China’s Communist Party celebrates its 100th birthday on July 1. It is remarkable just how much the fortunes of Thailand’s biggest neighbor have changed, while Thailand has remained stagnant.
In 1921, when the CCP was founded by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, China was reeling from poverty, warlord domination and a weak central government. A famine in 1920 had heightened revolutionary fervor. Half a million people died, while millions more starved and migrated desperately southward. In 1921, Thailand – then Siam – was under the rule of the Chakri monarchy, one of the few ‘civilized nations’ of the Global South that had never been colonized.
In 2021, China is recognized as one of the world’s great powers, with the second biggest economy and the world’s largest military force. In 2021, Thailand is still under the rule of the Chakri monarchy, with frustrated revolutionary sentiment fomenting in a recessionary economy with few growth prospects.
One cannot romanticize the CCP’s story – one which has been written in the blood of millions of Chinese people. The Communist Party’s success has been attributed to its strong-armed nature and its ideological flexibility. In the formative Yanan years, Mao placed self-criticism and “struggle” at the center of the Party’s ideology. This was turned against Party members during the Great Leap Forward, when upwards of 40 million people died of famine and “counter-revolutionary” violence. The 1966 Cultural Revolution was only slightly less murderous and far more paralyzing, purging the party from the very top. Leaders like former president Liu Shaoqi and senior general Peng Dehuai were arrested and publicly persecuted.
But the leaders that survived the successive purges proved themselves to be extremely pragmatic. After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai rose to the fore, guiding the CCP with the aphorism “hide brightness, nourish obscurity.” After Chinese leadership were lambasted worldwide for the cruelty of the 1989 Tian An Men massacre, Deng Xiaoping worked to lower China’s international profile while liberalizing the Chinese economy. Only after 2001 did China re-emerge as a growing economic powerhouse and potential member of the US-led liberal world order. Suddenly, it was the age of the BRICS, the end of the ‘Third World’ and Asia’s Century.
While their GDP growth has been well-publicized, perhaps the most critical component of China’s economic success has been the extent to which wealth has been widely distributed. Corruption was rampant, connections remained a critical part of the market and powerful families became disproportionately rich. However, as the Economist writes, China did not become a “straightforward kleptocracy,” as income was redistributed across vast swathes of society.
Today, many young Chinese people feel a sense of hope. “The American dream is alive in China,” the New York Times writes. By some measures, Chinese society has reached the same level of inequality as the U.S. but the CCP is taking more intentional measures to continue reaching those at the bottom, while constraining those at the top. Xi Jinping has articulated the Party’s main goal of the century as that of building “a moderately prosperous society.” This has justified measures unimaginable in any other capitalist society: the attempted breakup of Alibaba’s monopoly power or blocking Ant group’s record-setting $34 billion initial public offering. While there are more instrumental reasons for taking down Jack Ma, the CCP has continued to remind the world that its “market” is far from free and works by a logic unlike that of any other.
However, the CCP’s success can also be read as failure – the failure of a nation to come into its own politically and to move beyond the single party state. Xi Jinping has moved the China back into “brightness,” highlighting the brutal excesses that underpin the stability of the Party. Hong Kong has been made an example of what happens when the Party is pushed too far politically: an important reminder that its Tian An Men days are not far behind it. The specter of Chinese growth is now seen as a threat as much as it is an opportunity. The Milk Tea Alliance is an important crystallization of this grassroots skepticism of China’s “benevolence,” and a recognition that China’s authoritarianism sets a bad example for its neighbors.
As much as the past hundred years have been lessons in the CCP’s resilience and brutality, they have also been lessons in Thai arrogance. Growing up in Bangkok in the early 2000s, one of the prevailing sentiments among the upper class was of the superiority of Thai siwilai: that the Chinese, even though they were becoming increasingly wealthy, were still “new money” and had not been Westernized enough to be admitted among the global ranks of the elite. As China became part of the BRICS while Thailand reeled from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Thai diplomats continued to tout the nation’s extraordinary capacity to seek help from high places. But the influx of foreign capital only deepened the role of the private sector in the Thai economy, decreasing governmental guardrails and reducing prospects for social mobility.
Without our own hundred years of humiliation, the American – now Chinese – dream has failed to materialize in Thailand. The stagnation that Thailand faces has as much to do with global conditions of capital as it has to do with elites who have clung to Thailand’s nationalist myths of superiority.
Lessons to be learned
There are important lessons Thailand can learn from China. The first is that economic growth is more meaningful when it is distributed across society. Before COVID-19, Thailand was considered an important Southeast Asian economy, with GDP growth of 2 – 4% across the last five years and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. The Finance Ministry expects GDP growth to resume at 2.8% in 2021. Yet, COVID-19 has revealed gaping holes in wealth distribution and social protection. The poverty rate has been growing since 2016 and hit a high of 8.8% in 2020, worsening an economy where wage growth is stagnant and massive asymmetries exist between the agricultural and service sector. The pockets of wealth that do exist in Thailand prevent it from becoming a “moderately prosperous society.”
The second is one of elite humility. Throughout decades of ‘self-criticism’ and ‘struggle,’ China’s greatest leaders learned that power is impermanent, and that self-aggrandizement is both useless and dangerous. Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai led by example, hiding their relative comfort to publicly honor the virtues of poverty and frugality. Meanwhile, the Gang of Four nearly derailed the CCP entirely, because it was focused on mythologizing and empowering particular leaders at the cost of others. The ancient historian Livy drew similar lessons from his chronicle of Rome: that luxury and avarice among the elite signal a decline into corruption, which constitutes a loss of virtue (or any claim to it). Meanwhile, Thai elites have done little to hide their own brightness, instead promoting their own virtues while flaunting their wealth. One scarcely has to mention the absurdity of Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul accepting Tatler Thailand’s ‘Person of the Year Award’ while failing to secure sufficient vaccines for a population now suffering amidst the worst wave of COVID-19.
The third is a lesson to Thai people: that political liberalization is not an inevitable consequence of economic growth, as political scientists once claimed. Some Chinese elites were forced to stay humble, but their ideological flexibility and willingness to “free” certain elements of the economy continued the Party’s steadfast grip on power. Rather, economic growth justified the Party’s claim to unrivalled status in Chinese politics – a justification that has also been used by the People’s Action Party for its half century of single party control in Singapore. Democracy is far from inevitable, and there is a growing realization across the world that it is exceedingly fragile. In Thailand, the fight for democracy will be long and difficult, but so very necessary.
Despite claims to being siwilai, Thailand today remains more feudal than China in 1921. Ours is a country ruled by the same class of elites who hold the same noble titles and have access to the same economic concessions as they did a century ago. Our monopolies – over the beer industry, for example – remain in place. Brutal as China’s rise has been, it has brought immense social transformation to the country – something that cannot be said for Thailand. If Thailand does not learn the right lessons from China, this stagnation looks set to continue for the next century.