Photo: The ballet The Red Detachment of Women, one of the Model Dramas promoted during the Cultural Revolution. White House photo by Byron Schumaker. Source: - Photo: 2018

On ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ – or Ideological Mess and Reality

Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*

This is the third of a four-part series. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

ROME (IDN) – One of the collective ideological hallucinations of the 20h century was Mao Zedong Thought. A remarkable thought in terms of metaphors and similitudes but even more so in terms of incoherence: as with Stalin, the most different lines can be extracted from the texts and the practice of Mao depending on convenience.

It is true that the Red Army was mostly peasant; but it is also true that from the “Great Leap Forward” in the second half of the 1950s – which resulted in the greatest famine of the twentieth century (about 30 million deaths between 1958 and 1961) – up to the phase of the “Third Front” of industrial development in China’s interior, and passing through the Cultural Revolution and most of the 1970s, the peasant masses trapped by the hukou system were uninterruptedly squeezed like a lemon to finance industrial development, especially heavy and military industry.

The belief in Mao’s alleged peasantism must now be considered authentic idiocy, also demonstrated by the rapid reduction of rural poverty in the first half of the 1980s when agriculture was decollectivised – or, rather, freed (temporarily) from the forced extraction of surplus on the part of the State – and TVEs multiplied.

As for the minor importance of the role of material incentives as regards the Soviet Union and “putting politics first” – which attracted many intellectuals and militants as a seductive alternative to the economism of the “revisionist” and “socialist-imperialist” Soviet Union – this was nothing more than ideological justification of the deliberate compression of people’s consumption combined with the struggle among parts of the dominant bureaucracy.

In actual fact what always remained paramount in the Maoist era were the objectives of the growth of state power (represented by industry), ensuring the supply of rationed food for the urban population and concentration of power in the hands of the great helmsman Mao.

If possible, the ideology of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is even more botched than that under Mao. Even in the era of reforms, the history of the Party and of Mao himself is subjected to careful selection and distortion, objectively facilitated by how much of non-Marxist there was in the thought of the Great Helmsman, that is, much or all from the perspective of the spirit of libertarian communism.

So the topoi and the slogans of China’s modernisation and national rebirth are resumed, but declined in the sense of integration into the capitalist world economy rather than the self-sufficiency of the deceased “socialist world”, a line that is more liberalist than Stalinist.

Paradoxically, just as there is the return of the bourgeoisie in China, differentiation among farmers has risen and socioeconomic inequality has increased enormously, and the discourses in terms of classes and mobilisation that had distinguished the political struggle in the years of Mao have disappeared.

The greyness of the uniforms of a mass that raises up the “red book” has been replaced by the normative image of the citizen whose superior status is expressed in the quality of middle class consumption and living in a well-preserved, fortified residential unit.

“Even (or especially) in China,” wrote Mike Davis in Planet of Slums, “the gated community has been defined as ‘the most significant evolution in recent urban planning and design’.”. Let it be clear that it is this middle class of the entrepreneurial bourgeoisie and of professions that the Party-State promotes, courts, recruits and incorporates into the ideology of the developmental State with the formula of productive forces and the most advanced culture. The image of the self-made man “with Chinese characteristics” corresponds with the economic success and political ambition of the Chinese nation in the international arena.

The reference to the value of ancient Chinese civilisation clashes with the destruction of mass Maoist campaigns but is in keeping with the tradition that makes the CCP the champion of national greatness. However, nationalism is moderate and controlled in order not to compromise the government’s respectability with investors and foreign governments; and the reference to respect for the differences among civilisations serves as a barrier to the demands of democratisation – for the occasion described as “bourgeois liberalism”, while this would not be the idea that “becoming rich is glorious” – and as a justification for censorship and dictatorship of the Party-State with a Communist denomination over the working population which was less favoured by the economic “miracle” in the transition to capitalism.

“Practice is the sole criterion for testing truth” read a slogan launched at the beginning of the reforms. This is a banality the pragmatism of which conceals the definitive criterion with which the leadership of the CCP evaluates its own politics: this is what allows it to remain in power. And to maintain state power, the political elite must open the Party up to private capitalists.

The point was theoretically clarified – so to speak – by Jiang Zemin, President of China from 1993 to 2003, with the formula of the Three Represents: the CCP “should represent the development trend of advanced productive forces, the orientation of advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people in China”. Of course, the productive forces also include capitalists willing to build so-called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” on the shoulders and the skin of workers; but Jiang Zemin did not speak of classes, rather of “new social strata”: classes and their antagonism do not figure in the rhetoric of harmony and “peaceful development”.

As for current CCP General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping, he declared in the most authoritative forum possible – the 2017 Party Congress: “We will inspire and protect entrepreneurship, and encourage more entities to make innovations and start businesses … We should ensure free flows of factors, flexible prices, fair and orderly competition, and that business survival is determined by competition … [We will] clean up rules and practices that hinder a unified market and fair competition, support development of private firms and stimulate vitality of all types of market entities”. There is hypocrisy in these words, given the privileges and monopolies of state capitalist enterprises, but the intent to reassure national and foreign entrepreneurship is clear.

In fact, so-called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” does not apply only to national capitalists. A  white paper entitled China’s Peaceful Development issued by the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China in September 2011, states that in its “peaceful development”, “China will never close its doors to the outside world”, combining the forces and “resources” of domestic and foreign markets, “making full use during the opening up of the favourable conditions created by economic globalisation and regional economic cooperation”.

The reason given is the aspiration of China “to build a harmonious world of lasting peace and common prosperity” and “to continue to actively participate in the international division of labour”. These were concepts reiterated by Xi Jinping when he hoped to “transform Chinese companies into globally competitive, world-class enterprises” and also “promote the liberalisation and facilitation of investments and make economic globalisation more open, inclusive and balanced so that its benefits are shared by all”.

And so – even in constitutional ideology as well as in reality – national capitalist transformation and insertion into the expanded reproduction of world capitalism are welded in the name of the scientific laws that “govern the development of economy, society and nature”. The market is naturalised in the context of alleged “socialism”.

China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001 – after long negotiations with the United States – was not a beginning but a final recognition of China’s participation as a key player in the process of internationalisation of capital. The Chinese phraseology is obviously different from that of the United States but the worldview is essentially the same as the administration of Bill Clinton in the 1990s or that of Barack Obama in the early 2000s: economic globalisation as an agent of prosperity and vehicle of peaceful – or harmonious – relations among states.

It is the Chinese version of the liberal theory of democratic peace, the core of which is that the development of trade relations promotes peace among nations. An understandable and beautiful hope at the dawn of bourgeois civilisation against the warmongering mercantilism of absolute monarchies, the theory of democratic peace is now a way to legitimise the international exploitation of wage earners.

* Michele Nobile has published essays and books on the contradiction between capitalism and the environment (Goods-Nature and Ecosocialism, 1993), on the theory and history of imperialism (Imperialism. The Real Face of Globalisation, 2006), and on the transformations of the state and economic policy in the crisis (Capitalism and Post-Democracy. Economics and Politics in the Systemic Crisis, 2012). He is one of the founders of the international association Utopia Rossa (Red Utopia) which published the full version of this article in Italian under the title ‘Sul “Socialismo con Caractteristiche Cinesi”, Ovvero del Capitalismo Realmente Esistente in Cina’. Translated by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 October 2018]

Part 1 > On ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ – or Problem of Epochal Social Transformation

Part 2 > On ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ – or Mask of Capitalism

Photo: The ballet The Red Detachment of Women, one of the Model Dramas promoted during the Cultural Revolution. White House photo by Byron Schumaker. Source:

IDN is the flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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