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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, July 01, 2011

Point at a Deer and Call it a Horse 

指鹿为马. It means, "Point at a deer and call it a horse."

Full two-page spread in the China Daily today giving a timeline, with comment and pictures of the history of the Chinese Communist Party. I was drawn to this statement:
At the crucial juncture of China's reform and opening-up course in January 1992, Deng Xiaoping tours southern China where he delivers speeches aimed at clarifying whether the establishment of special economic zones is capitalist or socialist in nature. After a visit to Shenzhen, he says Shenzhen's achievements are socialist not capitalist in nature, as they have improved productivity and people's livelihoods. His words help push forward China's reform and opening-up in the 1990s.
So here's how it goes in China: You implement a socialist system, condemning capitalism as evil. When socialism proves to be a dismal failure, you implement capitalism, but call it socialism. This approach to governance in China goes back to the Qin Dynasty, when an evil minister, in order to test the loyalty of his underlings, brought a deer before them and told them to call it a horse. In China, it has become a standard idiom, that manifests itself in so many ways.

When I first came to China, my freshmen students asked me, "What is the difference between socialism and capitalism?" I would answer by asking them a question:

"If you have a company, do you think you should own it, or would you rather have the government own it and you just work for them?"

There answers were predictable. "I think I should own it." Then I would tell them, "Then you're a capitalist. If you think the government should own it, you're a socialist." I would often tell them to go to www.dictionary.com and look up the two words. The definitions are quite simple:

Socialism: Public ownership of the means of production

Capitalism: Private ownership of the means of production.

The reason for the confusion, of course, is that students look around them and see capitalism, but they are told it is socialism. So naturally, they ask, "If this is socialism, what is capitalism." I had to tell them, "This isn't socialism. Your grandparents had socialism. This is capitalism."

This is the irony of today's China. It is not politically correct to actually believe and teach Marxist philosophy. But it is also not politically correct to publicly admit that we no longer believe what Marx taught. So we continue to "point at a deer and call it a horse."

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