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Have social and economic changes in China rendered ‘socialism’ irrelevant?
by J.K. Arnold
19 Nov 2010
The social and economic changes that have taken place in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1978 have returned the nation back to the socialist path that it was on before its diversion into the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution.
The changes initiated by Deng Xiaoping have undermined the ideocracy that was characteristic of the Cultural Revolution which were neither Marxist-Leninist nor Socialist. Deng’s reforms have placed the PRC in a good position economically when compared to the rest of the world. These reforms have also allowed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to position itself in a leadership role politically as it attempts to institute further reforms to the political economy of the PRC. Through establishing the changes he did in the face of strong opposition Deng Xiaoping has led the PRC into being a regional economic power that now challenges the United States and Japan for power and influence in the Asia-Pacific region. The economic growth that has seen the rise of the PRC as a global player in the international community has also helped develop a political legitimacy for the CCP as the sole source of political power in the PRC. These socio-economic developments have seen the ‘values, expectations and lifestyle’ of the Chinese people modernised and has made Socialism more relevant now than it has been at any other time in the history of the People’s Republic of China.
Ideology in Communist countries just like capitalist ones plays an important role in defining for those nations the role that they play in the international community. In China the role played by Marxist-Leninist philosophy that underlines its system of governance has been labelled by western academics like Gordon White as ideocracy. White describes these political systems such as China’s as ideocratic because,
they rely on an explicit and codified system of political ideas derived from Marxism-Leninism which guides the actions of the political elite in the hegemonic Communist Party, justifies the Party’s monopoly on power and legitimises its proclaimed historical mission to ‘build socialism’.
White’s analysis is somewhat bias considering western nations like the United States are equally as ideocratic, albeit with a capitalist perspective. White however does provide a good starting point for building an analysis of the ideocratic nature of the relationship between Party and State in the PRC which has been undermined by Deng Xiaoping’s political, institutional and economic reforms.
During the Cultural Revolution the CCP was dominated by the ideas emitting from a single source, the writings and actions of Chainman Mao Zedong. Mao’s ideas were simplified for the masses by people like Lin Biao into a ideocratic belief that has come to be known as the two whatevers, whatever Chairman Mao said and whatever Chairman Mao did. With the coming to power and rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping in 1978 the ideas of the Cultural Revolution were challenged. The vicious political cycle in the PRC during the Cultural Revolution which saw redness and expertise in the area of Marxism-Leninism used a tool by opportunist politicians to advance themselves within the political system of the PRC was replaced by a series of socio-economic reforms that have not only changed the nature of the CCP and the PRC but also of Socialism itself.
The opportunism of the cultural revolution sponsored corruption within the Communist Party and in the process undermined its spiritual leadership. The political aspects of Deng reforms sort to correct this deviation of the CCP from the socialist path. The three main political reforms instituted by Deng in his reform agenda were,
1. to repudiate the perceived ideological heritage distortions and dogmatic excesses of the Maoist era;
2. to revive a perceived ‘healthy’ ideological heritage which has been established in the early years of the People’s Republic;
3. to adapt the existing ideological framework to market socialism.
The consequences of these reforms whilst undermining the ideocracy of the Cultural Revolution have been a positive step in once again making Socialism relevant to the Chinese masses. The results of these political reforms have been the substantial economic growth for the PRC which has secured a political legitimacy for the CCP.
The Communist Party in the reform period, after the ideological failure of the Cultural Revolution, has tried hard to reinvent itself. The measures taken at improving the image of the Party in the 21st century have been labelled as ‘Party building’, ‘rectification’ and ‘improving style’. Despite the efforts of the CCP at self-rehabilitation they have failed at improving there image at the local level. As Young states, the CCP,
has lost any persuasive ideological position which can justify its claims to ‘leadership’. Members are regraded as, at lest self-serving, and beyond the, are enmeshed in persuasive corruption.
The failure to secure an ideological justification in the new economic environment has left the position of the CCP in a precautious position. A position in which the people have become disenfranchised with the internal regulations that govern the CCP.
Many western analysts have cheered at the reforms taking place in the PRC as being a sign of ideological decay in the CCP and described this as the beginning of the end of Communism in China. However, a case can made that these ideas are not a sign of decay but a sign of renewal of Marxist-Leninism within the CCP, especially considering the Party’s historical neo-Soviet tendencies. In the Soviet training manual Social Psychology and Propaganda used to train foreign Communist Party officials during the Cold War leaders Professor Yu A. Sherkovin of the Moscow Institute of Social Sciences describes from a Marxist-Leninist perspective how the methodology for choosing a certain style of leadership were based on two principles, ‘his personal inclinations and the situation in which he has to act’. To understand how the concept of leadership is understood within the CCP it is essential to define the three different styles of Marxist-Leninist leadership.
There are three styles of leadership that need definition so as to understand the development of the CCP’s leadership conceptualisation. When it comes to its political leadership from a Marxist-Leninist perspective, according to Sherkovin, there are three styles ‘authoritarian, conniving and democratic’. The authoritarian style of leadership is defined as a,
based on rigid and one sided actions of the leader with regard to the subordinates. On a personal plane, this style is expressed in the leader’s desire for absolute rule… he is inclined to make decisions and repeal them on his own.
The conniving style of leadership is described as,
the leaders indifference towards affairs of the collective… The main motive behind the leader’s conniving style in his relations with the collective is usually his disinclination or quarrelling with anyone.
The democratic style of leadership that is seen as the best is described as,
his ability to use the power without pluming himself on his high position. The democratic style assumes active participation of the subordinates in decision-making, permitting criticism of the leader… As distinct form the authoritarian style, the democratic one is characterised by encouragement of the personal or group initiative by the members of the party collective.
From Sherkovin’s basis of analysis Deng during the reform period has attempted to shift the CCP from the authoritarian style of leadership to a more democratic one. With this said there seems to be evidence that this democratic style of leadership has not flittered down the Party’s supra-structure. At the branch level there are many leaders guilty of adopting an authoritarian or a conniving style of leadership and this is having a negative effect on the CCP approval amongst the masses.
The institutional reforms whilst trying to correct the errors of the Cultural Revolution have also undermined the spiritual leadership of the Communist Party in the PRC. In repudiating the distortions and dogmatic excesses of the Cultural Revolution Deng has successfully reduced the influence of both the leftists and whateverists within in the government. An unintended consequence of the success of these institutional reforms has been the undermining of the role of the Communist Party in the Chinese system of governance. The return of the CCP to a historical Soviet style Marxist-Leninist ideological positioning, sometimes mistakenly referred to as Stalinism, is a less significant an issue than the economic changes due to the shift of financial functions from the Communist Party emerge to the state apparatuses. The radical changes in China’s political economy has seen the Party as a governor of a market economy rather than as a controller in the planned economy of the PRC.
The institutional reforms of the Dengian Era have seen an extension of the private sector both in terms of civil society and in market-based economic activity. The expansion of this private sector has led directly to the reduction of the Communist Party’s control over ‘what information people have or how it is disseminated’. The influence of the Party over this new private sector is minimal but it does have an ideological justification in claiming that it was responsible for the establishment of the private sector. If the economic growth that has resulted in improved living standards for million of Chinese citizens is slowed down by the current global capital meltdown there is a good possibility that the future of the legitimacy of the Communist Party will be brought into ideological and organisational decay.
The relationship between the ideological and organisation decay within the CCP is one that should not be overlooked. Ideological decay in the CCP is a legacy of the Cultural Revolution which was not only destructive to the institutional aspects of the PRC but also to the nature of the Party-State relationship. With a divide emerging between the Party and the State during the Cultural Revolution the belief in the supremacy of the CCP and its Marxist-Leninist ideological position suffered severer setbacks. Deng’s reforms can be considered successful in keeping in check the ideological perversions that originated during the Cultural Revolution and in establishing a democratically balanced relationship between Party and State. These reforms however have introduced new challenges that have weakened ideologically and institutionally the traditional role the Communist Party has played on the PRC.
The failure to establish an ideological justification for the role currently played by the CCP has led an to an ideological decay coming from within the Party. The Party hierarchy has contributed to this ideological decay through its establishment of a new orthodoxy that has reduced the relevance of the Communist Party in
Chinese society. This has seen a reduction in Party responsibilities in favour of the establishing a greater bureaucratic role for the emerging socialist state. These changes have seen the evolution of power flow from the CCP into the newly established institutions of the state. These changes were first established with the Fourth Constitution of the PRC in 1982 and have since evolved to such a degree that the Communist Party is looking increasingly like an outdated and irrelevant institution. These developments whilst being is in line with Marxist-Leninist principles have led to a decay in the role that has traditionally been held by the CCP.
The strengthening of the Party organisation has also been the most significant policy initiative for the CCP since 1978. The participation in the processes of the CCP by the ordinary citizens has a been a key reform policy. Along with this the transformation of the leadership of the party from an authoritarian to a democratic style has been in line Marxist-Leninist ideology. As Young describes,
Generally, though, the official interpretation of democracy focuses not so much upon formal procedures but upon the ability of members to participate actively in the Party’s affairs.
With this said there is still some work that needs to be done in rehabilitating the lower levels of the Party with the predominance of guanxi networks based upon authoritarian and conniving styles of leadership. The opening up of China’s socio-economic life to the international community has increased the need for this modernisation to take place in the Communist Party.
The current developments in Party leadership is a ‘trend away from political-ideological to managerial-technical credentials for Party office holding’. This has resulted in decrease in ideocracy as an official state policy as more and more university educated people are coming to occupy positions of influence within the state. This decline in a state based ideocracy has not made socialism irrelevant, as a more participatory and democratic style of socialism is evolving in its place. This has resulted in a strengthening of the Chinese Socialist system and of the Communist Party that has allowed the central place of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought be further reinforced by its association with the socio-economic reforms that are bringing great prosperity to the Chinese masses.
Deng’s reforms have affected every aspect of the lives of the Chinese people and have led to a liberalisation of economic activity in the PRC. The new leadership of the PRC since the time of Deng’s reforms has sort to establish a new legitimacy for the Communist Party based on the economic success of Deng’s market-based reform polices. Saich describes some of the reactions to Deng’s reforms as being,
deeply contested by those opposed on ideological grounds, or groups that have felt disadvantaged by the reforms, or by those who have felt that the reforms have not progressed swiftly enough.
The future prospects for the CCP as it tries to enforce its traditional leadership role in society stem from there current dominance of the political economy of the PRC. The undermining of ideocracy in favour of economics due to Deng’s reforms has seen the Chinese people embrace market economics to the detriment of their participation in the Communist Party.
The economic goals of the CCP with its accent on economic development have widely been accepted amongst those members of the population who have benefited the most from the increased wealth and job opportunities. Of all the reforms of the Dengian period, the most radical was the socio-economic changes that have led to China re-engagement with the international community after the years of self-inflicted isolationalism. Deng’s economic policies have allowed the PRC to gain much needed access to modern equipment and foreign capital investment in its economy whilst still allowing the socio-political dominance of the Communist Party to continue. As a result the policies and the ideology of the CCP have adapted to fit into the modern political context of China’s participation in the international community.
On the negative side, the Dengian reforms have had a devastating effect upon the traditional lifestyle of the PRC’s rural community many of which are China’s ethnic minorities. These reforms ‘have also resulted in greater differentiation between rural and urban areas, between coastal and inland areas and between different social groups’. It is in cities of Beijing and Shanghai which have seen the majority of economic development the ideology of the Communist Party has been undermined the most. The introduction of a Socialist market economy has seen many young people become highly reluctant to engage in politics or join the CCP in favour of pursuing economic and educational interests. Socialism has indeed become irrelevant to many of the young and prosperous citizens of China’s major cities who see material gain as the main objective of life. The rule of the Communist Party however is not threatened by these people as there is an absence of a viable political alternative even if young people desired change in the PRC.
The result of the redefinition of the Party-State relationship with market applications has led to the redefining of the Communist Party’s ideological perspective. Originally, the concept of Mao Zedong Thought in the Party’s political ideology was based on the life and works of Chairman Mao himself. After the Peoples’ Daily published Deng’s article ‘The ‘Two Whatevers’ Do Not Accord with Marxism’ in 1977 the concept of Mao Zedong Thought came to refer an ideological system where,
Mao Zedong Thought emerged as a collective party endeavour…constantly developing with the assimilation of experience derived from practice.
This was a radical departure from the perversions of Socialism that the previous idea of Mao Zedong Thought was during the Cultural Revolution. The effective nationalisation of Mao philosophy saw the development of an ideological position that has come to be known as Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. The objective application of this subjective theory is better known to us in the west as building Socialism with Chinese characteristics.
The need to improve the ideological standards in the CCP is a theme that has received renewed interest since the 1993 Third Plenum of the Fourteenth Central Committee. The difficulties of ensuring ideological standards arise from the contradiction of the continued existence of the Communist Party in an established Socialist State. Traditional Marxist-Leninist theory dictates that there is no need for the continued existence of a Communist Party after the establishment of a Socialist State and as a result the CCP continues to play an evermore uncertain role in state affairs. Whether the CCP can adapt its Marxist-Leninist organisational principles to suite its new orthodoxy of a market-based economy will be the determining factor in deciding whether it can maintain its monopoly on the political power in the PRC.
The new orthodoxy of the CCP that can be summarised in the phrase, building Socialism with Chinese characteristics has led to the establishment of a new form of market-based socialism. In the political system of China, Socialism has traditionally been associated with the political hegemony of the Communist Party established through the process of democratic centralism. The blending of Party and State in the PRC has seen the development of a neo-Hegelian concept of a socialist spiritual civilisation that is both nationalistic and socialist at the same time. The new concept of China being a Socialist spiritual civilisation refers to the excepted standards of the behaviour developed by the party and promoted through the state apparatuses.
The development of a spiritual morality by the Communist Party is an important attempt at reversing its institutional decay and establishing its political legitimacy through the promotion of moral values. The success or failure of this new type of moral Socialism will depend on how the Chinese people both within the Party and outside will adapt to these developments. An example of this can be seen in the global protests that erupted over the Tibetan separatist movements attacking of the Olympic Torch rely. In Canberra Chinese students draped themselves in Chinese flags, chanted Communist slogans and shouted verbal abuse at western supporters of the Tibetan Separatist Movement who were attempting to bring shame upon the Chinese people by extinguishing the Olympic Flame. The patriotic response of these Chinese students in Canberra through a blending of nationalism with socialism shows that the CCP’s attempt at building a new political legitimacy through spiritual socialism for itself is paying dividends.
The existing contradiction of CCP promoting a return to a Soviet style Marxist-Leninist ideology for the CCP and the opening up of the economy albeit with strong government controls. Some western analysts have seen the development of what is known as a Socialist market economy as a sign of ideological decay in the PRC. Deng’s insistence that the criteria of socialism were economic development and improved living standards shows how the focus of the CCP has changed immensely since the Cultural Revolution. The CCP is still the largest political party in the world and with the opening up of party membership to business people the global influence of the CCP around is set to increase as the PRC grows in strength presence.
The increased relevance of socialism in the PRC can be seen in the increase in membership levels of the CCP. The CCP’s approach has been aided by the exponential growth in membership levels from 35 million in 1977 to 57 million by 1997 . The increased membership for the CCP is proof of how the democratisation of the Party by Deng has resulted in an increased confidence not only in the leadership of the CCP but also for Socialism as well. With this said there has also been,
evidence of unpopular cynicism concerning the motives of those seeking to join the Party, the declining attraction of membership to some key groups, and the disillusionment among Party members themselves
The increased participation in Party processes by the Chinese masses show how the reforms of the Dengian period have helped developed a new modernised, democratic and participatory form of Socialism in China.
The increased participation by ordinary citizens in the processes of the CCP needs to reach more to disadvantaged groups in the PRC. Females, ethnic minorities and peasants still have below average participation rates in the CCP. This is not an uncommon phenomena as political party’s in west are just as guilty as making alienated social groups in there society not feel welcome in there political associations. To go along with Party’s focus on socio-economic development there has been an increase in the numbers of Chinese citizens in higher education.
Another positive aspect of the economic development of the PRC has been the increase educational opportunities for tis citizens. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the levels of education within the Party members have also drastically increased. High school educated members of the Party have more than trebled between 1978 and 1995 and the numbers of Central Committee members holding university degrees has also increased from ‘55.5% in 1982 to 98.6% in 2002’. The increase in educational levels for CCP members has allowed the party to establish a more intellectual approach when it comes to applying the scientific principles of Marxist-Leninism.
The democratisation of the internal processes of the CCP are essential if the Chinese people are to accept there rightful place in the world. Deng’s reforms have undermined the ideocracy that was the feature of the Maoist period through the reestablishment of a Marxist-Leninist ideology in the CCP. These reforms have helped establish a greater freedom and modernisation in China which is currently enjoying its greatest period prosperity in its history. As long as the improving conditions of the masses continue the CCP will be enjoying the record levels of support through membership that it enjoys today. Whilst ideocracy in the state bureaucracy may have undermined by the socio-economic reforms of Deng this has made Socialism more relevant in China then at any other time in its history. In the globalised market as the Chinese economy continues to grow and grow whilst the economies of western nations like the United States contract, the Socialist principles underlining the CCP’s reform policies are providing a stable form economic growth.
The socio-economic changes that have taken place in the People’s Republic of China since 1978 have undermined the Maoist ideocracy of the Cultural Revolution. With the partial opening up of the Chinese economy to the global market place the Chinese people have been able to benefit form the products available from around the global but have been protected from the negative aspects of capitalist economy. This open door policy has led to a redefinition of the Party-State relationship and the changing of the official ideological policy of the Chinese Communist Party. As the ideologies of the Chinese Communist Party and the functionaries of the State work together to build Socialism with Chinese characteristics, the social forces, which have undermined ideocracy, are increasingly making the Communist Party’s role in society irrelevant. This however does not mean that socialism in China is being rendered obsolete by the reform process, as socialism today in China is more relevant than at any other time in the history of the People’s Republic. There is an increased need for Marxist-Leninist ideology to play an important role in the Peoples’ Republic of China as more functions of the party are institutionalised as functions of the State in line with China’s revolutionary Socialist principles .
This work is in the public domain