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Capitalism Did It

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
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.

Even after the Great Famine had subsided, an estimated 65 percent of the Chinese population lived below the poverty line. This was not American-style poverty, with food stamps, housing allowances, welfare benefits and Medicaid. This was living on less than $1.25 per day. This was stunted growth from malnutrition and early death and disfigurement from disease. It was high infant and maternal mortality. It was reduced life expectancy. Even today, the Chinese acknowledge that 6.5 million children under the age of 5 suffer from stunted growth, meaning two or more standard deviations below the World Health Organization's standards for median height by age.

After the Chinese introduced free market reforms in the late 1970s, the nation experienced the largest and fastest decline in poverty in world history. While 65 percent had been impoverished before 1978, only 4 percent lived below the poverty line by 2007. A certain skepticism is always necessary when dealing with official statistics from the Chinese government, but even if the 4 percent figure is inaccurate, the evidence of Chinese growth is obvious and undeniable. And contra AFP, one of the first consequences of increased prosperity was a reduction in inequality in China. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty because the state abandoned its control of economic activity and permitted freer exchange of goods and services.

China remains a rigid dictatorship. But the Chinese experience with economic liberalization, like that of India, which abandoned socialist policies in the early 1990s (though its government had never been totalitarian), mirrors that of other nations that embraced free markets: West Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Chile and Israel, among many others. Free markets are not just associated with wealth; they are also indispensable to it.

AFP concluded its story by noting that "Studies have described a rise in the prevalence of mental disorders in China, some of them linked to stress as the pace of life becomes faster and socialist support systems falter." There is sheer preposterous propaganda. What "study" could possibly prove that stress regarding "the pace of life" and the decline of "socialist support systems" (whatever they are) had increased mental illness?

Western intellectuals, very much including the press, are still in love with socialism -- even its communist variant. Wonder if anyone in China would agree to go back to the good old days.

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