China’s transformation: The success story & the success trap; Manoranjan Mohanty; sage publications; Rs.1,195; Pages 376
– Ravi Bhoothalingam (The Book Review)
If you had to pick just one book to read on a desert island (or more realistically, during a Covid-19 lockdown) that would give you an authoritative and readable account of China’s rise to global superpower status and its current predicament, it should be this book. The reasons will be clear later in this review, but first, let us consider the crux of the argument of political scientist and China scholar Prof. Manoranjan Mohanty.
The introductory chapter presents the case that Mohanty sets out to prove in the book. It goes as follows: China’s transformation into a modern industrial powerhouse started with Deng Xiaoping’s policies of ‘reform and opening up’ in 1979. As these policies were implemented, economic growth started accelerating; as the plans evolved and changed with increasing contact with the outside (capitalist) world, so did the range and impact of the resulting economic and social changes. Gradually, interest groups started forming, power balances (within and outside the Party) shifted and the character of transformation began to shed its socialist origins.
The consequences: regional and income inequalities, urban pollution and environmental degradation, ‘democratic centralism’ with increased Party control, and less responsiveness to public sentiment. To use a medical analogy, Mohanty’s hypothesis is that the ‘diet’ prescribed by the reforms produced biochemical changes in China’s body politic. The symptoms were described graphically by former prime minister Wen Jiabao (March 2007) as “… growth (that) is unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable”.
Any good physician would test this hypothesis by examining the anatomy and physiology of the patients’ organs, to determine how cause is linked to effect. And this Mohanty duly proceeds to do in Part II — the heart of the book — which is a masterpiece of longitudinal social science fieldwork at the very grassroots of Chinese society. Over three decades of work in Wuxi district and Hela township, he studied in minute detail the various agencies formulating and implementing the reforms — from Party HQ right down to the village level — their organisation, working methods, relationships and responsiveness to challenges.
With a surgeon’s precision, Mohanty points to the CPC’s (Communist Party of China) abandonment of the early and innovative approach to rural industrialisation adopted through the collectively-owned Township and Village Enterprises (TVE) model. Moreover, this was followed by creeping bureaucratisation, changes in the Party’s class character and the dilution of participative public monitoring mechanisms. The first word in the Party’s slogan ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ was beginning to sound distinctly dodgy.
The symptoms of the resulting ailment are described in Part III of the book. They include rural depopulation and increasing distress in the countryside — even while the overall tide was rising — environmental stress and the reducing role of China’s public health system. Most telling is the chapter about the problems faced by China’s women in ‘the success trap’, especially set against Mao Zedong’s once-resonant words “women hold up half the sky”.
However, nowhere does Mohanty imply a ‘coming collapse of China’ or an impending Armageddon. Throughout the book he holds that China will continue to grow, but that its problems will mount in intensity. Perhaps more words will need to be added to the four dire adjectives used by Wen Jiabao. But the doctor’s diagnosis still cleaves to our imagery of a patient with a persistent and debilitating illness, rather than one being rushed to ICU.
If time is not an immediate constraint, is a remedy not possible? Mohanty is not at all hopeful that China can — or wants to — amend its rural strategy, already identified by him as a root cause.
He is probably right, but his warning is apt for India. We are poised at an inflection point in our own development journey, and a rural-cum-technology led initiative might well be something that India should consider very seriously to revitalise its economy. Could science and technology (S&T) deliver the solution?
To be fair, China’s great strides in the hottest areas of S&T have been of recent origin. In the past five years, there has been impressive progress in fields earlier considered problematic. Urban air pollution is one, for instance. Another is the concerted drive towards clean energy and transportation. A third is the encouraging trend towards greater afforestation, green cover and a rising consciousness about climate change.
China’s advances in digital technology and its widespread commercial applications are now of a size and scale to arouse interest and extreme alarm, depending on where you sit in the world. Would China’s S&T not produce a therapy to manage — or even reverse — its weaknesses? Of course, that therapy might well bring its own adverse side-effects. A China run by a techno-mandarinate could perhaps solve this problem but bring about a dystopia somewhere between Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.
Finally, these reservations are minor when set against the grand sweep and range of this book, its academic rigour and analysis, and its commitment to search for answers. It explains China’s present and offers a peek into the future. Avoid the statistics. Overlook the references and end-notes. But read the book.
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