The View

Why Marxism is so important in the new China

The assumption that pragmatism triumphs over ideology is no longer the rule

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2016, 11:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2016, 11:11pm

What’s the best way to get Hong Kong’s prominent business leaders to squirm? It’s simple: ask them whether they support Marxism.

Most will respond with nervous laughter but, when it is pointed out that Marxism is the guiding ideology of the People’s Republic of China, a flicker of uncertainty emerges. This is usually resolved by an assurance that Marxism with Chinese characteristics is not really Marxism at all, it just happens to bear that name.

Ideology, whatever it’s precise nature, triumphs over pragmatism

These assurances ring somewhat hollow, all the more now that President Xi Jinping is repeatedly insisting that, as he recently stressed, “we are building … socialism with Chinese characteristics, not some other-ism”. China’s 88 million Communist Party members have also been reminded by Xi not to “betray or abandon” Marxism.

Does any of that sound as though Xi is not serious about ideology? This, of course, begs the question of how Marxism is actually interpreted in China because as with all isms there are great debates over interpretation.

Yet the fact that the debate rages and the fact that ideology is so important is what matters despite the complacent and comfortable assertion in local business circles maintaining that ideology is dead. Instead, it is argued, the only ideology that really matters in the mainland is the ideology of pragmatism.

This is a comforting illusion but not bourne out by facts. Were it otherwise how to explain the many instances when ideological imperatives took precedence over pragmatism. The human and economic devastation of the Cultural Revolution is perhaps the most vivid illustration of this but, so we are told, this is all in the past and does not need to be dragged up again.

The Deng Xiaoping era is supposed to have ushered in an abandonment of dogmatic Marxism and its replacement by laissez-faire capitalism. To some extent this is true yet it is also true that Deng, no less than Mao Zedong, was far more a Leninist than he was ever a Marxist, in other words he paid lip service to the works of Karl Marx but reserved his careful attention for the Leninist concept of “democratic centralism”, the code words for putting into practise Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat under the rule of the Communist Party. Lenin, in other words, was far more concerned with the acquisition and exercise of power, unlike poor old Karl who never came within sniffing distance of anything resembling power.

Why bring this up again now? The answer is that talk of Marxism has been revived with vigour by President Xi who waves ideology in the face of dissenters and uses it to provide a rationale for his increasingly hardline imposition of one party rule.

Hong Kong business leaders who are rational and shrewd in many respects seem to loose their cognitive abilities when glancing northwards and they resolutely remain in a state of denial when it comes to talk of ideology.

Yet the Leninist ideology of Xi Jinping matters a great deal. Like Lenin’s successor, Stalin, his worldview is heavily shrouded with a nationalist tinge. This means not just maintaining internal control but also ensuring that the borders and the borders of the borders are also secure.

Here lies the true purpose of the One Belt, One Road campaign, which is slavishly praised by local business leaders who know full well that opportunities in places ranging from Damascus to Bishek in Kyrgzstan and Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, are hardly alluring. Yet lip service has to be paid and like the hapless Hong Kong government, they too will have to start investing in these places.

And there is more, much more because as Xi’s purge spreads deeper and deeper into the complex nexus of Chinese business and politics, Hong Kong business people need to be very careful who they deal with across the border because who knows whether their interlocutors will suddenly find themselves out of favour.

These purges are largely carried out in the name of the anti-corruption drive, something that is much needed, but no one is quite naïve enough to believe that those who are put in the dock are there solely for this reason. As long as the drive persists it has a stultifying impact on business as decisions are delayed for fear of the consequences of making a decision that can later be questioned. Even Hongkongers trying to do business in China find it harder and harder to do deals as both sides are fearful.

Thus ideology, whatever it’s precise nature, triumphs over pragmatism and this comes at a time when mainland economic growth is slowing considerably, while private investment is slowing at an even faster pace. Pragmatism dictates the need for a loosening of the reins but pragmatism is on leave just now.