During the two decades (1983-2003) that John Gittings reported on China for the British newspaper The Guardian, he witnessed many dramatic events. Indeed, as his new book, The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market, suggests, Gittings observed the astonishing transformation of China’s way of life over the past several decades.

According to the author, the Chinese experience since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 has been marked by a conscious effort to break the cycle of war, revolution, famine and disease. Moreover, he adds, it has been remarkably successful, with major progress in enhancing the health and material well being of some population sectors and impressive advances in the “Four Modernizations”: agriculture, industry, defense and technological innovation.

Improvements in living conditions and advances in industrial performance were no doubt inevitable once stability returned to the nation after World War II and Mao’s victory in 1949. But the transformation of market-driven business models since the death of Mao is a phenomenon that confounded Western experts on China. Gittings notes, with disarming honesty, that he and his fellow authorities on China “have often got the task of predicting China’s future spectacularly wrong.” Like the “Kremlin Watchers” — noted authorities on Russia who, for the most part, failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union — Western analysts studying China were often astounded by the course of events they would come to witness.

The difficulty of analyzing China also extends to its past. the now accepted version
of why enthusiasm for the old values declined so dramatically
 after the death of Mao is that the two great internal ventures of Mao’s latter years, the Great Leap Forward, 1958-1961, and the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976, fatally undermined the belief  of China
’s people.

The Great Leap Forward was intended to promote rapid agricultural and industrial growth based on the organization of China’s labor forces into units known as Peoples Communes. The ill-managed effort led to tremendous suffering, especially famine, and was halted in 1961. China had only a short time to recover when an upsurge of radical activity in 1966 soon took place. The Cultural Revolution led by the radical Red Guards eventually failed, but China reeled from its consequences for years to come.

While agreeing for the most part with this assessment, Gittings, who is fluent in Chinese, does not accept that the Cultural Revolution was merely a matter of “ten wasted years.” Instead, he believes that China’s striking economic successes during the 1980s and 1990s were built to a certain degree on some of the initiatives stemming from that era. He notes, for example, that massive irrigation and flood control projects helped to build 68,000 reservoirs and 700,000 kilometers of river dikes, and that health care in rural areas underwent significant improvements. Moreover, he contends that the Peoples Communes, originally established to carry out Mao’s plans to replace private land holdings with collectivization during the Great Leap Forward, were later modified and achieved some success — without the ecological and socially divisive effects of more recent agricultural policies favoring privatization.

Even though he is more willing to give Mao’s policies a measure of credit than other Western authorities, Gittings does not minimize the terrible cost these policies incurred. During the Great Leap Forward, China experienced 19 million “excess” deaths, bureaucratic jargon for starvation. The Cultural Revolution’s reign of terror scarred the minds and emotions of an entire generation, especially the better educated who were victimized as “Capitalist roaders” and imprisoned, sent to work camps or killed.

Consequently, it is hardly surprising that there was a failure of “shared collective values” among China’s people following Mao’s death, and widespread support for Deng Xiaoping’s policy of encouraging enhanced autonomy and economic opportunity, especially among the rural peasantry. Gittings writes: “For the first time since 1949, the Chinese peasant now had the opportunity to enrich himself without censure. Deng Xiaoping advocated ‘getting rich first’ on the grounds that ‘once a person has become rich, the others will soon follow his example.’”

Smashing the “Iron Rice Bowl”

Among those eager to grasp the opportunity of “getting rich” were members of a new class in China, the entrepreneurs who gained increasing control of the country’s flagging state-owned industry. While still, in theory, part of a Socialist economic model, the new system gave managers the opportunity to lease factories and retail centers and operate them along the lines of free market economics. Gittings quotes one example by way of illustration — that of a woman named Guan Guangmei who, by 1987, had succeeded in leasing eight food stores employing 1,000 workers.

This massive reorientation in China’s business model created problems as well as opportunities. The most intractable concerned industrial workers unused to working in a competitive environment. For Deng’s “get rich” model to work, it was necessary to smash the “Iron Rice Bowl” — the popular term for guaranteed employment, an institutionalized feature of the former system which permitted substandard work, high bonus payments regardless of performance, and production based on quotas rather than actual demand. As unproductive plants were closed and massive layoffs took place, a new and unfamiliar strain was added to the growing list of problems facing Deng, whose reassuring comment that “to get rich is no sin” increasingly failed to placate those who no longer had jobs and those who were growing dissatisfied with the increasing disparity in incomes.  

China’s development in the recent decades was due to the adroit economic management of Deng and his successor, Jiang Zemin. By boosting China’s annual GDP growth rate to 9.7% and focusing the attention of the growing middle class on luxury goods, including the private ownership of automobiles — a standard of affluence that would have been unthinkable in the early 1980s when most Chinese still rode bicycles — Deng and Jiang enabled China to ride out the storm.

However, according to recent media reports, Chinese government officials have expressed concern over the widening divide of income and standard of living. Fifty percent of China’s total income is currently earned by only one-fifth of its people, and there is a troubling economic disparity between urban and rural workers. Nearly 30 million Chinese live in “absolute poverty” while 60 million more earn “below the $1 dollar a day that the World Bank takes as its standard,” according to a report from the Associated Press in September.

A Burden on the Land

Gittings acknowledges that China’s leaders will ultimately have to resolve the need for more participation in government by the increasingly well-educated and politically savvy younger generation. Yet he believes that continued economic productivity will lead to a “more decisive generation of leaders” and that China’s future will be determined by “an undramatic scenario which is more credible … than any of the doomsday alternatives.”

But Gittings also offers his thoughts on a potentially threatening situation facing 21st century China. His comments are sobering. He believes that China’s fate is likely to be decided by how well — or how poorly — its leaders handle the ecological effects of its economic miracle. The signs were already ominous throughout the 1990s when, as he writes, “The basic essentials which support human life — reliable water, sufficient tree cover, and fertile earth — all came under increasing strain. More than 400 out of 700 large cities suffered chronic water shortage…. In Beijing, the water table was lowered by more than two meters in 2000…. China’s deserts, in spite of years of afforestation campaigns, were growing by one thousand square miles a year.”

Gittings is not the only Western commentator to be alarmed at the escalating environmental peril facing China. In his 1997 book, Understanding China, John Bryan Starr noted that China’s serious shortage of farm land — only seven percent is arable — is being seriously exacerbated by withdrawing land in order to build factories, roads, housing and recreation areas, including golf courses, for the newly affluent. With China’s population projected to rise to 1.5 billion by 2015, water shortages and loss of farmland are enough to create a “doomsday scenario.” But China has serious air pollution problems as well, chiefly from burning soft coal. Increasing levels of automobile emissions are also a contributing cause.

Thus, the very initiatives that China’s leaders are taking to promote satisfaction and support among their people are placing the nation’s future in jeopardy, Gittings suggests.

Of course, the complicated set of problems confronting China in the near future is a reflection of what faces all the nations of the world, and Gittings, despite his dire warnings on the environment, seems to think that in China’s progress, there is room for optimism. His book offers a balanced, objective and eminently readable account of how the people of the world’s most populated country have, in little more than a quarter of a century, “carried out the remarkable maneuver of switching tracks from the planned economy to the market economy road.” It remains to be seen how well they meet the accompanying challenges.