Mona Charen
A young Chinese man is under arrest for a rampage killing in Liaoning province. The knife-wielding 17-year-old reportedly killed eight people, including two relatives of his estranged girlfriend, and wounded five others.

Terrible story. But Agence France-Presse, in an account widely circulated by Yahoo and other news outlets, knew just whom to blame: capitalism. AFP explained, "Violent crime has been on the rise in China in recent decades as the nation's economy has boomed and the gap between rich and poor has expanded at an alarming rate.

Experts say the increase in assaults shows that China is paying the price for focusing on more than 30 years of economic growth while ignoring problems linked to rapid social change."

Where to begin? Do critics of capitalism and economic growth really want to invite a comparison of body counts between pre- and post-1978 China? That was the year that Deng Xiaoping began the turn away from communism and toward free-market principles in the world's most populous prison.

Here's the way to begin thinking about poverty in China. Between 1958 and 1961, an estimated 30 million Chinese died of starvation. It wasn't a natural disaster, but an entirely political death toll. Mao Zedong had forcibly collectivized agriculture and then imposed farming practices that defied experience and logic. He insisted that "in company grain grows fast; seeds are happiest when growing together." China's farms were accordingly obliged to sow seeds at five to 10 times the normal distribution -- resulting in widespread crop failures.

There were other state dictates that contributed to the catastrophe; they exterminated the sparrows, which resulted in an explosion of the number of parasites; they increased flooding by contributing to soil erosion; they distorted the ecosystem by focusing on one big cereal crop at the expense of other land uses, including the raising of livestock. As "The Black Book of Communism" recounts, " ... the somewhat surreal slogan for the year 1958 ... was 'Live frugally in a year of plenty.'" Many peasants were too weak from starvation to harvest what modest crops were produced, leading the national press to "begin to sing the praises of a daily nap, and medical professors came out to explain the particular physiology of the Chinese, for whom fat and proteins were an unnecessary luxury." Reports of cannibalism were widespread.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help .
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