Three years since Chang portrayed a doomsday for the People's Republic of China, perhaps it is the right time to reflect upon the predictions made in this lucidly written book, naturally banned in China.
Himself the son of a Chinese who left the country in search for a better future, and found it in the land of opportunity, home of the free world, the United States, it is natural that Chang does not look favorably on the dictatorship that rules China with an iron fist. He blames Mao for his disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution that ripped the heart out of rural China and killed millions of innocent, he blames Deng Xiaoping for Tiananmen Square and not carrying forward with the economic and political reforms and he looks at Jiang Zemin with uttermost disdain as a worthless and orthodox leader, more interested in securing his own political position rather than the welfare of the billion people he subjugates. Yet, quite ironically Chang does seem to have a certain respect for various qualities in Mao and Deng, the former being credited with being a leader with a vision and the latter as one with a dose of pragmatism and both endowed with tremendous charisma and personality and widely respected. His wrath befalls Zemin and his to be successors, Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and the like, who he argues to be callous and not worthy of leading China.
Not surprisingly, Chang's argument is rooted in economics, or in China's case, politics of economics. As an American, Chang sees the ideal model to be one with least government interference and ultimate say in the 'invisible hands' of the market, coupled with free trade and movement of capital and finally, a civil and equitable society with solid democratic traditions and institutions. Chang is prepared to forgive Mao for organizing China initially into communes because China at that time was a nascent nation, facing crisis at all fronts with little entrepreneurial zeal. But he deals a mortal blow to leaders after Mao, even Deng Xiaoping for not furthering the reforms fast enough, resulting in continuous slowing of economic development. Chang dismisses the shiny skyscrapers of Shanghai as a symbol of over capacity, gigantic nationalized companies as 'white elephants' living off subsidies and bad loans from the banks and highlights the crushing inequality and poverty that rages and has actually worsened due to the fluctuation in the speed of reforms. His wicked sense of humor and sarcasm rips apart Communist policies. He mentions an incidence when a private company was strangled on the grounds that it was 'too innovative'.
Perhaps, he was overtly fatalist. China has managed to stabilize its collapsing banking system since the time the book was written and credit to state owned enterprises (SOEs) have been squeezed to encourage restructuring and efficiency. It is also managing to 'cool down' its economy quite efficiently, thus not letting the over capacity problem become precarious. China's 'Go West' campaign also seems an acknowledgement from the Politburo about the inequality problem.
However, here again Chang's far sightedness is astounding. As he predicts, the booming sectors of the Chinese economy are indeed because of multinationals or government monopolies. With China's accession to the WTO, the latter will have to be opened up to competition, which Chang argues is impossible for them to sustain and will result in their collapse. Also, most of the fuel for China's economic engine comes from the government coffers. There will be a time when China runs out of money to pump in the system. Chang points at that day when China's economic meltdown begins.
We must make two minor points here on which Chang can be taken to task. Firstly, his constant emphasis on the erstwhile splendor of the Middle Kingdom, unmatched by any in the world is frankly not acceptable. Even leaving aside the flourishing civilizations of Egypt, Sumer and later, Greece and Rome, he forgets to look across China's southern border over the Himalayas, where India sustained itself as a much more diverse and cosmopolitan civilization for an equal, if not more, time. Secondly, he indulges in far too many speculations regarding private entrepreneurs in China. It is possibly premature to predict the rise of a Chinese entrepreneurial class, because the economic model in China is based on SOEs and MNCs. Even with a much longer socialist baggage, or perhaps because of it, India has developed a world class private sector which can compete successfully in a post WTO world in 2005 and beyond and thus commands the reins of India's economic development in its own hands, unlike China.
Lest we take credit away from Chang, it must be reinstated that this witticism clad book about the future and eminent collapse of China as we know it is a must read to display the rot in its institutions and the forces at work to end the Communist parties' monopoly on power. Chang argues persuasively that the Chinese people are tired of their overtly regulated lives, dictated by a microscopic minority and enforced by crude coercion.
A day will come when the Chinese will eventually have had enough of the sermons of Beijing. That day the tanks of Tiananmen will not be enough to stop them, nor will the bags of cash from the banks. It is that day that one sixth of humanity will decide to take their destiny into their own hands and their erstwhile dictators will tremble with fear. It is that day Chang has foreseen.
The Communists had a chance to reverse this by allowing for more freedom. They couldn't let go. Now it is too late. They have run out of time, they cannot turn away from the imminent future. The collapse is near.