Niall Ferguson’s new documentary series charting the rise of China welcomes viewers to the nuances of a system which has delivered unprecedented growth over three decades, pulled millions from abject poverty and poses as a counterpoint to the West’s liberal capitalism. In the first instalment, Ferguson casts his gaze upon China’s social philosophy and sets about trying to answer some interesting questions: How has China managed to prevent the intricate patchwork of society fraying? Why does the authoritarian vein runs so deep in the nation’s cultural cosmos? How will China’s leaders continue to rein in dissent in the future?
For the first question, the narrator turns to the great Chinese thinker, Confucius, who concerned himself with the development of people and society. Confucius argued for a “harmonious society” which would cultivate altruism, righteousness and humanism – qualities he deemed crucial to self-improvement. This vision has been the cornerstone of China’s modern pursuit of economic development.
But why is social stability so important? When trust trumps suspicion, people of different factions are more likely to engage in cooperation, forge trade links, share knowledge and work towards mutual benefit, not mutual destruction. Stability suggests a unity around common goals. Resultantly, politicians can corral society into forgoing immediate consumption for investment and the prospect of higher living standards later. Finally, in a modern state, a calm and reliable environment encourages foreign firms to set up shop in China. This opens the door for China to enter new industries.
When Rio Tinto invests in a new mine in Eastern China, Chinese workers are taught the most efficient mining processes, are exposed to the best management practices, and develop links with financial colossals such as Goldman Sachs or J.P. Morgan. Local mining firms gain these insights when Chinese workers leave the foreign venture. Foreign investment induces this transfer of knowledge, raising the standards of home-grown businesses.
So, how do the Chinese pursue stability? Ferguson suggests that the authoritarian flavour to China’s politics has long been a pillar of social stability. The narrator looks back to over two millennia ago, during the Warring States Period, when China was carved up between many kings and warlords. Qin Shi Huang, who succeeded in unifying China in 221 BC, consolidated power by centralising decision-making and maintaining an iron grip on the activities of the underlying states. The Qin Dynasty, and those which followed, then oversaw a period of sustained economic prosperity. But the power scuffles continued, punctuating China’s history with spats of bloodied violence.
In a country periodically blighted by social unrest – the White Lotus Rebellion, the Taiping Rebellion and the Tiananmen Square Protests – leaders are well aware of the restlessness swelling beneath the surface. To that end, officials have enshrined social stability above individual freedom. China now boasts a population of over 1.3 billion people and 56 officially-recognised ethnic groups with innumerable subdivisions as well as countless unrecognised groups. More so than ever, China’s leaders pine for social harmony as they manage the precarious balancing act of economic growth and social development.
The supply of social housing has underpinned a host of policies aimed at reducing urban poverty and tempering activism. China has tapped into its massive supply of labour by increasing migration from the agriculture heartlands to the booming manufacture sites on the coast. Importantly, this migration is temporary; itinerant workers are expected to return home regularly. This halts the accumulation of shanty towns which may otherwise fan the flames of unrest. And where homelessness has concentrated, authorities have financed huge renovation schemes.
However, rougher seas lay ahead. In a recent article, The Economist highlighted that the number of protests in China, and their scale, has been growing. Moreover, China’s leaders are less adept at tackling the burgeoning technology-savvy population, who are increasingly turning to the internet to voice their concerns. The number of users at Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, has exploded to 250 million. In the absence of a free press, the internet has become the prime source of news. Whereas the state could successfully keep a lid on social unrest in the past, word now spreads like wildfire on social networks; “local protests or scandals to which few would once have paid attention are now avidly discussed by weibo users”. As news of protests becomes more widespread, more people are likely to down tools and raise their placards, knowing that thousands of others share their worries.
Some voices are tentatively calling for greater individual freedoms. In a new book, Zhang Musheng - a retired official - has pushed the idea of slivers of political reform to “defuse mounting economic, social and political strains.”
Beijing is at a difficult junction: a large reshuffling of the party elite is pencilled in for later this year. China’s new leaders will be keen to address the resentment towards widening income inequality. However, anonymity makes supervising the internet an entirely different beast to the press. Netizens are largely free to bellow without fear of reprisals. Though, new legislation may force users signing up to online services to use their real name. But these measures won’t hinder the internet as the major vehicle for news.
The Party cannot fall on its old vices of manipulating the media. In fact, the changing circumstances may force officials to focus on real development - tackling the cause of unrest and not the news of unrest. Part-and-parcel of this will be greater political freedoms. China’s new leaders will face a fresh canvas. It will take great vision and courage to land that first radical stroke.
A statue of Mao Zedong dominates the hustle and bustle of Tianfu Square in Sichuan, China. Amongst the buzz, a camera is whipped out and a group of Chinese tourists clamour over each other for the best spot next to the Chairman. But a peculiar irony pervades the scene: Gucci-clad, sporting Lacoste shirts and armed with the latest smartphones, this vignette of modern-day middle-class China seems far away from the vision of Mao.
Communist-hardliners and middle class tourists make for awkward bedfellows. Mao sought collective ownership, outlawed private property, shoehorned farmers into communal outfits, burnt thousands of books, halted migration and installed officials to reach into every nook and cranny of life. China’s modern middle class, however, own homes, choose their own professions, enrol in top universities, migrate from inland to the perkier coast and enjoy anonymity and privacy online.
But Mao is back in vogue: the airwaves in Chongqing are laced with the wisdom of the Great Helmsman; “Red” has been weaved into the names of hundreds of schools, hospitals and offices; and nothing seems to pluck at the heartstrings of the Middle Kingdom more than a cheerful dose of Red Songs.
So, why does the romanticism about Mao continue? That is the question Niall Ferguson grapples with in the second instalment of his new documentary series on the Middle Kingdom.
First, Ferguson focuses on Mao’s successes. When the communist party assumed control in 1949, Mao closed the chapter on a China ravaged by civil war, crippled by Japanese occupation and on the brink of starvation. He unified the populace around grand projects and set about rebuilding the greatness of China.
However, Mao simply led the nation from chaos to catastrophe. The party implemented the Great Leap Forward - a process of rapid industrialisation and collectivisation, aiming to transform China from an expanse of farmland into a modern communist society. The policy ended in 35 million deaths, many due to severe famines. “Gargantuan Fall Backward” seems a better fit, as Ferguson quipped.
Mao’s follow up, the Cultural Revolution, was even bolder. Large swathes of the Party elite were purged. Historical relics, cultural sites and religious shrines were destroyed. Youths were mobilised in the Red Guard. Families were torn apart as young urbanites were forced into rural agricultural work. And intellectuals were demonised and harassed.
Mao’s reign was disastrous. Misty-eyed sentimentalism can go far – but it would be impossible to scrub away the memory of a decade of bloody upheaval. So the Chairman’s popularity must have another source. Perhaps the fondness stems not from what Mao did but what he made possible.
The Great Helmsman revamped the old civil service: party cadre swept into every city, town and village across China. Membership of the Chinese Communist Party exploded and Mao soon wielded an army of administrators, supervisors and local champions. The Cultural Revolution excited a generation of the disillusioned youths, immersing them in the political scene.
Mao had built an unstoppable machine with the capacity to ignite panic or prosperity. Under the aegis of Mao, this system crippled China. When Deng Xiaoping took over the reins in 1978, he proved the right pair of hands to unleash the machine’s full potential. Deng fused Mao’s state goliath with a capitalist profit motive. The fairytale which follows is well known: China has grown from the doldrums of poverty into a global powerhouse.
Memories may fade but legacies endure. The last 30 years have been a slow catharsis for the Great Helmsman. It seems the turmoil under Mao has been overwhelmed by the prosperity he made possible. And while China’s economy continues to awe and inspire, the fond nostalgia for Mao doesn’t seem likely to depart any time soon.