A very simple way to think about what changed in China in 1978 is that the Communist Party changed its main goal from pursuing class struggle to pursuing economic development. This interpretation is so simple that it is almost not an interpretation at all: it is exactly what Communist Party leaders said they were doing. The first line of the communique from the third plenary session of the 11th Central Committee issued on December 29, 1978 is:
The plenary session unanimously endorsed the policy decision put forward by Comrade Hua Guofeng on behalf of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee on shifting the emphasis of our Party’s work and the attention of the people of the whole country to socialist modernization.
A lot of the Western misunderstandings of China since then are, I think, due to misinterpreting what the decision to pursue economic development actually meant. It did not mean that China had abandoned socialism and was going to transition to a Western-style market economy and political system (even though some people in China did want that). It did not mean that Marxist-Leninist ideology had become the mere repetition of empty slogans to cover the pursuit of capitalist self-interest (even though that was true for a fair number of people in China).
What the Party leadership meant was no more and no less than what they said: that the edifice of the Communist Party would turn its power and attention to the pursuit of economic development and away from the internal political struggles that had consumed it for the previous decade. The fundamental political system of China was not changing, but the aims it pursued were.
The implications of this are easier to appreciate if we understand the properly the nature of the Chinese Communist Party, and of Marxist-Leninist parties more generally. They have little to do with the political parties of Western democratic countries. In his recent book, Joseph Fewsmith summarized the essential characteristics: a Leninist party is a “hierarchal, mobilizational, task-oriented party that relies on cadres.”
The Communist Party is not a voluntary association of like-minded individuals, but a strict hierarchical organization in which cadres observe quasi-military discipline in obeying superiors. The way that organization rules the country is not by supplying leaders for a rationally organized and politically neutral bureaucracy for administering laws and regulations. Rather the Party itself interpenetrates the entire bureaucracy, and is oriented to mobilizing cadres to achieve political tasks and developmental goals. Those tasks and goals are decided by the Party leadership, and then the cadres mobilize all of society to achieve them.
I increasingly feel that this concept of mobilization is essential to understanding the nature of China’s political system. The Communist Party cannot just sit there and enforce the laws and deliver public services (if it were to do so, it would not be a Leninist party anymore). It must always be doing something. It has to mobilize toward some goal, be on some political campaign. And the people, or person, at the top of the Party get to decide what that goal is. If you like, they can swap out different modules in the mobilization machine.
Chinese history demonstrates the power of the mobilization machine for good and for ill: the Mao module of class struggle ripped society apart as neighbor denounced neighbor, while the Deng module of economic development supercharged growth as every village and town got into business. Many scholars have written about the unique nature of the “high-pressure system” or “high-powered incentives” that drove officials in localities across China to pursue economic growth, and the “campaign-style” enforcement often used to deliver policy priorities. Those are just different names for this mobilization machine.
Some important aspects of the nature of this mobilization regime are captured by Chalmers Johnson’s description of developmental states across Asia (Leninist parties are good at mobilization, but other political structures can do it too). The below is from his 1999 essay, “The Developmental State: Odyssey of a Concept”:
The source of authority in the developmental state is not one of Weber’s “holy trinity” of traditional, rational-legal, and charismatic sources of authority. It is rather, revolutionary authority: the authority of a people committed to the transformation of their social, political, or economic order. Legitimation occurs from the state’s achievements, not from the way it came to power. Such legitimacy based on projects or goals is, of course, fragile in that it normally cannot withstand failure. Equally serious, it cannot adjust to victory and the loss of mission. The legitimacy of the leaders of a developmental state is like that of field commanders in a major military engagement. It comes from people working together, and it probably cannot long survive either defeat or victory. This problem is an abiding source of instability in such regimes, one that often leads to severe crises, such as after Japan’s defeat in World War II or the Korean revolution of 1987.
These observations I think give us the right conceptual tools to understand just what Xi Jinping is up to–the central preoccupation of China watchers for a decade now, and an increasingly urgent one as his interventions get bolder. Xi is, I think, trying to preserve China’s Leninist system from the threat of both defeat and victory.
Mobilizing for economic growth created obvious risks. On many occasions over the past four decades, there have been real worries that the unrestricted pursuit of growth would unbalance the economy (and/or financial system) so much that a crash would result that would irreparably discredit the Communist Party. The risk of victory is more subtle: that the pursuit of higher national income is so successful that diminishing marginal utility sets in. People stop being so motivated by pursuing higher incomes, and are more focused on preserving what they have (what William Overholt has called a “crisis of success“). This gradually erodes the Party’s ability to successfully mobilize society.
Both of these worries are clearly visible in Xi’s various policy priorities: his rather surprising support for conservative monetary and fiscal policies oriented at reducing future risks, and his focus on the quality-of-life issues that are of increasing concern to the middle classes, like pollution and education. But Xi is doing more than just maintenance to keep the current mobilization campaign running a while longer (that was more Hu Jintao’s strategy). He is proposing a new national project, whose pursuit is intended to unify the people and bolster the continued legitimacy of the Communist Party.
A very simple way of thinking about what is changing in China under Xi is that he is in the process of swapping out the module in the mobilization machine. It is no longer economic growth, but something else. Again, this is hardly requires any interpretation at all, it is exactly what he has said in so many words. The theme of his speech to the Party Congress of 2017 was that the “principal contradiction” that the Party needs to deal with had changed: it was no longer satisfying people’s “basic needs” for material progress, but satisfying a broader set of political and cultural needs. Instead of the pursuit of economic development, Xi is proposing a more complex and explicitly political objective–“national rejuvenation” or making China a “great modern socialist nation.” I usually just call it “the pursuit of national greatness.”
Xi proposed this transition at the start of his second term in 2017, although in such general terms that it was hard to make out exactly where he was heading. And perhaps he did not yet know himself. In hindsight, the period from 2017 to 2022 now looks like a transitional one, where Xi pursued the traditional agenda of economic development in parallel with some new mobilizational campaigns. The “three critical battles” launched in 2018–against financial risk, poverty and pollution–were the most prominent example. The “regulatory storm” of the past several months looks is probably best understood as another such campaign. The big difficulty that officials are having in carrying out these campaigns is in figuring out exactly how they should be balanced against the old goal of economic growth.
In part this is because the exact content of Xi’s new module for the mobilization machine is not totally clear, and probably still being defined. As Jude Blanchette and others have observed, the recent ramping up of new slogans such as “common prosperity” looks like preparation for an agenda that will be presented in full at the Party Congress in 2022. That is when Xi is expected to start a third term, which is enough of a departure from recent political norms that it needs to be justified with a suitably grand set of goals. The scale of Xi’s ambition has long been clear: he wants to be the peer of Mao and Deng. And that means setting the fundamental direction for the Party and the nation in the same way they did.