The book “China after Mao: The Rise of a Superpower” traces the rise of China as a superpower in the post-Mao era. It is the third major work by Frank Dikotter, a Dutch academic based in Hong Kong. Earlier, he had authored influential works like The Discourse of Race in Modern China and the award-winning People’s Trilogy. Dikotter is currently Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong.
The recently concluded twentieth party Congress has evinced an unprecedented interest in China. The emergence of China in the post-WTO accession era and its complex political and economic structure in the name of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has been an enigma to even those who have a keen interest in current political developments.
Dikotter’s latest work is highly recommended for those who want to make sense of the intriguing developments and develop an informed understanding of China’s political and economic evolution in the post-Mao era. Dikotter has done a commendable job of unearthing some archival and other relevant primary sources (including party and other official documents in Mandarin) to uncover some of the most critical periods.
The detailed account of some of the most notable events in the post-Mao era by Dikotter is quite refreshing and unravels various developments that have not been widely known. Some of these significant developments include internal developments in the highest echelons of the party regarding a) the Tiananmen students’ unrest in 1989, b) Zhu Rongji’s endeavors to usher in reforms like privatisation of the non-strategic sectors (including loss-making SOEs) while simultaneously consolidating the strategic SOES under the policy of ‘Holding to the big, releasing the Small’, and c) China’s struggles with provincial and sub-provincial leadership’s zealousness to modernise their respective regions irrespective of its impact on the banking system and environment. Dikotter’s management of these critical issues has been quite insightful and engaging.
Continuity in policies
While analysing Xi Jinping’s China, China watchers point out how Xi’s leadership has been a radical departure from the past. However, the book’s standout feature has been the author’s depiction of the developments in the post-Mao era in the form of continuities in policies.
Let me briefly highlight these continuities in three significant aspects. First, each generation of leaders in the post-Mao era, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, has been uncompromising whenever the centrality of the party-state has been questioned. Continuity of the party’s numero uno status, irrespective of the leader in charge, has been an inherent and integral part of domestic governance. China watchers have been harping on the growing dominance of the party under the current leader, Xi Jinping.
However, Dikotter has woven a compelling narrative regarding how each leader in the reforms era has been ruthless in asserting the party’s dominant position, notwithstanding the price they had to pay. If one takes into consideration Deng’s ruthless purging of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin’s ‘three represents’ theory and its adept interpretation followed by Hu Jintao’s pronouncements regarding the unquestionable supremacy of the party, Xi Jinping’s policy of party first is more of a continuity rather than an aberration.
Similarly, the issue of anti-corruption under Xi Jinping has been highlighted as an extraordinary policy. Dikotter has provided very forceful evidence of how Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao have made anti-corruption an integral part of their tenure as the party’s helmsman during their respective eras. The seventeenth party Congress report presented by Hu Jintao (just before Xi Jinping took over the party’s leadership) highlighted the issue of anti-corruption. Third, the policy of consolidating SOEs to make them ‘national champions.’ From Jiang Zemin (and Zhu Rongji) to Xi Jinping, a select group of SOEs has always been identified to turn them into world beaters. The idea of ‘going global’ has been given a new dimension with Xi’s policy of engineering mega-mergers of SOEs and turning them into world beaters. In this regard, the priority of SOEs seems to be more of a continuity rather than a radical departure of the Xi era from the previous ones.
The impact of private players
The book, I feel, has failed to do justice to post-Mao China on at least two counts. First, there has been no mention of China’s promotion of private players as ‘national champions’ in the tech domain. Since 2013 the Chinese Government’s ‘Mass Innovation and Mass Entrepreneurship’ policy has led to the emergence of tech players, such as Alibaba and Tencent. However, Dikotter does not talk about the impact of the emergence of these influential private players in an authoritarian party-state like China. Second, given that the book was published in 2022, the author has not done justice to the coverage of the Xi Jinping era.
Each of the book’s ten chapters deals with issues that continue to confront the party leadership and how these developments impact the world. Once readers complete the book, they will be equipped to make sense of the connection between China’s internal developments and their impact on the external world.
While one needs to appreciate the ingenuity of the party leadership to develop very innovative policy measures from time to time to handle the contradictions of a ‘socialist market economy,’ one wonders about the sustainability of the Chinese governance model. With the economic modernisation project more than four decades old, the scope for ‘ad-hocism’ in policymaking is increasingly getting constricted.
One has been witnessing a China where ‘antagonistic contradictions’ have increasingly outweighed the ‘non-antagonistic contradictions’ making it increasingly difficult for the party leadership to oversee problems that have been an inherent part of China’s domestic governance. These contradictions continue to manifest in how the party-state deals with the private sector, the persistent issues of non-performing loans and unsustainable banking practices, or even the problem of corruption that continues to persist ever since the reforms and opening policy started. The recent Evergrande issue bears ample evidence of the challenges confronting the leadership. Various analysts and experts feel that Evergrande is merely the beginning.
No alternative solutions
Although the author highlights the various aspects of China’s political and economic governance in the post-Mao era, he has not been very forthcoming in providing alternative solutions. The author did not intend to dabble with this task, given the enormity of the task involved. There are no quick-fix solutions to China’s challenges, given the path-dependence of the developments that have unfolded due to each leadership generation’s actions.
However, the various issues highlighted by Dikotter leave readers a lot to ponder regarding the viability of the Chinese development model, also referred to as the Beijing consensus. For Indian readers, the book holds special significance because Dikotter raises some critical issues regarding the viability of a development model that has delivered impressive results quickly. However, the bigger question is the merit of pursuing an economic modernisation project that seems to have done more long-term damage in terms of human and environmental costs in return for short-term benefits. No wonder each generation of Chinese leadership continues to grapple with the same issues despite otherwise very impressive material prosperity.
(The reviewer, Prof G Venkat Raman, has a PhD from Peking University, and is Professor, Humanities and Social Sciences, IIM Indore)
About the book
China After Mao: The Rise of a Superpower
Author: Frank Dikotter
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