Mises Wire

Home | Wire | China Abandoned Hard-Core Socialism — So Progessives Abandoned China

China Abandoned Hard-Core Socialism — So Progessives Abandoned China

Tags World History

In September 1972, the late John Kenneth Galbraith, who served as his generation’s Paul Krugman, visited China for a few weeks and wrote a book, “A China Passage,” effusively praising the communist state for its alleged economic achievements. That Mao’s China at the time was gripped in the destructive Cultural Revolution apparently did not discourage Galbraith from claiming that U.S. society should be more like that of China.

To be honest, Galbraith was not a “ useful idiot,” since he was a full-blown socialist who (like Krugman) believed that intelligent men like him should be in charge of western economies, and especially that of the USA. (Such viewpoints, in light of what we know about socialism, certainly are idiotic, but I doubt they are useful.) Thus, he could declare that people in China were economically better off than his American counterparts because the Mao suits worn by nearly everyone represented a better dress than what he said he observed on American college campuses. Medical care in China, he said, was superior to that of what existed in the United States. How could he know that? He could know that because he was John Kenneth Galbraith.

Progressives like Galbraith no longer heap such praise on China, given that it long ago abandoned Mao’s austere communism for a mostly market economy and, instead, modern progressive economists like Joe Stiglitz and economic journalists save their acclaim for the economies of places like Cuba and Venezuela, despite the real economic tragedies that a part of everyday life there. Stiglitz, Krugman, and others simply despise the market economy and yearn for the old days of government planning such as existed in China five decades ago – as long as they can be the planners.

This clearly is not Mao’s China, even though his image still is omnipresent here in statues and wall posters. As I take the escalator up into a department store in Changsha, China, I see a couple of Mao posters on the wall, but they are next to advertising featuring photos of pretty women wearing makeup, and the photos attract more attention from fellow customers.

I am here for six weeks, teaching economics at a local university and taking in what my wife and I can absorb during this time. We are living in a very modest apartment in a city almost the size of New York, eating the local fare and making friends with students and other faculty members. While I never visited the China seen by Galbraith and his ideological compatriots, I confidently can say that the China I am seeing today would not have received Galbraith’s praise the way it did when mobs of Red Guards terrorized society and statements from Mao’s “Little Red Book” were uttered everywhere.

We should remember that China never has been what we call a “free” country, and it certainly has no history of individual liberty that the USA once had. Even though the communist party officially governs China, I think I can go as far as to say that the Chinese people are about as free as they ever have been in their lengthy history. While no one should construe my statement to say that China is a “free” country or that individual liberty abounds here, neither are people here subject to the same brutal political, economic, and social controls that existed when people like Galbraith were heaping praise upon Mao’s regime. That American progressives would prefer China to be under governance that guaranteed most of the people here would be dirt poor (but equal, and progressives, after all, love equality) tells us something about the kind of governance they want for our own future. It was Galbraith who would be speaking for the Bernie Sanders Democrats today. One could believe that what Galbraith wrote in 1972 would be popular today among the Green New Deal progressives:

There are far fewer automobiles (in China) than in India and the shops are much plainer and less interesting. This, however, must be attributed not to a lower but a much more egalitarian living standard. But along with the lower living standard goes a seemingly more effortless economy.

The words almost speak for themselves. Understand that terror was the standard for Chinese society at that time. Lew Rockwell explains what was happening in his outstanding article, “The Horrors of Communist China”:

During this period, the personality cult of Mao reached it height, with the Little Red Book achieving a mythic status. The Red Guards roamed the country in an attempt to purge the Four Old-Fashioned Things: ideas, culture, customs, and habits. The remaining temples were barricaded. Traditional opera was banned, with all costumes and sets in the Beijing Opera burned. Monks were expelled. The calendar was changed. All Christianity was banned. There were to be no pets such as cats and birds. Humiliation was the order of the day.

Thus was the Red Terror: in the capital city, there were 1,700 deaths and 84,000 people were run out. In other cities such as Shanghai, the figures were worse. A massive party purge began, with hundreds of thousands arrested and many murdered. Artists, writers, teachers, scientists, technicians: all were targets. Pogroms were visited on community after community, with Mao approving at every step as a means of eliminating every possible political rival. But underneath, the government was splintering and cracking, even as it became ever more brutal and totalitarian in its outlook.

Understand that the destructive Cultural Revolution exploded onto the scene only a few years after the disastrous era of the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s destructive attempt to industrialize Chinese society that produced the worst famine in history and a death rate that rivaled all the years of World War II. Yet, Galbraith and his fellow travelers expected us to believe that out of economic disaster, famine, mass executions, violent expropriation of property, and the imposition of totalitarian rule somehow magically produced a political economy in which everyone was well-dressed, well-fed, and enjoyed better health care than people in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Such nonsensical beliefs reflect upon the progressive mindset, which really has not changed in the near-five decades since Galbraith went to China. Joe Stiglitz’s effusive praise of Venezuela’s socialist regime mirrors that which Galbraith heaped upon Mao.

China today is far from the country that Galbraith celebrated, and one easily can assume that Galbraith would not like what he would see today. The “less interesting” shops now have full shelves and mostly Chinese customers browse them in a way their poorer ancestors never could have done. Walking through Changsha’s central business district is not unlike visiting the central district of any large city in Europe or the USA. The Starbucks shops are full, and customers often are engrossed in their iPhones or listening to music through earphones. China has become what the progressives have so hated: the commercial republic.

This does not mean China has become a wealthy nation like the USA or Great Britain. Indeed, the per capita income of China is well below that of the United States, but this place is wealthier than it was even two decades ago. At that time, visitors have told me, there were few cars on the roads except those belonging to the government or communist party members. That is not the case today, not even close. The streets of Changsha are full of cars driven by ordinary people. (One current hazard in China is walking across the road, as China has a high rate of pedestrian-auto collisions.)

In fact, what strikes me about walking about in this large Chinese city and on the college campus where I teach is the very ordinariness of the people. Far from being the politics-saturated socialists drones so admired by Galbraith and other progressives, Chinese people today seem to have the kinds of concerns that people elsewhere would have. For that matter, the Chinese seem to be less-regulated at the street level than are Americans and American colleges and universities – especially the elite institutions – are much more politics-riddled than what I have seen in China.

This is not to say politics has disappeared in this country. We don’t discuss current politics during class, although students and Chinese faculty are open to such conversations during private sessions, and, to be honest, they often seem to be more reasonable than many of their American counterparts. And for all the hostile anti-Chinese rhetoric we have heard from Washington, the hostility has not been reciprocated.

In short, China is a country that is rising, thanks to its at least partial embrace of markets. The food is good (and I see very few overweight people here, even though they eat mountains of white rice daily) and life is basic but livable. Chinese see their country as having once been a central player in world affairs and expect one day to occupy such a place in the future. I’m not betting against them.


Contact William L. Anderson

William L. Anderson is a professor emeritus of economics at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source:
When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here
Shield icon wire