Titling a book The Myth of Chinese Capitalism invites prospective readers to expect an unraveling of this singular, definite-articled story. It also suggests, to this reader at least, weighty theoretical contents, including perhaps tables and pie-charts. Dexter Roberts’s book is no work of dense economic theory, however, nor does it pretend to have uncovered some singular narrative of China’s development. Rather, it is lucid, personal, nuanced—and rather difficult to summarize.
In part, it is a first-person account of the author’s experience of encounters in two contrasting provinces in the south, prosperous Guangdong—China’s most economically successful area—and poorer, more rural Guizhou, to the west, where, as an old saying goes: “No three days are clear, no three feet of land are level, and no one has three ounces of silver.” Recounting visits made over the course of nearly two decades to both Dongguan in Guangdong, a manufacturing town famous as the “Factory of the World”, and Binghua village in Guizhou, the book could perhaps have been subtitled “A Tale of Two Towns”. The link between the two places, and one of the structural devices around which the book is built, is the Mo family, originally from Binghua, whose various members move between Guizhou and Guangdong in search of work, part of China’s sizeable migrant worker population.
Roberts’s experiences with the Mo family, which began the year before China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001, lead to detours into detailed discussions of the underlying problems caused by the economic models Guizhou and Guangdong respectively embody.
The cities of the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong have, along with other coastal regions, been the engines of China’s double-digit growth over recent decades. However, their success was in large part driven by the low cost of migrant labor, as rural young people relocated from places like Guizhou to more prosperous coastal cities. China’s hukou system meant that these workers were essentially second-class citizens, however, unable to access services for themselves or their children in the cities where they worked. This part of the story is well-known, though Roberts reveals some of the story’s hidden iniquities in a detailed and compelling section on migrant children’s schooling.
The economic advantages conferred by this sanctioned exploitation of migrant workers have, however, begun to diminish in recent years (partly as a result, happily, of improved labor laws). However, the past reliance on this model is causing contemporary headaches for the Chinese government. As manufacturing jobs reduce—and with automation now a key part of China’s industrial ambitions—migrant workers are no longer needed in the same numbers. China’s government would like these people either to take jobs in service industries, preferably in cities the government has ordained as acceptable (places like Beijing and Shanghai are most definitely not on the list, as China’s leaders seek to “civilize” the tier one cities, as it is euphemistically put) or return to their home provinces to drive economic prosperity there through entrepreneurism. Neither ambition seems easy to achieve, but the simple fact is that China must grow its middle class and drive up domestic consumption in order to avoid the so-called “middle-income trap”. The room to maneuver as China attempts to pull off this magic trick is even more limited in the wake of the US-China trade war and Covid-19.
Roberts’s book is an exploration of these complexities, drawing on over twenty years of reporting experience in China for Bloomberg Businessweek. His thesis is that received wisdom has got China wrong. That is the myth of the title: a straightforward narrative which
says that the country is on an inexorable path toward a vastly expanded middle class at home, with cutting-edge technology and powerful companies dominating markets abroad. Fueled by continued economic growth, a much stronger and less brittle China is supposed to emerge. The myth says that China’s development path and authoritarian system will become a model for countries around the world and perhaps replace the already battered Western one of freer markets and individual rights.
Attempting to demonstrate the hollowness of this myth, Roberts’ book excavates the shaky foundations on which China’s recent economic success is based. This is an ambitious undertaking, and the book’s geographical and temporal scope sometimes proves a little disorienting as the author recounts visits to diverse parts of China, while also moving back and forth between past and present stories of the Mo family.
One comes away from The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, however, with a far more subtle and detailed understanding of the current crossroads at which China stands. The book is a readable and engaging guide to the challenges the current leadership faces in replicating the supercharged economic growth to which some of China’s population, at least, have become accustomed over the last four decades.
Jonathan Chatwin is the author of travelogue Long Peace Street: A walk in modern China. He holds a PhD in English Literature, and is author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of the traveller and writer Bruce Chatwin.