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With millions of people infected, and lakhs now dead, the global COVID-19 pandemic is not showing any signs of disappearing in the near future. With scientists struggling to find vaccines and drugs for treatment, the long lasting lockdowns remain the only way to slow the spread of COVID-19. A lot of rhetoric in western nations has been aimed at blaming the pandemic on Chinese carelessness and opaque policy decisions. While US President Trump’s comments are a bit extreme and even racist (because it is an election year), it is being realised world over that the Chinese growth story has been one that has taken place behind closed doors.


Of course, this does not mean that China is responsible for the spread of the disease. But given its recent conduct at the Indo China border, and its rogue moves in the South China sea, it has established itself as a formidable superpower that is not willing to back down. China’s policy decisions have always been opaque and spelled bad news for India. So let us travel back a few decades to analyse where it all started. China’s rise has been driven by an illusion of abundance.

In 1949, the Communist Party of China emerged victorious after bitter Civil War. The leader Mao Tse Tung felt that the country was politically weak, and was very traditional, conservative even: because of which it was lacking in industrial development.


Formulating the first five-year plan in 1952, the Communist government began to modernize China, resulting in an extensive investment in heavy industries. But for the model to achieve its desired level of growth, it required a huge labour force. Contrarily, approximately 80% of the population lived in rural areas. Agricultural production was not optimal so as to feed the growing industrial workforce.


The agricultural pattern was based on self-sufficiency, and hence the farmers kept most of their produce for domestic consumption and just the surplus was sold in the markets in small amounts. For a communist leader like a Mao, who wanted his nation to stand as a potential rival against USA and USSR, this pattern of agriculture was never preferred. Collectivization, where multiple farmers run their agricultural properties as a joint enterprise, was followed, resulting in the farmers losing their own pieces of lands and working for wages on a land owned by the state. When this measure also did not achieve the desired output level, the second five-year plan was formulated in 1958, popularly known as The Great Leap Forward.


Based on this, agricultural properties were decentralized. The main objective was to reap the maximum benefits from the agricultural sector, which could be purchased by the government in order to feed the industrial workforce. This was seen as a way of contribution by the rural sector towards the industrial sector. Quickly, millions of peasants were teamed up together in large scale communes; thus holding all the farmers responsible for the collective output of their land. The Great Leap Forward was seen as a success in the beginning, because food was readily available for all the workers in the commune kitchens. Adding to this, these communes provided child care facilities for the very young and also comfort for the elderly.


But as mentioned before, this was an illusion of abundance. Things started to change when Mao insisted relying on nonsensical farming ideas such as cropping plants with no sufficient space in between them so that the stems support each other, ploughing as deep as 6 feet to encourage root growth, etc. On the other hand, to increase the steel output from 1 million tons a year in 1957 to 100 million tons a year by 1962 and also to reduce the import of steel, Mao incentivized people to establish steel furnaces in their backyards, where people could melt down scraps into usable steel. The steel produced out of this process turned out to be perfectly worthless.


Forests were chopped, as people required fuel for these furnaces. People were awarded for shooting down birds that damaged the crops. All these resulted in grave ecological imbalance and damage.


With a view to maintain a good relationship, the commune leaders started buttering the communist leadership by exaggerating the produce creating an illusion that there was an abundance of food when there was not. As a result most of the produce was carried to the cities, leaving no food for the people in rural areas to consume. The rural population began to starve. With more of the rural population being sent to the steel production, there was insufficient workforce in the agricultural fields during harvest. There was no food available for the population. It was all driven because of the communist belief that the absence of private property makes individuals self motivated to work hard and leads to a rise in production resulting in abundance of grains. This was laughably sad.


Here is where the inflection took place. During the 1970’s, the famines killed more than 36 million people. The government failed to feed its large 900 million population. With a rise in the starvation, it is widely speculated that people had no choice but to eat anything they found fit for consumption resulting in the greatest wild animal butchery in history. It is also rumoured that whatever productive activities the people were able to do for surviving the famine, was backed by the government. This was the duration in which the biggest mass murder in history took place. It is important to acknowledge that it was not Stalin or Hitler or Gaddafi, but China under Mao that carried out the largest execution in history. Millions of Chinese educationists and intellectuals were taken to the countryside and murdered.


After Mao’s death, there were a few years of relative peace. In 1979, under Deng Xiaoping, China liberalised its economy.


In 1988, the government enacted the Wildlife Protection Law stating the animals as resources owned by the state. Article 3 of the act read as, ‘Wildlife resources shall be owned by the state. The state protects the lawful rights and interests of units and individuals engaged in the development or utilization of wildlife resources according to law’. The law also encouraged the domestication and breeding of wildlife. Hence, a new industry was created. Local wildlife farms begun large scale industry level operations. In the meanwhile this also gave rise to an illegal wildlife industry, where endangered animals like tigers, rhinoceroses, pangolins where also traded. The wildlife farming was worth an estimated 100 billion yuan by 2004. In 2016, the farming of some endangered species like tiger and pangolins was legalized. By 2018, the wildlife industry grew to 148 billion yuans, and all these variety of animals being funnelled into a single market for profits, leading to poorly maintained surroundings in the market. This ensures that there is a much greater chance of disease transmission.


Today’s China is one that has downplayed all of its dark past because it has turned into a manufacturing hub, a global economy. The unforgettably traumatic Great Leap Forward, the killing of intellectuals, complete disregard for labour laws, mistreatment of workers are all characteristics of Chinese development. This is why the nation today has a staggeringly large GDP Nominal of $13.5 Trillion whereas an alarmingly small GDP per capita of just $9716. These figures speak volumes about the disparities of wealth in an oligarchic nation. While western rhetoric has turned on Chinese people today, it is essential to remember that it is the administration and not the people who are the culprits here. China is being called a rogue state after its incursion activities in the recent past. The Chinese growth story demonstrates that it has a history of being a rogue state when suitable. Illusions of abundance are quite deceiving.


By Gokula Krishnan

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