Orwell and China

Under Mao Zedong, China defined itself as a socialist country – albeit one with “Chinese characteristics”. But in the nearly 40 years since it began to “open up” under Deng Xiaoping in 1979, it has evolved into something much more puzzling. It has embraced capitalism to a large extent, though the state retains a relatively large role in the economy through planning and state-owned enterprises. But its political system remains authoritarian – as Richard McGregor puts in his book The Party, the Chinese state “still runs on Soviet hardware”. In fact, under Xi Jinping, it seems to be becoming more authoritarian. I wonder what George Orwell – one of my political heroes – would have made of it. It seems to me that China’s authoritarian capitalism was the exact opposite of what Orwell, who described himself as a democratic socialist, believed in.

The economic model that has evolved in China since Deng is usually referred in the West to as state capitalism (the Chinese prefer to talk about a “socialist market economy”). Agriculture was decollectivized and state-owned enterprises were gradually privatized. Foreign investment was allowed and entrepreneurs were allowed to start businesses and even encouraged to “get rich”. In the 1990s the financial sector was also deregulated. In 2001 China joined the World Trade Organization and committed to further economic liberalization. By 2005, the private sector accounted for 70 percent of GDP. Yet the Chinese economy continues to be directed by five-year plans. State-owned enterprises continue to dominate key sectors and have become increasingly active abroad – what the Economist refers to as “a new kind of hybrid corporation, backed by the state but behaving like a private-sector multinational”.

The assumption for a long time, based on modernization theory, was that political reform would inevitably follow economic reform – the emergence of a middle class, it was thought, would make democratization almost inevitable. In particular, after the Tiananmen crisis of June 1989, many thought that Communist Party rule in China was destined to come to an end. Since then, however, the regime has consolidated itself. Chinese authoritarianism is proving to be remarkably resilient – not least, it seems, because of the country’s economic success, which gives the regime an alternative source of legitimacy. Not only that, some think China’s model of authoritarian capitalism (or “illiberal capitalism” or “market authoritarianism”) is becoming increasingly attractive elsewhere in the world. There has been much discussion of a “Beijing Consensus” (see Stefan Halper’s book, which came out in 2010).

Orwell wrote very little about China in his novels, essays and letters and I can find no mention at all of Mao and the Communists, who took power shortly before he died in January 1950. “His gaze was focused on the Soviet Union,” says biographer D.J. Taylor. My guess, though, is that he would have been horrified by contemporary China. He would presumably have rejected the idea that it was ever a socialist country, just as he rejected the idea that the Soviet Union was one. He was never very specific about what he understood by democratic socialism, especially in economic terms. But it is hard to see how, as a critic of capitalism, he could have welcomed the evolution of China’s economy since Deng. Rather, it seems to me that he would have seen China’s  model of authoritarian capitalism as the worst of both worlds.


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