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Workers change the portrait of China's late revolutionary leader Mao Zedong which hangs on Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on September 27, 2011, ahead of China's National Day on October 1. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Workers change the portrait of China's late revolutionary leader Mao Zedong which hangs on Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on September 27, 2011, ahead of China's National Day on October 1. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

China's 'success' as hollow as its 'democracy' Add to ...

For the Chinese students massacred at Tiananmen Square in 1989, beneath the giant poster of Mao, democracy didn’t mean Western democracy, and didn’t mean elective democracy, says Loretta Napoleoni, the Italian-born socialist author who teaches economics at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School. It meant Chinese communist democracy, as proven by Chairman Mao’s frequent use of the word. “In his speeches,” Ms. Napoleoni says, “Mao used the word democracy hundreds of thousands of times to explain that governments exist to promote the interests of the people – [a concept]rooted in Chinese society.” Well, okay. Provided Mao himself said so.

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Ms. Napoleoni thus advances the notion that democracy, as we know it in the capitalist West, is neither inherently preferable nor markedly superior to Sino-Marxist democracy, whatever that may be. Indeed, she asserts, China’s single-party democracy works – and works better than “our” democracy. “China’s success confirms that Marx is not the one whom history has proven wrong,” she says. “The Chinese have managed to create a form of communism ... that guarantees more progress than any other [economic system]” So what if this Sino-Marxist democracy is a dictatorship? The virtuous thing is that it’s Sino and that it’s Marxist.

In her new book ( Maonomics: Why Chinese Communists Make Better Capitalists Than We Do), Ms. Napoleoni argues that Marx begot Mao, that Mao begot Deng Xiaoping (who “opened” China). Retrospectively, she says, Marx won, Mao won and Deng won, too. The West lost. The world now awaits the imminent collapse of capitalism and the triumph of communism. What happened? The profit motive, she says, saved communism. Had the Soviet Union embraced profits, Lenin and Stalin could have gone down in history as winners, too.

But there is more to capitalism than profits. Maonomics, alas, won’t exempt China from the stern laws of supply and demand. Ms. Napoleoni’s book coincides with a Globe and Mail story of China’s massive New South China Mall, the world’s biggest, bereft of customers (though the McDonald’s and KFC fast-food outlets are doing a brisk business). It coincides with a Stratfor report that China is building homes that no one wants. (“Officially,” the strategic analysis company says, “a mind-boggling 65 million homes in China were vacant in 2010.”) It coincides with China’s huge investment in high-speed trains – that make it more expensive to travel by train than to fly. It coincides with the death of Steve Jobs, whose labours did much to make the world safer for democracy – for “our” democracy.

Ms. Napoleoni’s arguments are historical fiction. Go back to Tiananmen Square. Ask the student demonstrators directly what democracy meant to them. Did it mean fidelity to Mao, whose Marxist democracy took 40 million lives? (Or was it 70 million?) Or did it evoke a more universal sentiment? And what are we to make of the famous plaster statue of a lady, 30 feet high, holding aloft a flaming lamp – the statue the demonstrators themselves called the Goddess of Democracy?

Lest we forget: The arts students who built the statue read a declaration to the 300,000 protesters when the goddess arrived at Tiananmen Square. In part, the declaration said: “[This]is the Goddess of Democracy. [She]is the symbol of every student in the square ... A consciousness of democracy has awakened among the Chinese people. The new era has begun. [This statue]is made of plaster and cannot, of course, stand here forever. But, as a symbol, she is divine and inviolate. Chinese people, arise! Long live freedom. Long live democracy.”

Chinese army tanks cut down and silenced the Goddess of Democracy. But it is preposterous now to argue that the students of Tiananmen Square were merely calling on the spirit of Mao, were simply trying to nudge the single-party State. And it is offensive to say that the communist regime did the right thing when it turned the army on the students in Tiananmen Square. (“Looking back on the decision to suppress the Tiananmen uprisings,” she writes, “it is only honest to make an extremely painful admission: Maybe that sacrifice saved us all from catastrophe.”) The massacre, in other words, helped the Party survive until it had more fully learned the importance of profits.

The Party will undoubtedly experience more difficult times ahead. China has not heard the last from the Goddess of Democracy.

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