In the mid 1980’s, a group of Western bankers and consultants invited Chen Yuan, later Chairman of the China Development Bank, to a lunch in Washington to discuss the emerging Chinese economy. The host of the lunch repeatedly cross-questioned Chen about how he could consider himself a communist, given the growth of the free market in China. “After a while, Chen tired of the inquisition, ostentatiously put down his knife and fork, [and said] … ‘We are the Communist Party… We will decide what Communism means.’” (The Party, p. 37)
In the three decades since this lunch, according to a recent Forbes article “China’s private sector… is now serving as the main driver of China’s economic growth. The combination of numbers 60/70/80/90 are frequently used to describe the private sector’s contribution to the Chinese economy: they contribute 60% of China’s GDP, and are responsible for 70% of innovation, 80% of urban employment and provide 90% of new jobs.”
What has not changed is the sort of pragmatic thinking Mr. Chen referred to. The concept that “communism is whatever we say it is” has served the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) well as they have adapted Marxist-Leninist writings from over a century ago to the rapidly changing realities of 21st century Asia. It also represents an extremely important break from the original goals of the CCP. One expert summed up the key difference in just two sentences: “Mao [China’s leader from 1949-1976] had sought revolution at home and abroad. Deng [Xiaoping who led China from 1978 to 1989] set his eyes on more earthly goals: making China powerful, prosperous and respected.” (Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order, p. 14)
Since 1982, Chinese political theorists have used the term “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to describe their particular brand of communism. This school of thought is rooted in China’s 5000-year history but updated whenever needed to meet China’s evolving needs. In the 1980s, when China’s economy first started taking off, it was derived in part from “Deng Xiaoping thought,” named after China’s leader at that time. As China has grown, the theory has been revised several times to fit China’s rapidly changing society. The most recent version is derived in part from “Xi Jinping Thought,” which was incorporated into the Constitution of the CCP in 2017.
The key concepts of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” were summarized a few years ago in a short statement published by Xinhua, China’s official state press agency. The main points included combatting poverty, creating an innovative market economy, and “following its own path… The bitter experience of the past has taught China about the dangers of blindly copying the western model, both politically and economically.”
Several items on the list are directly related to authoritarianism, including a determination to “build the strongest ruling party in the world to keep the country stable and guide its reform and opening up.” Oh, by the way, that also justifies the CCP’s authoritarianism and its intent to stay in power.
I was very surprised to learn that the CCP also considers its current system an “effective democracy.” Wait a minute. China is a democracy? The Xinhua explanation is so convoluted that I must quote their exact wording: “The essence of democracy is to answer to the people… The contemporary Chinese state inherited a long political tradition of selecting and appointing talent, establishing a merit-based ‘selection plus election’ system with a special focus on public opinion… In some countries, checks on power become deadlocks, and money can be used to tamper in elections… This type of democracy may be ‘pretty,’ but it hardly leads to good governance. Rather, it is likely to cause surprise and unwanted events… Chinese democracy has a higher level of quality and efficiency.”
Hmm. While just about everyone believes China has a strong central government, I haven’t heard too many arguing that it is an “effective democracy.” But hey, it’s their theory and their country, so I guess they can call their system whatever they want.
For a fascinating “behind the scenes” view of how Chinese political theorists reconcile the growth of the private sector with Marxism, look no further than an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Author Cai Xia was formerly a was a Professor at the Central Party School of the CCP, the highly prestigious Beijing school that has been responsible for training party leaders since the 1930s.
When Cai was earning her Ph.D., she was so devoted to traditional theories “that behind my back, my classmates called me ‘Old Mrs. Marx.’” But once she began teaching, the limits on independent thought became clear. “Video cameras in the classrooms recorded our lectures, which were then reviewed by our supervisors. We had to make the subject come alive… without interpreting the doctrine too flexibly or drawing attention to its weak spots.”
Early in Ms. Cai’s teaching career, when Jiang Zemin succeeded Deng Xiaoping as China’s leader in 1989, Cai embraced Mr. Jiang’s teaching that “the role of the party was no longer to make violent revolution against the exploitative capitalists—instead, it was to encourage the creation of wealth and balance the interests of different groups in society.”
She was asked to write a TV program explaining Jiang’s views. But when TV executives reviewed Cai’s draft of the three-episode script, they stopped after the first part. “‘Only the safest things can be shown on TV’ [they said] … At that point, nobody was quite sure what [Jiang’s new theory] would ultimately be interpreted to mean, and [the reviewer] worried that my script might be out of step with the Propaganda Department’s views.” Cai was forced to rewrite the script to remove any hint of controversy. Her Foreign Affairs article includes many other examples of how she had to twist her thinking into a pretzel to please Party censors, and then later into a new and different theoretical pretzel each time leadership changed.
As Cai got older, her personal flexibility decreased, and she found herself in conflict with superiors more and more often. In 2019, she traveled to the US on a tourist visa. “While there, I received a message from a friend telling me that the Chinese authorities… would arrest me if I returned.” Soon after, she was expelled from the party, her bank accounts in China were frozen, her retirement benefits were eliminated, and “Officials… made vague threats against my daughter in China and her young son. It was at this point that I accepted the truth: there was no going back.”
The title of Cai’s article was “The Party that Failed.” I assume this refers to a failure in freedom. Last I heard, the Party was pretty strong in most other categories.
For me, the moral of the story goes back to what Mr. Chen implied at that Washington lunch mentioned at the beginning of this post: in China, the theory and the very definition of communism can be completely redefined at any time and in any way that powerful leaders want. Ultimately, the CCP’s success will be measured not by the underlying theory, but by how the day-to-day practice of communism affects the people of China and of the world.