By Jimmy Lam
Deng Xiaoping once said, “It does not matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” These words ushered in China’s ‘Reform and Opening Up’ in 1979, transforming a country then in complete turmoil during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, into what is now the second largest economy in the world after the United States. China’s GDP per capita income grew from US$184 in 1979 to US$11,800 today. In the process, it has lifted 850 million Chinese people out of extreme poverty, a remarkable feat in just a few decades of economic growth.
All this time, China was ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the country retains its ‘Communist’ label, even though the spirit of catching mice has set off four decades of capitalism that drives the economy at breakneck speed to produce what is today a country of first-world physical infrastructure of highways, airports, high speed train network, high rise buildings and others and hungry consumers who buy all kinds of global branded products and spend massively on travel worldwide. The country is no longer a command economy unlike what the label of communism suggests, but it is more a socialist market economy. The market economy provides the impetus that drives the economy, but the socialist elements provide the support to any worker and family who falls behind. This model has worked for a country with a massive population of 1.4 billion people. China is indeed new wine, but retains an old label.
This economic miracle is what the country will showcase to the world as it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1 this year. Like many in Asia, I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s worrying about the threat of communism spreading to the region. But since then, the attitude of many living in this region towards communist China has changed dramatically, triggered in part by the change in course towards reform and opening up in China that has led to this huge economic boom. Today, many countries and businesses consider it paramount to know how to work with China in order to advance their own economic and business cause.
The cat that was unleashed to catch mice four decades ago has completely transformed a communist country into a modern society with highly visible icons of economic success, and has made it a country that many have to reckon with.
Based in Singapore, Lam travels extensively in the region to document many communities and their stories. He is driven by a desire to tell the stories of Asia, including various stories of China, from the perspective of an Asian person who has grown up in the region but is heavily exposed to the ideas from the west. He is working on a photobook on China, “Catching Mice” that is scheduled to be published in early 2022.
Photo Essay edited by Alejandra Martínez Moreno