Beijing’s 21st century Marxism does not see an intrinsic contradiction within its system, as long as it fits within how China has been ruled for thousands of years.
This year marks the founding of China’s ruling Communist Party’s centennial, a period Beijing defined as a “glorious journey” in its latest Central Committee meeting in November.
In July 1921, the first Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held with 12 or 13 people in attendance, including Mao Zedong who later became the country’s ‘lifelong leader’. Participants of the Shanghai meeting could not even remember the exact day. But today the same party has millions of members, continuing to chart China’s destiny.
While Russia’s communist experiment, the Soviet Union, failed miserably in 1991 alongside many other socialist states in Eastern Europe, China still considers itself a communist state, running a form of a capitalist system, which has allowed it to become the world’s second largest economy.
So how does this hybrid system work in China?
Charlie Parton, a prominent expert on China and a senior associate fellow at Royal United States Institute (RUSI), a British think-tank, argues that the system works thanks to China’s interpretation of Marxism and the Communist Party’s overemphasis on “historical continuity”.
“The endeavors of the Party and the people over the past century represent the most magnificent chapter in the millennia-long history of the Chinese nation,” said the latest resolution of the Central Committee of Chinese Communist Party (CCP), establishing a clear connection between the country’s history and communism.
This crucial connection has been recently defined as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” by the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, which claims to explain both the Chinese Communist Party’s exceptional character tied to the country’s long history and its future conduct. Since the late 2010s, it’s also been called Xi Jinping Thought.
“It would not say that it was capitalist conduct, but a manifestation of socialism with Chinese characteristics. You might say that that is a little disingenuous. But being disingenuous has never bothered the CCP,” Parton, who was also the EU’s former First Councillor on China, tells TRT World.
“The ability to hold a contradiction in mind without discomfort is something which is difficult for the West, which has been brought up in the Aristotelian school of logic. The Chinese find it less distressing,” the former top diplomat says. Unlike Russians, whose religious and cultural life appears to have various similarities to Europe, the Chinese feel much less attachment to Greek philosophy.
But for the CCP, it’s “a new breakthrough in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context.”
In the past, the Soviets or other communist states and movements were almost always proud of having a universal communism, which could apply to everyone in every country, claiming that universalism signalled the eventual victory of Marxism around the world.
As a result, the Soviets, which ruled not only a large Russian speaking people but also various non-Russian speaking people like Central Asian Turkic nations, never claimed to have such a socialism with Russian characteristics. That might also partly explain why the Soviet system collapsed in the face of modern capitalism and Chinese socialism survived.
Also, there is one significant difference between the two communist experiments. In the late 1980s, when the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet leaders thought that they needed to change not only the economic structure but also the political system, dismantling the ruling Communist Party.
But the Chinese thought differently, believing that the CCP was good, but the economic system needed to be changed. As a result, they integrated capitalist elements into their political economy to adapt to the new reality of the 1990s.
“China accelerated its amazing development process of the last 50 years by sometimes defining its system of governance as ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ which was a coded way of expressing its participation at home and internationally in the capitalist world economy guided by a perspective usually described as ‘neoliberal globalisation’,” says Richard Falk, a leading expert on international relations.
“Such an identity was underscored by Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), widely accepted as an institutional body entrusted with overseeing and promoting neoliberalism. It is common for economists to describe China after the policy reforms associated with Deng Xiaoping in 1991 as a ‘socialist market economy’,” Falk tells TRT World.
While the CCP uses various authoritarian measures to control the world’s largest population, its survival cannot only be explained by authoritarianism as it has usually been portrayed in the Western world, according to Falk.
In contrast to that approach, the CCP’s success mainly lies in its “remarkable record of administrative competence” inside Chinese borders as Beijing also conducts a foreign policy relying “on soft power approaches, producing many win/win solutions” like the hyper-ambitious Belt and Road Project, the professor says.
Both the internal and external conduct of the CCP is clearly different from the Soviet model, whose corrupt bureaucracy and adventurist military endeavors made things worse for the state in the long-run, leading to its collapse.
“In the last two decades, China has overseen the greatest economic and geopolitical ascent in history, measured by spectacular growth, alleviation of extreme poverty, and increasing dominance of the most significant technological frontiers of 21st century innovation,” Falk says.
Interestingly, while many Westerners see this phenomenal Chinese development as the success of their capitalist model, in Beijing, the political understanding is completely different, believing that it’s the wonders of their own interpretation of communism.
The 21st Century Marxism
Xi, who is also the head of the CCP, is key to understanding 21st Century Marxism. To the Chinese, Xi embodies a leadership pretty much like what Mao symbolised back in the day, so he is the current representative of Maoism.
“'21st Century Marxism' is used as a way to identify and highlight the relevance of the thought of Xi Jinping, and elevate to a status equal to Mao Zedong,” says Falk.
As a result, on a doctrinal level, Xi Thought is the continuation of Mao Zedong Thought, according to the CCP. Many expect that the CCP will sanctify Xi Thought as its most updated official doctrine at the next year's 20th party congress.
“In ideological discourse Xi prefers to stress the socialist nature of the Chinese approach rather than to claim its 'Communist character.' Xi also wants his audience to accept the idea that Marxist thought is dynamic and remains in this century 'full of vitality',” the professor maintains.
Xi’s 21st Century Marxism also somewhat shows the nascent state of the CCP, which has not yet achieved communism as Karl Marx theorised it in the 19th century. “In theory it is still on the road to that blessed state. For the moment it is going through the stage of socialism,” says Parton, the British diplomat.
"Marx and Engels' analysis of the basic contradictions in capitalist society is not outdated, nor is the historical materialist view that capitalism is bound to die out and socialism is bound to win,” said Xi.
But many Westerners believe that all these doctrinal titles and words are used to cover China’s authoritarian capitalist nature. “The Chinese Communist Party remains the country's ultimate authority, so ‘communist’ must remain in the country's name to maintain the legitimacy of the party's claim to supreme power,” says Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat to Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic.
“As with all communist parties, over time, greed and self-interest eventually became more important to the Chinese Communist Party's leadership than ideology,” Bryza tells TRT World.
Despite his criticism of the CCP, Bryza still sees Xi as a genuine believer in Marxism. “Xi Jinping seems to be trying to change that and pull the country a bit back from capitalism and more toward the egalitarian ideology of communism,” he says.
“Squaring this circle is one of Xi's greatest challenges.”