The book China After Mao: The Rise of a Superpower is a chronicle of China’s rise to world power. Award-winning Dutch author Frank Dikötter is a China expert who bases his research on access to government documents and what he witnessed. His story is compelling because he has no agenda beyond trying to explain what he observed.
Four decades after Mao Zedong’s death, the communist nation went from the 126th largest economy to the second. Western optimists credit a growing market economy and free trade for this transformation. However, the author challenges the “economic miracle” narrative of China after Mao.
Beyond the glitter of the nation’s shining metropolises and industrial base lies an immense system of contradictions, illusions, corruption, shadow banking, and political intrigue. Extreme wealth exists beside abject poverty. The plight of the poor Chinese people remains dire in the face of a political program that only serves the Communist Party and its leaders. If there is any miracle, it is that China still survives.
Dikötter traces this darker and more chaotic narrative. While the players, facts and policies constantly change, one thing stands out. The Chinese Communist Party is amazingly consistent in its four-decade march to ever more socialism -- not a market economy.
The book details, almost to excess, the power struggles and brutality of this march to keep China communist. However, one of the work’s great merits is to point out at least four CCP consistencies among many.
What We Consistently Don’t Know
The first consistency is the lack of data about what is happening in China.
China is a mystery where the only rule is that nobody knows anything about China... including the Chinese government. Given the proliferation of false statistics, there is no way to calculate how big anything is in the country. Dikötter notes how in most things, “I know what I don’t know. But where China is concerned, we don’t even know what we don’t know.”
The central government insists that each sector reaches its goals. Junior communist officials must present the best possible picture to remain in power and favor. Thus, China consistently suffers from inflated figures that no one can rely on. On the contrary, debts and shortcomings are underestimated so that failure will not be perceived and punished.
Data is dangerous in China and is best left unknown and unknowable.
A Consistently Controlled Economy with Little Freedom
Western media promotes the myth of a China turbocharged with private initiative and investment. The reality is a consistent policy of socialist ineptitude, which Dikötter documents with great skill and detail.
Behind the scenes is a constant power struggle of ideologues obsessed with growth at the expense of economic efficiency. Once factories are established, they are never closed and produce to overcapacity since they are always assured of subsidies and government bailouts.
In China’s planned socialist economy, the market is rarely considered. The State sets production goals, and Party officials struggle to outdo each other to reach them even when there is no demand. The government sustains “zombie” industries that would be better left to die. Warehouses are overfilled with surplus goods. These products are later dumped on the world market at great discounts.
Similarly, government officials vie with each other over infrastructure projects financed by massive shadow banking debt and government aid. Thus, China is a nation of empty malls, vacant industrial parks, and unused airports. “Ghost” cities have sprung up everywhere, with no one to populate them.
In addition, the wealth is not well distributed since most goes to the State, not the people. Chinese premier Li Keqiang reported in May 2020 that more than 600 million Chinese live on a mere $140 a month.
Consistent Control of Trade
China maintains a consistent trade policy that overwhelmingly favors the communist nation. Chinese officials became proficient at luring foreign investors and executives to locate in the country and take advantage of cheap labor. They always held out the carrot of access to a billion-consumer market.
However, Dikötter concludes that the only result of these lures is “a fairly insulated system capable of fencing off the country from the rest of the world.” The State controls all trade that usually flows in one direction—out to the West. Meanwhile, China ignores intellectual property rights and environmental regulations that allow it to produce things more cheaply. The State’s countless rules, currency manipulations, sanctions, bonuses, deductions, and incentives make China “the most unlevel playing field in modern history.”
When enterprises issue shares, the majority are taken over by the CCP and party cells are implanted inside the plants to ensure control even when in partnership with Western companies.
Consistent Socialist Orientation
Despite the ever-changing power struggles and Party intrigues, the most consistent policy of the CCP is its strict adherence to Communism. Throughout the four decades of liberalization, the CCP leadership never lost focus on its communist goals.
After Mao’s death, the Party instituted the Four Cardinal Principles that remain in effect to this day. The Principles are: “We must keep the socialist road. We must uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat. We must uphold the leadership of the Communist Party. We must uphold Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought.”
The more the West insisted that China was becoming capitalist, the more CCP leaders openly affirmed their unshakeable faith in Communism. Compromises with the West were merely “capitalist tools in socialist hands.” China makes no effort to hide this agenda.
In 1998, Chinese President Jiang Zemin declared, “China’s political system ‘must not be shaken, weakened or discarded at any time. The Western model of politics must never be copied.”
A Tragic Western Consistency
However, the greatest and most tragic consistency is a western one. As Marx once foresaw the fall of capitalism, naïve westerners saw the “inevitable” fall of Communism. They adopted a credit, concessions, and industrial buildup policy without any proof of real change.
The West’s wishful thinking automatically assumed that free trade would inevitably lead to a free society. Democracy always seemed to be around the corner. People looked with a blind eye toward massive human rights violations and the brutal suppression of protests like those at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Businessmen patiently and consistently waited for the one billion consumers that would soon be buying western goods. Western nations lost jobs to China instead.
Chairman Xi Jinping is now clamping down on dissent in China, building up its military and turning upon the West in alliance with Russia, Iran, and others. The West will soon pay the price for its illusions. Western trade policies have created a monstrous dragon, equipped to attack the nations that now depend on China’s subsidized export goods.
Dikötter’s final analysis, however, does point out some major problems with the Chinese model. Throughout these four decades, China has struggled to survive amid corruption, bad economics, and faulty structures. Intrigue, brutal suppression of opposition and Western largess miraculously carried the nation to this point.
However, all is not lost for the West should it stand up to this defective bully. The author notes that China must face “an entire range of longstanding structural issues of its own making” that could reach crisis proportions in the near future. It is time to break the consistent policy of surrender and confront the problem frontally.