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China Perspectives
China"s New Intelligentsia (3)

Wang Hui is one of the leaders of the new left, a loose grouping of intellectuals who are increasingly capturing the public mood and setting the tone for political debate through their articles in journals such as Dushu. Wang Hui was a student of literature rather than politics, but he was politicised through his role in the student demonstrations of 1989 that congregated on Tiananmen Square. Like most young intellectuals at the time, he was a strong believer in the potential of the market. But after the Tiananmen massacre, Wang Hui took off to the mountains and spent two years in hiding, getting to know peasants and workers. His experiences there made him doubt the justice of unregulated free markets, and convinced him that the state must play a role in preventing inequality. Wang Hui"s ideas were developed further during his exile in the US in the 1990s, but like many other new left thinkers he has returned to mainland China¡ªin his case to teach at the prestigious Qinghua University. I met him last year in "Thinker"s Caf隆搂¦" in Beijing, a bright and airy retreat with comfy sofas and fresh espressos. He looks like an archetypal public intellectual: cropped hair, a brown jacket and black polo-neck sweater. But Wang Hui does not live in an ivory tower. He writes reports exposing local corruption and helps workers organise themselves against illegal privatisations. His grouping is "new" because, unlike the "old left," it supports market reforms. It is left because, unlike the "new right," it worries about inequality: "China is caught between the two extremes of misguided socialism and crony capitalism, and suffering from the worst elements of both¡­ I am in favour of orienting the country toward market reforms, but China"s development must be more balanced. We must not give total priority to GDP growth to the exclusion of workers" rights and the environment."

The new left"s philosophy is a product of China"s relative affluence. Now that the market is driving economic growth, they ask what should be done with the wealth. Should it continue accumulating in the hands of an elite, or can China foster a model of development that benefits all citizens? They want to develop a Chinese variant of social democracy. As Wang Hui says: "We cannot count on a state on the German or Nordic model. We have such a large country that the state would have to be vast to provide that kind of welfare. That is why we need institutional innovation. Wang Shaoguang [a political economist] is talking about low-price healthcare. Cui Zhiyuan [a political theorist] is talking about reforming property rights to give workers a say over the companies where they work. Hu Angang [an economist] is talking about green development."

The balance of power in Beijing is subtly shifting towards the left. At the end of 2005, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao published the "11th five-year plan," their blueprint for a "harmonious society." For the first time since the reform era began in 1978, economic growth was not described as the overriding goal for the Chinese state. They talked instead about introducing a welfare state with promises of a 20 per cent year-on-year increase in the funds available for pensions, unemployment benefit, health insurance and maternity leave. For rural China, they promised an end to arbitrary taxes and improved health and education. They also pledged to reduce energy consumption by 20 per cent.

The 11th five-year plan is a template for a new Chinese model. From the new right, it keeps the idea of permanent experimentation¡ªa gradualist reform process rather than shock therapy. And it accepts that the market will drive economic growth. From the new left, it draws a concern about inequality and the environment and a quest for new institutions that can marry co-operation with competition.

In February 2007, Hu Jintao proudly announced the creation of a new special economic zone complete with the usual combination of export subsidies, tax breaks and investments in roads, railways and shipping. However, this special economic zone was in the heart of Africa¡ªin the copper-mining belt of Zambia. China is transplanting its growth model into the African continent by building a series of industrial hubs linked by rail, road and shipping lanes to the rest of the world. Zambia will be home to China"s "metals hub," providing the People"s Republic with copper, cobalt, diamonds, tin and uranium. The second zone will be in Mauritius, providing China with a "trading hub" that will give 40 Chinese businesses preferential access to the 20-member state common market of east and southern Africa stretching from Libya to Zimbabwe, as well as access to the Indian ocean and south Asian markets. The third zone¡ªa "shipping hub"¡ªwill probably be in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam. Nigeria, Liberia and the Cape Verde islands are competing for two other slots. In the same way that eastern Europe was changed by a competition to join the EU, we could see Africa transformed by the competition to attract Chinese investment.

As it creates these zones, Beijing is embarking on a building spree, criss-crossing the African continent with new roads and railways¡ªinvesting far more than the old colonial powers ever did. Moreover, China"s presence is changing the rules of economic development. The IMF and the World Bank used to drive the fear of God into government officials and elected leaders, but today they struggle to be listened to even by the poorest countries of Africa. The IMF spent years negotiating a transparency agreement with the Angolan government only to be told hours before the deal was due to be signed, in March 2004, that the authorities in Luanda were no longer interested in the money: they had secured a $2bn soft loan from China. This tale has been repeated across the continent¡ªfrom Chad to Nigeria, Sudan to Algeria, Ethiopia and Uganda to Zimbabwe.

But the spread of the Chinese model goes far beyond the regions that have been targeted by Chinese investors. Research teams from middle-income and poor countries from Iran to Egypt, Angola to Zambia, Kazakhstan to Russia, India to Vietnam and Brazil to Venezuela have been crawling around the Chinese cities and countryside in search of lessons from Beijing"s experience. Intellectuals such as Zhang Weiying and Hu Angang have been asked to provide training for them. Scores of countries are copying Beijing"s state-driven development using public money and foreign investment to build capital-intensive industries. A rash of copycat special economic zones have been set up all over the world¡ªthe World Bank estimates that over 3,000 projects are taking place in 120 countries. Globalisation was supposed to mean the worldwide triumph of the market economy, but China is showing that state capitalism is one of its biggest beneficiaries.


 
   
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