Steve Chapman
CHANGSHA, China -- On an island in the Xiang River stands a massive bust of the late Chinese ruler Mao Zedong as a young man, his long hair blowing gracefully in an imaginary wind. Good thing for him he's a safe distance from the Expo Central China. If he could see it, he would be tearing his hair out.

As leader of the communist revolution of 1949, Mao was dedicated to class struggle and the elimination of property. He created a totalitarian society in which everyone wore the same clothes, chanted the same slogans and -- as far as anyone knew -- thought the same revolutionary thoughts.

Mao's "new man" was barely recognizable as human. Purported to be selfless, tireless, austere and indifferent to pleasure, he lived for the revolution alone. Skeptics mocked these subjects as "blue ants," for their drab, uniform dress and unquestioning obedience.

But that way of life is extinct and apparently unmourned, as the expo confirms. It's a sprawling complex brightly decorated in corporate logos. Arriving visitors are greeted by rock singer Pink's pugnacious warning: "I'm not here for your entertainment/You don't really want to mess with me tonight."

The risque music emanates from an outdoor exhibit featuring young women in off-the-shoulder gowns alongside the Gucci edition Fiat 500. Gucci? Fiat? This is communism, 21st-century style, and it seems as relevant to Mao as it does to the pharaohs.

_Inside, an audience in a glittering ballroom hears one speaker after another hold forth on how China in general and these six provinces in particular can attract foreign investment. Vice Premier Wang Qishan, a member of the Communist Party's Politburo, unabashedly sings the praises of "market reforms."

The adjoining exhibition hall is a carnival of booths, products and hired staffers brandishing glossy brochures. Under Mao's leadership, slogans ran along the lines of "Communism is heaven and people's commune is the bridge." Here, I spy a Wal-Mart display with the pitch: "Save money. Live better." Farther along is a Starbucks, which at one time would have been reviled as a criminally decadent luxury.

The spectacle is not limited to the trade fair. Wal-Mart has 370 stores in China, and Starbucks has more than 570. Mao's masses thronged the streets on bicycles. Today's Chinese sit in late-model cars in endless traffic jams.

All this began some three decades ago, when the People's Republic gave up trying to forcibly redesign human nature in favor of making the best of it. So thorough is the outward transformation that it's often hard to remember -- or quite believe -- that this is an officially communist country.

American business executives claim that small increases in marginal tax rates or regulatory requirements will sap their drive to achieve. But if China's officially socialist system has a demoralizing effect on the spirit of enterprise, you can't tell.

Critics at home think the problem is just the opposite. In his book, "The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers," journalist Richard McGregor quotes one academic's complaint that "the sole dominant ideology shared by the government and the people is money worship."

He says that like it's a bad thing. But the money-worshipping China is a gargantuan improvement on the Mao-worshipping version.

Not that communism is entirely dead. The party remains in firm control of the government, and many enterprises are partly state-owned. Party committees operate in corporate workplaces, where they play the odd role of celebrating those who diligently serve the interests of shareholders.

Touring an auto plant near Shanghai that is part of a joint venture of General Motors and SAIC Motor, I saw more than one employee recognition poster adorned with a smiling face alongside a hammer-and-sickle -- signifying that the worker is a card-carrying Communist.

What that means is hard to figure. One Chinese woman, hearing of my strong aversion to Marxist-Leninist ideology, introduced me to her husband, whom she attested is "very anti-communist" and who proceeded to express his discontent with the government.

He seems to have no trouble reconciling these views with his membership in the party. Even Communists no longer put much stock in communism.

Today, it's the consumer who rules, and it's buying and selling that dominates economic life. Mao's visage still dominates Beijing's Tiananmen Square, but his people seem to have more in common with Calvin Coolidge. At the Expo Central China, it's clear that the business of China is business.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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