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China’s coming fall

January 24, 2011 Comments off

Like the Soviet Union before it, much of China’s supposed boom is illusory — and just as likely to come crashing down

In 1975, while I was in Siberia on a two-month trip through the U.S.S.R., the illusion of the Soviet Union’s rise became self-evident. In the major cities, the downtowns seemed modern, comparable to what you might see in a North American city. But a 20-minute walk from the centre of downtown revealed another world — people filling water buckets at communal pumps at street corners. The U.S.S.R. could put a man in space and dazzle the world with scores of other accomplishments yet it could not satisfy the basic needs of its citizens. That economic system, though it would largely fool the West until its final collapse 15 years later, was bankrupt, and obviously so to anyone who saw the contradictions in Soviet society.

The Chinese economy today parallels that of the latter-day Soviet Union — immense accomplishments co-existing with immense failures. In some ways, China’s stability today is more precarious than was the Soviet Union’s before its fall. China’s poor are poorer than the Soviet Union’s poor, and they are much more numerous — about one billion in a country of 1.3 billion. Moreover, in the Soviet Union there was no sizeable middle class — just about everyone was poor and shared in the same hardships, avoiding resentments that might otherwise have arisen.

In China, the resentments are palpable. Many of the 300 million people who have risen out of poverty flaunt their new wealth, often egregiously so. This is especially so with the new class of rich, all but non-existent just a few years ago, which now includes some 500,000 millionaires and 200 billionaires. Worse, the gap between rich and poor has been increasing. Ominously, the bottom billion views as illegitimate the wealth of the top 300 million. Read more…

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