»  The Daily Telegraph

November 16, 1984

  The Great Wall of bureaucracy between China and reform

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I have a friend in China — let us call him Wu Ming — who is a schoolteacher. His salary is £20 a month. He lives in a bare concrete dormitory with other single men and eats canteen food (which is awful). Wu Ming's hobby is electronics. He's quite a wizard — once I needed an AC adapter for my cassette player; he assembled one from scratch.

"You should do this for a living," I said. "Your government is encouraging small-scale private enterprise. Doing TV repairs and so on you could make four times your teaching salary."

"Ah," replied Wu Ming, "but then I'd have no 'iron rice bowl' [i.e. job for life]. And if I made money, people would be jealous. They'd look for ways to get me into trouble. My father has no influence, so he couldn't defend me. I would be destroyed."

Chairman Teng Hsiao-ping's latest economic reforms have had rave reviews in the West. We are told he has turned his back on Mao … broken out of the Red economy … ordered his industries to go capitalist. Well, Teng may indeed have done all this. If so, he deserves our very best wishes. But to propose reforms is one thing; he must now sell his programme to the Chinese people. They will be difficult customers.

The problem is one of attitudes, attitudes like Wu Ming's. I think we all understand now that politics is the enemy of economics. Unfortunately, politics is the very essence of Chinese life at every level. There is hardly anything else. In particular, Chinese culture is profoundly hostile to all forms of enterprise except the political. The simplest principles of rational economics — for example, the notion that one might get ahead by hard work — seem, to ordinary Chinese people, as bizarre as the tenets of some Polynesian cargo cult. To get ahead in Chinese society you cultivate "connections," trade favors and suck up to the Party mafiosi. In short, you play politics. Hard work has nothing to do with it.

In China, wealth and success have always been inseparable from politics. Tsai Shen, the Chinese God of Wealth (whose picture can be seen pasted to doors in Hongkong at Lunar New Year) wears the uniform of an Imperial bureaucrat. Message: the only proper path to wealth lies through power. I know a number of capable and ambitious young citizens of the People's Republic. They fall into two groups: those trying to get into the Party, and those trying to get out of the country.

A reader familiar with the Far East may object that these remarks do not at all describe the Chinese he has met in Hongkong and Taiwan. That is quite right; but Hongkong and Taiwan are very peculiar places. In both of them a large part of the population was long excluded from politics.

In Hongkong there has never been any point in politics at all. In Taiwan, for most of the past 40 years power has been a monopoly of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party, which recovered the island in 1945. The native Taiwanese (85 per cent of the population), having no advantage to hope for from politics, turned their energies to making money. Meanwhile the power of the ruling Nationalists was itself much qualified by social reforms forced upon Chiang at the point of a United States aid budget.

There is another difference, too, between the mainland Chinese and their offshore cousins. Even before their economic triumphs, these other Chinese had been de-programmed (so to speak) by foreign rule: the Taiwanese by 50 years as a colony of Japan, the Hongkongers by a century under the Crown.

Even Chiang's Nationalists, though they would not have won any prizes for parliamentary democracy, had been softened somewhat by contact with the West. Chiang, himself, for example, was a Christian.

None of this has any equivalent on the mainland. Mao's Communists were an entirely Chinese phenomenon. Whatever Western influence existed in China when they came to power was expunged with terrible ferocity over the following quarter-century. Looking back at the tumult of those years, it is hard not to think that it was all done with the deliberate aim of re-Sinifying the Chinese, of restoring them to their ancient condition: a race of apathetic serfs, ruled over by an infallible bureaucracy.

To think that China might "do a Taiwan" is preposterous. The people of Taiwan are free to come and go, to buy and sell, to pray and publish. Mainland China might be on another planet. There, a citizen may not even change his place of work or residence. These are, in fact, usually the same place. A Chinese factory is essentially a sort of open prison.

Is this one of the things Teng wants to reform? It is not. He wants the Chinese richer, but he does not want them freer. Rather the contrary. One of his new measures will halve food subsidies. The authorities seem well aware that the resulting price increases might cause great discontent. It would be wildly out of character for them not to anticipate this unrest by tightening social control.

The main instrument of control is, of course, the Party. The Party is most of China's problem. What Teng is seeking is economic vitality; but that can only exist when people are left to their own devices in matters of work, movement and property Leaving people to their own devices is, to put it very mildly indeed, not the Chinese Communist Party's strong point.

I hope that Teng's goulash communism will make the Chinese better off and I believe there's a good chance it will. But no, China is not going capitalist; for an essential component of capitalism is liberty.

Compounding Teng's difficulties is the fact that he cannot sell his reforms direct to the masses. Between China's leaders and China's people stands the biggest shock absorber known to man: China's bureaucracy.

People who live in free countries have quite the wrong idea about totalitarianism. Confusing absolute authority with absolute power, they imagine that the autocrat has only to stamp his foot to set the whole nation a-tremble. In fact Chinese history is rife with examples of emperors who stamped their Celestial feet until the cows came home, to no effect at all.

Every society has its own equilibrium state. China is in equilibrium when the people are getting along well enough with the bureaucracy. Once that state has been reached — it was reached by about 1980 in Communist China — real change is exceedingly difficult.

Let Teng huff and puff as he will; in a hundred thousand dozing towns and muddy hamlets the people of China will come to their own arrangements with the local despot and the factory Party secretary. "Heaven is high, the Emperor far away," sighed the Chinese of old.

I happened to be in China last year when a new set of regulations on the hiring and firing of workers was announced in Peking. These reforms were not as drastic as those now being mooted, but they seemed to me quite daring. I asked a colleague, a low-level cadre, what he thought their effect would be. He shrugged. "Oh, you know, it's just another policy."

There is the obstacle in Teng's path. For us in the West it seems astonishing to hear leaders in Peking speaking warmly of "capitalism". To the shell-shocked, enervated workers of China, snug now in their quilted winter jackets, secure with their siestas and "iron rice bowls" and familiar poverty, it may, after all, be just another policy.