China in charge

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China in charge

China has changed. It was poor and agricultural. Now it’s the second-largest economy in the world. But how did it happen? And what comes next? Yohann Koshy finds out.


There was a protest in August in Canada by rich Chinese immigrants. Many expensive cars (Aston Martins, red Ferraris and Mercedes) drive through the streets with the Chinese national anthem. Why? They were supporting Beijing against the protests in Hong Kong. Their signs said: ‘Love China. Love Hong Kong. No Violence’.

But many of these rich Chinese people moved to Canada to escape the control over money by the Chinese government, and to invest money in property in Canada.

China in revolt

There was violent fighting in Hong Kong between protesters and police. The crisis in Hong Kong – because China didn’t keep promises or help the economic inequality – is only one of the many social, political and economic problems in China as it becomes a world superpower. There is a problem with feminism. Five activists were arrested before International Women’s Day for planning protests against sexual harassment. Many Chinese have patriarchal attitudes in public and the workplace.

Then, in 2018, the government arrested 50 students from important universities. They were supporting workers who were on strike. The head of Peking University’s Marxist Society was arrested. The students wanted a ‘new society’ ‘led by the working class’ but information about this was quickly deleted from the internet.

And, maybe the most important, there have been a lot of strikes. Last year there were 1,750 strikes and workers’ protests last year. In 2015, there were 2,700. The workers are striking because they don’t have rights to organize a union or ask for more pay.

Red and green

China has middle class and working class now because of the quick change to capitalism. After the Communist Revolution in 1949, Mao Zedong wanted development. He nationalized industry in the cities, collectivized farmland in the countryside, and introduced basic social rights through co-operative healthcare systems and more education for poor people.

This model collapsed – after the largest famine in human history – and they changed the market. By the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping had a very big economic advantage: an army of several hundred million workers, with OK health and literacy. They worked to make China the workshop of the world. China had the same number of workers as all the other workers in the Global North at that time. About 160 million people moved from the countryside to the cities for work in factories – the largest internal migration in human history – and they exported everything they made to the world.

And they lost the benefits: healthcare and a job for life. Land was privatized. GDP grew and hundreds of millions were no longer poor. But inequality increased a lot – women’s salaries went down compared to men’s. By 2013, communist China was among the most unequal countries in the world.

Han Dongfang grew up in a poor village in the Shanxi province. I asked him if the average Chinese person is better off now or before the changes. He says it depends. ‘When I was a child 45 years ago, we ate pork once a year at Chinese New Year, so we didn’t forget the flavour. I didn’t know fish existed until I was 10 years old,’ he says. But there is a Chinese saying: it’s not a problem if everyone is poor. But it is a problem if there’s no equality. So people feel the unfairness. That is the problem.’


In the 2008 financial crisis, Beijing invested $586 billion in the world economies. About 70% was for building infrastructure. Between 2011 and 2013, China used more concrete than the United States did in the entire 20th century.

They built high-speed rail and very big bridges across seas. This partly explains why Chinese people are among the most optimistic in the world. 91 per cent say their country is moving in the right direction (21 per cent in the United Kingdom in the same poll.) But China is also low on the scale of international happiness. Optimistic. But sad. Another Chinese contradiction, like rich communists.

But the optimism may soon end. China might have a big financial crisis soon. There are problems with real estate, the stock market and banking. Many loans are not regulated. China may not be able to keep growing because it might be difficult to get all the oil and gas it needs, and they rely on many other countries for resources. The workers will want more money. And the middle class will want more political and social rights.

What Xi wants

President Xi came to power in 2013. He wanted to put China at the centre of the world. He wants to change the economy from being a centre of low-tech manufacturing to a high-value, high-tech society. But first Xi had to get rid of a lot of corruption. The ordinary people, farmers and workers, like Xi Jinping because they hate the corrupt officials.

Xi plans to control the capitalist class tightly. He has put government chapters in private firms. He has a lot of personal power and has made his position more important.


The largest radio telescope in the world, for observing outer space, was completed in 2016 in southwest China. Liu Xui/Xinhua/Alamy

Made in China 2.0

Last year, Jack Ma (net worth $35 billion) left his job as CEO of the big online retail company Alibaba and said that he was a member of the Communist Party; people understood this as Xi showing that the party is more important than the market. Ma’s company, with Tencent and Baidu, are the three main companies of China’s new high-tech future - the fastest-growing sector of the economy. They make their money getting data of a billion people, providing services eg. social media and mobile e-payments. They are three of the biggest businesses in the world.

Westerners used to say that Chinese capitalism is good at copying but has no original ideas. But now, China is leading the world in innovation. For example, there are public bathrooms in Shanghai and Beijing that have built-in facial recognition systems: you need to scan your face before you get toilet paper.

Two negative things about this are: the government can see what everyone is doing; and, because China is buying more industrial robots than any other country since 2013, many jobs will disappear. The machines are cheaper, more precise and more reliable than people. Nine robots can do the jobs of 140 workers.

Huawei is causing problems for its employees. And many say it is a threat, because of low security or political intervention.

Donald Trump talks a lot about China. After years of the US building up military capacity in the Pacific, there is now a trade war. China now has a stronger foreign policy. There are more than 30,000 Chinese businesses all over the world, and China needs to protect them. In the 2011 Libyan civil war, China first engaged with Middle Eastern politics like a Western power. And in 2017, the People’s Liberation Army opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti, Africa.

Xi building roads

The United States still has the largest military capabilities. So Xi needs to use economic power instead. A central part of this is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is Chinese money building infrastructure in more than 60 countries, mainly in the Global South. There are many Chinese-financed railways, bridges, ports and power-stations from Latin America to Central Asia.

The US says the BRI is a way of China getting the poorer countries in debt to them. But soccer fans in Zambia watch matches in a 50,000-seat stadium paid for by China and half of Cambodia’s electricity is generated by Chinese-built hydroelectric dams. If Washington likes it or not, the world is increasingly ‘built by China’.

The BRI is very good for China. It helps with problems, like producing too much stuff, having too much money and infrastructure, falling profits and a not enough of raw materials. Like the US or imperial Britain before, China is doing what it needs to.

The BRI is also very political. If China invests in small countries, they will be loyal. For example, Pakistan’s prime minister told a journalist that he didn’t know much about the Uyghur imprisonment and re-education. So Pakistan received more infrastructure investment than any other country. Many countries are criticising China for the persecution of the Uyghurs.

The dragon awakes

China’s power is growing very quickly. Between 1990 and 2017, GDP per person grew by 903 per cent. The top four biggest banks in the world are already Chinese. It is not only the US that is powerful now. This might be good for issues like climate breakdown. This century is China’s century. But we must not forget about human rights.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)