When your humble editor visited the Northern part of North Korea in the 1990s, it looked as poor as China in the 1970s. Coming back even to a provincial town like Hunchun on the Chinese side of the border felt like entering economic paradise with cars, bicycles, enough electricity, and people free of any fear of starvation.
Ever since, China has developed into an economic superpower while North Korea had to fight from crisis to crisis for economic and political survival.
Surprisingly, after drifting apart for decades, the similarities between the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seem to start growing again in recent times.
Politically, China has taken many steps to regulate the private life of its citizens much more thoroughly even beyond the measures to keep CoViD-19 outbreaks under control, including the stop of international travel. Couples are encouraged to produce more babies in their bedrooms, the bored existing single children are forbidden to play more than a few hours videogames per week while ambitious parents are stopped from sending their child to private cramming schools or to receiving online English lessons from native speakers. Conspicuous consumption is discouraged, fans become separated from their celebrities, who have their social media accounts deleted standing accused of sexual or financial misconduct. Androgyne male stars selling lipstick during lifestream events are criticized and schools are ordered to support “manly” virtues like fitness, bravery and courage. With Goggle and LinkedIn leaving, the last major links with global social media are severed.
The virus precautions are still relentless even though by now nine months have passed without a single CoViD-19 casualty. At the same time the concept of collective leadership is seldom mentioned anymore and the confirmation of a “Historical resolution” during the sixth plenum of the Central Committee of the CCP this week should pave the way for an unprecedented third term of leadership. Political disputes in the top levels of party and government appear more opaque than ever, with the leader holding the fort and not leaving the country even for such important events like the G20 meeting plus COP26 conference in Europe.
The question of national unity and threats about military actions are mentioned now in Beijing as often as in Pyongyang, increasing international isolation and provoking a stronger unity among other global powers.
Economically, China was globally admired as the only G20 country in 2020 to achieve a positive GDP growth result despite the pandemic, but in 2021 the picture is changing. GDP numbers are moving further and further south and half of Chinas cities and provinces have to endure electricity cuts of unknown proportions. The price of coal for heating has more than doubled, food is not only getting more expensive but even scarce, especially after the government asked civilians to fill up their larder, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of long queues and empty shelves in supermarkets. Peasants despair about the price of pork, whereas urbanites see the value of their real estate investment dwindle.
Obviously, these similarities are playing out on very different levels. China has just announced to have eradicated poverty in the countryside and consumers in Shanghai are not forced by a temporarily empty supermarket shelf to eat grass and tree bark for survival. However, the times when you needed rationing “piaos” to buy the monthly allotted amounts of grain, oil, or cloths and you could only purchase foreign goods if you had access to the parallel Chinese FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificate) currency, seem to be for most Chinese 1,000 instead of just 40 years ago. China is one of the mightiest military powers and has many friends in the governments of Low-Income Countries who are happy to receive development aid and vaccines, whereas North Korea can only survive as nobody – except the Koreans of course – is interested in changing the status quo on the peninsula.
The North Korean government has managed to outlive all the forecasts of its immediate fall, staying in power in a Groundhog Day manner of repeatedly verifying the famous Mark Twain quip “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”.
If the same fate awaits those first – mostly American – voices who foresee a wobbling or even tumbling Chinese government during a dark and cold winter including a third Chinese New Year with migrant workers not being able to go home to meet their parents and their child, remains to be seen. For the time being, my money is on Mark Twain.
As always, all best wishes from Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt and the entire COTRI WEEKLY team!