The Deng Xiaoping Era: An Inquiry Into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994

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The Deng Xiaoping Era: An Inquiry Into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994

By Maurice Meisner
Hill and Wang, 1996
537 pp. $27.50
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A provocative account of the post-Mao era in China by one of America's leading Sinologists. Meisner focuses not only on China's enormous quasi-capitalist success story -- now the conventional wisdom -- but also its traumatic underside. This includes a considerable increase in economic inequality, a wide gap between city and countryside, a rise in unemployment and crime, and an absence of job security and social benefits. Utilizing a Marxist lens, Meisner concludes that the "incongruous coincidence of economic progress and social deterioration . . . has been the price of capitalist development everywhere." Although Meisner's framework is powerful, its use of slippery concepts such as "exploitation" is tautological. He concedes that working people in both city and countryside now generally enjoy greater incomes and improved material conditions of life, but he insists that to say they are better off "does not diminish the degree of exploitation." But since capitalism by the author's definition is exploitative, even substantial improvements in the living standards of Chinese workers would have to be described as "exploitation." At the root of the analysis is the longing of many Western and Chinese intellectuals for a path of modernization that, in his words, "avoids the painful vicissitudes of capitalism." So far in the twentieth century, however, efforts to avoid those vicissitudes, both in China and in many other countries, have often led to totalitarian dictatorships rather than social democracy. Still, this book will stand out as one of the most sensitive and illuminating analyses of recent Chinese society, economics, and politics.