What’s bigger than China?

A snapshot of present-day China depicts an unwieldy economy, fraught with cronyism, a lack of transparency, and a variety of social and environmental powder-kegs primed to explode after three-and-half decades of rapid industrialization. Through even the most rose-colored lens – taking into account significant increases not just to GDP, but also to per capita income and even the Human Development Index (Willis 2011:7) – it is tempting to agree with Prem Shankar Jha’s assessment of the Chinese Miracle as little more than “managed chaos” (2009).

Yet, China is in transition. A momentary glimpse does little to reveal the trajectory of what have undoubtedly been significant and lasting changes to Chinese economic life. Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 Reform-and-Opening Policy (改革开放) gave the green-light for profit-making endeavors, something openly chastised during the Mao era. In fact, Deng was twice purged during his predecessor’s reign for advocating pragmatism over class struggle and revolutionary ideology (Barnett and Clough 1986:1). But, Deng’s conviction outlived the Chairman, and his notion that socialism is not about shared poverty continues to drive Chinese economic practices in the twenty-first century.

For Deng and his successors, some people have to get rich first for everyone to eventually benefit. On the surface, this seems to echo Adam Smith’s view of the butcher, the brewer and the baker acting in their own self-interest to put food on the rest of our dinner tables (1776:1.2.2). However, from an ideological standpoint, the post-reform Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views capitalist development as a means to socialism. They appreciate what Mao failed to account for during the epic failures of The Great Leap Forward: Profit-making drives innovation.

In China, unlike the USSR, the ideological shift did not accompany institutional collapse; the CCP led the transition (Hsu 2007:1). It is thus misguided to assume that China’s growth is a cheap reproduction of our own, driven solely by free-market ideals. It is still unclear how genuinely the CCP will adhere to its socialist endgame, given the high profitability of ongoing cronyism. Regardless, China clearly has big plans for itself. By allowing “the return of the god of wealth” (Ikels 1996), the CCP has tapped into the unrivaled productivity of a capitalist system. China may or may not overtake the US as the world’s #1 economy. But, since 2010 it’s been a solid second. That’s big, because we prize economic dominance. But, what if China’s growth leads it beyond the ideology by which we measure success? That’s much, much bigger, because even the most focussed image cannot reveal what it fails to capture.

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