Alumni Column – Is the United States Ready for a New Progressive Era?

Jung Pak '96

Joseph Kahn of The New York Times asked recently, “Can China Reform Itself?” Pointing to the highly publicized whirlwind of scandals involving Chinese-manufactured items such as lead paint on toys, poison in pet food and toothpaste, faulty tires and pesticide and industrial waste-laden garlic, shrimp, and ginger among other food items, Kahn ponders, “are the latest incidents enough to push China toward its own Progressive Era?”

Kahn’s comparison between China and the United States is two-fold. He recognizes, as do most China observers, that the Asian giant is going through its own “Gilded Age.” The term refers to a period after the Civil War that had as its slogan, “Get rich, dishonestly if we can, honestly if we must,” according to Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, who popularized the label for the era. The Gilded Age recalls not only the amassing of great wealth by “robber barons,” rapacious industrial practices and the growth of the middle class more and more interested in consumerism, but also deepening poverty among the vast majority of Americans in the late nineteenth century. Kahn also refers to the “Progressive Era” in the United States, a period of highly diverse reform movements spanning issues from temperance to suffrage, which emerged from the recognition that the chaos of industrial society could not be left in the hands of market forces. Armed with moral clarity and a faith in progress, Americans organized themselves to agitate for social, political, and economic reform.

In China, the combination of economic liberalization, technological advances, increasingly integrated markets, and the formation of modern corporations over the past three decades have created some two dozen billionaires, countless millionaires, and lifted 500 million people out of poverty. The economic boom, however, is largely confined to the coastal and urban areas; over 50 percent of Chinese still live on less than a dollar a day, 120 million migrant workers seek work in the burgeoning cities, and unemployment in rural areas is as high as 20 percent. Factories dump industrial waste into rivers that had once provided people with food and income, and toxic dust settles on villages contributing to alarming rates of cancer and respiratory illness.

Twenty-first century China looks a lot like nineteenth century America. During America’s Gilded Age, John D. Rockefeller controlled 90 percent of the oil refining industry, Andrew Carnegie presided over two-thirds of the nation’s steel production, and Gustavus Swift created a meat empire. Department stores sold the latest fashions from Europe and a dizzying array of consumer goods. At the same time, men, women and almost two million children worked in back-breaking jobs. Depending on the industry, Americans worked six days a week, 10 to 12 hours per day in little-regulated working environments, earning an average income of $400-500 when it was widely acknowledged that one needed at least $600 to live at a minimum level of comfort. Millions crowded into unhealthy slums and tenement housing, breathed in industrial toxins, and died of communicable diseases. The existence of such stunning poverty in the midst of exuberant wealth perplexed Americans. The comparison between China and America ends there.

The Gilded Age in America inspired Progressive activism. Muckraking journalists exposed urban political corruption and the illegal maneuverings of financial titans. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle provoked national outcry against the meat-packing industry. Jacob Riis exposed the plight of the poor in heart-wrenching photographs while Jane Addams and armies of teachers, social workers, and volunteers reached into the slums to provide social services. Unions protested low wages and poor working conditions. Liberal Protestants, Catholics and Jews translated religious faith into humanitarian work. Suffragists demanded an expansion of democracy. The tidal wave of progressive sentiment and clamor for reform ushered in the first modern presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, leaders committed to greater government involvement to mitigate the worst excesses of industrial America.

Will China have its own Progressive era? Not likely; at least, not in the near future. Unlike nineteenth century America, in which grassroots organizations, journalists, and humanitarian groups operated independently of government control, exposed scandals and published articles excoriating everyone from financial giants to public officials, the 317,000 non-governmental organizations in China must not only register with the government but is dependent on it for its survival. As Chinese researchers and American policy thinkers have observed, these registered organizations are rife with mismanagement and dependent on local officials who often treat the NGOs as their own private slush funds. Furthermore, vocal leaders are vulnerable to imprisonment. Despite President Hu Jintao’s declarations about the Communist Party’s concern for the impoverished, the CP jealously guards its authority and cracks down on any threats to its supremacy.

The recent scandals involving lead-paint and tainted food exports from China underscore the importance of stronger government regulation and enforcement within the United States. Both the Chinese and American governments have national standards, but they are not necessarily enforced or efficient. For example, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, responsible for testing toys, employs only one full-time toy tester.

In light of the beleaguered state of reform organizations in China and the Bush Administration’s hostility to government regulation of the private sector, perhaps the question we as a civil society should be trying to answer is: Is the United States ready for a new progressive era?