What is socialism like in China?
What is socialism with Chinese characteristics, and is it just capitalism?
- China has undergone massive economic reforms over the last few decades while remaining officially communist.
- The state still has tremendous power over the economy, but private enterprise and markets dominate daily life.
- The question of if the Chinese economy is technically capitalist remains unanswered.
When people today think of a communist country, they often think of The People's Republic of China. Once known as a promoter of global revolution, it is now better known as the workshop of the world and an increasingly powerful global influencer. But while most people know China is communist, they don't know how that communism works. Is there a softer version we can more comfortably call socialism? If so, what is socialism like in China?
What is socialism like in China? How does it work? How did it get to be the way it is now?
After the establishment of the People's Republic, Mao and his government got to work establishing a communist system in China. The system they instituted, known as Maoism, had more than a few problems.
During the Great Leap Forward, the overzealous name for the second five-year plan, the tendency for political goals to replace common sense had drastic consequences. General incompetence in agricultural planning, crack downs on dissent, and bad crop conditions caused a famine that killed around fifty million people.
After this fiasco, Mao was sidelined until he launched the Cultural Revolution, a socio-political movement dedicated to driving out perceived capitalistic influence in China. This event also wreaked havoc on the economy and resulted in the death of millions. It ended only with the death of Mao and the arrest of his high-level supporters in 1976.
Enter Deng Xiaoping and “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”
In the late 70s, a moderate named Deng Xiaoping came to power. His administration was marked by various economic reforms that he collectively named "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics."
Agriculture was de-collectivized, and farmers gained the right to sell their surplus. Special economic zones where foreign investment was allowed and state regulation was reduced were created. Price controls were relaxed for urban industries. Private businesses were allowed to exist again for the first time in decades. The Shanghai Stock exchange reopened, and many state corporations were privatized.
Unlike Gorbachev's reforms in the USSR, many of these were first tried on a local level and then applied to China as a whole after they were proven to work. Many observers argue that this is why reform was successful in China while it was disastrous in Russia.
Since the beginning of these reforms, China has seen meteoric economic growth. As a result of this growth, the standard of living of millions upon millions of people has improved and the food shortages that plagued China vanished. There has been considerable liberalization of Chinese society as a whole, though it has been less than what Western analysts predicted it would be.
This sounds revisionist! Xiaoping sold out to Capitalism!
Lots of people argue that these reforms effectively abandoned communism in favor of state-guided capitalism, but there is a method to it that grants ideological justification. Xiaoping took a page out of Lenin's playbook and was able to show how his actions were in line with accepted communist theory.
In 1921, the Soviet economy was in trouble. After a long and brutal civil war, food shortages were common and factories found it hard to find enough workers because of how many people had left the cities for the countryside. Popular discontent was rising. Lenin, having to think quickly or risk the collapse of the brand-new USSR, retreated from War Communism to the New Economic Policy, also known as the NEP.
This program allowed for some private control over the economy, especially in agriculture, and entrepreneurs known as NEPmen made decent amounts of money running small businesses in the urban areas. Heavy industries, banking, trade, and mining remained under state control. The system worked, and by 1928 the Russian economy had recovered from the triple punch of World War One, the revolution, and the civil war.
While the Bolsheviks understood that this was a new form of capitalism rather than a socialist system, Lenin argued this was acceptable. He pointed to Marx and his arguments that communism was only possible in countries that had reached the highest level of capitalism. The NEP was merely a transitionary period between the pre-war system of the Tsarist regime and the future communist utopia he presumed would come to pass. It lasted until 1928 when Joseph Stalin, initially a supporter of the program, abolished it in favor of central planning.
Socialism with Chinese Characteristics has a similar motivation. Deng Xiaoping understood and admired the NEP and referred to it several times during the reform process.
So, what does the state do today?
The Chinese government still controls a large portion of the economy. The commanding heights are still under state control, and government monopolies exist in some industries. Five-year plans are issued, but the goals are broader than they used to be and direct planning of output goals is typically limited to state-owned enterprises. They also now call them "guidelines" instead of "plans."
Many private companies are at least partly owned by the state. This partial ownership is so prevalent that it is difficult for some observers to decide how large the private sector in China is. Other companies which are firmly in private hands often have association or partnership with the government. Sometimes, this association is written into their charters. All private companies are required by law to have a party organization in them, although until recently this was mostly a symbolic gesture.
How does it work in practice?
I lived in Beijing for a year as an English teacher and found myself looking for the differences between American capitalism and Chinese socialism fairly frequently. It wasn't anywhere near the clubs at Worker's Gymnasium or its parking lot filled with luxury cars driven by the playboy children of well-connected industrialists. I looked at the luxury malls and couldn't find it there either. It certainly wasn't to be found at the gift shop behind the tomb of Mao Zedong.
I did my banking at a state-run bank, but the experience of doing business there was the same as it is at any privately-owned bank in the West. I often traveled by state-owned train and found that it could either be top of the line and luxurious or crowded and somewhat outdated depending on what route you were taking. I shopped at convenience stores owned by my neighbors which were never short of anything.
Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is a strange thing. Fusing state control of the commanding heights of the economy with a high amount of foreign investment and regulated capitalism, the question of it is a capitalist or socialist system isn't one that is easily answered. It might not matter very much though, as China's more recent leaders have been more pragmatic than ideological. Deng Xiaoping once famously compared capitalism and socialism to a black and white cat and argued that "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice."
Given how China is likely to surpass the United States economically by 2020, it seems they found a great cat.
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The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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