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The Myth of Chinese Capitalism

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You might expect a book titled The Myth of Chinese Capitalism written by a longtime Businessweek journalist to be a numbers-driven analysis of economic policy, labor, and manufacturing in the People’s Republic. While author Dexter Roberts does touch on these topics, his primary focus is on people, not statistics, and those people are the ones laboring at the bottom of the country’s manufacturing sector. “I hadn’t come to China to write about Harvard-educated MBAs, former McKinsey consultants, tapping VC money to fund internet start-ups in China. That, in fact, completely bored me,” Roberts explains early on. His interest is in the migrant workers who have left their rural homes in the country’s interior and ventured to the factories along China’s southern coastline. Between the mid-1990s, when Roberts first arrived as a foreign correspondent, and the mid-2010s, those migrants helped propel an export-driven explosion of economic growth that made China the story of the early 21st century.

The years of double-digit expansion are in the past, however, and much of The Myth of Chinese Capitalism explores how both the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese workforce will adapt to a new economic landscape. Roberts uses the Mo family of Guizhou—one of China’s poorest provinces—as a jumping-off point for many of his discussions. After first meeting some members of the family at the turn of the century, he made periodic contact with them and traces changes in their fortunes to illustrate larger points about the promises and limitations of China’s economic reforms. 

The CCP has pledged to transform the PRC into a “moderately prosperous” society by 2021 (the hundredth anniversary of the Party’s founding) and seeks to promote future economic growth through consumer spending and the service sector. But the migrant workers who powered the first two decades of China’s economic rise can’t easily make this transition: the household registration (hukou) system ties them to the countryside by preventing them from accessing social services in cities; a high savings rate, necessary due to the lack of adequate health insurance and retirement plans, makes them conservative consumers; and the limitations of rural education make it unlikely that many in the next generation will be adequately prepared for the high-tech “innovation” economy desired by the country’s leadership. Migrant workers might have believed that their toils would yield a better lot in life—if not for them, for their children—but structural constraints held in place by the CCP impose a limit on upward mobility.

The Myth of Chinese Capitalism is a useful update to previous books about China’s migrant workforce, and would especially complement Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (2008), by Leslie T. Chang. Because Roberts only drops in on the large Mo family from time to time (rather than focusing the narrative on their story), it can be difficult to remember their names and occupations from one anecdote to the next (though there is a list of dramatis personae in the front matter to mitigate this issue; I read an electronic galley in which flipping back and forth was annoying). In The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, Roberts has produced an interesting and thorough overview of China’s economic growth, in which he directs the reader’s attention not on numbers but the lives of people working toward an ever-elusive promise of “moderate prosperity.”
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China has been talked about so much lately that I had to read up on it. Thankfully, Roberts' book gave me that opportunity. In it, the usual image of a wealthy, stable giant gives way to a country populated by aging, informed people that demand more and more of the Communist regime and workers that demand better conditions. Roberts, a journalist for Newsweek in China, leaves international financial hubs and goes to Guangdong and Guizhou, to poorer regions, to talk to common people – migrants, manufacturing workers and farmers.

The China he puts on display is one in which migrant workers are treated as secondhand citizens, saddled with fines by the police and abused by employers. It is a land of 61 million abandoned children, whose parents left for work, of disadvantaged ethnic minorities and corrupt party officials. It is also home to 80 million people over 65 that are increasingly sick, depressed and unable to afford healthcare. Dotted with historical accounts and present-day interviews, Roberts' book is thoroughly informative.

China is a world in itself. If we know the US from movies, maybe we should read up on China.
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The Myth of Chinese Capitalism by Dexter Roberts is a personalized study of the Chinese economy.  Rather than relying strictly on numbers -- exports, GDP, and the expansion of the infrastructure, Roberts centers on the Mo family and traces the outward from there.  China is rapidly changing, perhaps more so than any other country in history.  Social disruption during the Industrial Revolution in England is well documented in history and literature.  China's changes in size, speed, and scope, easily dwarfs England's changes.  Modern trade and industry, along with the largest exporting economy in the world, have not only damaged or destroyed traditional Chinese lifestyle it has also transformed Chinese Communism into something very different.  Roberts brings the reader his first-hand experiences in China and gives the reader a view of China from the view of migrant workers displaced from their farms. A unique look at China and its economy.
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