A number of my older friends remain apoplectic about Communism and the Communists who rule in yet a few countries. The loss of Vietnam to the Communists of the North is a sore spot. So, for some, is the Communism of China, especially since they have become our chief competitors for the title of Number One World Power. I think they are way off base.
I cannot claim much experience in either place, having spent only a few days in Vietnam last month, and a few weeks in China over the last several years, plus the observations of our youngest daughter and family who have lived in Asia for over fifteen years. However, there is nothing like the hubris of a tourist to encourage one to share one’s knowledge and wisdom, so here goes.
What I have observed is that whatever Communism is in Vietnam and China, it is not Marxist. Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao would never recognize it. The robber barons of late nineteenth century America might. As one young guide put it, “We Communists are ardent Capitalists.” I don’t think he said ardent, but whatever word he used meant the same thing. Private enterprise flourishes. Even the state owned companies operate as much as they can as if they were private, and in a sense they are because the state is the private arena of the party members.
The Chinese are years ahead of everyone else, at least in the Eastern half of the country, in the development of almost everything, and they are embarrassed when western tourists discover pockets of old China that tourists are not supposed to encounter. For instance, across the street from the Ritz Carlton in Shanghai is an imposing relic of Soviet “friendship” in the form of an enormous, rambling 1953 Russian built replica of a Czarist palace now advertised as a venue for important meetings and exhibitions. Tourists are driven by but not invited in. We went in. The interior is a rundown wreck of a place. The regular and ordinary exhibition that consumes tens of thousands of square feet is a traditional Chinese peasants‘ market where the poor people of Shanghai can buy food, clothing and stuff that is cheap, maybe not too fresh, and certainly not of the quality of the name brand stores just down the street. Among the many thousands jamming elbow to elbow through the aisles between stalls, we were the only non-Chinese present. We asked the Ritz Carlton staff about it. They, with some embarrassment, denied any knowledge of such a market. Later on we hired a private guide to take us into parts of Shanghai new to us. He also knew nothing about it. After all, how could the most technologically advanced city in the world, and one of its wealthiest, have such a place?
Vietnam was different, at least from our brief exposure to it, because old Vietnam is so obviously present. Yet everywhere we looked were signs of rapid change. Ports are filled with ships surrounded by cranes and new construction that will double and triple port capacity. Just outside are factories of many Western corporations along with huge empty concrete pads where more factories will be built. Major cities are growing skyscrapers, condo developments and luxury hotels. European and American company logos are displayed everywhere. Our Southern guide was openly dismissive of Northerners and held the unearned wealth of party members in contempt. Our Northern guide was more discreet but agreed that unless one could figure out a way to get into the party it would be hard to become rich.
Both countries are single party states, and the party is the Communist Party, keeping in mind that the Vietnamese and Chinese are uneasy neighbors under the best of circumstances. How one becomes a member of the relatively small number who make up the parties in each state is somewhat of a mystery to me, but it appears to be related to family histories and generational legacies. In other words, they are oligarchies. Party membership assures one of rank, prestige, an easy path to wealth and a lifestyle set apart from the ordinary people. In China the party is large enough for there to be internal debates that would never be confused with democracy but at least display a vigorous working out of compromise. Local and provincial jurisdictions are in open competition with one another, establish policies that are sometimes at odds with one another, and have more public debates about what those policies should be. That should be a warning to the oligarchs.
History tells us that oligarchies are inherently unstable and seldom last for long, a century or so at most. I probably will not live long enough to learn what happens in those two countries when their oligarchies are no longer able to rule as they do now, but in my imagination I envision something a little like a fourteenth or fifteenth century English parliament with commoners discovering a way to assert their place in the political arena.