Last summer, at the opening of the Beijing Olympics, a similar extravaganza led viewers through 4000 years of Chinese history and then—in a telling silence—skipped the years 1949 to 1979. Those Mao years are hard to look at, and a lot of flash is needed to cover what actually happened. A man-made famine killed at least 30 million people; ideological campaigns and labor camps killed millions more, traumatized the entire society, undermined a nation’s idealism, and turned public political language into a cynical game of intimidation and word-manipulation. (And this leaves out the initial violence that brought the communists to power.) These are the major facts of those years, and it is a trick to celebrate them.
Defenders of the Communist Party’s record argue that “the second thirty years” are very different from the first. “Reform and opening” has brought economic growth, higher living standards, integration with the world, and greater flexibility in daily life. These indeed are important advances over the Mao period, but to “credit” them to China’s ruling elite, rather than to the billion or so people who are ruled, is a bit perverse. Imagine things from the point of view of an ordinary Chinese worker: a brutal regime has its foot on your neck for years; then it relents, but says “now you may make money, but only that—no politics, no wayward religion, no trouble-making.” So you take the one category of freedom you are offered and pour everything into it.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese have taken this deal, and have worked long and hard, for low wages, often in sweatshops, with no unions, no medical insurance, no workers’ compensation, no recourse to independent courts—and have made money, at least more than they had before. About a quarter of the population still lives in dire poverty, while the ruling elite, now leaders of a large political-economic interest group, has been catapulted to wealth and even to gaudy opulence. Economic polarization is now greater in China than in the U.S. (where it has been growing). The Communist Party credits itself with “lifting millions from poverty,” but it is more accurate to say that the millions have lifted the Party.