The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
In “Mao’s Great Famine,” Dutch historian Frank Dikotter illustrates the catastrophe of government mismanagement in grim detail: at one collective farm, where one in 20 residents died in 1960, children were being eaten.
Dikotter based his account of the 1958-60 Chinese famine on internal documents from the Communist Party. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward campaign, which resulted in as many as 40 million deaths from starvation, was a man-made political disaster, a failed economic experiment.
After the successful communist revolution in 1949, Mao was full of confidence. His ambitious plan for China was to catch up with Western capitalism in the United Kingdom and United States in seven and 10 years, respectively, and realize an ideal communist society where everyone is equal. Mao’s hastiness and greed resulted in the catastrophe that Dikotter described.
Now, there are concerned voices that Mao’s radical mistake may be repeating itself in China. Signs of economic speeding resembling Mao-era policies can be seen in Xi Jinping’s rule. The reforms that Deng Xiaoping enacted in 1978 were a response to Mao’s mistakes during the Cultural Revolution. These reforms celebrate their 40th anniversary this year, but China appears to be going against that tide.
Deng asked China to remain modest as seen in his famous dictum: “Hide your strength, bide your time.” But Xi has openly advocated a “strive for achievement” and the “Chinese dream.” His Belt and Road initiative to create a 21st-century Silk Road now faces backlash in 16 of the 68 countries involved. It is being called “Chinese imperialism,” with the Chinese yuan as the weapon of pillage to take over the infrastructure of smaller countries.
Behind China’s push into overdrive is the sophistry of scholars trying to please the government. Prof. Hu Angang of Tsinghua University, a notable economist and supporter of the government, claimed last year that China had already surpassed the United States in terms of economy, science, technology and overall strength. However, his “super China” claim was criticized even inside the country for misleading policy makers.
Li Xiao, dean of Jilin University’s school of economics and finance, said in a commencement speech in June that China has begun to act arrogant after gaining national pride through its economic progress of the last 40 years. He said that China underestimated Trump and misjudged the United States because the country lacks in-depth knowledge about major shifts in American politics and the economy. He urged China to study the United States humbly and reasonably instead of being emotional. His self-reflection stirred the Chinese public.
Meanwhile, Venezuela, with its socialist president, has become the laughingstock of the world. The fifth-largest oil producer spent its tremendous wealth from oil during Hugo Chávez’s rule from 1999 to 2013 on populist policies such as free education and medical services. While low-income earners raved about the benefits, the country’s economy collapsed when oil prices fell and the United States imposed sanctions.
There are opinions in Korea that our country is starting to resemble these cases. The government raised the minimum wage to resolve wide income disparity, and to assure workers time to rest in the evening, it unilaterally shortened the workweek. This would be a utopia if we could work less and make more.
Despite the noble objectives of idealists, their good intentions are only bringing about the opposite economic result. Korea’s “Les Miserables” are the part-timers who are let go first. The Korea Federation of Micro Enterprises, whose members include workers in food and hospitality, is planning a rally at Gwanghwamun in central Seoul. When the workers who are the very subjects of policy experiments are in agony, it would be torture to ask them to wait until winter. I can almost hear the canary in the coal mine.
In the 2002 Hollywood film “K-19: The Widowmaker,” a Soviet nuclear submarine breaks down because of incompetence from the top. A stubborn and arrogant leader will drive subordinates to their deaths, but a flexible and pragmatic leader can avert a crisis and save the crew. What kind of leader do we want?
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 27, Page 28