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Last Updated: Monday, 9 May, 2005, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
A Point of View

By Brian Walden

In his weekly opinion column, Brian Walden focuses on an issue he thinks will dominate people's future - China.

If you're heaving a sigh of relief that the general election campaign is over then you've nothing to be ashamed of. Even some political commentators admit they haven't enjoyed it.

Mao Zedong is still revered in China

For my part, I find most modern election campaigns monotonous, dreary and uninspiring. When I spoke to Tony Benn earlier this year he told me that an election ought to be a mighty clash of opinion about the big issues. Fat chance! They don't do it Benn's way anymore.

Finding party politics boring doesn't mean indifference to what's going on in the world. Take a subject that's intrinsically interesting, is becoming ever more important and will play a dominant role in our future - China. What happens in the Chinese experiment is going to matter a lot more to us than, for instance, how the National Health Service is managed.

If China is this important, why don't we talk about it more and try to solve its mysteries? My old tutor, John Prestwich, gave me the answer to that 50 years ago. He said: "The situations we don't look at properly are the really big things, especially if they're not right under our noses. So we get them wrong."

The crucial issue when he was young was Nazism and he claimed he'd brushed aside every warning about Adolf Hitler even though some had come indirectly from people close to Churchill.

"And then I got married and went abroad for the honeymoon," he said. "I picked up a newspaper and there it was, Hitler had signed a pact with Stalin - the Nazi-Soviet pact. I said to my wife 'this means war'. At least I got that right. You might do even worse."

He was correct on all counts especially about my doing worse. In the late Gorbachev era one of my sons asked me if I thought the Soviet Union might just possibly collapse? "Oh no," I said. "The system works badly and you may see it break up, but it won't in my time." The following year the Soviet Union collapsed.

So in talking about China, because it's fascinating and momentous, I hope I do so with appropriate humility. What's happening in China is unparalleled in human history. There's never been an economic experiment quite like it and it involves 1,300,000,000 people.

The story begins in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party, under Chairman Mao Zedong, beat the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek in the civil war. In the 1930s and 40s Mao managed to persuade some gullible Westerners that he was an agrarian reformer and that the Chinese Communist Party was a kind of agricultural workers union.

In fact he was a rigid Marxist and an unapologetic supporter of Stalin. Certainly he was as brutal as Stalin. After Mao took power one of the great paradoxes of history happened. The Communist victory in China had essentially been that of a peasant army over those who lived in urban areas.

Mao's own expertise lay in agricultural policy and so one might have expected that all the emphasis would've been on peasants and the countryside. But Mao was a Marxist and Marxism, especially of the Leninist variety, believes in class struggle and rapid industrial development. So that's what China got.

The Chinese economy is growing faster than any other
But Mao's eccentricities held China back. A journalist who knew him told me: "He's a drag on the wheel. He's got two principal interests in life; creating constant upheavals to keep Communism pure and chasing girls".

At the time of the so-called Cultural Revolution in China in the late 1960s and early 70s I used to visit Hong Kong. Immensely impressed by the hard work of the local Chinese, I once asked if this pattern would eventually prevail in China.

I felt somewhat ashamed when an official rather acidly remarked that if I could imagine Mao Zedung running a rip-roaring American-style capitalist system then there might be something in what I said.

But after Mao's death in 1976 the astute Deng Xiaoping, created an attractive environment in China for foreign capital and the money poured in. As if this wasn't extraordinary enough, Deng fostered the popular slogan of the 1980s: "To get rich is glorious."

Even then the penny didn't drop with me. But it has now. The last decade has proved the Chinese Communist leadership is enthusiastically creating the world's dominant capitalist economy.

I know that doesn't seem to make sense and it's hard to believe the Chinese government can permanently keep its Leninist principles and a market economy. Surely something will have to give?

What is perhaps even more significant for Europeans is that within twenty years China will have the world's biggest economy. All the figures are breathtaking.

The one I keep coming back to in astonishment is that China has 160 cities with a population of a million or more. The Chinese economy has, of course, been growing faster than any other at about 9% per annum and it's the world's number one consumer of steel, iron ore and copper and the world's number two consumer of oil and energy products.

The latter figures ought to interest everybody, because they're going to affect everybody. What they mean is that China is already an insatiable consumer of commodities and its demand for them is going to grow at an amazing pace.

Unstable

As some economic analysts have pointed out this is certain to push up commodity prices. For those who need to buy steel and oil this isn't good news, though there are benefits for the ordinary man or woman in the street, who can buy a position in commodities and hold on long term for the price rise.

China is going to be the big story of the next decade for two reasons. It's acquiring enormous economic power and it's politically extremely unstable.

Millions of Chinese in the cities are going to be looking at anything that will make them rich. According to one government plan they're going to be joined in the next 15 years by another 300 million people from rural areas. This huge multitude's desire for consumer goods must make every capitalist in the world lick his lips.

Yet there's a fly in the ointment. What the Chinese Government hopes is that in the rush to shop at Armani's, drive a big car and buy a home computer, the Chinese people will forget all about political freedom. Particularly if they're allowed to riot occasionally against easy targets like the Japanese.

There's no sign that China's present rulers want to pack off millions to labour camps in the good old Maoist way. They just want everybody to concentrate on getting rich and shut up about democracy.

It's possible that might happen. When you come right down to it how many people in the West would sooner be poor and free than rich, but live in tyranny?

If in future we ever rebuke the Chinese for not demanding a free vote, a free press and a fair trial may they not reply: "But it's the economy stupid."

Rural communities are expected to flood into Chinese cities
Nevertheless I don't believe that in the long-run one can have a free market without developing free institutions. Sadly, I don't expect this to be a painless process. The slaughter in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 wasn't only about democracy, there were economic discontents involved as well.

But the savagery of the regime was exposed. I believe that using military force was subsequently bitterly regretted by the government, but a tyranny depends on force and can use it at any time.

Some observers think that to avoid its internal problems the Chinese Government will provoke a war with Taiwan and one or two believe that it will try to occupy an oil state in Central Asia.

Historically, though ferocious when provoked, the Chinese haven't been an aggressive people. I can't see anything in the current situation that would induce a dangerously irrational reaction.

So it may be that after some suffering and chaos the great change to a free society will happen. Personally, I think this is the most likely outcome. A huge new democracy in the East seems almost too much to hope for, but if it happens, what a wonderful day for humanity that will be.

Add your comments on this column, using the form below.

Another wise article by that rare thing; a clever prescient man with a sense of humility. The Chinese experiment - and our part in it - will indeed be a fascinating 21st century experience. I ony hope that the environmental impact can, somehow, be restrained, given our diminishing global resources and desparate need for a cleaner environment.
Richard Elson, UK

Key question is "how will the Americans react"? I can't see them acquiescing to becoming the second world power, so trade wars are likely to be the result. We are seeing signs of this already in the EU, which is baulking at the recent lifting of textiles tariffs. Lets hope trade wars are not triggers for more serious affairs.
Stephen Woodhouse, UK

A communist authority is meant to please the people and increase standard of living. In this respect, China has been far more successful recently than the more openly oppressive regimes eg. Soviet Union, where standards of living progressively dropped. On the other hand, according to a recent survey, more Chinese households have DVD players than have hot running water. If that isn't a sign of the materialism of China, little else is.
S Murray, Chester, UK

I found the comments above frightening. I have been very impressed with the Chinese motivation to develop and improve their living conditions and future for their children through education. When you go to Vancouver in Canada and see how the Chinese have work hard, enjoy life and spending and have created a thriving economy, then you appreciate the people. The comments I have just read leave me cold and anxious.
sheila bravin, united kingdom

The fact that so many people were willing to vote for a party that promised detention without trial a few days ago is a testamony to your hypothesis that people would rather have wealth than freedom.
Francisco, UK

I read Brian Walden's article with interest. If I could make one small point, Mr Walden says that the Chinese are conducting an experiment in which the population accept a trade off between prosperity and political participation. I do not think that harnessing 1.3 billion people is an experiment, it is the real thing. The controlled "lab experiment" was in Singapore; and it worked rather well.
Tom Sykes, USA Hawaii

Well, not so wonderful when there isn't the oil to fuel China's demand. The scramble for the last non-renewable energy resources is precisely the thing to "induce a dangerously irrational reaction."
Nicholas Mann, UK

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