By Pía Figueroa
I recently returned from my first trip to China and I am still thinking about everything I saw, which undoubtedly made me realize – once again – how much distortion comes from the press, manipulated by Western interests, on a daily basis. We construct our picture of the world on the basis of information given to us by the news and we blindly believe their interpretation of the facts from their point of view. These are narratives are at the service of the economic and geopolitical positioning of the major European and North American powers, which take for granted that the world is the way it is and built from there.
But have we ever been told, for example, how 740 million people, according to official figures, have been able to get out of extreme poverty in less than 40 years? That’s a lot of people! I think of Lula’s crusade in Brazil in 2003, with the goal of eradicating hunger and poverty, which was called “zero hunger” and was considered a success because it improved the living conditions of 23 million Brazilians. Here we are talking about 32 times more human beings whose destinies have completely changed.
I was told that when Mao died in 1976, the state could barely deliver a daily food ration to every Chinese family and that the people had two fabrics to wear: grey and olive green. It was an achievement of a revolution that took on a country decimated by poverty.
In the city of Chongqing, where I stayed, I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t have an application on their cell phone allowing them to understand each other by translating into the local language, and by the way, the iPhones were of the latest generation. Not to mention the many delicacies offered by food and clothing stores – the envy of any South American metropolis – where you pay with virtual money, scanning a QR code with a smartphone.
Why is China kept out of sight when in just four decades it has undergone an unparalleled change? It is perhaps one of the most extraordinary phenomena that has occurred, placing the Asian country in the current position of the second largest economy in the world.
This began two years after Mao’s death, on the basis of a program called “Reform and Openness” promoted by the then leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping. Between December 18 and 22, 1978, the third plenary of the party’s Central Committee was held, where it was approved that peasants, for the first time, could have ownership of their crops. This was followed by the establishment of Shenzhen – then a fishing village and now a thriving technological and manufacturing hub of 12.5 million people – as a “special economic zone” to experiment with a more flexible market system. Shenzhen is now described as the “Chinese Silicon Valley”.
Supporting the idea of a “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, Deng broke with the establishment and promoted several economic reforms aiming at agriculture, the liberalization of the private sector, the modernization of industry and the opening of China to foreign trade. In the years that followed, changes were implemented that were then considered very ambitious and went ahead despite opposition to Deng from the most conservative wing of the party.
The agricultural sector abandoned Mao’s system of a planned rural economy, increasing productivity and technology to become today’s huge export industry. It is remarkable that despite encouraging the migration of labour to the cities, today 46% of the Chinese population is still rural.
Private sector “chains” were also unleashed and, for the first time since the People’s Republic was created in 1949, the country opened up to foreign investment.
It was that opening to the outside world that contributed to increasing productive capacity, as well as new management methods. The changes led China, after a long process, to join the World Trade Organization in 2001, which definitively opened the doors to globalization, something which has contributed so much to its economic boom.
It is curious, but in all these years a lot has been written and reported on the effects of globalization in Eastern Europe, boasting of having brought great capital to the former Soviet Union. But much less has been reported in the Latin American press on what happened in the Asian giant.
It was not until 2008, when the global financial crisis broke out and the West embarked on the search for new markets, that China stood out from the rest, becoming the “factory of the world”.
Since then, here in my city (Santiago, Chile) we wear clothes made in China, we cook with Chinese utensils, our tools and furniture are produced by the Chinese, cars, computers and probably many other things are made in China.
Over there, women currently retire at 55 and men at 60. However, I observed a great vocation towards work, in everyone, towards keeping busy and being able to contribute. It’s as if they were building the future, with their eyes fixed on the horizon. A common future, of “shared communities for the common destiny of the human species,” as Xi Jinping said in his speech at this year’s opening session of the United Nations.
One of my friends in Chongqing told me that as soon as the speech was delivered, it was immediately translated into all the dialects spoken in China, printed as a book, inserted into envelopes and distributed in less than a month by mail to every home in that huge country. I was considerably surprised at the level of house-to-house clarification that the government does, and I asked him if he could send me a copy.
I have it now. It came to me in the mail. A copy of 197 pages printed in English, first quality.
This week Xi emphasized the importance of the “leadership” of the Communist Party in a speech celebrating the 40th anniversary of the country’s economic opening. The President stressed that China will continue on the path of openness and development, but following its own tempo. “We will decisively change what can be reformed and we will not decisively change what cannot be reformed.” He gave special importance to the fight against pollution.
“In a country like China, with 5,000 years of history and a population of more than 1.4 billion people, no manual can be considered a golden rule and there is no teacher who can give orders to the people,” he said.
For my part, I remain alert to the process of this admirable people who captivate my interest despite the suspicious way in which the West treats any information relating to them. A people that does not seem to suffer from the current crisis or doubt the options it has, but which is extremely busy and eager to build the future.
Pía Figueroa Co-Director of Pressenza, life-long humanist, author of several monographs and books.
22 December 2018