One of the necessary conditions for the peaceful rise of a nation is that the emergent power must generally be accommodated, accepted and approved of by the major countries. Only with such approval may a fight to the death be avoided. Only once in modern history did world hegemony ever get handed over peacefully, and that was when it passed from Britain to the US. (It was no coincidence that these two countries were closely related historically and culturally.)
For China to have a peaceful rise, it must not emphasise “Chinese characteristics” excessively. Instead, it should elaborate on its points of commonality with the mainstream countries. If China underscores “Chinese characteristics” as it strongly pushes for the building of a “community of shared destiny for mankind“, it will be suspected of seeking to shape the world in its own image. That is how several of America’s China policy reports arrived at the notion of the “China threat”, along with the conclusion that China has to be contained.
The party’s confidence in carrying on with “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has become more steadfast. There are, however, two myths here to be dispelled.
The fall of capitalism?
In recent years, we have seen capitalism beset by one crisis after another. The many faults of electoral democracy have been exposed, and we are seeing the rise of non-institutional protests and political movements that are going way beyond the norm. For example, in the US — which comes across as a land full of discontent and anger, young people see no future for themselves — the middle class is shrinking, and the blue-collar working class is mired in large-scale unemployment. Across its bankrupt, decrepit cities and communities, we see a great gulf between the haves and the have-nots, racial conflicts and the absence of justice.
These constitute the economic and social basis for the rise of Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism on the left and Donald Trump’s populism on the right. Occupy Wall Street, the Yellow Vests movement, the Arab Spring, the recent anti-racism violent protests and right-wing counter-protests in the US, the violent demonstrations that have been going on in Hong Kong for over a year — fundamentally these are all about general livelihood issues unfolding under capitalism. Conversely, the most attractive part of socialism lies precisely in the attention it pays to livelihood issues.
What we are witnessing seems to be capitalism hobbling at the end of its road, along with the resurgent tide of socialism. These circumstances greatly encourage the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which believes that history is on its side, and that the chance for it to be a world trendsetter has finally come again. The party’s confidence in carrying on with “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has become more steadfast. There are, however, two myths here to be dispelled.
China’s rise due more to globalisation than ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’
The first myth has to do with the role of the socialist system in China's success. To a very great extent, it is to globalisation that we must attribute the vigorous rise of China and the difficulties faced by so many Western countries. Globalisation entails the redistribution of wealth across different social strata and regions. China is a winner in such a process, whereas the countries and wage-earning class of the West tend to be the losers. As far as the social welfare system is concerned, China’s rapid economic development over the last two decades or so has enabled the country to build up its social security network and constantly raise the level of its social welfare. In contrast, the Western countries are commonly troubled by budget cuts and underfunded social security systems. China is adding to the financial goodies, whereas the Western countries are subtracting from the existing flow of money, so it is only natural that the masses feel differently on both sides.
The CCP is not very clear about exactly what advantages the socialist market economy has over its capitalist counterpart, so it can only vaguely chalk success up to “the leadership of the party”.
However, addition and subtraction are just a matter of each side having started out from different levels of welfare. As China continues to do better and better, the Asian colossus must be ready for the day when it too has to cut back on the given benefits. By that time, China may have to face problems similar to those that plague the West now.
The CCP is not very clear about exactly what advantages the socialist market economy has over its capitalist counterpart, so it can only vaguely chalk success up to “the leadership of the party”. But just how does the party leadership protect the working class and working people, eliminate exploitation, and make the sharing of wealth (or common prosperity) happen? This is still a major issue that has yet to be settled. The lacuna leaves room for the suspicion that it might have been globalisation, rather than the socialist system, that made the rise of China possible, or that at least the contributions of the two to China’s success need to be differentiated.
The second myth has to do with the Stalinist model. That socialism will eventually triumph over capitalism may not be wrong from the long view of history. From that same view, the fact that the Soviet Union engaged in socialism is not erroneous either. The leaders of the USSR themselves thought that history was on their side. Yet the socialism of the Soviet Union, East Europe and Mongolia was burnt to ashes overnight. This demise had nothing to do with how much or how little faith the ruling Communist Parties’ members and cadres had. The root cause of the downfall lay in some fatal defects in the system instead.
CCP has failed to showcase socialism's new image
Let’s be clear: China’s achievements came about on the back of reform to the old model of a planned economy. The country’s post-reform hybrid system is hugely superior in multiple ways. It created the greatest miracle in the world’s economic history. Blessed with political stability, it is highly efficient in decision-making and administration, giving rise to a very orderly, well-governed society. It is capable of long-term planning and large-scale infrastructure-building. Remarkably adaptable and well able to regulate itself, the system also shows spectacular results in poverty alleviation and disaster relief.
...not only is the CCP not the bellwether in the rising socialist movement, it is actually sliding into the rut of a new Cold War, passively taking blows from its opponents.
Now that the world has clearly entered a period of unrest, China will probably stand out for a long time to come as a shining example to the countries that have to manage their difficulties. However, the CCP has made a mistake, which is the failure to showcase its post-reform socialism to the world with a brand new image. As a result, it has not effectively connected with the progressive forces of contemporary capitalist societies nor the socialist demands, thought and sentiments spontaneously generated anywhere. China is simply not blending into the general socialist movement of the world.
In fact, participants of the Western socialist movement do not approve of China at all. What “socialism with Chinese characteristics” evokes in their imagination still harks back to the ossified Stalinist socialism and the socialism of the Mao Zedong era marked by poverty and turmoil. Like the Western mainstream society, these people perceive the Chinese system as one that offers no protection of basic human rights, leads to widespread oppression and exploitation, and is even responsible for myriads of abnormal deaths. The Chinese socialist model is, in their minds, relegated to the trash heap of history. And like the mainstream society, they too see the rise of China as a threat to the good cause of freedom, democracy, fairness and justice, and even support the waging of a Cold War against China. Among the US Democrats, radical leftist standard-bearers like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi all take a hard line on China. Thus, not only is the CCP not the bellwether in the rising socialist movement, it is actually sliding into the rut of a new Cold War, passively taking blows from its opponents.
The world needs a new theory and ideology
Now this is all very unfair to the CCP. The China of today is a world apart from the Stalinist planned economy and the China of the Mao Zedong era. Not only has the material life of the Chinese undergone a tremendous upgrade, the people also enjoy the protection of person and property, as well as the freedoms of entrepreneurship, choice of employment, movement and travel (as attested by the large numbers — up to 150 million — who travel abroad every year) like never before.
The world is in urgent need of a suitable new theory and ideology to make sense of and analyse the present age of upheavals. The present time represents a window of opportunity for the development of socialism.
As far as expression, thought, religious faith, rule of law and human rights are concerned, there is an enormous improvement, to which neither the USSR nor pre-reform China can hold a candle by far. The ordinary people of China have enough room and freedom to live the lives they want, and they do indeed live them richly and colourfully. To them, the system is good enough, or at least much better than in the past. Opinion polls by both domestic and foreign polling organisations unanimously show a high rate of support for the government among the general populace, in sharp contrast to the smears and stigma heaped upon China by Western politicians.
Such an enormous disparity in understanding is ultimately due to the CCP’s failure to properly redefine its new self, the definition of which has thus fallen to “hostile forces” and foreigners who know very little about China. These people may not all be acting in malice, for there are cognitive issues involved too. While the situation of the world has changed a lot over time, ideological development in the world is basically still stuck in the early post-Cold War period — that is, the time of the hegemony of liberalism. The world is in urgent need of a suitable new theory and ideology to make sense of and analyse the present age of upheavals. The present time represents a window of opportunity for the development of socialism.
However, what the world wants is not a return to Stalinist socialism. None of the East European countries and post-Soviet states wish to go back to the Stalinist model, not even Russia itself. While Mao Zedong thought is still a spiritual inspiration for leftist radicals in China and their counterparts scattered all over the world, it is not in any way attractive to Western mainstream society. As an economic and social model or ideal, it is totally at odds with the market economy (including the socialist version), so its restoration to supremacy in China is very unlikely.
It is understandable that the CCP desires to inherit the spirit and “original intent” of the Maoist revolution, but if this is done without profound rethinking and review, it would be all too easy to also take on the whole set of limitations and defects of the old system, along with the international stigma associated with them.
If the CCP is to seize the window of opportunity, the urgent task at hand for it is to reshape the image of socialism. Make no mistake, China is in the business of socialism, just as much as the West practises capitalism. Even so, there are many points of commonality on both sides that can be stressed. For example, we may look at the great similarity in terms of the market-directed economy, corporate management, macroeconomic policies, social security, governance and the legal system.
Instead of highlighting “Chinese characteristics”, it is better to simply call the Chinese way “market socialism”, given that the attraction of socialism is on the rise, and the market economy is something familiar to, accepted by and approved of by the whole world. The greater challenge for the CCP is actually the complete renouncement of the limitations and defects of its old system.
Regrettably, the CCP is reverting to the old traditions. This is the peculiar phenomenon we see these days: now that "socialism with Chinese characteristics" has accomplished so much, people are looking upon the past more kindly. The old model and traditions that had been abandoned become the ‘in’ thing once again, as if people with their wounds healed have forgotten what hurt them badly in the past.
The Chinese model was derived from the Soviet model, and "socialism with Chinese characteristics" grew out of the Mao Zedong era. It is understandable that the CCP desires to inherit the spirit and “original intent” of the Maoist revolution, but if this is done without profound rethinking and review, it would be all too easy to also take on the whole set of limitations and defects of the old system, along with the international stigma associated with them. The dark side I speak of include features like personality cult, a privileged class, power-intoxicated arrogance and wilfulness, systemic ossification, brainwashing, the suppression of individuality and freedom, the arbitrary stripping of human rights and so on. None of these will ever gain approval and acceptance anywhere in the whole world, not just the West.
In short, a twofold approach is required. There is, on one hand, the need to give socialism a brand new look, whereby points of similarity, comparability and commonality with the mainstream countries are to be emphasised, so as to widen the common denominators and scope for mutual approval. On the other hand, there is also the need for China to completely rid itself of the defects of the old system, so as to fully elevate itself, terminate the causes of demonisation and stigmatisation, reduce resistance to its rise, and escape the trap of a new Cold War.
Only when these two aspects are addressed is there any hope for China to actually accomplish a peaceful rise. Presently, we may say that the rise of China comes at an opportune time with a convergence of the right moment as the fourth industrial revolution unfolds, along with the economic, social and global configurational upheavals driven by it; geographical advantage, given the shifting of the world’s economic centre to East Asia; and internal social harmony based on a generally contented domestic population with a high rate of support for the government. What still needs more work is the fostering of harmony with the rest of the world. If this part is not done well, China may slip and make subversive errors.
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