At a recent book discussion – I was arguing the dictatorial continuity under the People’s Republic – it was put to me that the assessment of today’s Chinese regime should start from reform and opening up. The previous period, it was suggested (and I don’t think I’m being unfair to my interlocutor), the Maoist disasters that is, was something else, a disorder brought about by China shaking itself free from its inheritance of civil war, Japanese occupation and the like.
That might seem an extreme view, but is in fact widely shared. Apologists of today’s dictatorship, for whom China is a great success story, do tend to disregard the dark past as somehow not being part of today’s reality. Even the bloody crackdown in 1989 – under the reformed People’s Republic, remember – gets more or less airbrushed out, in what the author Louisa Lim has called “amnesia.”
However, if the question is “how successful is the People’s Republic of China?” we must start from 1949. That’s when the People’s Republic was established and from then on the new regime was in control. It established itself as a dictatorship, which it has remained throughout. There was territorial unity, no more civil war and no more threat from without. Crucially, the first years were orderly with strong economic growth. Then followed the twenty years of Maoist disaster, the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution. Those disasters were not a legacy of past troubles, but entirely home made. They were destructive of the People’s Republic’s own initial success. Crucially also, the regime itself has not disavowed any of its own past, not the Great Leap, not the Cultural Revolution, not Mao.
The People’s Republic has in fact not been a very successful regime. Economically, it got off to a good start, then destroyed it for itself, and has later to some degree caught up. Socially, it remains unmodern, for example backwards in gender relations and in the position of women. And politically, obviously, it is a regime unable to trust its own people and dedicated to denying them life styles of autonomy.
East Asia is a region of fantastic development stories, in which context the Chinese one is mediocre. Taiwan and South Korea have in the same time as the People’s Republic made themselves entirely modern nations, not only economically but also socially and politically. Even in narrow economic terms, they are way ahead of China, having grown not only to a middle income level but to affluence, and in the process avoided China’s vulgar extremes of inequality.