Socialism with Chinese Characteristics
Understanding the Future of China through Xi Jinping Thought
By explaining Xi Jinping Thought, I recognize that I risk being being accused of endorsing it. Therefore, before I begin this essay, let me state clearly: I am not a Communist, a Maoist, or a Marxist. I do not endorse them. I simply accept that Communism, Maoism, and Marxism have shaped the world we live in. Understanding them is a prerequisite for intelligent commentary on diplomacy and strategy in today’s world. Therefore I have studied these ideologies and hope you will take a minute to do so, too.
The official ideology of the Chinse Communist Party today is Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. To understand China’s actions today, you must understand what this ideology is and what it means.
Let’s start with socialism. Socialism, in China, does not mean the democratic socialism of Sweden or other Western European nations. It refers explicitly to Marxist–Leninist ideology.
According to orthodox Marxism, human history is driven by the evolving nature of economic production through class struggle. History began with communal land ownership in hunter-gatherer and pastoral society. Feudalism then emerges, under which productive labor is organized on land by lords who establish an aristocracy. Capitalism emerges from feudalism, in which the bourgeoise class unleashes the productive powers of industry, organizing a proletariat of workers beneath it. Contradictions inherent in capitalism lead to the impoverishment of the proletariat and enrichment of the bourgeoise, which eventually rises in spontaneous revolution to overthrow the bourgeoise and establish state socialism. State socialism is then run by a dictatorship of the proletariat, which re-orders society to provide abundance for all. Eventually the state withers away, such that state socialism leads to communism, a stateless utopia in which everyone gives according to their ability and receives according to their need.
(When a Leftist says “true communism has never been tried,” what they mean - if they are an educated scholar and not just an NPC retweeting a slogan - is that state socialism has never been given time to evolve into communism. For instance, an Orthodox Marxist might argue that, since the USSR was assailed by US imperialism in a Cold War, it had to maintain a state apparatus, and that’s why it couldn’t progress to true communism. This concept of a necessary evolution through stages is key, as you’ll see below.)
Vladimir Lenin modified orthodox Marxism to create Marxism-Leninism. According to Lenin, the proletariat may not rise up in mass because of the self-protective machinations of capitalists. Therefore, it is necessary for a vanguard party of revolutionaries (a Communist Party) to organize itself and lead the revolution. In the period of state socialism following the revolution, power is to be held by the Party, rather than by the proletariat per se; the proletariat then participates in the Party by means of worker’s councils (soviets) which elect representatives to the Party. The Party in turn unites as a bloc around its policies in a system known as “democratic centralism.”
Chinese Communism was developed by Mao Zedong under the influence of Marxism-Leninism. After winning the Revolution and establishing the People’s Republic of China, Mao faced the difficult ideological challenge of implementing Marxism-Leninism in an impoverished country organized on a semi-feudal basis. Both Marxism and Leninism presupposed that when the revolution took place, capitalism would already have unleashed the productive forces of industry and created a proletariat class. However, 1950s China had a tiny proletariat, scant industry, and little productive power.
Remember that Orthodox Marxists believe that history is driven by economic forces and that the social system of each era is determined by the structure of its production. According to Orthodox Marxism, Communist China shouldn’t exist - it had achieved “an “advanced social system” while suffering from “backward production forces.”
As it turns out, however, even Marx wasn’t always an Orthodox Marxist. In a letter sent to Vera Zasulich in 1881, Marx suggested that communism might evolve differently in rural countries such as Russia:
I expressly limited the "historical inevitability" of [the development of communism] to the countries of Western Europe. And why? [Because] in the final analysis, it is a question of the transformation of one form of private property into another form of private property. Since the land in the hands of the Russian peasants has never been their private property, how could this development be applicable?
If the conditions under which communism would develop could vary depending on the conditions of the particular country in question, then Chinese communist didn’t necessarily have to proceed through the dialectic of feudalism-capitalism-socialism-communism.
Following this logic, Mao dispensed with the notion that a capitalist class would emerge after feudalism, and said that a colonial nation overthrowing its oppressors could directly enter socialism. However, the socialism it would enter would be an “initial stage of socialism” or “primary stage of socialism,” rather than the well-developed state socialism envisaged by Marxism.
This viewpoint explains the second part of our tongue-twisting ideology, socialism with Chinese characteristics. It became the official doctrine of the People’s Republic of China at the 13th National Congress when Acting General Secretary Zhao Ziyang delivered the report “Advance Along the Road of Socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Orthodox Marxists expected to begin with the productive powers of capitalism at their disposal, with which they would eliminate poverty and achieve equality. Socialism with Chinese characteristics began without the productive powers of capitalism, so it had to proceed differently. Deng Xiaoping explained:
The primary task of socialism is to develop production forces and to elevate the standard of the material and cultural life of the people… poverty is not socialism, socialism is to eliminate poverty. It is not socialism to not develop production forces and raise the people's living standards.
Under Deng’s leadership, China embraced a unique method of organizing its economy, in which state-run corporations, centralized planning, and ideological orientation were used in conjunction with private sector corporations, commodity production for the market, and profit motivation. Socialism with Chinese characteristics paved the way for Deng’s 1979 overtures to the United States, and the opening up of Chinese markets in the 1980s.
It is at this point that the United States and Europe made the Great Mistake. The Western powers believed that in opening itself to foreign investment and free trade, China was on the way to joining the neoliberal world order. The Western consensus was that capitalism led to prosperity, prosperity lead to democracy, and democracy led to human rights, open borders, and other progressive tenets. By doing business with China, the West would transform China.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. And here we reach the third point in our ideological tongue-twister, socialism with Chinese characteristics for a New Era. When China’s leaders formulated socialism with Chinese characteristics, they expected that it would take a century or more for China to develop. Zhao Ziyang wrote “[i]t will be at least 100 years… [before] socialist modernization will have been in the main accomplished.”
It happened rather faster than that. As the Strategic Culture Foundation points out, China’s rise has been explosive:
Since 1949, the size of the Chinese economy soared by a whopping 189 times. Over the past two decades, China’s GDP grew 11-fold. Since 2010, it more than doubled, from $6 trillion to $15 trillion, and now accounts for 17% of global economic output.
China controlled Covid-19 in record time; economic growth is back; poverty alleviation was achieved; and the civilization-state became a “moderately prosperous society” — right on schedule for the CCP centennial.
Mission accomplished. Having entered the New Era of prosperity, China can now move past its focus on domestic self-development and reclaim its position at the center of the world.
And that leads us to our final term, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Xi Jinping is, of course, the current General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Xi has made it his life’s work to — how to put this — to Make China Great Again. As Xi explains:
“China used to be a world economic power. However, it missed its chance in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the consequent dramatic changes, and was thus left behind and suffered humiliation under foreign invasion… we must not let this tragic history repeat itself.”
Xi Jinping (rightly) believes that the neoliberal world order upholds American hegemony. Xi Jinping Thought is the means by which China will end that old order (our order!) and usher in the new. Xi believes that by following his thought, China can displace America and resume its rightful place as the Middle Kingdom. Xi’s policies, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, are specifically intended to bring China back to its historical place at the center of civilization.
Below I have summarized the tenets of Xi Jinping Thought. You can find the Thoughts in Xi’s own words here.
The CCP leads the government, the military, the academia, and the people.
The Party must serve the interests of the public and govern the country for the people.
Only socialism can save China. Only reform can develop China.
Scientific development is the key to solving all the problems of the country.
China’s representative institutions must develop according to the principals of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
The judicial system must be reformed to enforce rule of law and improve morality.
China must foster the cultural values of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Improving people’s livelihood is the primary goal of economic development, in order to maintain social harmony, ensure stability, and provide the people with contentment.
China must protect its energy supplies and natural environment as it develops.
China must strengthen its national security and prepare for danger.
The CCP must retain absolute control over the armed forces.
Achieving complete national reunification of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan into the mainland is the paramount requirement for the rejuvenation of China.
China must be the builder of world peace and defender of the international order.
China must have a zero-tolerance attitude for corruption and decadence within the Party.
Chinese thought is, almost inherently by virtue of its language, nuanced and delicate. Chinese writing is often susceptible to multiple interpretations, and is perhaps the diametric opposite of frank and blunt Americanism. With that caveat, here is how I believe we should understand the tenets of Xi Jinping Thought.
Points 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, and 11 are reiterations of the Marxist-Leninist belief in the necessity of totalitarian control by a vanguard party that maintains ideological purity, organizes the people in the pursuit of communism, and maintains leadership in all facets of society. They represent the diametric opposite of our hoped-for “liberalization” of China. These points need to be understand in the context of Xi’s views on the Soviet Union, which he presented at the Eighteenth Party Congress:
Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party fall from power? An important reason was that the struggle in the field of ideology was extremely intense, completely negating the history of the Soviet Union, negating the history of the Soviet Communist Party, negating Lenin, negating Stalin, creating historical nihilism and confused thinking. Party organs at all levels had lost their functions, the military was no longer under Party leadership. In the end, the Soviet Communist Party, a great party, was scattered, the Soviet Union, a great socialist country, disintegrated. This is a cautionary tale!
Xi Jinping Thought is making a clear statement that China will not become “liberalized” like the Soviet Union; it will not engage in glasnost and perestroika and develop into a multi-party parliamentary democracy in the Western style. Xi Jinping Thought is also making it clear that China in the New Era hasn’t progressed to that stage of communism when the state will wither away, either. It will maintain its ideological commitment to Communism and it will do so under one-party rule.
Point 8 re-emphasizes that the goal of socialism with Chinese characteristics is to eliminate poverty and create prosperity. The means by which this is to be accomplished are explained as scientific development (point 4) in conjunction with sustainable environmental and ecological practices (point 9). The latter point must be understood in a pragmatic context - the CCP are not deep ecologists or Gaia worshippers. When Europe was poor, it tolerated pollution (“London fog”) to achieve wealth; when it became rich, it could afford clean air and clean water. China, as it gets richer, will want clean air and clean water, too. If it can make the West pay for that because of our commitment to “climate justice”, so much the better!
Points 6 and 14 emphasize anti-corruption. Confucianism, with its emphasis on each person’s particular duty to their family, can lead to endemic nepotism, which in turn can lead to corruption and self-dealing. Like Deng Xiaoping before him, Xi is emphasizing anti-corruption as a means of ensuring domestic harmony and stability. Purging “corruption” is also a useful tool for consolidating one-party rule in the face of oligarchic wealth, as uppity billionaires and their crony politicians are inevitably corrupt…
Finally, Points 10, 12, and 13 explain China’s place in the world. Point 12 emphasizes that China is a civilization-state: All that is Chinese (culturally) must be part of China (politically). Particular emphasis is given to Taiwan. Left unsaid is Taiwan’s incredible strategic importance to point 4, scientific development, because of its world leadership in semiconductor manufacturing.
Point 13 positions China as the world’s new hegemon. Conventionally, we identify a hegemon at any point in time by speaking of its pax, the peace it imposes through its power — hence, the Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, and Pax Americana. For China to be builder of world peace and defender of the international order is for China to impose the Pax Sinica.
Point 10 acknowledges that achieving all these other points puts China at risk from those who would prevents its rise (the unstated foe is, of course, the United States). The implacable tendency towards war that occurs anytime a new hegemon arises against an old is called a Thucydides Trap (named for the Greek historian Thucydides and his account of the Peloponnesian War between mighty Sparta and rising Athens). Xi here is codifying the need to prepare for this war to come.
Taken as a whole, Xi Jinping Thought is an ambitious and confident doctrine meant to make the 21st century the Chinese Century.
Until recently, the West has been oblivious to this. Instead, it has taken comfort in pretty lies. “The Chinese don’t really believe in Communism!” They really do. “If China doesn’t become a capitalist democracy, it’ll collapse into poverty.” They won’t. “As the Chinese become more prosperous, they’ll become more like us!” They won’t.
This last delusion is utterly laughable — our Western intelligentsia hates Western culture, Western history, and Western civilization. The Chinese intelligentsia loves Chinese culture, Chinese history, and Chinese civilization. Can you imagine a Chinese scholar denouncing Mao or Confucius as irrelevant because they’re just dead Chinese males? No, they don’t aspire to be like us. They aspire to be better than us.
The Chinese know what they believe in — socialism with Chinese characteristics. They know what they want - a New Era where China is hegemon. And they know how they intend to do it - via Xi Jinping Thought’s 14 tenets. Can the West say the same?
Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe.