Defenders of the faith
Today, July 1, is a special day for China, marking the 88th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party. Moreover, 2009 marks the 60th anniversary of the party being in power and, in traditional China, 60 years marks the completion of a cycle. The party, however, faces problems. Under Mao Zedong, its vision was crystal clear. Externally, it supported world revolution while, within the country, it launched one class struggle after another to ensure the purity of its members.
Under Deng Xiaoping, however, things changed drastically. Deng focused on modernisation and adopted the market economy, contrary to conventional thinking that socialist countries are defined by planned economies.
While, in the past, state ownership of the means of production had been touted as one of the hallmarks of socialism, Deng allowed the private sector to develop and many state-owned companies were shut down or privatised.
To deflect criticism that China was departing from socialism, Deng asserted that the country was practising 'socialism with Chinese characteristics'. By this simple redefinition, he was able to make any changes necessary by simply saying that they were 'Chinese characteristics' of socialism. It was a brilliant move.
Another theoretical innovation was the concept of 'the primary stage of socialism', apparently first introduced by then-party leader Hu Yaobang in 1981 and developed by Zhao Ziyang when he was general secretary from 1987 to 1989.
The term was meant to explain the existence of capitalist vestiges in China. Zhao, in his recently released secret journal, talked about the use of this term. 'The purpose was to answer doubts some people had about whether our nation was socialist, or whether we were pursuing socialism,' he said.
To muddy the theoretical waters even more, in the past year, the capitalist countries of the world have been interfering in private enterprise as never before. This has further blurred the line between capitalism and socialism although few people seem to doubt that the US is still very much a capitalistic country.
The phrase 'primary stage of socialism' continues to be used. In 2007, Premier Wen Jiabao said China would remain in the 'primary stage of socialism' for at least a century, while the country focused on economic construction. China's pragmatists continue to seek theoretical justification for their actions.
Evidently, there is a strong contingent of theoreticians within the country who need to be satisfied China has not deviated from socialism. Those defending Beijing's official position also feel the need to put labels on other countries. Many people have pointed out that the Nordic countries - Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden - with their welfare system and social safety nets are actually practising a form of socialism.
A recent article in the online edition of the People's Daily went out of its way to assert that 'Nordic countries do not belong to the category of socialist countries'. The article, one of a spate of theoretical pieces published in the run-up to the party anniversary, makes it clear that this conclusion was arrived at not because of those nations' economic systems, but because of their multiparty political systems. 'A few people in China,' it said, 'admire or envy Nordic countries' multiparty system or 'parliamentary road to socialism' and they even suggest China should follow suit.'
Beijing's decree that Nordic countries do not practise socialism is more about preventing a move towards a parliamentary system in China. Presumably, if the Scandinavians abandoned their parliamentary system, China would accept them as socialists, without a need for them to change their economic system.
China is, of course, free to redefine socialism in ways that allow it to develop. This change by redefinition is pragmatic and is to be applauded. But it seems to be going a bit too far to apply its own changing principles of socialism to other sovereign states. Surely they can practise socialism with their own characteristics, too.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator