Speeches by Chinese Communist Party leaders are great opportunities to play “buzzword bingo”. Hu Jintao’s July 23 policy summary was replete with such phrases as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, “Deng Xiaoping Theory” and “Scientific Outlook on Development”. But the sloganising is more than empty rhetoric. The speech, echoed elsewhere, shows the outgoing leader wants the CCP, and the country, to escape from might be called a Marxist trap.
The trap has three parts. The first is the core Marxist belief that economic considerations come first while culture and everything else lag far behind. These days, many non-Marxists also put the economy first, but Chinese leaders are especially loyal to the simple claim that GDP growth equates to progress. Hu’s focus on scientific development, for instance, is shorthand for putting higher production before all other goals. His other big buzzword – harmonious development – is not a tribute to the traditional Confucian notion of cosmic harmony, but a call not to let inharmonious social disorder slow material progress.
The second part of the Marxist trap is the Communist Party’s monopoly of power in government and its final authority over everything in society. That predominance has been taken for granted by virtually everyone in the top leadership since the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949, although the thinking comes less of Marx himself than his teacher G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel believed that the state would and should eventually take over the roles traditionally played by the various organisations of civil society: family, church, guild, cultural and special interest groups. Lenin added the claim that the Communist Party is the vanguard of this all-encompassing state, so there is neither need nor space for other voices.
The final piece of the trap was set by Deng Xiaoping, the second leader of communist China. His endorsement of rapid and chaotic capitalist development, later know as socialism with Chinese characteristics, may not sound Marxist – Deng’s doctrinaire opponents in the CCP were certainly horrified. But Marx himself believed that only bourgeois capitalists had the fervour and motivation required to industrialise a predominantly agricultural economy. In Marx’s day, the bourgeois and the communists were enemies, but the CCP has tried to co-opt the private sector by admitting leading industrialists into the Party.
By some standards, the Deng version of Marxism has worked very well, far better than the Leninist approach, adopted in the Soviet Union and its satellites, which gave the state control of all the means of production. China’s GDP has increased remarkably rapidly for almost four decades. There has been little social discord and the Party remains in firm control.
Still, as the Party prepares for the arrival of a new generation of leaders, its Marxism looks far more constraining than liberating. The narrow focus on production has led to the neglect of such important matters as corruption, environmental depredation and quality control. The Party’s suffocation of civil society has neutered campaigns against abuses. It has also impoverished intellectual discourse, an important failing in a society still in the throes of the dramatic transition from poor to rich; from traditional to contemporary. And the Party’s acceptance of capitalists, careerists and opportunists has accelerated a decline in ideological fervour.
Hu is certainly aware of the challenge. He noted that the country will soon be “a well-off society” with a more demanding and restive population. However his new buzzwords are unpersuasive. The all-encompassing Communist Party is incapable of building China into “a power of socialist culture” or of ensuring “the people’s extensive rights and freedom”. The Party is trapped because it can neither let civil society flourish nor do what civil society does.
If the Marxist trap is not sprung, China will be left lame and angry. The government will become more oppressive and more of a kleptocracy, stultifying society and depressing the economy. Escape, however, requires a truly revolutionary change. In buzzword-speak, the CCP and China should no longer remain “unswervingly on the socialist path”.
What new path should the Middle Kingdom take? There are some bad ideas about, for example militaristic nationalism and a reversion to more Leninist economics. The western way, towards the European and American social model, is much more attractive. China, much like its Asian mentor and rival Japan, could end up with a mixed economy, a pushy but not omnipotent state and a society in which any lack of higher values is largely a private concern.
In a way, a choice to follow the conventional path to multi-party democracy would be regrettable. China would become less distinctive and its indigenous cultural traditions would become less relevant. More significantly, this looks a bit like a road to nowhere. Apathy blights politics in rich countries while idealism is in short supply and civil society often seems stunted. However, in China no better alternative is available. For its own good, the Communist Party should abandon Marxism.