The dialectics of uneven and combined development
By Josef Gregory Mahoney  ·  2023-08-07  ·   Source: NO.32 AUGUST 10, 2023
A drone photo taken in July shows a continuous series of U-shaped bends in a road that connects villages in the mountains of Napo County in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (XINHUA)

In my mid-20s, after growing up largely in the rural south and then attending university in Washington, D.C., I visited Chicago for business, staying downtown a few blocks from Lake Michigan, which was already dancing with ice in early December. There are limits on building heights in Washington, and Chicago was the first truly big city I had visited. The experience was a bit overwhelming, tinged with "batophobia," the fear of being in or near tall buildings. Indeed, standing on those cold, windswept sidewalks of the Windy City, gusts almost blowing me over, I felt the whole city might come tumbling down on me like bowling pins.

Twenty years later, including a decade of living in Shanghai, I revisited Chicago for a conference. And what occurred to me then was how incredibly small it was. The local metro system on wooden platforms seemed ancient and decrepit. The city's spiraling murder rate and presence of secret police interrogation centers—then suspected, later proven—meant constantly minding one's p's and q's, quite unlike the carefree security one enjoys in Shanghai. In that moment, my youth appeared to me as rather small and undeveloped, and Chicago the same.

I'm writing these words now in Athens, not far from the Acropolis and Parthenon. Greece is now recovering from poverty rates that have reached 30 percent in recent years, with help in part from having joined the Belt and Road Initiative, a China-proposed plan that aims to boost connectivity along and beyond the ancient Silk Road routes, in 2018. I'd always wanted to visit Athens, having lectured on philosophy for decades, especially to walk at least once among the ruins of Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum, those cradles of Western thought, and it's been fulfilling to do so.

But what strikes me most about Athens is the juxtaposition of old and new. And by old I mean the ancient and ruined and by new I mean less advanced than Chicago. To be sure, there are things to appreciate and admire, and aside from visiting sites I still hold dear, I am imagining what it would be like to live in Athens, to continue to enjoy a more relaxed culture, including moussaka and souvlaki. But the phobia I experience now is that of stagnation.

By all official descriptions, Greece is a developed country and Athens its most advanced city. That said, perhaps there's a type of hubris in declaring oneself developed, much like the hubris of youth when one feels at the height of their powers in their 20s. But Athens is not young.

Perhaps the myth of development was necessary for Greece to join the European Union in 1981, and the eurozone in 2001. Perhaps the West needs to believe that the cradle of its civilization is by no means a backward and underdeveloped place. Or perhaps the idea of "being developed" is always already present in "being" at the so-called "end-of-history," which the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel imagined in Germany in the early 19th century and which American political scientist Francis Fukuyama likewise asserted, erroneously, about the U.S. in 1992.

What also strikes me about Athens are its easy comparisons with Washington. Standing in front of the Temple of Hephaistos immediately recalls standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Indeed, Washington's historical fixation with neoclassical style, which copied the ancient buildings of Greece and Rome, is impossible to miss. That style was chosen to evoke the values of reason, order and democracy, and to project the idea that the U.S. was the new center of Western civilization, despite the fact that by today's standards neither Athens nor Rome of the past would be considered paragons of those virtues, an argument that some in all three cities, including Washington, would say is true today of their contemporary incarnations.

I'm not saying Greece is backward, undeveloped or stagnant in an absolute sense. It's rebounding. And there are many places around the world that are considerably less developed and stuck in time, and there are many that are more advanced, like Shanghai and other first-tier cities in China. However, having completed fieldwork recently in rural Hainan, Yunnan, and Hunan provinces, in areas that are relatively common throughout China, I can only describe those areas as underdeveloped but developing.

By another measure, let's consider per-capita GDP. In the U.S., according to current estimates from the International Monetary Fund, in dollars it's $80,030; in Greece, it's $22,590; and in China it's $13,720. While the per-capita GDP in Shanghai is near $25,000 and Shenzhen's a bit higher, it's also true that the average in Athens far outpaces the Greek national average.

Without question, some parts of China have features that are among the most advanced in the world, and certainly one is aware that continued growth and development belie the presence of stagnation. The commercial center of Lujiazui alone, home to most of Shanghai's most iconic skyscrapers, makes Chicago seem small and Athens even more so, as does the Shanghai metro system, digital commercialization, delivery services and ubiquitous coffee shops fueling a city that's constantly striving for a still unrealized future. But despite the tens of millions of people who live in China's most advanced cities, they remain the exception in a country of 1.4 billion.

It's easy for people to be confused by this. For example, Shanghai is home to roughly 25 million people, about 2.5 times more than all of Greece. When foreigners visit China they almost always arrive and remain in the most advanced areas, like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. And no doubt many who never visit China are tempted to believe that China is already a developed country given China's incredible rise and development, given the fact that China is now the world's second largest economy, has the world's most advanced industrial system, and is home to more than 400 million middle-income earners, greater than the entire population of the U.S. Without question, China is now asserting itself, and rightfully so, as a major country in a multipolar world, along with accepting the responsibility of making greater independent contributions to the world commensurate with its capabilities as a responsible major power. But the fact is that there are still 1 billion Chinese who have not yet reached middle-income status, and no amount of politicking in Washington, asserting that China should no longer be considered a developing country, will change this.

To be sure, it's always been strange for any society to assert itself as being developed. One can countenance this in the Agora of Athens, an ancient public assembly space surrounded by the ruins of a high point of development from the ancient past, within the ongoing struggles of contemporary modernity. One can countenance the same when it comes to Fukuyama's failed thesis in Washington and elsewhere in the West today. More reasonably, and I say this as someone who grew up in the foothills of Appalachia but who's lived more than half his professional life in China, we can turn to the Marxist concept of uneven and combined development to understand that human progress is always inconsistent and changing. This kind of dialectical perspective not only better describes what we find in China, it also corresponds with official thinking in Beijing. Unfortunately, Marxist thinking won't find a home in Washington any time soon, in fact quite the opposite; which means the U.S. will continue to misunderstand and mischaracterize China and Chinese development, and continue to miss the chance to transform the U.S. itself and the world for the better.  

The author is a professor of politics and international relations at East China Normal University and a senior research fellow with the Institute for the Development of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics at Southeast University

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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