Historically, China has always developed fastest in times of great inclusiveness. The intervals of intense struggle, on the other hand, have always brought about a slowdown in economic growth or even retrogression. Building the economy requires galvanising the whole of society. Thus, in order to rope in the bourgeoisie to participate in building the New China, when Liu Shaoqi went to Tianjin in April 1949 to speak to the capitalists at Mao Zedong’s behest, he proclaimed to them: “The more you exploit others, the greater your contribution.”
To ignite the enthusiasm of the intellectuals, Mao Zedong set forth the twofold policy of “letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” in 1956. It was an attempt to hold out an olive branch to people outside of the Communist Party. But what happened in the end? Liu Shaoqi was branded as a capitalist roader during the Cultural Revolution, and persecuted to death. In the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, numerous members of the intellectual elite (including Zhu Rongji, who became the Chinese premier decades later) were condemned as rightists, stripped of their human rights and sent to the “cowsheds” for reform through labour. China was then severely weakened in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, so much so that it had to open its doors and initiate economic reform.
The resounding failure on both occasions to be inclusive came about because of incompatibility with the official ideology. The reform and opening years had been a period of inclusiveness that saw incredible achievements. But with the reversion to orthodoxy in recent years, will China make the same mistakes as before? The answer depends on whether or not the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is able to function in a dual-track mode successfully — that is to say, limit the Marxist ideology to within the party and apply an inclusive social contract to society at large.
Across society at large, it is something else that needs to be established: a social contract grounded on a broader, more accommodating basis.
The need for a social contract
After four decades of high-speed development, a diverse society and a complicated nexus of interests have already taken shape in China, all closely connected to the world outside. To demand that the entire Chinese populace be unified with Marxism in thought and action is really to delude both oneself and others. As we take into consideration the organisational realities and the workings of power, there is nothing reproachable about seeking to maintain ideological orthodoxy within the party. Nevertheless, to do even that, great efforts towards theoretical innovation are needed, so as to keep abreast of the times. Across society at large, it is something else that needs to be established: a social contract grounded on a broader, more accommodating basis.
When there is a social contract guaranteed by law, various social strata, groups and individuals would have reliable expectations for the long run and be able to make long-term plans. They would thus be able to engage in mutually beneficial interactions that facilitate national development. In this way, two undesirable tendencies could be avoided in connection with ideas like “class struggle”, “dictatorship of the proletariat” and so on in the official ideology, namely, scaring off entrepreneurs on the domestic front, and sparking off a new Cold War in the international arena. All that is left then is the coordination of interests based on a common understanding and with the government at the reins. To the ruling party, this is an immensely profitable strategy for running the country, and is in fact the path towards “governing a great state as one would cook a small fish” (as suggested by the ancient Taoist sage Lao-Tzu).
It has to be a new undertaking that probes the way forward for humanity’s progress, and not a return to the kind of socialism that had failed in the 20th century.
Furthermore, such a social contract is not opposed to socialism. In fact, as China stands far below the developed capitalist countries in terms of GDP per capita, socialism is the way to go for its people’s standard of living to catch up and even rise beyond. But it has to be socialism in the much broader sense, combining the vitality of the market economy with China’s systemic edge to create a co-affluent community of shared destiny. It has to be a new undertaking that probes the way forward for humanity’s progress, and not a return to the kind of socialism that had failed in the 20th century. Socialism in the broad sense is on the rise as it has strong allies and a wide base of sympathisers in the world today.
To the CCP, forging a new social contract like that means that a few difficulties have to be overcome.
The CCP’s orthodox ideology is currently under a twofold tension. It is being pulled between the left and the right, and between Marxism and Chinese cultural tradition. For the tug of war between the former pair, the tension would be naturally resolved if both sides could de-dogmatise themselves. As for the latter pair, there is a need to transition from Marxist orthodoxy to Chinese cultural tradition.
In order to forge an inclusive social contract, the CCP has no other option. It can only transition from a combative philosophy to the Chinese tradition that embraces harmony.
Whatever it may be specifically, no ideology that espouses class struggle can possibly be a theoretical basis for building a harmonious society. In its early years of vying to gain power, the CCP was able to advance victoriously with the class struggle it drove. However, for a ruling party that is maintaining the dominion it has already secured, a combative philosophy is only wholly detrimental, as adequately proven by the history of pre-economic reform China. Moreover, the objective conditions are completely different now. When the CCP was still vying for power, death by starvation was common throughout the country, whereas China today is practically overrun by widespread obesity. The focus for the present era is maintaining a harmonious society and executing proper division of labour and not reigniting class struggle.
In order to forge an inclusive social contract, the CCP has no other option. It can only transition from a combative philosophy to the Chinese tradition that embraces harmony. The core of Chinese culture is about harmony. It speaks of social harmony that is conducive for producing wealth, as well as the harmonious union of Heaven and Man. It not only abhors conflict, but is also suspected of harmonising different social classes to serve the ruling class. But what is the ruling class right now if not the CCP itself? To engage in a “great struggle” again is for the party to shoot itself in the foot.
Needless to say, given the complexities of the existing nexus of interests, it is impossible for the entire society to come to completely unanimous agreement. We must find the greatest common denominator instead. The universal values of liberalism, for example, have never needed deliberate publicity at all, and yet everyone who is at least slightly cultured accepts them quite naturally. Although the liberalist values are rife with conflicts in its praxis, they can at least form a basis for seeking a common understanding nevertheless. While the CCP may have no choice but to stipulate part of the social contract’s contents by force for the good of the majority, the underlying foundation of values has to be broad enough.
Clarifying the role of capital
Where the market exists, there is capital. And where there is capital, there are capitalists. Whether capital is private-owned or government-owned, the logic of the workings of the market is the same. Entrepreneurs are part of the working populace. They are the backbone of forces of production, an important component of the national community of shared destiny. This point should be made abundantly clear.
Unfortunately, with the clamour of Red orthodoxy in recent years, the big bosses are agitated as if they are fish slipping through the net. Not only have they lost their enthusiasm for investment, they are also emigrating in droves and transferring their assets out of China. They have no secure contractual standing in socialism, nor any clear idea what the ruling party wants them to do or wants to do to them. While Jack Ma was dramatically struck down at the end of last year for the sake of sending a loud message, no one could clarify exactly what the message was. When there is no contractual clarity about what is expected, anyone in power is at liberty to construe anything in any way they like, which is why the big bosses get so jittery.
China is to tread a path of development that is centred around the people and not around capital. The rich must recognise this before they can ever find their place here.
The rich people of China — the capitalists and other individuals with high net worth and high income — have to recognise, first of all, that China is a socialist country. It will do all it can to steer clear of the inferno of class struggle à la America’s 99%-versus-1% confrontation. It must also avoid the cul-de-sac taken by Japan, by which the Land of the Rising Sun went from an overworked society to one of low desire. China is to tread a path of development that is centred around the people and not around capital. The rich must recognise this before they can ever find their place here. Under the Chinese political system and historico-cultural tradition, their roles and functions differ significantly from those of their counterparts in capitalist countries. This is true in both the positive and the negative sense.
Let us look into the negative sense first. Restrictions have to be placed on much of the axiological orientation and pattern of behaviour prevalent in capitalism. More constraints on comparisons of personal net worth, rankings of the rich, luxurious residences and villas, fees for special appearances and cameos, for example. The lifestyle of the rich must not be a bad social influence, as it would be if these people were to show off their extreme extravagance or seek to be comparable to Donald Trump with such trappings as a golden toilet bowl or bathtub. In addition, the core values of socialism have no room for the cruel exploitation of employees, as typified by how some bosses force a 996 life (working 9 to 9 every day, 6 days a week) on their workers, earn big bucks and then glorify it as “self-fulfilment” for their staff. The difference in income between high-level executives and general employees should be kept at a reasonable level, and not follow the example of Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Money worship, casino capitalism, the rules of the game that say winners take all and so on — all these are at odds with socialism.
And then, there is the positive sense too. While capital pursues profit maximisation, the state orientates its policies according to the social value of capital, so as to maximise the contribution of capital to social development. There is no ready equivalence between the maximisation of profit and of social benefits as touted by neoliberalism. The social value of capital comes through in innovation, creation, entrepreneurship, employment, tax payment, research and development expenditure, as well as patent application. As for the capitalists, their social value lies in contributions to the public good, charity, political participation and discussion, as well as the shouldering of corporate social responsibility.
The combined rewards of social status, political influence and various honours are fully able to attract most entrepreneurs to commit themselves to building up the socialist nation, even if it means making a little less money.
The ancient Chinese spoke of “taking on the world as one’s responsibility”, “valuing moral duty above material profit“. Patriotic entrepreneurs of the early modern era believed in “saving the country with business and industrial enterprises”. Although these traditional values have faded significantly over the past decades, private entrepreneurs are still very active players when it comes to political participation and discussion, not to mention making other contributions to society. The combined rewards of social status, political influence and various honours are fully able to attract most entrepreneurs to commit themselves to building up the socialist nation, even if it means making a little less money.
A healthy, thriving civil society
Karl Marx had asserted that the communist society would be a “union of free men” that holds the reins over forces of production. To him, it follows that classes and the state would cease to be. The “union of free men” is essentially civil society. We may say that to be socialist is to build civil society, to stand against civil society is to stand against Marxism.
But of course, a union of “free men” who are barbaric, greedy and have no bottom line would just be a network of organized crime, not civil society. Both the Soviet Union and Maoist China had attempted to develop a whole generation of selfless “new socialist humans”. In the USSR, they had subbotniks or volunteer work and “communist labour competitions”, while Maoist China promoted “learning from Lei Feng” and “the fierce condemnation of every fleeting selfish thought”. These efforts ultimately backfired. After the communist regime of the USSR collapsed, former officials of the party-state emerged as ultra-rich oligarchs, more vicious and avaricious than the capitalists. In the CCP in the years after the economic reforms began, corruption spread like a pestilence as the marriage of money and power gave birth to oligarchs big and small. Common to both cases was the tendency to transition to organised crime.
The bottom line of “serving the people” is really to allow the people to grow and mature, taking on commitments and a sense of responsibility on their own, instead of being served passively.
A major reason for such degeneration was that “the good people and the good things they did” were being manipulated by power and were not rooted in a healthy civil society. As a rule, excellent citizens arise naturally in the midst of social praxis. In contrast, the CCP’s system for selecting and grooming cadres is defective in four ways: (1) It is unfair to those not selected; (2) it often misses real talents; (3) it creates opportunities for corruption and forming factions; (4) it inhibits the development of civil society.
The side effects of “serving the people” one-sidedly are obvious, as seen reported in the Chinese media. During flood relief operations, residents of some affected localities have acted like big shots, leaving all the work to the cadres, party members and the People’s Liberation Army. These grassroots stakeholders would just play mahjong, drink, watch the ongoing action idly, or — when they do have interest in participating in the disaster relief and response — demand a high payment for joining in the work. With the existing system, neither tyrannising the people they govern nor labouring for them slavishly is part of a normal, rational contractual relationship between government officials and the people.
The bottom line of “serving the people” is really to allow the people to grow and mature, taking on commitments and a sense of responsibility on their own, instead of being served passively. Only with such development can the common folk stand with the government through thick and thin, rather than constantly nitpick and complain. “The people’s pursuit of a good life” is one that knows no bounds, a bottomless pit that can never be filled completely. Let us not forget that the French Revolution occurred not in a difficult time, but during a period of relative prosperity. What’s needed in the relationship between the government and the people is a contractual spirit, not the giant infant syndrome.
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