CHINA’S GOLDEN MOMENT: MAKING IT LAST FOREVER
[Following is a paper presented by noted Tibetologist and expert on Tibet Gabriel Lafitte, an Australian academic and development policy consultant to the environment & development desk (EDD) of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, at a talk series organised by the Tibetan Women’s Association.]
[Website manager’s note: this paper analyzed the impacts of China’s fast economic rise upon the Tibetans, also discussed the potential impacts of InterContinental Resort in Lhasa. Please note, InterContinental Resort in Lhasa is deeply related to ETG. How are they deeply relating to each other? Quote from this paper,
“Technically, Deng Hong’s Chengdu Exhibition and Travel Group (www.etgcn.com ) is the builder and owner of the physical hotel, and InterContinental the operator, with distinct and separate roles. Technically the Communist Party and the Chinese state are distinct and separate. In reality, in China’s unique mix of wealth creation and party control, the property developers, even if privately owned, rely for their business success on intimate party connections, and even copy the internal structure and culture of state-owned enterprises as their operating model.”]
By Gabriel Lafitte
DEKYI TSERING HALL, TCV DAY SCHOOL, McLeod Ganj Thursday 25 Nov 2010 4.30pm
THE RISE OF THE HELICOPTERS
China is emerging as a regional power and even as a global power. Yet China’s leaders constantly refer to the threat of chaos which will erupt if they loosen their tight grip, not only on ethnic minorities but on the poor, the urban migrants and the peasants. Why is China so successful, yet so fragile? What is it about the combination of party-state and the capitalist entrepreneurs that makes this moment in China’s rise so dynamic yet so unstable? Why are there so few voices in China calling for democracy, or for the rights of ethnic minorities? Tibetans looking at Beijing from afar are missing something, which has been silenced, excluded from the public sphere, which China’s leaders fear. International observers too, fascinated by China’s wealth and success, are also missing any focus on the reality that China is still poor, there are many hundreds of millions who are excluded, held down, exploited, and increasingly resentful of the growing gap between rich and poor. If we understand China’s golden moment is a pact between the wealth creators and the social controllers, the corporations and the party-state, to monopolise both wealth and power, to the exclusion of all others, then China’s rise and Chinese leaders fears fit together.
What do today’s Chinese really care about, cherish, seek to protect at all costs? What is the main purpose of their life?
“China’s new super-rich have developed a penchant for flying in their own newly-bought helicopters and small airplanes – thereby avoiding the chronic delays and terrible service on commercial airlines, while gaining an impressive status symbol. The difficulty is that all private flights must first be approved by military and civil aviation authorities, a process that can take weeks or even longer. For wealthy businessmen who live or work outside major cities (where their light planes and helicopters are liable to get shot down), the temptation to flaunt the rules is just too great.
“So, the nouveaux riches don’t let their helicopters rust in the hangar while they wait for approval. Instead, they take to the skies without permission, spooking the locals and air-traffic controllers who spot these unidentified flying objects on their radar screens. Such rule-bending is not uncommon in China”. ( Jamil Anderlini, China: that’s no UFO, that’s my Cessna, November 17, 2010 Financial Times)
China’s fast rise requires concentration of wealth and power. Concentration of wealth requires a mind focused exclusively on wealth creation, and its conspicuous enjoyment. Wealth creation requires state protection to suppress the ignorant masses, to prevent them from mobilising to ask for a fair share of the wealth they create, as miners underground in dangerous coal mines, as low paid factory workers, as peasants without social security. China’s wealth created today must be ploughed back into creating greater wealth tomorrow, and not dissipated by the demands of the excluded, for a fair price for their farmland gobbled up for new factories, or for basic health insurance, or decent schools in poor areas. To an extraordinary and unsustainable degree China’s wealth comes not from consumption, not from the buying power of newly prosperous masses, as in mature capitalist countries. China’s wealth comes to a remarkable extent from investment, by the state, and the big state owned corporations, and the private entrepreneurs who enjoy favours from the party-state. China’s wealth is in its infrastructure, not in its homes. This is unsustainable.
WATCHING CHINA’S RISE THROUGH INDIAN EYES
What does China’s rise and rise mean for Tibet?
We could easily be overawed, which is what China wants. We could sink into feeling powerless, as if China is able, on command, to achieve anything it turns its attention to. We could feel a whole range of emotions, from fear to the envy and jealousy many Indians feel when they look at China today, perhaps even a yearning to be free of the weight of all those poor people in all the villages of India, who manage to hold politicians democratically accountable and hold back the shining India of Bangalore, Hyderabad and Gurgaon from becoming the only India that matters.
Tibetans in exile have little opportunity to experience China’s golden moment directly, except through watching Xizang TV, which is a distorting mirror. But exiled Tibetans do have every opportunity to observe India, where an elite also strives for that golden moment, when a young start-up entrepreneur with a good app software can become a crorepati overnight.
In India too, there is the same vanity and selfish self-centredness among the elite, the same palpable sense of urgency and destiny, that riches are just around the corner. There is a similar disdain for the poor, the adivasi and dalits, even frequent talk of “unleashing the Air Force” to bomb adivasi who protest the loss of their land and forests and livelihoods to industrial projects and mines. In India, as in China, the state has withdrawn largely from providing social security, enforcing minimum pay, cleaning up corruption, ensuring rule of law, even maintaining public hospitals that serve the needs of the masses. In India, this is called “liberalisation”, a deliberately vague term that masks the intention to abandon responsibility for the hard work of poverty alleviation, cutting across caste lines that are as rigid as ever.
In India, as in China, there is much talk of the knowledge economy, celebrating India as the planetary hub of business process outsourcing, not only by staffing customer call centres for corporate customers living in London or New York, but also relocating many aspects of the modern corporation to the Indian back office. Those who see an even shinier India rising, now predict that the demand for Indians fluent in English an d other European languages will be so great that the Indian university system needs and urgent shake up and expansion to produce all the graduates needed to do not only the work of responding to the complaints of angry American customers, but a wide range of other back room tasks that can be standardised and relocated in India.
Now it is not only IT (information technology) that is outsourced to India, in future it will be engineering, design, biotechnology, animation, medical and legal back room data processing, interpretation of tests results, routine computerised modelling of building design, and much more.(KPO the next big thing for India, Economic Times, 27 October 2010) These will become the new glamour occupations, tempting many educated Tibetans perhaps.
Underlying all of this, whether in India or in China, is the narrow assumption that only certain kinds of knowledge matter, and other knowledges are irrelevant, or trivial, or outdated or simply invisible. The knowledge of how to care for a sick buffalo or yak, or irrigate a field, is at best taken for granted by urban elites only too glad to have left behind their rural roots. Only knowledge that makes big profits is worthwhile knowledge. In China such knowledge is accessible through a single portal, grandly called the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) which you will readily find online (n English as well as Chinese), but to go through the portal and get to the data on which modernity thrives, you must pay a commercial subscription.
The concentration of wealth in China, and its obscene flaunting in public, are now so extreme that the super-rich are running out of things to spend money on. Geremie Barme, of Australian national University, a close observer, and friend, of many in China’s super-cool fashionable elite, says the best job in China these days is to be an interior designer specialising in turning the interior of billionaire Chinese businessmen’s private jets, so they look on the inside like the court of a Qing dynasty emperor. It used to be that the princelings, the sons and daughters of the party elite, rose so fast they were called the helicopters. Now a helicopter is not enough; one must have a private jet.
“There are only so many diamond iPads and Louis Vuitton Mah Jong sets a Chinese billionaire can buy in a lifetime. So now wealthy Chinese are looking for other ways to splurge, and discovering a passion for that richest of rich men’s toys: the thoroughbred racehorse.
“Mao Zedong banned horseracing in 1949 as an immoral capitalist pursuit, but now China’s nouveaux capitalists are taking to it with a vengeance.“Rich people in China are focusing more and more attention on this industry,” says Felix Wang, author of the China Horse Racing Bible. The China National Horse Industry Association expects horse imports to double this year over last. “The Chinese entrepreneur is trying to turn his new money into old money … and one of the shortcuts is an understanding of horses,” says Rupert Hoogewerf, publisher of the China Rich List.
‘Steve Wyatt, of the Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club near Shanghai, says China has a deep cultural affiliation with horses, “deeper even than America and the cowboys”. Rich Chinese enjoy the sense of power that comes from “having a horse that wins in front of other guys. People don’t want to watch you play golf but they will come to watch your horse race,” he says. (Financial Times, 19 November 2010, by Patti Waldmeir)
A TALE OF TWO HOTELS IN LHASA
We could illustrate the transformation of China, by the past decade or more of concentrated wealth accumulation, by telling the story of two hotels, in Lhasa, the old Holiday Inn which closed several years ago, and the new InterContinental hotel with a massive 2000 rooms, due to open at the end of 2012.
Actually, these two hotels are the same company, using different brand names. Holiday Inn is for budget travellers, InterContinental is more luxurious and expensive. The Holiday Inn was a classic of the socialist era, with Chinese and Tibetan staff who had no interest at all in serving guests, in fact they regarded guests as an interruption to their work unit, and their real life, of sitting around with endless cups of tea. Hotel guests were an annoyance, to be gotten rid of. Likewise the newly appointed manager Alec le Sueur, who wanted to bring in modern management methods, and staff accountability for their actual work performance, also faced entrenched resistance from the “iron rice bowl” mentality of the socialist work unit, with its guarantee of lifelong employment in one fixed place. Le Sueur wrote a very funny book, The Hotel on the Roof of the World, published in 1998, telling marvellous stories of his frustration as the staff blocked every reform he attempted.
That was the 1980s, this is now. Tibet and especially Lhasa are in the grip of a property price boom as urban construction fuelled by Beijing money forces up real estate prices in an urban market where property can now be bought and sold. The InterContinental Lhasa Resort, with its initial 1200 rooms then 2000 rooms, is the fruit of the new Lhasa and the new China of the super-rich. It is the child of entrepreneur Deng Hong, whose personal wealth is estimated by the Hurun Rich List at $660 million. Deng Hong made his money by turning a remote corner of easternmost Tibet into a tourist paradise that now receives four million tourists a year, overwhelmingly from China.
His luxury resort at Dzitsa Degu in Ngaba (Sichuan Aba Jiuzhaigou in Chinese) is also a partnership with the world’s biggest hotel chain, InterContinental as the actual operator. It made him a millionaire, by catering to the desire of China’s new rich for exotic, pristine locations where wealthy Chinese can stroll the forests, admire the crystalline pools of many colours, enjoy the UNESCO World Heritage listed landscape, be photographed on a yak with a rosy cheeked Tibetan girl, and at night enjoy Khampa dancers brought in to provide spectacle. Above all, this mix of luxury and exotic spectacle is the setting for what wealthy Chinese like most: to talk and network with each other, to build up guanxi networks, to strengthen connections and mutual obligations, to enable new deals to be struck, and foster ties with officials whose permissions are essential to business success. This is the environment in which Deng Hong has thrived.
DISAPPEARING PANDAS, DISAPPEARING TIBETANS?
What visitors don’t see at Jiuzhaigou is that the pandas originally at home in this valley of nine stockaded Tibetan villages have long disappeared. They don’t see the alarm expressed by the UNESCO scientists at how UNESCO’s official protection of this area for its natural capital has been turned into monetary capital by shrewd entrepreneurs who know how to leverage the UNESCO brand into profit. The millions of Chinese visitors also don’t see how the Tibetans, for centuries sustainable farmers of this beautiful valley are now forbidden to farm any more, because their farming was declared to be inconsistent with preservation of an area surrounded by huge hotels and luxury resorts. The visitors may not notice that the Tibetan villagers are also forbidden to house tourists in their homes any longer. And they may not notice that few Tibetans are employed or trained as hotel staff and managers, and work only casually, as entertainers.
The luxury hotel boom at Jiuzhaigou was not good for pandas or Tibetans; will it be good for Lhasa now that the same people are bringing their business model from the extreme edge of Tibet to its heart? Why is InterContinental, a company that boasts on its website of high human rights standards and local employment training standards, doing deals with Deng Hong, a man who openly boasts of his excellent connections at all levels of the party-state, who is now even a member of National Peoples Congress, ready to rubber stamp China’s 12th Five-Year-Plan in March 2011, which will accelerate the hydropower damming of Tibetan rivers.
Will Tibetans be excluded from managing and staffing and tour guiding in the new InterContinental Resort Lhasa? Technically, InterContinental, as hotel operator, does the hiring and staffing and human relations and training; and is proud of its investment in training schools in China for new hotel staff who do understand how to make guests feel not only welcome, but special, even pampered, which is what tourism for the rich is all about. This is the complete opposite of the surly attitude of the Lhasa Holiday inn story, as told by Alec le Sueur in his funny book.
Yet, paradoxically, in the old Holiday inn, many staff were Tibetan, not just the cleaners. In the new InterContinental, there is a real likelihood Deng Hong will pack the staff with the sons and daughters of his cronies, his party-state connections, and almost the entire staff will be Chinese, graduates of a training academy, able to speak to guests in English, while Tibetan applicants will be told they are unqualified. Only if InterContinental vigorously lives up to its many public policies on human rights and local employment will there be Tibetans staff trained to manage a big hotel. (http://www.ihgplc.com/index.asp?pageid=763 )
Big it is. Two thousand new luxury beds seems a lot for a city the size of Lhasa. It all makes sense if you look not just at bed numbers, but the overall plan for many exhibition halls, conference centres, business hubs and shopping malls, all inside the InterContinental Resort Lhasa. This is designed, from the outset, to be a playground for he new rich, for their discreet networking, done in private, away from Lhasa’s gaze. The hotel will be a world unto itself, where the Nagchu elite of Party faithful, the few Tibetans who embraced the Party, can banquet with their Chinese bosses and collectively celebrate everything China has done for Tibet.
The big exhibition halls will be suitable for display after display of how benevolently China has assisted Tibet, providing stages for spectacle proclaiming China’s successes. The Lhasa InterContinental will be a showcase for a repressive regime that keeps Tibet in fear and lockdown, but the rich will neither notice nor care, since they will venture from the hotel only for a staged visit to the Potala or other iconic piece of exotica.
DEEP INSIDE THE PARTY-STATE STRUCTURE
This is the new China, so different to the Holiday Inn era. Technically, Deng Hong’s Chengdu Exhibition and Travel Group (www.etgcn.com ) is the builder and owner of the physical hotel, and InterContinental the operator, with distinct and separate roles. Technically the Communist Party and the Chinese state are distinct and separate. In reality, in China’s unique mix of wealth creation and party control, the property developers, even if privately owned, rely for their business success on intimate party connections, and even copy the internal structure and culture of state-owned enterprises as their operating model.
This is revealed in a new book taking us deep into the world of China’s property speculators, In Search of Paradise: Middle Class Living in a Chinese Metropolis. The author, Li Zhang is a professor of anthropology at University of California Davis, and she did her fieldwork inside the world of Kunming property developers (Cornell Press 2010).
She writes about the boss of a property development company that remains nominally state-owned: “When I met Mr. Lu he was only in his mid-thirties and was already considered highly successful. He owned a black luxury Buick and two upscale condominiums. In order to take advantage of both the existing state sector and the expanding private sector, many entrepreneurs, as he did, used flexible, hybrid ownership forms to maximise their competitiveness and profit-making. The operational model of the two sectors increasingly resemble each other. It has become more and more difficult to speak of a purely state enterprise due to the existence of a diversified form of capital.”
When she interviewed Mr Lu, he said he felt no need to be free of state control: “No, because the company I am managing now is almost like my own company. Moreover I have all the advantages of being attached to a large, government-supported corporation -accessing start-up funds, getting otherwise competitive projects, and enjoying local government protection in any bureaucratically related matter.”
Li Zheng also interviewed the boss of a privately owned property development company, Mr Dong. She was surprised to find that his company has at its heart a Communist Party cell and that it closely monitors its employees not only for their professional skills and performance but also for their ideological conformity to Party norms and slogans. He writes: “Like state enterprises, Dong’s corporation has maintained a personnel file system (dangan) to keep track of employees’ backgrounds and behaviour. To my surprise it also has a Communist Party organisation branch of one hundred members, with Dong acting as its top leader. Party members gather periodically to to study relevant government policies and conduct moral education. They are expected to take a leading role in reinforcing disciplinary rules in the company.” Dong himself told her: “The party organisation helps the company to oversee and regulate workers better. It also teaches self-discipline. Party leadership is the mainstream politics in Chinese society. I do not want my company to exist outside the mainstream or far away from society. My enterprise is a cell of society and should stay within the mainstream. We are also conducting the propaganda of ‘building a harmonious society’ within our enterprise as promoted by President Hu.” (pp 55-58)
The property developer who made his fortune at Jiuzhaigou and is now the spearhead of global capitalism in Lhasa, is in the same mould, as he cheerfully explained in 2002 to the Washington Post. Deng Hong, son of a Peoples Liberation Air Force officer, told a Washington Post reporter how he achieves everything through his connections to officials. Deng migrated to the US, bought property in Hawaii and Silicon Valley before returning to China because, as he told the Washington Post, “ becoming ‘big rich’ in China was easier than in the United States. He was right: At last count he owned 35 cars, including a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, some jeeps, a Corvette, several 600 series Mercedes-Benzes and a fat Lincoln Continental. He recently purchased the rights to develop 100 square miles of land next door to one of China’s national parks [Jiuzhaigou]” (John Pomfret, In China, the rich seek to become the ‘big rich’, Washington Post 17 March 2002
How did Deng Hong get so rich, and how did Jiuzhaigou make him richer? The Washington Post explained: “Many of China’s wealthiest people are members of the Communist Party or are relatives or friends of party members and have parlayed their connections into cash. Deng is an example. His father was an officer in China’s air force. Deng, in addition to his military background, has assiduously cultivated ties with the city government of Chengdu. Ask him which is more important, his relationship to other businessmen or to the government, and he does not hesitate: ‘I really don’t have anything to do with my fellow businessmen,’ he said, echoing other well-off Chinese. ‘My business depends on the government.’ For his development project next to the national park in western Sichuan, he has hired retired government officials. Deng had to rely on government ties to win approval to develop that site, 100 square miles of land next to one of China’s last remaining wilderness areas, Jiu Zhai Gou. Deng plans to build 100 vacation homes, a five-star hotel and a golf course. Each vacation home will sell for at least $300,000, he said.”
TIBETANS IN CHINA’S GOLDEN MOMENT
What place is there for Tibetans in such an economy, where wealth is all that counts, where the poor, the ethnic minorities, and all who lack connections are regarded as ignorant, stupid and worthless? Is there a place for Tibetans in such enterprises where there is hardly any distinction between party and state, public or private, where Chinese characteristics are so pervasive? Is it possible that Tibetans can succeed in conquering such a system, and find individual niches by proving they are as good, or twice as good as their better-connected Chinese competitors?
Being a Tibetan, in Tibet, in Lhasa, is now hard work, whether you are a pilgrim prostrating under the gaze of tourist cameras, or a young man or woman hoping for a career in hotel management, or a chance to meet educated tourists -from China and internationally- who take a real interest in Tibetan culture. Life is hard because Tibetans are not the mainstream, because Tibetans lack guanxi connections, are treated as outsiders in their own land, as objects of curiosity or, even worse, with incurious dislike by Chinese whose only focus is on making money, in the Chinese mainstream, in Chinese hotels and banquet halls, doing deals with party bosses and property developers for whom Tibet is just an exotic backdrop for the real business of China, which is business.
Let us hope that inside the new InterContinental Resort Lhasa there is not a Communist Party cell that exists to hold down the workers and impose discipline. Let us hope that InterContinental and its major shareholders Barclays and Lloyds, on London Stock Exchange, insist that the new hotel really does train and employ Tibetans at all levels: management, tour guides, maids and all.
The irony of comparing Indian and Chinese urban modernities is that it is easier for Tibetans to find a niche in corporate India than in corporate China, including the corporations now rapidly coming up in Tibet. The only Tibetans likely to succeed in China’s golden moment are those who have learned, perhaps in China’s inland province schools for Tibetans, to be as greedy and selfish as China’s new elite, who shamelessly grab resources for their private enrichment, at everyone else’s expense. Fortunately such Tibetans are few.
In a speech he gave in Shenzhen in August 2010 grandfatherly Premier Wen Jiabao said: “If there is no guarantee of reform of the political system, then results obtained from the reform of the economic system may be lost, and the goal of modernisation cannot be achieved.” There is much talk in China of the need for deep reform, and the danger that the pace of economic growth will inevitably slow, that the demands of workers and the rural masses for a fairer deal will finally begin to succeed, that striking workers will win better pay, even though the Communist Party cell in each factory exists to prevent strikes.
It is equally possible that the voices of the newly rich, the entrepreneurial class so closely connected to the party, will continue to dominate, but always fearing that China’s golden moment is fragile and must be protected by state violence against any challenge.
CHINA’S MISSING VOICES: THE SILENCED MAJORITY
Something is missing in the Chinese voices we can listen to. What is missing is the voice of the peasants, the minorities, the exploited factory workers. Only rarely do we get a glimpse of their stories, their exclusion, their deepening mistrust of the party-state, the growing gulf of inequality. They are the majority, but are voiceless, their protests and petitions for justice ruthlessly crushed. The Chinese critic Yu Jie, whose work is banned in China but available in Hong Kong and online, openly compares today’s authoritarian Chinese propaganda state with Nazi Germany. His recent book From Berlin to Tiananmen (in Geshe Lhagdor-la’s library) is well worth reading, if you read Chinese.
The party leaders know they are on borrowed time, that they cannot rely solely on nationalism, repression and vague promises of reform, for ever. Yet they are determined to maintain China’s golden moment, the best opportunity for elite wealth formation in 5000 years. If only they can control the chaos threatened by the unhappy masses, China’s momentum can be maintained. This is why China’s leaders routinely refer to the danger of chaos, if their tight control is relaxed. It serves their interests to activate the fears of westerners and China’s neighbours that chaos is always just below the surface, unless the party reinvigorates its dictatorship. A modernised dictatorship for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful, to the detriment of all others, is in many ways similar to the mass mobilisation persuading German public opinion to support the Nazi Reich, Yu Jie tells us.
China’s leaders know they are the verge of becoming a world power, and only popular democracy, with its fairer distribution of wealth, could slow China’s rise. Soon Hong Kong will eclipse both New York and London as a global centre of finance. China’s rise to technological parity with western hi-tech manufacturers is now so fast, the west is no longer confident it can always stay ahead and set the pace. Instead, western companies wanting to sell to markets in developing countries must now do so in partnership with their Chinese competitors, or risk losing out altogether, because Chinese products are not only competitive on price but also quality. It may not be long before the Chinese currency becomes a global reserve currency, just as the US dollar today is the currency of last resort.
To China’s leaders, the biggest threats to China’s rise are internal. The Tibetans are just one of many internal forces calling for decentralisation, autonomy, fairness, basic rights and opportunity to participate in making policy. Tibet is just one of China’s intractable problems, which are slowly coalescing, coming together in ways that generate common causes, that unite elite figures and the masses, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo with the groundswell of popular demand for fairness, a share of the wealth created by factory workers who cannot afford to buy the products they make.
Such forces are growing and must inevitably succeed, because they are steadily growing in legitimacy even within the elite, and are harder than before to ignore. Within the elite, in Beijing, where official policy is openly questioned, there is increasing support for greater democracy, and for letting different regions take different directions.
The Dalai Lama foresaw all this long ago, when he said repeatedly that the best hope for Tibet is China’s prosperity and confidence in itself. China’s prosperity and confidence are still superficial, not deep.
GOLDEN MOMENT, HEAVY CONTRADICTIONS
China’s combination of full-speed capitalism and Leninist authoritarianism is unique, though some political scientists do liken it to the fascist regimes of Italy and Germany in the 1930s. The key to China’s success is the partnership between a directive, powerfully interventionist state, with its ruling party driving every move, and the dynamic capitalists who make China the world’s factory. To anyone who witnessed the rise of Japan, or Korea or Taiwan, this is familiar, yet the scale, ambition, momentum of China’s determination to attain hegemony, dominating most of Asia, has now accelerated even further. A new, bold, confident China is arising, but at present is held back by much fearfulness, at the top, inside the isolated elite, surrounded by luxury, insulated from the masses.
China’s golden moment can also be called the capitalist phase of primitive accumulation, the phase in which the rich grab and hold whatever they can, unchecked by popular demand for fairer distribution of the wealth created by the labour of all, but monopolised by a few.
In England, this phase was in the mid 19th century, in the US in the late 19th century, in Japan in the early 20th century. The wealthy are well organised and vigorously pursue their wealth-creating opportunities, shielded by oppressive laws that favour the rich and discriminate against the poor. But eventually those who have missed out, for decade after decade, organise themselves, often with help from those inside the elite who accept the moral necessity of fairness. Workers strike for higher pay and win. Intellectuals call for redistribution of wealth and wider democracy and a rule of law in which no group is above the law. All of this is now happening in China. The phase of primitive accumulation gradually gives way to mature capitalism, in which the state accepts its obligation to ensure all have access to opportunity, and to income support and social welfare, decent health care and schooling, whether rich or poor. All these reforms happened in Europe, the US and Japan, and are starting to happen in China. Even Russian President Medvedev says one party rule is unsustainable, leading only to stagnation.
At the same time there are many reasons, inherent in the logic of global capitalism, to suggest China’s growth rate will slow, not just temporarily but over a long period, and the regime will no longer be able to hold out the glittering golden promise that as long as everyone remains patient, everyone will get rich. Ever since Deng Xiaoping announced that to get rich is glorious but some must be allowed to get rich first, hundreds of millions of poor Chinese have wondered when it will be their turn. Their patience is wearing out, their trust in the benevolence of the party is nil. When a regime loses the trust of the people, and is widely known only for its greed, selfishness and corruption, the party-state is on thin ice, on borrowed time.
China today is full of contradictions. The moment is golden but the elite feel more insecure and fearful than ever. The richer you are, the more you have to protect your wealth from a thousand enemies, real or imagined, as the Buddha told us 2500 years ago. The children of the elite grow up taking for granted they have both wealth and power, but still are restless, unhappy, seeking something more authentic than their father’s private jet and helicopter, something better suited to ensure lasting happiness than mere luxury. Some of them, in increasing numbers, come to Tibet, seeking authentic insight into the nature of reality, beyond appearances. Just as earlier generations of angresi/inji sought in Tibet a mirror to find themselves, so now do the children of China’s elite.
The last resort for the party-state is nationalism, for emotionally stirring spectaculars such as the 2008 Olympics, Chinese astronauts landing on the moon, etc. The propaganda machine is vast, and good at such nationalist chauvinism which often excludes Tibetans, rather than including them in the Chinese family.
THE GOLDEN SUN BEGINS TO SET
China’s leaders themselves say chaos will occur if China’s growth rate drops to six per cent, because that rate is needed simply to absorb the surplus leaving poor farms each year seeking work in urban factories. There are many reasons to suppose China will be unable to maintain a growth rate which looks amazing, but is actually driven by state-financed investment in infrastructure, and is not shared much by the masses, whose ability to buy and consume has not risen at anything like the spectacular rate the usually quoted figures suggest. At the same time, workers are increasingly flouting the Communist Party’s Mass organ for keeping workers under control, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, and go on strike, and win pay rises.
China’s golden moment may be coming to an inevitable end, gradually maturing into a capitalist system in which the state does have to be more benevolent, becoming a genuinely kind parent actively taking care of everyone, not just their property developer cronies whose wealth comes from seizing peasant land for next to nothing, and making millions by building luxury hotels for the elite.
Golden moments are just moments. This moment has lasted two decades, plenty of time for the rich to entrench their power. Yet a more inclusive China is emerging, and it may find itself able to include Tibet and the Tibetans, as they are, with their quite different Tibetan values, which don’t assume material wealth is the only path to steady inner contentment and equanimity.
In all these shifts, Tibetans are far from passive observers waiting on the sidelines for history to shift in a more favourable direction. Inside Tibet, the slow work of taming Chinese minds continues, as ever, despite far greater obstacles since 2008. Tibetan protests in 1987 heralded the Tiananmen protests two years later. It is now clear that, no matter how repressively China tries to silence Tibetans, protests will continue, carefully calibrated to go right to the limit of a repressive machine’s boundaries, but without crossing that invisible line. The Rebkong mother tongue protests of 2010, if closely observed, show a skilful willingness to push back against a party-state that foolishly, in just one prefecture, dares to attempt to undo all the progress of decades, in gaining the mother tongue as medium of instruction, the medium of the curriculum and all the textbooks, and the language spoken by the teachers. Even the strongest state cannot prevail when faced with a strong society, and Tibetan society remains strong. When Gyalwa Rinpoche reminds us that the spirit of the Tibetans in Tibet remains strong, we should believe him.
In exile, the Tibetan campaign of 2011 to push global hotel operators to live up to their stated human rights and local employment policies will also show the strength of a strong society to shape history. Such campaigns inside and outside Tibet help rein in the elite and their crony capitalism, their golden moment of primitive accumulation. The language campaign inside, the hotels campaign outside, are examples of helping history along, helping China make the transition from a fearful, suspicious elite seeking to monopolise wealth, to a more relaxed and inclusive China that is less obsessed with export markets, and more willing to share wealth throughout the population, as its capitalism with Chinese characteristics matures.
The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.