We are now in the 30th year after the demise of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), this anniversary bears a greater practical significance than its own centennial celebrations. Can the CCP really escape the fate of the CPSU? To a very large extent, the answer depends on whether the Chinese have risen above the old system inherited from the USSR. It is important to examine this issue as a new Cold War looms ahead.
That a new Cold War may be on the horizon is due to the great difference between how China and the West perceive the rise of China. To the CCP, over four decades of reform and opening up have allowed China to carve out a new path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, which brings not only benefits to the Chinese people, but also peace, opportunities and positive energy to the international community. What the West sees, however, is the revival of the Soviet spectre, the return of the “red peril”. In recent years, we are seeing a dramatic increase of negativity towards China in international polls, as well as the rapid deterioration of China’s international environment. These are symptomatic of the China-West perceptual disparity.
Is the West worrying too much for nothing? That depends on whether the CCP’s reform and opening up has fundamentally rooted out the six major persistent maladies of the old system. With regard to what lies ahead for these ills and the extent to which they have been resolved, we must not base our assessment on the existing state of affairs alone. We must also take into account the ideological factors, because they are the theoretical basis for the original systemic design, and are becoming an important force that will shape China’s future as the CCP is waging a campaign of “never forgetting the founding mission” (不忘初心).
The problem of systemic ossification
In the past, systemic ossification led to all-round lagging behind (vis-à-vis the West) of the socialist countries, earning a bad reputation for the planned economy. This problem has been resolved relatively thoroughly in China, where the socialist market economy exhibits far more vitality, competitiveness, innovativeness and sustainability than a planned economy. However, the recent ideological reversion (i.e., a return to communist orthodoxy) is putting great pressure on China’s private business owners. They sense instinctively that the Communist Party will sooner or later terminate private ownership. The move to expand and beef up the state-owned economy may also culminate in the return of the planned economy.
Having said that, in the “preliminary stage of socialism”, as long as private-owned companies are useful for raising productivity, the ruling party will continue to encourage and “guide” them. In this age of big data, real-time information and high “intelligentisation”, a planned economy may not necessarily tread the same path to ruin. Dogmatic socialism with all its Procrustean ways is unlikely to reign again.
But the question remains: Will China turn its back on non-expansionism in the future?
The problem of outward expansion
This is what the West and China’s neighbouring countries are most concerned about. Since the Mao era, the CCP has always proclaimed that China “will never be domineering, and will never be a superpower”, yet other countries do not seem to buy into that. They have their reasons such as the lessons taught by history that the strong will always become hegemonic. There is also the fact that Marxism sees the triumph of communism over capitalism as a worldwide project. It believes that the proletariat cannot liberate itself unless it liberates all of humanity. Both the USSR and the CCP of the Mao era had taken actions to support “world revolution”. That outward expansion is in the nature of “communist states” is almost a consensus outside of China.
Historically, China has no tradition of outward expansion. However, that non-expansionism was grounded in an agrarian economy and an agricultural civilisation, for which the borders of the country were defined by arable land. Given such circumstances, the Chinese rulers lacked a motive for expanding outwards. But the question remains: Will China turn its back on non-expansionism in the future? The answer depends on two things: firstly, whether it will be Chinese cultural tradition or Marxism-Leninism that prevails; secondly, whether the international balance of power will be in China’s favour, even in the case where Marxism-Leninism has gained the upper hand. The strategy adopted by the West against the CCP is to do all that is possible to stop (or delay) the balance of power from shifting in favour of China.
The problem of keeping power in check
We may think of this in terms of at least three sub-problems — those of individual despotism, the privileged class, and the loss of information veracity.
In the late 1970s, the CCP’s top officials who re-emerged from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution were gravely concerned about the despotic rule by a paramount leader. As chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, Peng Zhen did much to advance the legal system to counter it. Deng Xiaoping, too, emphasised systemised constraints. It is sobering that, although Mao Zedong was “the people’s leader”, it was during his rule that China saw the great famine of the 1960s as well as the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution where countless families and individuals were affected, and an entire generation of young people was deprived of formal education. As Deng Xiaoping put it: “A good system can stop bad people from doing as they please, whereas a bad system can make it impossible for good people to do good adequately, or even come to produce an outcome opposite to what is intended.”
Now, in the National Congresses of the CCP, there may not be anyone brave enough to even pose questions.
Individual despotism is not confined to the highest echelons. There are big and small “local despots” on every level and across various localities and organisations. In recent years, Xi Jinping has been putting much effort into institution-building, such that various rules and institutions are gradually being synergised to regulate the discharge of power. Yet it is evident that at the top, all powers — power over the military, the police, the judiciary, finance, personnel matters, discourse and so on — can very easily be concentrated in the hands of one man, with no effective checks and balances in sight.
Have we not seen the revival of personality cult time and again these days? The annual “Two Sessions” of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference used to be held with great debates and free expressions, but now they have become chillingly quiet, which is a sight rarely seen since reform and opening up began over four decades ago. When Khrushchev delivered his secret report in 1956 to denounce Stalin, someone in the audience questioned him but did not have the guts to step out and identify himself. Now, in the National Congresses of the CCP, there may not be anyone brave enough to even pose questions.
And then there is the problem of the privileged class. The cadres of the party-state turning into a privileged class had become an accepted fact of life in the USSR. The same trend exists constantly in China. We still see, for example, reports from time to time about special provisions for high officials or party-state bureaucracies today. Bureaucrats under the rule of one party share much in common — their identities, values, officialdom culture and steps of promotion. There is a natural tendency for these people to form a class of their own — one which no force from below can break up, but can only be subjected to constraints from a higher authority. Corruption in the Soviet Union was linked to special privileges, but in China it is intertwined with the market economy, taking the form of power-for-money deals. Crony capitalism, oligarchic monopolies and the use of “white gloves” (money laundering or embezzlement under the disguise of legitimate official businesses) are the new applications of power.
...there are insufficient platforms for policy discussions, the subordination of think tanks to political power, and the various noises produced by the massive propaganda machine.
Distorted information flow in government communications that results in bad policy making is a common malady for all systems of centralised power. The prevalence of false statements, empty words, big talks, formalism and reporting only good news (but not the bad) all have institutional roots. It was the loss of information veracity that led to supersized catastrophes like the Great Leap Forward. Thankfully, with the diversity of channels of information today, it is no longer that easy to filter out the bad news. Nevertheless, we must note that the Chinese authorities are constantly strengthening their control over information and thought. On top of that, there are insufficient platforms for policy discussions, the subordination of think tanks to political power, and the various noises produced by the massive propaganda machine. All these latent sources of bad decision-making.
The problem of ‘the people as masters of the country’
In democratic countries, the notion of popular sovereignty is expressed through core values and institutions of universal suffrage, human rights, liberty and the rule of law. These countries have a strong attachment to these things, on the basis of which they constantly attack the CCP. In the eyes of the democratic-minded, the theoretical basis and institutional foundations for violating human rights and liberty are both present in China. After all, Marxism maintains that class struggles will necessarily lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat, that the state is a tool for class oppression, that private ownership is the root of all evil, that reforming every person into the “new socialist man” is a prerequisite for realising communism, and so on. Viewed in the Marxist light, the violation of human rights is not evil, but the path to the ideal society.
To the CCP, the issue of “the people as the masters of the country” is one of “affinity to the people”, which seems to be a lot simpler, and yet also a lot more complicated at the same time. This is because class struggle and “the people’s democratic dictatorship” are also part of the equation. It is incompatible with the universal values of liberalism. In addition, popular election would be at odds with the Leninist notion of the “vanguard party”. The desired “affinity to the people” thus mainly hinges on the commitment of the Communist Party’s members to the objective of “serving the people”, with “the people” defined selectively and a weak institutional foundation.
It is also a fact that the CCP enjoys the support of the majority of the populace, as testified by opinion polls by both foreign and Chinese pollsters in recent years. However, the party’s “affinity to the people” depends to a very large extent on the supreme leader. If the leader merely rests on the earlier achievements (à la Leonid Brezhnev), having him in charge will greatly reduce the top-down pressure, causing the enormous bureaucratic strata to lapse into its natural state, which is to pursue its own interests and disregard (or even exploit or oppress) the people. That was the norm for the bureaucracies of China’s imperial dynasties.
It was precisely because of his dissatisfaction with a reversion to such a norm that Mao Zedong put forth his theory of continuing the revolution and waged constant campaigns to restore the regime’s affinity to the people. In this particular aspect, Xi Jinping resembles Mao, but there is no guarantee that the leaders after Xi will not turn into Brezhnevs.
The problem of the cultivation of people
Conceptualising it as “human rights” is a gross simplification of the problem by the West. The most important wealth of any country is a citizenry marked by personal integrity, principles, rationality, and a willingness to take up responsibilities. Such a citizenry constitutes a good foundation for national stability and social progress, and serves as a check on the evil in human nature.
The People’s Republic of China is used to attaching the term “the people’s” to everything, but the glamorous possessive noun belies the presence of evil in human nature. The main responsibility for the calamities that were the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution lay not with Mao Zedong, but with the misjudgement of human nature. In a similar vein, the massacres, ethnic cleansing, famines and wars of the 20th century had been carried out under the banners of justice and moral idealism. The blindness, stupidity, bloodiness and irrationality of mass behaviour has long been established in the academic research literature.
When the evil in human nature is ignored or unleashed through mass movements, we get the Maoist pandemonium, where students beating up their teachers; children report the “crimes” of their parents; important figures in various fields being driven to suicide or beaten violently to death in droves; veteran revolutionaries falling not in the battlefields but in struggle sessions; instances of snitching, jostling others out of the way, kicking people when they are down; the opportunistic leveraging of connections for personal gains; the loss of all sense of a moral bottom line and so on — none of which could have been anticipated or controlled by Mao Zedong — had marked a whole decade of catastrophe and widespread trauma. It is through mass movements that fascism is fomented, and it is not impossible for populism to give rise to a great dictator in the US, the bastion of democracy.
...submission and opportunism have taken the place of autonomous behaviour directed by moral convictions.
Western societies have multiple mechanisms in place for cultivating good citizenry. These include a system of liberal values, civil society, religious faith, and the protection of human rights, civil rights and liberty under the rule of law. In the past, the Chinese grassroots also enjoyed a certain level of autonomy under the local gentry or clan management. The systems of Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist thought were all more or less supportive of a philosophy of life of either “withdraw and attend to one’s personal cultivation in solitude, or advance to bring good to the whole world”. These social and philosophic foundations, however, had already been washed away in the Great Chinese Revolution, resulting in a situation where the individual has to face an overpowering government directly. The grounds for practising the ancestral teaching of “cultivating oneself, managing one’s family properly, contributing to the right administration of the country, bringing peace to all under heaven” are no more. Instead, submission and opportunism have taken the place of autonomous behaviour directed by moral convictions.
When blindly driven by its “founding mission”, the party may unconsciously retain or resurrect the flaws of the old system.
The problem of the police state
A huge bureaucratic establishment with unchecked power necessarily leads to a police state. This problem had been prominent in the USSR, East European communist states and Republican China under Chiang Kai-shek. Mao Zedong’s affinity to the people and innate disgust for bureaucratic organisations kept him away from building a police state. Unlike the Kuomintang, the CCP did not go around assassinating people, nor did it institute organisations of secret agents in the style of the Ming dynasty’s imperial bodyguards. Nevertheless, the current large-scale institution-building strengthens party-state bureaucracies. Add to that generous funding for “stability maintenance”, as well as the increasing sophistication of technological means, China evolving into a police state no longer seems impossible.
In all six major persistent maladies of the Stalinist system discussed above, China has seen improvements to various degrees during the decades of reform and opening up, but none has been rooted out completely. If we simply add them up without considering the merits of China’s post-reform system, we would get a picture of darkness and evil. That is how the Western countries arrive at the idea of the “China threat”. On the other hand, by noting only the strengths of the Chinese system and disregarding its shortcomings, one would come to a diametrically opposite conclusion. Erring in either way is a case of the fabled blind men feeling the elephant, which leads to misjudgement and unnecessary face-offs.
It has to be said that the return to orthodoxy in recent years may be exacerbating these maladies. An important reason is that ideologically the CCP is not innovative enough. When blindly driven by its “founding mission”, the party may unconsciously retain or resurrect the flaws of the old system.
Related: Rise of China's CCP and demise of USSR's CPSU: A tale of two communist parties | The CCP’s massive left turn and the post-Xi political landscape of China | Heritage, CCP traditions & liberalism: Three fundamentals of China's new social contract | The return of Mao-era practices: New threat to China's political and economic modernisation