Those cheap Chinese products

Fascinated by the growing number of Filipinos who have found instant — sometimes suicidal — mobility in very affordable motorbikes from China, I recently got myself a new Chinese-made 125cc underbone for the price of a branded Japanese helmet.  Light and handy, the bike handles pretty well on short commutes.  My friends, with whom I share a passion for big bikes, warned me not to ride it on rough terrain.  Before you know it, they told me, it will start falling apart like one of those 10-peso plastic toys you find in a tiangge. How much of this, I wondered, is undeserved prejudgment arising from China’s reputation as a source of cheap but inferior products, and how much is factual?

Well, on my first ride, the bike did feel like it was going to wash out from under my seat. It began to rattle and wiggle so wildly I thought I would lose the handle bar itself.  The rattling, I found out, was due mostly to a chain that had too much slack and a plastic fairing that was not tightly screwed onto the frame.  Both problems were easily cured. They were not intrinsic to the vehicle’s basic construction. The wiggling, on the other hand, stemmed from my attempt to steer the ultra-light bike as if it was a Ducati Monster.  Like an unbroken horse from unknown parts, it began to respond better when I showed it more respect, and stopped assessing it by the standards of an Italian café racer.  What needed correction was the initial attitude I brought into the steering of the bike rather than the engineering of the bike itself.  This is a bike made for practical purposes rather than for leisurely sports riding.

In a superficial way, we might find in this little tale a fundamental insight into modern China’s role in the global economy.  This is a country that is transforming itself in a phenomenal way by producing goods mainly for the world’s masses.  It started with canned meat loaf known locally as “Ma Ling,that quickly displaced the American brands of Hormel and Spam from the shelves of our neighborhood groceries.  But, in less than three decades, China’s manufacturing juggernaut progressed from processed food to motorcycles and cars, and, believe it or not, to aircraft.  Not many people know that many of those high-performance European and American motorcycles and sports cars are packed with precision parts and instruments that are made in China.  How did China do it?

I think the simple answer to that question is: By releasing the creative energy and initiative of their people while making sure they do not politically disintegrate as a society.  This is not as easy as it may seem.  We are wont to think of economic and political organization as subject to the same principles.  Thus, if a nation wants to open up economically, how long can it remain closed politically?

The conventional theory states that a free market economy can only be sustained in the long term by the democratization of political life. But the Chinese experience shows there are no hard and fast rules on economic development and political stability.  Ironic as it may be, China has created a vibrant capitalist economy under the tight leadership of its communist party.  Party leaders still prefer to call it “market socialism.”  So be it.

The Chinese reform process did not occur overnight. Deng Xiaoping’s promotion of “rethinking socialism” was formulated to proceed hand in hand with adherence to the so-called Four Fundamental Principles. These political non-negotiables are: leadership of the communist party, Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought, the socialist road, and the people’s democratic dictatorship.  Together they constitute ideological shorthand for party supremacy.

The re-assessment of socialism in China began in 1976.  By around 1982, the communes, those principal signifiers of Chinese socialism, had vanished.  In 1983, a conference on export-processing zones brought me to China for the first time.  I remember Beijing, with its wide socialist boulevards, as a city of bicycles. At the meeting, the Chinese were keen to know the mechanics and the problems of export enclaves that would host foreign investments.

But the reform process was derailed by the ferment that was already rapidly unfolding in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself in the

‘80s.  The fall of socialism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 made the Chinese re-think the re-assessment. A clear line had to be drawn between the re-thinking of socialism and the abandonment of the socialism itself.  This period led to the purging of liberals like Zhao Ziyang from the party leadership.

In 1990, more than a year after the Tiananmen protests, I joined a group of about thirty other professors from various parts of the world to view developments in China.  As we all suspected, the real agenda was to hear the official line on the Tiananmen incident.  This was confirmed when we were received by Premier Li Peng himself. Here is what I recall him saying:  “I am sure that in coming to China at this time, you carry with you an attitude that is critical of the way the government handled the Tiananmen incident.  We have tried to explain what happened.  But, as unfortunate as it may be, we cannot allow this incident to distract us from what we need to do to keep our country together, and to prevent our people from going hungry.  A China that is unable to govern itself will not be the Chinese people’s problem alone; it will be the whole world’s problem.  If China is thrown into chaos, millions of our people will want to flee.  Will your countries be able to summon enough generosity to welcome our boat people?”