

This is a population that has undergone two waves of shock therapy. The first was the Cultural Revolution, beginning in 1966 and turning the nation’s value system on its head. This was an era when a society that venerated teachers turned on them, and in which children even reported on their parents for ‘counter-revolutionary behaviour’. It was a period epitomised by the case of Tan Shuzhen, a music teacher at the Shanghai Music Conservatory. Tan was publicly denigrated as a rightist by his students, then beaten and forced to live in a closet under the school’s stairs. He was confined there for nine months.

The mass hysteria of the Cultural Revolution – which went on for a decade – was awful (the most conservative estimate has the number of suicides at 400,000). Then came the second – and more far-reaching bout of shock therapy: Deng Xiaoping’s decision to ‘open up and reform’. With the catchphrase ‘to get rich is glorious’, a materialistic, money culture was born.

In the early days of Chinese communism, the guiding symbol had been Lei Feng – a selfless soldier used by state propagandists to belittle the concept of ‘self-interest’.

But by the 1990s, Lei was largely forgotten, as self-interest became far more of a guiding principle. It spawned a rapacious form of capitalism too, as well as rampant government corruption, as local officials took kickbacks in return for permits and the ‘princeling’ children of party leaders built billion dollar businesses.

So there were social costs?

Yes. China is one of the world’s most culinary cultures, and in many ways food epitomises both the positive and malignant changes that Chinese society has undergone.

Throughout history, the Chinese have worried about not having enough to eat. As recently as 1958, Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward saw an estimated 40 million starve to death.

No one is going hungry today. The turning point was 1978, with Deng’s market reforms ensuring that food is now plentiful.

But unfortunately, not necessarily safe. Businesses keener on making a quick buck than in ensuring their products do no harm have contributed to a decade of food scares. In the most high profile scandal milk powder manufacturers adulterated their product with melamine, killing babies and making thousands more sick. (For a fuller analysis, see Talking Point, WiC6).

Knowingly poisoning your customers (and fellow citizens) goes to a deeper problem of trust – or lack of – in contemporary society.

Take the case of Qi Yulin. She passed the university entrance exam, but did not go to university. Why? A corrupt local party official – unbeknownst to her – had stolen her identity. His daughter took Qi’s university place in her stead – the official bought off teachers at her school to keep them silent. “The story of Qi Yuling presents a microcosm of the breakdown of trust that bedevils the whole of Chinese society,” comments James Kynge in China Shakes the World.

And the perception of many Chinese today is that the deck is stacked in favour of the rich and powerful. Discontent simmers – which explains why there were a reported 87,000 demonstrations last year.

And there is one other obvious cost to China’s more ‘rapacious’ brand of capitalism: the damage it causes to the country’s environment. Factories have routinely polluted air and dumped their toxic wastes in rivers and lakes. Mercury poisoning in the city of Wanshan is so bad that the 60,000 residents cannot drink local water or even use it to water vegetables. In the most recent scare (WiC27) a lead smelting factory in Shaanxi province gave most local children lead poisoning. Indeed, one reason China has been able to produce so much so cheaply is because it hasn’t paid much attention to the environmental degradation its economic boom has unleashed.

Now after three decades of profit-before-prudence, efforts to ‘green’ the economy are belatedly underway.

Will they succeed?

The political will is there. At the UN this week, President Hu Jintao said China would reduce its carbon footprint by “notable margins”. Green energy is now a big theme (see Talking Point, WiC30) too.

From an environmental impact point of view, another key legacy of the past sixty years is the manner in which the population has exploded. After all, as China’s 1.3 billion get richer and consume more, carbon emissions will rise inexorably too.

It was Mao who was happy to let China’s population grow so quickly – by 325 million in his lifetime (from 550 million in 1949). His reasoning was simple: he saw a big population as a source of military strength. Historian Margaret Macmillan notes that Mao told the Soviet foreign minister that if there was a nuclear war, both America and Russia could be wiped out. But as he chillingly remarked: “China will suffer too, but we will have 400 million people left over.”

It was only with Mao’s death that the government could take measures to curb the population explosion. The solution was the one-child policy.

Introduced in 1979, it remains the largest social experiment any society has ever undertaken. The one-child generation are nicknamed the “Little Emperors” (see WiC9, Talking Point); a reference to their tendency to be spoiled by their devoted – and increasingly affluent – parents.

Now in their twenties, the Little Emperors have been studied by social scientists and are being labelled the ‘selfish generation’. These are the offspring of Deng Xiaoping rather than Lei Feng – given their main preoccupation seems to be with material success, rather than selfless service to the nation.

In fact there are many that worry about the materialism that runs through contemporary China – which is one reason why President Hu Jintao talks continually about striving for a “harmonious society”.

Money, of course, is not new to China – paper currency was invented there in the ninth century. But previously the country has seemed capable of balancing materialism with a moral code (via Confucianism) or spiritual beliefs (Buddhism and Taoism). Many look back wistfully to more ancient times. They are welcoming a trend in which both Confucianism and Buddhism seem to be regaining popularity, in spite of Mao’s best efforts to eradicate such ‘old culture’.

So a case of back to the future?

You could say so: back to the influence of Confucius, born 2500 years ago.

A movie about Confucius – starring Chow Yun-fat – is to come out later this year and interest in the sage has never been greater. Businesspeople are signing up for special courses in guoxue (studies in the Chinese classics) at Shanghai’s Fudan University, for example. And a number of the country’s business elite have become disciples of Nan Huaijin, a renowned guoxue scholar and Buddhist master.

Nan is critical of the direction in which China is heading. He compares reflection on the thoughts of Confucius with visits to a food store. Both are daily necessities, he says. He laments that in modern times – he means after 1919 – Confucian thought was rejected. This eating of the “foreign bread” of Western ideas rather than the rice of Confucian ones has led to a great unsettling of the Chinese stomach. Only through a reacquaintance with Confucius can China regain its balance, Nan says.

Indeed, it was notable that in the recent guilty verdict handed down to former Taiwanese president, Chen Shui-bian, the Taipei judge explicitly cited Confucius’ Analects. He quoted from Book XII in his observation that: “Chen Shui-bian is a head of state. He should have known the unchanged truth that ‘if this one person is benevolent, the whole country will learn to be benevolent, if this one person is corrupt, then the whole country will be in turmoil. Where the wind blows, the grass bends accordingly.”

This all made a great impression on China’s internet community. As did the fact that a former leader could be found guilty of corruption – and given life imprisonment. “Judgements in China generally read ‘Failing to live up to the Party and the people’s expectations’,” wrote one. “In mainland China, no judges have the deep humanistic qualities required to write so profoundly.”

Another wrote in admiration: “The true fact is that Taiwan is a society of equality before the law.” Many asked if and when China would “catch up with Taiwan” in this respect. One netizen saw it as a vital step: “In China social instability has much to do with the corruption that has developed since the 1990s. We need to have a clear understanding of this connection. We need to learn more from Taiwan and the rule of law.”

The online commentary points to another transformational influences on China in recent years – the spread of the internet. There are now 341 million Chinese online – even more than in the US – and HSBC forecasts that the number will double in five years. In a country without elections, the internet is proving as effective a place as any for citizens to express their opinions.

As discussed in WiC18 there have been many cases in which public outcry – voiced through blogs and chatrooms on the internet – have prompted government officials to reverse decisions.

In many respects, the internet is the most revolutionary thing to happen in China in the last 60 years. And policymakers might do well to heed the words of a hydraulic engineer, Jia Rang. Jia pointed out 2000 years ago that: “Those who are good at controlling water give it the best opportunities to flow away; those who are good at controlling the people give them plenty of chance to talk.”

Indeed, when the country’s leaders watch their parade next week, they will likely reflect that six decades after the revolution, China is standing tall today. That’s thanks mostly to its GDP and growing financial clout. But if the past 30 years fixed its economy, the next 30 will probably be about fixing the country’s badly frayed social system. And one of the best ways to gauge its success will be to read the opinions of the Chinese online.


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