You forgot what they are? Well, back in the early 21st century, there was some friendly jostling in the upper reaches of the leadership, and to strengthen his hand, and make his mark on the history of China, President Jiang Zemin, as he then was, proposed that the Communist Party constitution be altered to include within it the "Three Represents."
It had something to do with opening up the party membership to private entrepreneurs, but more to do with a political statement that would withstand the test of time. A line in the history books.
During the maneuvering for power ahead of the key party meeting in 2002, the Three Represents were everywhere, the radio went on and on about them, the newspapers published long articles about their significance. At the time, for breakfast, I used to order one cup of coffee, two pieces of toast and three represents. It sometimes got a laugh.
So here we are a few years later, President Jiang has retired and the Three Represents have fallen from mass market view. But surely they must have had some ideological significance beyond being a temporary political jousting tool?
I was at a party in Beijing recently and ran into a man whose name card described him as a political editor for the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party. "Okay," I said, backing him verbally into a corner. "What are the three represents? Recite them for me."
He looked slightly panicked, but regrouped well, and said: "The party represents the development trend of advanced productive forces." "Right, that's number one. The other two?" He hesitated, counted his fingers for a moment, and said: "I can't remember."
For the record, the other two are that the party represents the orientation of advanced culture and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people in China. But I had to look it up on the Internet to remind myself.
I gave a speech recently to an MBA program in Shanghai half composed of mainland managers and half foreign / Taiwan managers, all mid-career. One of the mainland managers raised the topic of income gaps between the richest and poorest levels of Chinese society growing wider, and I said: "Yes, it's good isn't it?"
This caused a bit of a storm as the wealthy middle class top three percentile elite individuals, all of them pushing to better themselves, raise their market value and become as rich as possible as quickly as possible, took the line that a fair society involved the kind of leveling of incomes found in northern Europe.
I disagree. The point in China's history when the income gap was the smallest was also the point where there was effectively no economy – the Cultural Revolution.
The existence of a self-made tycoon like Hong Kong's Li Ka-shing provides a beacon of hope for the poorest and most down-trodden, who say "If I work hard and if I am lucky, I can become rich too." China's book stores are full of books about the business strategy of Mr. Li, so it is clearly a potent concept.
If an us-and-them arrangement becomes entrenched generation after generation, then it can lead to revolution. But that is not where we are with China now. The whole structure of wealth creation has only been in existence for something less than two decades, and there are many examples of poor people who have become rich on the way up China's sharp growth curve.
Also, while the rich of China are becoming richer, as tends to be true of the rich in any country, and while the income gap is growing, the poor are generally better off than they were. The fact is the peasants of Anhui would appear to be comparing their situation not with that of the rich people in Shanghai, or with Brad Pitt or Bill Gates, but with their own recent past.
Villages in Anhui are poor, but they are clearly doing better than they ever were in the past. The farmers are talking on their mobile phones as they drive around on tractors. The rice harvest is now done by cute Japanese harvester devices which cut, thresh and bag the rice at a rate of one Mu (1/15th of a hectare) in 15 minutes, costing the farmers RMB60 per Mu. The farmer, meanwhile, is at home watching television. He is not in a particularly revolutionary mood.
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