The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World, Dexter Roberts. St. Martin’s Press 2020, Hardcover 288 pages. ISBN-10:1250089379; ISBN-13: 978-1250089373. Available from Amazon.
Joseph Stalin is often quoted as saying, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” Putting the man and his practices aside, Stalin’s point here is clear. The weight of tragedy is felt when it is personified. This is exactly what Dexter Roberts seeks to do in his book, The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World.
Being based in Beijing for over two decades, Roberts is well versed in economics, Chinese history, politics, and how all these factors play together on the world stage. This book, while it certainly is a useful glimpse into the ever-increasing economic influence of China in the world, seeks to expose how the growth of the Chinese economy has impacted the workers in the “world’s factory.” In his own words, Roberts describes his motivation behind this book and the research that it came out of by saying, “I wanted to see how the laobaixing, literally ‘old 100 names’ or regular folks, were faring during the new [economic] reforms” (p. xxii). By putting a face in the factory and a name in the numbers, Roberts helpfully paints a context for the struggle that is life for migrant workers from Shenyang to Shenzhen. For this reason alone, the book is a useful read. A better understanding of reality for millions of people, who are readily recognized but seldom known, will hopefully cultivate a heart of compassion for those who are left out of the benefits of the ever-growing prosperity within the Middle Kingdom.
With each chapter of this book, Roberts acts like a jeweler slowly turning a diamond to examine its intricacies from different vantage points. For Roberts, it is not the brilliance and beauty of a jewel, but the Chinese economy he has under a microscope. From each new vantage point this economy reveals an increasingly troubling reality. Roberts exposes these realities to prove that “The myth…that China’s [economic] 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…is unlikely to prove true and how instead China’s growth could seriously slow, shattering the expectations of millions of Chinese, very possibly leading to social unrest” (p. xxxiv). This thesis is teased out over the book’s seven chapters.
In Chapter 1, Roberts opens the doors to a world that most people know exists but have never seen: The Factory. Behind most products in our lives are the countless migrant workers who often seem, “As if their lives revolved around an elusive quest to find the rare factory that actually cared about their well-being” (p. 18).
Chapter 2 is perhaps the most heart-wrenching portion of the book and could stand as a worthwhile sociological essay on its own. The Family describes the catastrophic implications of the migrant worker’s life on his or her loved ones. The two words, “migrant” and “workers” say it all. These are millions of people who have migrated from one place to another looking for work. These are people who, in seeking for better opportunities, often leave behind not just a poor hometown but some of society’s most vulnerable: their aging parents and young children.
Chapter 3 exposes the inherent and created problems in China over The Land that its people inhabit and work to cultivate. Roberts notes that, “Leaders like to point out, while [China] has a fifth of the world’s people, it has less than a tenth of its arable land” (p. 64). This is a real difficulty, but the policies that the modern government has implemented to address this problem have only intensified those difficulties.
Chapter 4 shifts focus to the delicate line that The Party seeks to walk in driving China’s economy forward. Trying to keep balanced on this line is the necessity of both a compliant and “dirt-cheap labor force [which is] key to China’s continued economic growth” (p. 94).
Chapter 5 is perhaps the most surprising section as Roberts introduces the necessary challenge of implementing The Robots into China’s economy. Rather than simple evidence of advancement, automation in factories can also expose the devaluation of migrant workers whose jobs quickly become obsolete. As companies constantly look for ways to cut costs and increase productivity, Miao Wei, the former president of the auto giant Dongfeng Motor Company, has said coldly, “The people part is the most complicated” (p. 117).
Chapter 6 paints another migration picture—not one of villagers migrating to the industrial centers looking for work but of former factory workers Going Home. This is not just a homecoming for Spring Festival; rather, it is another effort to develop modest wealth beyond the big cities. At the direction of Premier Li Keqiang, the government is seeking to ignite, “A virtuous circle: [where] migrants return to villages; they demand goods and services; more returnees open businesses to serve them; local economy flourishes; more move back” (p. 150). However, due to a host of challenges, this circle may not be so easily completed and “not a few returnees are likely to fail” (p. 166).
Chapter 7 looks ominously into what the current economy and policies in China could create for The Future. While not projecting a complete dystopian future, Roberts does warn, “Without a free press, an opposition party, or meaningful elections, the people have few outlets other than taking to the streets” (p. 190).
As Roberts slowly makes each turn of the Chinese economy, the reader is presented with a different, stark reality facing the millions of migrants caught up in the pursuit of the “China Dream.” Woven throughout each of these worrying realities is one common thread. This common theme serves as the undercurrent for nearly all concerns of the migrant’s experience: the hukou—the policy that allows the central government to control residence and migration. As Roberts claims, “More than anything else, [it] explains how China has ended up with today’s imbalanced, deeply unequal society” (p. 3). It is by tracing out this theme that Roberts does some of his best and most compelling work.
By establishing the hukou policy, the government has allowed China to become industrialized without becoming urbanized (p. 4). Migrants can travel to industrial centers for work but are kept from permanently moving to these cities because they are unable to obtain a hukou, or permanent residence permit. There are a host of limitations with not having a hukou, but perhaps one of the most glaring consequences in a city like Shanghai is that “more than one million migrant children who reside there are barred from attending public schools” (p. 40). Migrants then are forced with the decision: leave behind the enticing financial opportunities in the development hubs or leave behind their children. For many, the lure and necessity of finances force their migration to the factory.
The term liushouertong, or left-behind children, has become common throughout China. It refers, “to the estimated sixty-one million offspring of migrant workers who grow up separated from their parents, or one in five of all Chinese youth” (p. 34). Roberts helpfully allows the weight of this reality to be felt by the reader. His point is to put a solemn face and torn family to the statistic of millions of migrant workers.
Among migrant workers, families are not only broken by divorce, but by division. As Roberts notes, “most of the children of migrants, will see [their] mother and father only once or twice a year, during the rare leave they get from whatever factory, construction site, or restaurant kitchen employs them” (p. 38). China’s economic development since 1949 is a marvel that economists will endlessly study, but Roberts’ work is more than an economic analysis. It is an enlightening look at the vile cost by which economic development has come: the destruction of millions of families.
As I read The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, my mind was flooded with faces of students and friends I know and love in China who fit into the category of migrant worker or left-behind child. After reading this book, I will never hear someone say, “My parents worked in a factory as I was growing up,” the same way again.
Perhaps more than he knows, with this book Roberts puts his finger on a deep-rooted evil that is far more theological than it is economic. Discord within a family is not rooted in economic disparity but is an effect of the fall. At the fall, separation was introduced not only between man and God, but between men, and particularly within a family. Nevertheless, it is with this dark backdrop that the gospel and the church it creates has an opportunity to shine brighter than any diamond ever has.
Within the church, and particularly the church in China, migrant and manager can be united in something far greater than the pursuit of wealth. Within the church, all Christians, regardless of economic status, face a hukou dilemma. We have all lost our residency on this earth, but we have gained something far greater. We have gained a citizenship that is not bound by provincial borders, market trends, or political policies. We have gained a citizenship that can never be taken away because it has been granted by a good king.
Roberts did not help me gain this theological interpretation, but he did help color it in. I think of times in China when I sat around a table of pastors, some were educated at the best universities and others were one of the thirty-three million students whose meager education came from a rural boarding school (p. 46). Or I think of liushouertong friends who would share prayer requests and pray with the kids of big city elites over a canteen table. Those times were always encouraging, but now I see that they were miraculous.
So much of Dexter Robert’s work, The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, is commendable. From his ability to bring clarity to the complicated Chinese economy to his helpful historical perspective, I highly recommend this book. However, perhaps the highest compliment I can give this book is that, from an unfamiliar economic model, he makes the migrant worker’s experience familiar. In doing so, he helpfully exposes that the economic model, “that powered China’s rise for decades…still today doesn’t provide a fair chance for one-half of the people in whose name [the party] rules and is leaving them out of its grand visions for the future” (p. 198).