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PERSPECTIVE ON CHINA : Do Students Speak for Everyone? : Western issues of human rights are irrelevant as workers and peasants strive to rise above a hand-to-mouth existence.

July 25, 1991|THOMAS B. SANDERS | Thomas B. Sanders, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Southern Maine, recently returned from lecturing at three Chinese universities on the subject of Western economics and financial practice. and

It seems amazing that Congress in its current deliberations on extending most favored nation status to China is so intent on serving the small minority of the Chinese population, the intellectual, that it ignores the overall welfare of the majority, the workers and peasants who make up 99.5% of the population.

The fallout from events in Tian An Men Square in 1989, together with a growing conviction that market economics is crucial for China, have so alienated certain students and university faculty from the Chinese system that they have given themselves totally over to the West. They have lost touch with the real requirements of their own society and now demand an instant and comprehensive reform that is not relevant to today's China.

What is forgotten in the frenzy of the intellectuals' demands for reform is that workers and peasants now enjoy living conditions unprecedented in the nation's long and difficult history. Almost everyone, under the current system of equal distribution of wealth, has a job, enough to eat and a place to live.

The primary purpose of the Chinese economy is to provide jobs. And with a population officially estimated at about 1.14 billion (one-fourth of the world's population), the comparatively explosive economic growth of the 1980s has finally produced an economy just barely able to provide jobs for everyone. Because the dimensions of the economy today just "fit" the population, there is simply no slack in the system to provide for work incentives, personal advancement or manufacturing efficiency.

What would happen to all the workers laid off if Western experts were hired to make the state-run enterprises run efficiently? Issues imported from the West such as human rights, environmentalism and freedom are as yet quite vague and irrelevant to the traditional worker-peasant just progressing beyond hand-to-mouth existence.

During research on the fledgling Chinese stock market this year, I met with municipal and national government officials, senior members of Chinese banks, managers of state-run enterprises and Sino-American joint ventures and a variety of other business and professional people. It was overwhelmingly clear that none of the U.S. Congress' assumptions concerning the need for reform are congruent with the realities in China today.

The Chinese leaders who influence or implement policy are convinced Marxists who are proud of what has been accomplished and are only experimenting with certain economic concepts in an effort to make socialism more efficient. The Chinese call what they have a "commodity economy," a term for a socialist-style market economy.

If China's population-control efforts continue successfully, it is plausible to believe that the forecast annual economic growth rate of 6% to 8% will produce, in about a decade, per-capita levels sufficient to allow incentives, promotions and other Western-style reforms. By that time the economy would have expanded by 100% while population rose only 15%. But it all depends on keeping population growth at its current level of 1.4%.

Unfortunately, today's college students, both within China and abroad, suffer from massive unfulfilled expectations and will not be able to wait 10 years for opportunities to open up. They will become a lost generation in China's development. While all college graduates are guaranteed jobs, most will move into positions within China of permanent underemployment. This is beyond the control of today's government leaders and represents a monumental loss. Students recognize this dilemma, which probably explains their desire to study and live abroad.

Congress in its deliberations on our national policy cannot afford to generalize for the whole of China based upon the fortunes of this small and frustrated population segment of one of the most important countries in the world.

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