Does China have an ideological “red line”?

Not so long ago, the conventional wisdom in the US was that Chinese leaders were essentially hardcore pragmatists, capitalists in all but name, who would do whatever they needed to do to keep the economy growing and unrest contained. Now it seems that the pendulum has swung the other way, and the Chinese government under Xi Jinping is often portrayed as a hyper-politicized system locked in to an ossified Communist ideology. Those who hold this view do not expect much out of the US-China trade negotiations, since they think Chinese officials are so ideologically committed to their current system that they cannot accept any changes.

It would indeed be a mistake to deny the important role of ideology in China’s socialist system. But the ideology that the Communist Party is promoting these days is curiously content-free when compared to the demands of the original early 20th-century socialists. Having recently spent some time reading a few of the latest ideological tracts, I can report that they contain nothing about class struggle. Indeed they contain almost no statements at all about the right and proper way to organize a society or manage an economy–quite strange since such demands were what socialist ideology was originally all about.

The ideology of socialism that the Communist Party promotes today has one key principle: that the Communist Party must be in charge of China. As Xi Jinping himself said, in a phrase that has been endlessly repeated:

The leadership of the Communist Party of China is not only the most essential feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics, but also the greatest advantage of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.

Why does the Communist Party get to be in charge? Because it always makes the right decisions. Here is how Wu Degang, of the Central Research Institute of Party History and Literature, expressed it in a piece in the People’s Daily in April:

The Communist Party of China thoroughly grasps the laws of a ruling Communist Party, the laws of building socialism and the laws of human social development, so that its leadership always follows objective laws, reflects the wishes of the people and promotes practical development. This is the fundamental reason why the socialist system with Chinese characteristics has great vitality and superiority. …

Practice is the only criterion for testing truth…Whether it is in overcoming disastrous floods, or fighting SARS, or recovering from earthquakes; whether it is dealing with the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 2008 international financial crisis or the current complicated international situation, the socialist system with Chinese characteristics has, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, fully demonstrated its superiority. Without the leadership of the Communist Party of China, China would not have withstood so many storms.

What’s interesting about this is that Wu does not tell us what the objective laws of human social development actually are, as a previous generation of socialists would have been only too eager to do. He believes that there are such objective laws, and that the Communist Party knows what they are. But it is not the people’s job to hold the Party to account for whether or not it acts in accordance with those laws, but rather to uphold the Party’s political leadership. Even as he insists that results have validated the Party’s rule, he enters into a kind of circular logic familiar from authoritarian systems: the Party leads because the Party’s decisions are correct, and we know those decisions are correct because the Party made them.

The ideology of the Communist Party is, mostly, that the Communist Party is always right. And indeed it would be hard to come up with a strict ideology that would logically encompass all of the twists and turns that China has gone through since 1949. The Party has both collectivized and decollectivized agriculture, and Party members must believe that both decisions were correct. The Party has both nationalized private firms and privatized state firms, and Party members have to support both decisions.

In fact, it’s a distinctive feature of recent Communist Party slogans that they emphasize the simultaneous pursuit of conflicting objectives: “unswervingly” developing state enterprises while “unswervingly” supporting the private sector, or strengthening the role of both market forces and the role of the government. There is no objective standard that people can bring to bear to know what is the right way to balance those conflicting objectives: they must simply obey political guidance from the top.

So I generally don’t see ideology as a real constraint on what policies China’s leaders can pursue, or on what kind of deal they can negotiate with the US. If Xi Jinping decides that X is good, then Communist Party ideology means that X is good and that Party members need to fall in line. China’s June white paper on the US-China trade declared that there are “red lines” beyond which China cannot go in the negotiations, but it did not say what those are. That’s because it is the Communist Party’s privilege to decide them.

Of course, none of this means that China’s leaders are likely to be willing to overhaul their economic policies just because the US asks them to. They like their system and they don’t see any real reason to change it. If anything, US pressure may just make them feel more strongly attached to it (see this previous post). My point is just that ideology in the contemporary Chinese system lacks a lot of specificity, and so is not really a constraint on the tactics the government can pursue at any given time.

Nor do I think that this tactical flexibility and ideological emptiness mean that China is no longer actually “socialist.” There is a lot of useless debate about the meaning of socialism these days, but I still hold to the classical definition of socialism from Janos Kornai, the great Hungarian scholar of socialist economics: “The primary attribute of the socialist system is that a Marxist-Leninist party exercises undivided power.” Xi Jinping could not have put it better himself.

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