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The Squid Game

Feb 16, 2022
  • Li Zheng

    Assistant Research Processor, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

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The South Korean drama “Squid Game” was a phenomenon in 2021. Its effects beyond cultural consumption and triggered global discussion and reflection. The Squid Game is more sophisticated than previous survival games. Participants are not without a choice. They choose to join because of various pressures in the real world.

Behind the popularity of the drama in the West is the grim reality of a widening wealth gap and limited upward social mobility, which form the background for political infighting and rising populism in many developed countries.

The U.S.-led neoliberal globalization has been advancing for the more than two decades since the beginning of the new century. The movement has triggered the biggest redistribution of wealth and industry in the world in a hundred years. Western multinational corporations have taken the lion’s share. Most developing countries have also enjoyed development. Since the financial crisis, however, imbalances in the globalization process have increased, and all economies have become more nominal. People see wider and deeper wealth gaps around them. As Western countries attempt an economic bailout through injections of liquidity, capital gains have been growing significantly faster than gains from labor. While low-income groups face rising costs of living, speculators wantonly using capital leverage have benefited the most from government rescue packages.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the phenomenon described above has been developing in a more dangerous direction. The impact has lasted far longer than that of the financial crisis, landing more people in heavy debt and adding unprecedented mental pressure. In the Republic of Korea, the birthplace of the dystopian drama, 40 percent of the labor force only work part-time and do not have access to adequate health care or pensions. The country is among those with the highest elderly suicide rates in the world. The U.S. and other Western countries face a similar situation, and significant increases of violent robberies.

The neoliberals argue that the wealth gap is a temporary phenomenon that does not affect an individual’s equal opportunity in market competition. But they underestimate the power of capital and technology combined. In the era of deepened IT application and globalization, data, algorithms and capital form a closer community, boosting the ability of capital to shape society. Capital-driven algorithmic recommendations distort market competition and wealth redistribution, significantly restricting the social mobility of the underprivileged and needy populace.

Such is the main backdrop to the Chinese government’s push for common prosperity. In recent years, the Chinese people’s demand for housing, health care, education and other areas of livelihood and well-being have increased significantly. Common prosperity has become the chosen systemic solution to these costs of development.

Compared with social equity policies in some Western countries, the common prosperity proposition features prominently in the following three aspects: 

First, China stresses the importance of enhancing its level of development through globalization. Common prosperity is a long-term goal, not a fait accompli. The government expects to achieve the goal initially in 15 to 30 years. In the meantime, China still needs to build up — through further modernization, reform and opening-up — the material base and technological capacity for common prosperity as the ultimate end. China will not follow Western countries’ path of protecting low- and middle-income groups’ with protectionism or by preventing industrial transfers. Nor will it blindly choose absolute fairness at the expense of efficiency.

Second, China stresses the need to erect “traffic lights” for capital and to address the main causes of the wealth gap. Capital plays a positive role in production and innovation and is an important means to mobilize social resources allocation. It is neither omnipotent nor harmless, but its ability to shape the market and social order must not be underestimated. China’s common prosperity goal is not against capital across the board. It is designed to set new rules and implementation pathways for capital and seek a balance between the incentives and additional costs of capital. The current focus is to regulate capital and prevent price bubbles in areas important to people's livelihoods.

Third, China stresses sustainable development as a guide to values and consumer attitudes, thus making affluence more friendly. With a population of 1.4 billion, China’s achievement of common prosperity will certainly have a broad global impact and set an example for other populous developing countries. As its development process has been confronted with more environmental and resource constraints, China has become more aware of the limitations of affluence. The Chinese government advocates a minimalist, modest, green and low-carbon lifestyle and will not copy the American style of luxury and overconsumption.

These differences have set China on a path toward common prosperity that is different from that of the West. It hopes to explore a new Chinese solution, which, together and in competition with the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” program, can steer countries’ attention back to their own people’s livelihoods. The race has just begun, and China and the U.S. are running neck and neck.

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