For history-minded people who are also China watchers, it’s fascinating to see how China’s current drive towards accelerated industrialization resembles the historical trajectory of European industrialization. There is, of course, the massive pile of Chinese migrant labourer bodies stacking up from various coal mine accidents, sweatshop fires, and worker riots. All of this recalls “Western” experiences, and if you squint at the headlines in the right way you can even imagine you’re reading a news article from the 19th century. The wealthier Chinese are even aware of this:
But an odd change has come about in some [Chinese] shoppers’ minds. As members of China’s business and political elite, they have come to believe that the world is a huge jungle of Darwinian competition, where connections and smarts mean everything, and quaint notions of fairness count for little.
I noticed this attitude on my most recent trip to China from the United States, where I moved nine years ago. So I asked a relative who lives rather comfortably to explain. “Is it fair that the household maids make 65 cents an hour while the well-connected real estate developers become millionaires or billionaires in just a few years?” I asked. He was caught off guard. After a few seconds of silence, he settled on an answer he had read in a popular magazine.
“Look at England, look at America,” he said. “The Industrial Revolution was very cruel. When the English capitalists needed land, sheep ate people.” (Chinese history books use the phrase “sheep ate people” to describe what happened in the 19th century, when tenant farmers in Britain were thrown off their land to starve so that sheep could graze and produce wool for new mills.)
“Since England and America went through that pain, shouldn’t we try to avoid the same pain, now that we have history as our guide?” I asked.
“If we want to proceed to a full market economy, some people have to make sacrifices,” my relative said solemnly. “To get to where we want to get, we must go through the ‘sheep eating people’ stage too.”
In other words, while most Chinese have privately dumped the economic prescriptions of Marx, two pillars of the way he saw the world have remained. First is the inexorable procession of history to a goal. The goal used to be the Communist utopia; now the destination is a market economy of material abundance.
Second, just as before, the welfare of some people must be sacrificed so the community can march toward its destiny. Many well-to-do Chinese readily endorse those views, so long as neither they nor their relatives are placed on the altar of history. In the end, Marx is used to justify ignoring the pain of the poor.
Certainly it’s a mealy-mouthed excuse for an excuse: It’s okay for Chinese to exploit their fellow human beings because the British did the same 150 years ago. The British also forced the Chinese to buy British opium at gunpoint and cede Hong Kong in the Opium Wars, so my inner cynic wonders if the Chinese are also planning on doing the same thing to other countries. Then again, the march of progress means that often the new capitalists are welcomed with open arms.
Of course, this pattern of worker abuse is not just a simple reiteration of Western history being played out by people with darker skin. For example, no witches were ever burned in England because manufacturing jobs were scarce. The present isn’t the past and the (cough, ahem) Third World isn’t the farcical Napoleon III to the First World’s l’Empereur, Marx’s witticism notwithstanding.
For one thing, while it may be tempting to think of all of this “stuff” as happening in foreign countries or in the past, the resurgence of Taylorism and “scientific management” (a discredited management philosophy organized around getting the most productivity out of workers and damn their health and comfort), the introduction of flexible labour and contingent work (in rural as well as in urban areas), the migration of capital and jobs, and the shrinking of the working class labour market in the “West” means that things are getting crappier where white people live too. Some economists are even admitting this, despite the fact that most of them seem to be propagandists of global capitalism.
In fact, the globalist project has been so dismal in its rewards that it’s been traded in for straight-up nationalism in some quarters (e.g., the US, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, and so many other countries). “Here we go again,” say the historians, though in this sequel the Indians sometimes fight off the cowboys successfully — note, though, that it’s not the absolutely downtrodden countries that are resisting successfully, but the ones that already have some power. Lest anyone forget, remember also that the elites of those countries are hard at work exploiting their paisanos, so what we’re seeing is more like one group of elites fighting off another group of elites than the underdogs beating the five-time league champion.
All of these thoughts were triggered in me when I read about the recent fashionability of skin tanning among wealthier Chinese (via Boas Blog’s shoutout to Racialicious). Note that light skin was previously the in-thing to have to signify one’s wealth since it’s a sign that one isn’t a common labourer working outdoors, just like in Britain before the Industrial Revolution and just like it is today in many developing countries (and let’s not forget that skin whitening creams are used by many black people in the US, UK, and the Caribbean, though they’re used for slightly different reasons than mere signifiers of wealth). With the expansion of the airline industry, the drop in ticket prices thanks to cut-throat competition, and the greater number of vacationing middle class people created by industrialization, tanned skin has become a sign that the possessor has been to an expensive holiday overseas — again, like the way tanned skin became fashionable in Britain as a sign that the person has been to the Mediterranean, most likely during their Grand Tour of Europe, such holidaying becoming only possible by the building of railways to criss-cross the continent.
So there you have it: The more things change, the more they stay the same (barring the odd witch-burning and war on Islam here and there).