When socialism turned Marxism on its head ...

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 December, 2008, 12:00am

The break with the ideological past that still can't be confronted

'The theory of communism may be summed up in one sentence: abolish all private property,' wrote Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto.

By that definition, the road taken by the Chinese Communist Party since 1978 has been in the opposite direction from communism.

In the course of its rapid development, the country has ditched collective agriculture, dismantled the state sector, smashed hundreds of millions of workers' 'iron rice bowls', dumped cheap housing, gutted social services such as free education and health care, embraced the free market and celebrated the art of getting rich.

The spectacular economic growth the mainland has been enjoying is decidedly capitalist in style - or, in the peculiar wording of the party, its experiment with 'a new form of socialism with uniquely Chinese characteristics'. The party's careful scripting is a sign that it's trying hard to hide the truth that Marxist ideology is practically dead in the country. Few even remember Marxist theory, except party ideologues who make a living out of preaching it. And perhaps even fewer subscribe to its principles, as the country completes the transformation from one of the most equal societies in the world to one of the most unequal.

In a demonstration of the 'extraordinary flexibility of Chinese pragmatism' - according to the late American Sinologist Lucian Pye - the party abandoned ideology, or at least orthodox Marxism, which had been blamed for producing stagnation.

But rather than admit that Marxist history has gone into reverse, the post-Mao party leaders have all been at pains to match what they preach with what they practise.

'There's a hidden rule of, 'Hush, hush' here,' said Mao Shoulong , a political scientist at Renmin University. 'You can do all sorts of things, but saying them out loud would get you into great trouble.

'The party still can't bring itself to throw Marxism out the window. They've been making a tortuous effort to harmonise socialist theories with a capitalist growth road.'

It was Deng Xiaoping , China's great moderniser, who first provided an ideological rationale for the country's pursuit of capitalist reform. In 1978, during the historic third plenum of the party Central Committee, Deng turned his back on Mao Zedong's egalitarianism and claimed: 'Poverty is not socialism. Socialism means eliminating poverty.' People should be allowed to pursue material wealth, even if that meant some might become richer than others, he said.

Deng's reform platform of 'building socialism with Chinese characteristics' embodied pragmatism, said Hu Xingdou , a political scientist at Beijing Institute of Science and Technology.

'[The theory of] 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' is like a basket: you can put all sorts of things into it,' Professor Hu said.

To push Deng's theory further, the party leadership in the 1980s, led by Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang , offered a new explanation: China, they said, was in a 'primary stage of socialism'. Zhao personally argued before the 13th Party Congress in 1987 that 'the Chinese people cannot take the socialist road without going through the stage of fully developed capitalism'.

What happened in the summer of 1989 in Tiananmen Square may have changed the pace of political reform. But along the economic track, the country was only moving faster in its headlong rush to capitalism.

One of the Communist Party's most remarkable ideological high-wire acts was probably performed by Deng's hand-picked successor, Jiang Zemin . In a bold bid to keep the party relevant in a society that was liberalising and commercialising at warp speed, Mr Jiang formulated a new rhetorical vehicle - awkwardly named 'the Theory of the Three Represents' in 2001. It was a call for the party to embrace all elite forces in the society that represented 'advanced social productive forces', and it was widely touted as a call for private businessmen to join the Communist Party. It was enshrined in the party charter in the autumn of 2002.

'For the party-state aiming to maintain and strengthen its monopoly on political activities, the challenge is to adjust to the fast-changing contour of Chinese society,' Professor Mao said.

The pace of the catch-up accelerated two years later, in 2004. In a vote that would have made Marx turn in his grave, the National People's Congress passed a constitutional amendment to protect private property.

Voting to declare that private possessions were as 'inviolable' as state assets, China abandoned one of the key pillars of communism. As Premier Wen Jiabao explained after the landmark amendment was endorsed, the country's system of governance had to keep in step with the transformation to a capitalistic economy.

With those less desirable aspects of capitalism increasingly overshadowing and even threatening the mainland's growth, party leaders have been experimenting with new rhetorical approaches to address the emergent wealth divide and consequent antagonisms in the society.

The phrase 'harmonious society' emerged in 2004 as the new ideological catchphrase of the Hu Jintao era. It was the first major propaganda initiative since the Hu-Wen leadership took office in 2003, focused on reducing income disparities and keeping a lid on corruption to ease social tension.

But the Confucian phrase failed to get squeezed into the party's ideological lexicon at the last national Party Congress, in 2007, partly because it sounded too obvious a reversal of Deng's and Mr Jiang's emphasis on growth and 'productive forces'. Inked into the party charter instead was 'scientific outlook of development' - a more modernist and technocratic phrase for sustainable, balanced and equitable development instead of breakneck growth at the expense of the environment.

The 'scientific development' theory possessed the veneer of old-school Marxism but was strategically vague and flexible, and better fit the party's current needs, Professor Mao said.

'Reform in China is a gradual, adaptive process without a clear blueprint, but with a definitive goal: it is growth-oriented,' he said.

'Based on the previous experience, China is flexible enough to switch the means of pursuing the goal if it appears it is being derailed.'

Socialism with Chinese characteristics

Deng Xiaoping went the opposite way of Mao Zedong's economic egalitarianism. In the process, the 'iron rice bowls' of jobs for life were smashed. People were allowed to pursue material wealth and some to become richer than others. Private ownership, contrary to Karl Marx's basic communist ideology, was embraced