Pragmatism as ideology

“Pragmatism” has become an inescapable piece of vocabulary in recent Western political commentary on China, the preferred term to indicate the opposite of whatever it is Xi Jinping has been doing lately. Everyone wants to offer an opinion about whether the newly installed Premier Li Qiang and his colleagues will be “pragmatic.” The optimists point out, correctly, that Li and others have a long track record of doing things to boost the economic development of the regions of which they were in charge.

Although I have used the term myself, this “pragmatism” discourse is starting to bother me. The word is being used to hark back to an idealized past of non-ideological decision-making, when China’s leaders threw off the straitjacket of socialism and focused on practical moves to make the economy function better and improve living standards. This long history is believed to have instilled in officials an approach, a disposition, of not caring too much about ideological questions and caring more about practical concerns–primarily economic growth.

But the contention, or implication, that pragmatism is non-ideological is just propaganda. The position that China’s government should focus all its efforts on raising living standards rather than implementing socialist values is itself an ideology. The opponents of this position in the 1970s and 1980s viscerally understood this. The conservatives argued, quite correctly, that such a change would undo a lot of their hard work and return power to the social elites whose position the Communist revolution had been devoted to overthrowing.

It was the ideological decision to focus primarily on economic growth–made and reinforced by the successive top leaders Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin–that created the space for “pragmatism.” The turn to economic reform in 1978 was explicitly framed as deploying the Communist Party’s political machinery for the goal of boosting growth rather than pursuing class struggle. For local officials to try different approaches and do whatever worked to expand the economy was not just tolerated, it was required.

Today, asking whether individual officials have a “pragmatic approach” is the wrong question. The system in which Chinese officials have been operating encouraged pragmatism, and some officials have been more successful than others in navigating that system. But Xi Jinping has been quite clear that he wants to change that system. As he has repeatedly stated, developing the economy is no longer the Communist Party’s top priority–in part because of the economic success already achieved, in part because the current challenges are different.

A recent Xinhua report on “The value of Xi Jinping’s economic thought” lays out the transition from the Deng-era priorities as clearly as the official buzzwords allow:

The Sixth Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee held in 1981 pointed out that the principal contradiction in the primary stage of socialism was between the people’s ever growing material and cultural needs and backward social production. This was a scientific conclusion made by the CPC based on the economic and social development stage at that time. The key point is to meet people’s basic material and cultural needs.

In 2017, Xi said in a report to the 19th CPC National Congress that as socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, the principal contradiction facing Chinese society has evolved to that between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever growing needs for a better life.

The evolution of the principal contradiction represents a historic shift of overall importance. The transition from providing for people’s basic needs to meeting people’s desire for a better life reflects China’s tremendous progress in economic and social development, as well as the comprehensive upgrading of the people’s needs for a better life.

Meeting the people’s ever growing new needs for a better life is the logical starting point of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Xi Jinping’s economic thought starts from this and has developed into a cohesive, in depth, and systematic economic theory system.

Xi Jinping’s economic thought starts from the principal contradiction facing Chinese society, coordinates needs and wants, focuses on social well being, and establishes the economics that seeks a better life for Chinese people.

It’s true that Xi hasn’t done a great job articulating what “a better life” actually consists of, a failure that has made policymaking more incoherent in recent years. But it is clear that economic growth has been relatively devalued, and a complex of other political concerns, most prominently national security, given more weight (for a fuller explanation, see my post from 2021, “Mobilization and modules: what’s changing in China“). This is indeed, as Xinhua says, a historic shift.

For 2023, the short-term priority is clearly to stabilize the economy. In his speech at the close of the annual legislative session, Xi called for “the economy to achieve effective qualitative improvement and reasonable quantitative growth, and continuously increase China’s economic strength, scientific and technological strength, and comprehensive national power.” A strong economy is certainly part of his vision; but again, economic strength is only part of the picture, not the overall goal.

We should indeed expect the new top administrators in China to be pragmatic in pursuing the goals laid down by Xi, if that means being flexible about tactics and responsive to empirical reality. Nor should we rule out the possibility that they will make decisions that end up being good for economic growth. But that would not mean a return to the “pragmatism” of previous decades, which was the product of an entirely different ideological orientation.

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