The hot new motto that's been sweeping China translates into "To be rich is glorious." Definitely not the sort of slogan one normally finds in your basic Marxist-Leninist-Maoist state.
Yet it's the theme of a set of revolutionary economic reforms being introduced in China by Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping to loosen the shackles of centralized planning and dramatically boost that country's wealth. Though its leaders choose not to admit it, China is gingerly embracing what people like Ronald Reagan like to call "capitalism."
Who better to explore China's great experiment than George Goodman -- better known as Adam Smith, the sharp-witted and insightful host of PBS' "Adam Smith's Money World" and the author of books on topics ranging from the intricacies of the mind to the elasticity of the dollar.
Alas, Smith's sharp wit and keen insights are conspicuous by their absence in this one-hour documentary, "Adam Smith in the New China: From Marx to Mastercard?," tonight at 8 on Channel 26.
People who avoid PBS documentaries because they are too hifalutin and intellectual have nothing to fear here: this show is foreheads of magnitude away from being highbrow. In fact, it's almost condescending in the way it uses cutesy graphics and Smith's patronizing tone to explain a bit of China's past and present. Vaguely reminiscent of those monotonic Encyclopaedia Britannica documentaries that you tried to nap through in high school, Smith comes close to making China seem dull.
Without question, the saving grace of this documentary is the Chinese themselves. When the camera shows hundreds of Chinese, who've waited patiently in line for hours, pouring into Shanghai's main jewelry store to buy trinkets and rings, Smith's comment that "this is what it looks like when you release 35 years of consumer demand" becomes brilliantly vivid.
When one listens to the aging Chinese peasants and the nascent entrepreneurs who have lived through the tumult of the Cultural Revolution and are now experiencing this new economic revolution, one can sense their wonder and curiosity about the future. The young manager of Ruby's Beauty Salon in Shanghai waxes enthusiastic about growth prospects: "Imagine the potential market for makeup (once banned) -- there are 400 million women in this country who have never worn eye liner."
Indeed, the most gripping character Smith interviews is a leading Chinese actor, Ying Ro Chung, who played Willy Loman in Peking's first production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Ying had once been sent to the country to tend the fields as part of a Maoist "reeducation" program.
"From feeding pigs to playing Arthur Miller is a long way to go," Ying says in impeccable English.
Indeed it is, and it's so much more interesting when the Chinese show and tell it rather than Smith. His on-camera presence and narrative add little to the documentary. If Smith had been magically edited out of his own show, it would have been considerably tighter and the focus would have been even more sharply on the Chinese.
Smith glosses over China's potential as a market for the West and fails to discuss effectively how China may lift itself up by its bootstraps to become a global economic power.
It's also annoying that Smith talks about greater economic freedom for the Chinese while ignoring such questions of political freedom, especially since he points out how Deng himself was a victim of Mao's politics. That may reflect courtesy to his hosts, but it sure isn't good journalism.