Photo: Chang'an avenue in Beijing. Source: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2018

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

Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*

This is the first of a four-part series.

ROME (IDN) – The “peaceful rise” or “peaceful development” of China is one of the most remarkable processes marking the world economy between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries … and perhaps the most important.

Over four decades of the era of economic reforms, per capita product growth, industrial production and export rates have been impressive. The Chinese government can proudly show that since 1978 its gross domestic product has multiplied, that China’s share in world production has increased fourfold, that China is the number one exporter in the world and that it is the country with the largest currency reserves (mostly in dollars).

For millennia, the Chinese Empire was the world’s largest reservoir of peasant labour: in 1949, the year of the birth of the People’s Republic, the population residing in urban areas was 11 percent of the total and only 19 percent thirty years later, at the beginning of the reforms. In 1999, the share of the urban population had already risen to 35 percent but by 2010 it had grown to 50 percent, and in 2017 it amounted to over 813 million people, 58.5 percent of the total population.

The pace of urbanisation and the level it has reached demonstrate the epochal scope of the overall transformation of Chinese society: from a rural universe to becoming the leading workshop of global exports of industrial goods. The urban landscape of many cities has been altered and often those that were rural areas or small coastal settlements now have a skyline worthy of New York or Dubai, an urbanism that evokes the idea of an ‘Americanism’ with Chinese characteristics.

A few years ago, Marxist geographer Mike Davis wrote of China in Planet of Slums that “the greatest industrial revolution in history is the Archimedean lever shifting a population the size of Europe’s from rural villages to smog-choked sky-climbing cities”.

Quantitative expansion and qualitative transformation of the physical and social space of cities are not effects of the natural growth of the urban population. In China, the most gigantic migration from rural to urban in the history of mankind is under way.

However, while the facts are well known, interpretation and evaluation are not obvious yet  worthy of review and evaluation.

Especially when talking about the rise of China, economism is the norm. By this I mean that the Chinese economic “miracle” is often assumed as an objective datum, in which the exploitation and oppression on which it is based are reduced to marginal or temporary phenomena.

This is because the “miracle” in question is exalted as a result of the transition to the market economy – however much to be perfected – and of incorporation into the world economy, or as an example of the virtues of (pseudo) socialist statism or the industrial policy of a developing state.

The perspective is the evolutionary one of modernisation, of the progress of a system in which there may be contrasts between the “old” and the “new”, between social strata and political orientations, but not structural antagonisms between social classes or functionality to development of modern of what appears outdated, including dictatorship of the single party and discrimination in the enjoyment of social rights on the basis of place of population registration. The language of modernisation is resolved in the paternalistic one of the State governed by enlightened leaders or the confident optimism of entrepreneurial ‘animal spirits’. The dominant rhetoric in China combines both.

Modernity and modernisation are terms whose social meaning must be specified. When it comes to growth or economic development, it is necessary to specify which structure of relations between social classes generate quantitative relationships and the growth rates of macroeconomic variables, and which conflicts between social classes these imply. Otherwise, acknowledgment of the existence of imbalances will be traced back to the insufficiency of the favourite reason used to explain economic development, be it the market or the political regime.

China has peculiarities which in themselves make it a unique case in the world and therefore unrepeatable. In addition to its millenary culture, what stand out among these are the size of the country and the variety of its territory; its demographics, with an enormous workforce mass – confined thirty years to agriculture but now a factor on the way out; a productive structure and advanced technological capacities compared with other countries in the same class in terms of income per inhabitant, even before the reforms; and a powerful civil and military state apparatus – China is a nuclear state.

However, beyond the material data, what has happened in China over the last 40 years – a much longer period of time than the Maoist era – cannot  contained in abstract formulae such as modernisation or described with insignificant phrasing like “peaceful development”.

Starting from the third plenum of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – which launched the policy of “economic reform and opening-up to the world” in December 1978 – a process of transition towards a different system of social relations of production began.

The decisive peculiarity of the recent history of China is made up of two phenomena that actually form a single whole: transition from the bureaucratic and pseudo-socialist statism of the Maoist era to capitalism; and the coincidence of this transition with the rapid development of capitalist industrialisation, integration into the international division of labour of transnational companies and the strong growth of exports of manufactured goods, in the context of what is referred to as globalisation and neoliberalism.

Ironically and with hindsight, the Maoist era dissolved the social terrain by preparing it for the development of capitalism on a scale and quality incomparably superior to the work of the buyer and foreign bourgeoisie of the time of the Unequal Treaty signed with Western powers during the 19th and early 20th centuries. As far as the exploitation of the work force is concerned, China is a paradise of neoliberalism.

Chinese capitalism is a protagonist of the restructuring of the global economic geography, but the gradual transition to capitalism has not erased all the characteristics of the pseudo-socialist past, which were partly adapted to the new social relations of production. For this reason it is a capitalism with characteristics that differ from Western capitalism, but less distant from other developmental States of Asia.

For example, there exists a continuity with the Maoist era (at least until the early years of the 21st century, from an optimistic point of view) in policies that have discriminated against agriculture and rural areas in favour of industry and cities and in maintaining the registration system of individuals (the hukou system, which has recently been undergoing reform but in a non-homogeneous and partial way); the result of this is to make immigrants in cities foreigners in the homeland, excluding them from social rights formally recognised for other urban residents: the modern Chinese wall for internal purposes.

These are the same policies which at the same time help feed the migratory flow from agriculture to industry and from rural to urban areas, which is a pillar of Chinese capitalism due to the containment of labour costs – reinforced by the status of the immigrants – and a determining factor in the growth of urbanism and the associated construction speculation on urban and surrounding land.

Officially the Chinese regime is “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, a self-definition that sounds bizarre when considering some elementary facts such as the level of inequality in the distribution of income, which is equal to or higher than that of the United States. The paradoxical core of truth in this self-definition is that, contrary to what occurred in the Soviet Union, the transition to capitalism was desired and managed by the leaders of a party with a communist denomination not by its administrative divisions which have become politically or economically independent, and that this party continues to control the state apparatus at all levels, including an important segment of the country’s productive and financial capital.

Thus the formula of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is simultaneously an ideological mystification and the sign of a real difference with respect to more advanced forms of capitalism. The question becomes even more complicated when one considers that this “socialism” is also one of the pillars of the capitalist world economy and of so-called globalisation. The Chinese “miracle” is, in fact, inconceivable in the absence of the further development of the international division of production processes of transnational companies in other Asian countries (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore), Europe and the United States, and in the absence of what is called neoliberalism in countries with advanced capitalism, which it supplies with low-price goods-wages.

It is a tangle of problems, where the indispensable effort of empirical knowledge is not sufficient to unravel it. The China question is complex and multidimensional and, as in the case of Russia, the conceptual instruments used to interpret and evaluate the past have a huge, albeit unconscious, weight on understanding and evaluation of the present.

At the heart of it all is the question of the state and party bureaucracy and therefore of the different ways in which state apparatus can intervene to model social relations and shape economic development. This is something that cannot be effectively explored if the contraposition between State and market is assumed. On the other hand, reasoning around the macroeconomics of China cannot be separated from determination of how the contradictions generated by the extension and deepening of capitalism on a global scale operate within the particular framework of Chinese society.

The success of capitalist development is always a harbinger of contradictions – national and international – and sooner or later raises conflicts between dominant and dominated classes and between sections of the ruling class itself. The reasons for success always become those of the crisis. After forty years of “reforms”, Chinese capitalism is approaching its critical moment.

Neither the nationalistic and statist perspective of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” nor the flattening of the space of the world economy in the thesis of the tendential convergence of levels of development and obsolescence of the economic functions of States – characteristics of the notion of globalisation – allow us to resolve the issue of the relationship between internal transformation and ascent in the hierarchy of the global power of China. What is useful, however, is the concept of development that is unequal and combined as a form of existence of capitalism on a global scale, differentiation and interdependence in the space of processes of accumulation of capital which are the engine of transformations of the world economy. This is the history of imperialism, of the competition between states and of national and social liberation struggles.

* 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 – 06 October 2018]

Photo: Chang’an avenue in Beijing. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is the flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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