September 7, 2015, by Tony Hong

Does ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ suffice for Communism in contemporary China?

By Alfie Cranmer, Student of UNNC Summer School 2015.

As you take a look around the busy streets of Shanghai, observing the mass crowds squeezing their way into H&M and Zara whilst you sip on your tall Frappuccino in Starbucks, it’s easy to forget that the ruling Communist Party (CPC) claim the People’s Republic of China to be, still, very much a Communist nation which follows the principles and progression of Marxism.

Indeed, one begins to get a sense that this is more than just the adoption of ‘Western’ lifestyle through globalisation, but an inevitable creep towards ‘Western’ ideology. Starbucks itself, after all, represents the modern symbol of American-fuelled capitalism.

There seems to be one trait of modern Chinese Communism that attempts to explain how this all adds up, and this acts largely as a justification for the CPC. Most recently, Xi Jinping, in his First Address to the Nation as Party Secretary on 17 March 2013, used the term as an objective to help push forward the achievement of the common ‘Chinese Dream’.

That term is ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, and it’s about as well-defined as Chinese driving laws.

Two things are relatively clear. Firstly, the term developed after the death of Mao Zedong and broadly justifies support for a socialist market economy. During Mao’s era, he had described China (at the First Zhengzhou Conference 1958) as having entered the “initial stage of socialism”. This theory was left open for successors to interpret and develop, so Deng Xiaoping coined the phrase ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ as a basis of pushing ahead with economic reform under a market economy.

Secondly, in the present day, the CPC still maintain that China is in its “primary stage” of socialism. This appears to be the crux of the justification that China’s market economy, identical to many Western capitalist economies, conforms to Marxism. Marxist theory dictates that history will follow a number of stages, with socialism being the penultimate stage before communism. China leaped onto socialism under Mao, so the CPC asserts that China is progressing. Yet, as China is in the “primary stage”, it can supposedly justify any economic action it desires.

Somehow, I doubt Marx would be a member of the CPC (or at least not a happy one) if he were alive today. It clearly remains debatable whether a large movement towards consumerism and private entities competing to make the most profit in a free market is what he envisaged this socialism stage to be.

Yet the Chinese population (or ex-proletariat) seem to be happy and largely prosperous. On my visits to many touristy areas in Hangzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai, the places were packed full of consumers enjoying themselves and spending their money wilfully. Their living standards are rising and, as Deng Xiaoping put it, “seek truth from facts” and continue to pursue whatever seems to be working.

The question remains whether the credit should go to socialism. Private ownership is fundamentally non-socialist. According to the current CPC, Marx never proposed the immediate abolishment of private ownership anyway, but instead only abolish it when the necessary conditions have been met.

Firstly, the CPC haven’t just been allowing the growth of privately-owned entities, it has been actively encouraging them to come to China. Secondly, what exactly are these ‘necessary conditions’? China now has the largest GDP in the world; what else must it do? Surely the CPC is now in a position to proceed to share out the wealth created under the ‘socialist economy’ and thereby take a giant leap towards the communist stage of Marxism? If that’s the case, private entities should be anticipating imminent nationalisation.

In the meanwhile, both the CPC and its people appear relatively content with the current situation. Whether that situation can be rightly given a distinct political label, such as ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, is a different matter entirely.

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