Speeches by Chinese Communist Party leaders are great opportunities to play “buzzword bingo”. Hu Jintao’s July 23 policy summary was replete with such phrases as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, “Deng Xiaoping Theory” and “Scientific Outlook on Development”. But the sloganising is more than empty rhetoric. The speech, echoed elsewhere, shows the outgoing leader wants the CCP, and the country, to escape from might be called a Marxist trap.
The trap has three parts. The first is the core Marxist belief that economic considerations come first while culture and everything else lag far behind. These days, many non-Marxists also put the economy first, but Chinese leaders are especially loyal to the simple claim that GDP growth equates to progress. Hu’s focus on scientific development, for instance, is shorthand for putting higher production before all other goals. His other big buzzword – harmonious development – is not a tribute to the traditional Confucian notion of cosmic harmony, but a call not to let inharmonious social disorder slow material progress.
The second part of the Marxist trap is the Communist Party’s monopoly of power in government and its final authority over everything in society. That predominance has been taken for granted by virtually everyone in the top leadership since the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949, although the thinking comes less of Marx himself than his teacher G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel believed that the state would and should eventually take over the roles traditionally played by the various organisations of civil society: family, church, guild, cultural and special interest groups. Lenin added the claim that the Communist Party is the vanguard of this all-encompassing state, so there is neither need nor space for other voices.
The final piece of the trap was set by Deng Xiaoping, the second leader of communist China. His endorsement of rapid and chaotic capitalist development, later know as socialism with Chinese characteristics, may not sound Marxist – Deng’s doctrinaire opponents in the CCP were certainly horrified. But Marx himself believed that only bourgeois capitalists had the fervour and motivation required to industrialise a predominantly agricultural economy. In Marx’s day, the bourgeois and the communists were enemies, but the CCP has tried to co-opt the private sector by admitting leading industrialists into the Party.
By some standards, the Deng version of Marxism has worked very well, far better than the Leninist approach, adopted in the Soviet Union and its satellites, which gave the state control of all the means of production. China’s GDP has increased remarkably rapidly for almost four decades. There has been little social discord and the Party remains in firm control.