Amid a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, the internment of millions of Muslims in reeducation camps, increasingly bold efforts to silence journalists and dissidents, and threats to the primacy of Chinese President-for-life Xi Jinping, it’s hard to find anyone willing to sing Beijing’s praises these days. Enter Bernie Sanders.
“China is a country that is moving, unfortunately, in a more authoritarian way in a number of directions,” the Vermont senator recently told The Hill’s Krystal Ball. You can sense the “but” coming.
“But,” the tension releases, “what we have to say about China—in fairness to China and it’s leadership—is, if I’m not mistaken, they have made more progress in addressing extreme poverty than any country in the history of civilization, so they’ve done a lot of things for their people.”
Sanders is not wrong; extreme poverty in China entered a period of precipitous decline in the final decades of the 20th century, and that is due, in part, to far-sighted Chinese leadership. But this was not a result of Beijing’s dauntless dedication to the tired socialist dogmas to which Sanders adheres. China’s prosperity revolution was a byproduct of the country’s decision to sacrifice Marxist economic policy prescriptions in favor of a qualified embrace of the marketplace.
Beginning in 1978, Deng Xiaoping began the process of implementing a series of market-oriented reforms designed to open the Chinese economy up to foreign investment and introduce competition into the moribund Maoist state. Deng called it “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” but his reforms consisted primarily of abandoning socialism. China scrapped its commitment to the centrally planned allocation of resources to priorities dictated by the state without regard to market signals. It broke down collective farms, procured foreign trade deals, and partially privatized China’s state-run industrial sector. Import barriers were steadily dismantled, and individuals were allowed to conduct private commerce in pursuit of profit.
The trajectory of China’s market reforms was typified by fits and starts. But while the effort to impose political as well as economic liberalism on Communist China was violently suppressed in 1989, the marketplace emerged triumphant. The overall effect on the Chinese economy has been dramatic.
The impact of Deng’s reforms on the lives of China’s extremely impoverished was most striking. In 1981, the World Bank assessed that 88 percent of people in China lived in extreme poverty (that is, living on less than $1.90 per day). By 2015, just 0.7 percent of China’s population languished in such impoverished conditions. In the space of three decades, half a billion people forged new, more prosperous lives for themselves and their families by participating in the marketplace.
The good news doesn’t end at China’s borders. Throughout the 20th century, the problem of crippling poverty and malnutrition vexed well-meaning liberal reformers in the West, most of whom reliably prescribed wealth transfers from developed to developing nations to address the issue. But as the Keynesian pieties of the 20th century were replaced with market-oriented philosophies, and the world’s mixed economies surrendered to the tide of history, extreme global poverty entered a period of potentially terminal decline.
Forty-two percent of the world’s population subsisted in extremely impoverished conditions, according to the World Bank’s 1981 estimate, with most of them in China and India. By 2016, the institution’s informal estimate pegged the global extreme poverty rate at around just 9 percent thanks in part to Beijing and New Delhi’s decision to all but give up on managed growth. The story is, however, much the same in the rest of the world. Extreme poverty rates around the globe declined from 1.9 billion in 1990 to approximately 736 million in 2015. “Over the last 25 years, more than a billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty, and the global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been in recorded history,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said last year. “This is one of the greatest human achievements of our time.”
The rate of poverty reduction is leveling off and is expected to remain relatively static in the coming decades, in part because the most tractable conditions have already been addressed by market reforms and, also, because those market reforms are falling out of favor. A January press release from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean warned that extreme poverty levels in that region have increased to their highest rates since 2008. They also noted, though, that “inequality has fallen notably since 2000.” Only in the socialist mind are these two conditions both separable and desirable.
Even if he cannot bring himself to say it outright, it is good to see the self-described democratic socialist senator from Vermont acknowledge the happy fruits of the marketplace. Somewhere deep down, Sanders recognizes the rectitude of China’s decision to scrap socialist economic prescriptions. The results speak for themselves. It is a source of hope that perhaps someone in the senator’s confidence can convince him not to impose those same failed prescriptions on the United States.