Marxism matters in China … even in schools

One of the realities of student life in China is ‘ideological education’. It is compulsory in middle school and in university. Obviously, such an approach has its benefits and problems. On the up side, I find that everyone knows the essential categories of Marxist analysis, socialism with Chinese characteristics, and so on. On the down side, many find it onerous, especially since it is a major feature of the gaokao, the university entry examinations. Or, as an article today in the Global Times, put it,

For college teachers, the ideological and political course about Marxism, Mao Zedong Thought and moral education is a hard nut to crack. Almost synonymous with dullness, for years, the class has been an ideal place for students to nap or play as long as one could bone up before the exam. The teachers were equally disinterested, and mostly repeated what was written in the books.

Many are those who have made similar observations to me when we have discussed it. But I also know quite a number of people who teach such courses and discussed with them the various strategies to interest the students.

But now Xi Jinping has come to their assistance. A little over six months ago he stressed the need to overhaul the whole way of teaching. For Xi, ‘moral education the central task in cultivating talents and making the ideological and political work run throughout the whole education process’. In fact, 2017 is the year focused on improving the quality and techniques for teaching this courses.

Plenty of examples in a long article in the Global Times, from the use of virtual reality to courses on friendship (youyi) at Fudan University by one of the ‘four zheng goddesses’, but I like this one from a colleague of mine at Renmin University:

“Do you believe in Communism? You may have different answers to the question. But if I ask, do you want to make a fortune, your answers may be unprecedentedly similar,” Wang Xiangming, a professor at the School of Marxism Studies of the Renmin University of China, said in his class.

“As a matter of fact, pursuing material wealth is what Communism is about. But real Communists don’t pursue fortune for themselves, but work for the welfare of the human beings. As long as we try our best in our positions to serve the people, we are adhering to Communism. Communism is not intangible. It is around us,” Wang told his students.



The Soviet Domestic State: Retreat or Consolidation?

One of the under-appreciated achievements of the Soviet Union, especially in the 1930s, was what may be called the domestic state. By this term, I mean that the state sees itself as very much involved in what were traditionally regarded as domestic roles centred around the care and nurturing of children. This of course entails active efforts to reconstruct a whole gamut of human relationships, relating to marriage, divorce, guardianship, preparation for childbirth, medicine and education. I will discuss these developments in a moment, but first I need to address a feature of works that do analyse these developments: the suggestion that the (legal) achievements of the 1920s were systematically undone in the 1930s in what constitutes a ‘great retreat’.  According to this narrative, the Soviet government instituted a range of stunningly progressive measures in the 1920s relating to marriage, divorce, abortion and childcare, only to repeal them by the end of the 1930s. I beg to differ. The actual situation requires two distinctions. The first is between legal and economic developments. Legal prescriptions may be one thing, but they have little effect without the economic means to carry them out. In the 1920s, the state simply did not have the resources to carry out the measures needed for domestic state. By the 1930s, with the massive industrialisation and collectivisation campaigns of the ‘socialist offensive’, the state finally had the economic resources to do so. This development leads to the second distinction, between reshaping domestic roles within families and taking on those domestic roles. The prescriptions of the 1920s attempted the former, with limited success and unexpected consequences, while the measures of the 1930s sought to address such shortcomings by becoming in effect a domestic state. Not only did this approach arise from the awareness that human families are not so good at raising children, but also from the basic assumption concerning the role of the state in taking over domestic matters.


The idea of a ‘great retreat’ in the 1930s, a giving up or even betrayal of the radical socialist policies of the 1920s, was first propagated 70 years ago by Timasheff (1946 [1972]). Others have followed suit (Reichman 1988, 74, Fitzpatrick 1994, 148-72), not least with regard to marriage and the closely connected role of women (Goldman 1993). Indeed, the various government laws from 1917 to 1944 may give such an impression. The first was actually comprised of two brief decrees in December 1917 and ratified by the Supreme Soviet in 1918 as the Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship. It swept away centuries of practice, tore control away from the Churches, and made marriage a purely civil procedure. Divorce could be requested by both partners or by either spouse, which entailed a simple court hearing. No guilt had to be established, no grounds, no witnesses and no evidence. The notion of illegitimacy for children was abolished and the maintenance of children was decided by the courts. At the same time, the code preserved elements from earlier tsarist times, such as age of consent, alimony, child support and other features of the family unit.

The code of 1918 was always seen as a temporary measure, for the underlying drive was nothing less than the ‘withering away’ of the family (as with the state) as a repressive institution. A significant feature not addressed by this law was the status of de facto spouses, which was a common practice among revolutionaries. This the 1926 code – of the same name – sought to address.[1] If the 1918 code was already ahead of its time, the 1926 version was even more so. De facto couples were given legal status, with a beginning (coming to live together), sexual content (cohabitation), economic content (joint household), and economic outcomes of divorce (division of property and support). Indeed, a de facto relationship also entailed the issue of divorce, which was further simplified. Thus, if one partner did not appear at the Office of Civil Registry (ZAGS), he or she would be sent an official notice – which became known as the ‘postcard divorce’. The results of this radical law were somewhat unexpected and even unwelcome. Divorces skyrocketed, reaching at times a ratio of 4 divorces for every 5 marriages. Many were the women who were finally able to escape oppressive marriages, but many more were the men who transferred serial sexual relationships into legal form, even when child support and alimony were a crucial part of the law. Indeed, it was men who made the most of the new laws and stretched them as far as possible. The joke was that one could go to work married in the morning and return home divorced in the evening (Stites 1978, 370).

The narrative of retreat usually lists the 1926 code as the highest achievement of socialist marriage law, with a downhill path from here. Following a sustained campaign against the irresponsibility of divorced men, especially those who avoided paying alimony, a new law was passed in 1936. It made divorce somewhat more difficult (higher costs and an end to ‘postcard’ divorces), increased the punishment to prison for non-payment of alimony, prohibited abortion, and – this will become important – increased the number of childcare facilities. Those who see this law as a step backwards typically focus on the question of abortion, with its prison sentences for doctors who performed abortions and even more for non-medical abortions. By contrast, women who undertook abortion received censure for the first and a 300 rouble fine for the second. The law also provided considerable support for women: increase in insurance for birth, increase of child support from 5 to 10 roubles a month, four months of paid pregnancy leave, and harsh penalties for employers who refused to hire a pregnant woman or lowered her pay. And the law significantly increased the number of maternity clinics, day-care centres, crèches and milk kitchens. The narrative of retreat concludes with the Family Code of 1944, which withdrew the recognition of de facto marriage, banned paternity suits, reintroduced the notion of illegitimacy, and returned divorce proceedings to the courts (rather than the Office of Civil Registry).


The problem with this narrative is that the 1930s constituted not a ‘retreat’ from the breakneck remaking of Soviet economy, society and culture but a consolidation of the achievements made and an opportunity to address the significant new problems that had arisen. As Martin writes, ‘in the political and economic spheres, the period after 1933 marked a consolidation, rather than a repudiation, of the most important goals of Stalin’s socialist offensive’ (Martin 2001, 415, see also Priestland 2007, 245-49).[2]

So what was happening? The 1930s actually witnessed the most profound transformation in Russian history, perhaps even more momentous than the October Revolution. This was the ‘socialist offensive’, embodied in the dual industrialisation and collectivisation drive of the two five-year plans from 1928 to 1937. The much studied details of this drive are not my direct concern here,[3] except to note that they were generated out of the backwardness of Russian economics, the internal contradictions of the rapidly changing economic situation and the effort to construct socialism from scratch. The outcome was astonishing, with the Soviet Union emerging in a breathtakingly short period of time as an economic superpower, albeit with significant social disruption and not a little violence.

This situation was both enabled by and produced a profound bifurcation in economic and social life.[4] Many, if not the majority, were those who enthusiastically embraced the production of a new life, even among the rural population (Siegelbaum 1988, 17, Scott 1989 [1942], Kuromiya 1990, Thurston 1996, 137-98, Buckley 1999, 300-2, Tauger 2005, 66, Buckley 2006, 321-36),[5] but many were those who dragged their feet, with some actively resisting (Danilov, Manning, and Viola 1999-2004, Viola et al. 2005). So we find that employment exploded and unemployment disappeared (and with it unemployment insurance), a full range of social insurance and retirement pensions became universal, free health-care and education also became universal, cultural institutions from libraries to cinemas became relatively widespread, women flooded into the workforce, and the material standards of workers and farmers generally increased (Kotkin 1997, 20-21, Allen 2003).[6] The result was a decrease in infant mortality and an increase in the birth-rate. Life expectancy increased by 20 years and the new generation was the first one with universal literacy. At the same time, the ground-shaking disruptions had their negative effects: rapid industrialisation produced myriad new contradictions and the massive shift in agricultural production led to unanticipated problems and new agricultural shortages in the early 1930s. Those who opposed the process found themselves subject to purges, deportation and enforced labour. In short, huge were the gains (enabling the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler), huge were the mistakes, and huge were the disruptions.

In terms of marriage and the status of women, the most significant change was economic. Women entered the workforce in huge numbers, reaching 42 percent of the total number of industrial and rural workers. This reality had profound ramifications for relationships and marriage, not least because the state promoted women as champions of labour. Here we find the Stakhanovites Maria Demchenko, Natal’ia Tereshkova and Pasha Angelina (Buckley 1999, 301, 2006, 253-86). A woman became a worker first and a partner, wife and mother second.

Towards a Domestic State

This economic shift had significant repercussions for domestic life. Two factors are important here. The first concerns the distinction between legal prescription and economic reality. Legal provisions are useless unless the state is actually able to enact them through proactive structural change. Thus, the legal provisions of 1918 and 1926 may have seemed wonderful on paper, but they struggled to be realised on the ground. It may be all very well to recognize de facto relationships and attempt to enforce alimony and child support, but if male workers were simply not earning enough, then such measures were useless or even detrimental. The authorities also found that men tended to manipulate them for their own benefit, abandoning women and children and slipping out of responsibilities.

The economic situation leads to the second factor: the shift from laws focusing on traditional family units – seeking to reshape domestic relations and the nurturing of children within that framework – to the active role of the state in taking over many of those roles. The previous laws had attempted the former, with limited success. The later laws (especially 1936) tackled the latter, with greater success. This possibility was of course enabled by the improved economic condition of the state. While the Soviet Union in the 1920s was still trying to recover from years of civil and international war, as well as persistent international blockades and sabotage, by the 1930s and as a result of the socialist offensive the economic situation had improved considerably.

Let me return to the law of 1936, which stipulated maternity leave, increases in insurance for birth and child support, as well as mandating an increased number of maternity clinics, day-care centres, crèches and milk kitchens. In the 1920s, it was simply impossible to instigate such laws, since they could not be supported at an adequate financial level. By 1936, all of this became feasible. Instead of seeing the measures as ‘pro-natalist’ and designed to conscript more women in the workforce (Goldman 1993, 332), they were actually the state enacting a desire long held but unable to enact: the role of the state in nurturing children rather than the traditional family (as Alexandra Kollontai had imagined when she was director of Zhenotdel[7]). Significantly, the feedback from women to the 1936 law was that they viewed the limitations on abortion as a step back (although favouring the focus on contraception), but they viewed favourably the more stringent requirements on divorce and alimony, and they welcomed above all the significant expansion of nurturing and childcare facilities.

As Chatterjee points out (2002, 129), the idea of welfare and the welfare state – or what I prefer to call the domestic state – was integral to the socialist vision. It was certainly not seen as a temporary measure for difficult times (as with the Great Depression in the United States), but as a fundamental right of Soviet citizens, in this case especially Soviet women. Indeed, so attractive was this approach that Western European states found they had to institute versions of it after the Second World War to prevent workers from longing for a Soviet model, although it was distorted into a version distinguishing between the deserving and underserving, with significant xenophobic implications now seen with the narrative that immigrants and refugees seek to ‘sponge off’ such welfare states.[8]

As for the origins of this approach in the Soviet Union, again and again measures for day-care and crèches were enacted, each time with increases. I have already mentioned the 1936 law, which was met with wide approval. An earlier law of 1931, by the All-Union Soviet of Housing Cooperatives, stipulated that 20 percent of kitchen space in communal housing be devoted to communal dining, while housing cooperatives were to provide sixteen-hour crèches. Further, the Central Committee ordered that 100 percent of children in large industries should be in crèches and kindergartens by 1932. The first Five-Year plan strengthened these measures further. Finance was by now no problem and, despite delays and innumerable problems, by 1934 the number of crèches increased 20-fold in six years to 5,143,400, while the number of kindergartens for children increased 12-fold to 25,700 (Chatterjee 2002, 130). By the early 1940s, the number was considerably higher again.


All of this has a profound bearing on the development of a Marxist approach to human rights, in which the right to economic wellbeing for all is the basic right. But I would like to close with four quotations, focusing on the dramatic changes in the place of women in socialist society. The reason of course is that the measures of the domestic state primarily affected women, who were now seen as workers first, and mothers second.

The first quotation comes from a woman with a new collective farm, who says to her husband: ‘You always said you supported me. Now you see I am earning as much as you. So I have as much to say as you have don’t I? You had better not say anything more to me’ (Chatterjee 2002, 131).

The second also relates to the collective farms, now from 1935 by none other than Stalin (the architect of much of this) in an address to female collective farm shock workers:

We had no such women before. Here am I, already 56 years of age, I have seen many things in my time, I have seen many labouring men and women. But never have I met such women. They are an absolutely new type of people [sovershenno novye liudi] … Only the collective farm life could have destroyed inequality and put woman on her feet … The collective farm introduced the work-day (trudoden’). And what is the work-day? Before the work-day all are equal – men and women … Here, neither father nor husband can reproach a woman with the fact that he is feeding her. Now, if a woman works and has work-days to her credit, she is her own master … And that is just what is meant by the emancipation of peasant women; that is just what is meant by the collective farm system which makes the working woman the equal of every working man (Stalin 1935 [1978], 85-87).

Some men may continue to laugh at the new woman, but the economic changes were crucial. The new Soviet woman was released from the restrictions of pre-revolutionary social and economic life and was now involved in everyday working life, in the factories, collective farms and management of Soviet work. All of this was captured in article 122 of the 1936 Constitution:

Women in the U.S.S.R. are accorded equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life. The possibility of exercising these rights is ensured to women by granting them an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state protection of the interests of mother and child, pre-maternity and maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.

The final quotation comes from Alexandra Kollontai’s earlier vision from 1926:

What – the new woman? Does she really exist? Is she not the product of the creative fantasy of modern writers of fiction, in search of sensational novelties? Look around you, look sharply, reflect, and you will convince yourself: the new woman is certainly there – she exists (Kollontai 1971, 51, see also Kollontai 1980, 29-74, 201-92).

International Women's Day 02


Allen, Robert. 2003. Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Boobbyer, Philip. 2000. The Stalin Era. London: Routledge.

Buckley, Mary. 1999. “Was Rural Stakhanovism a Movement?” Europe-Asia Studies no. 51 (2):299-314.

Buckley, Mary. 2006. Mobilizing Soviet Peasants: Heroines and Heroes of Stalin’s Fields. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Chatterjee, Choi. 2002. Celebrating Women: Gender, Festival Culture, and Bolshevik Ideology, 1910-1939. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Clark, Katerina. 2011. Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Danilov, Viktor Petrovich, Roberta Manning, and Lynne Viola, eds. 1999-2004. Tragediia Sovetskoi derevni: Kollektivizatsiia i raskulachivanie. Dokumenty i materialy v 5 tomakh, 1927–1939. Moscow: Rosspen.

Davies, Robert William. 1980-2003. The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia. 5 vols. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Davies, Robert William. 2005. “Stalin as Economic Policy-Maker: Soviet Agriculture, 1931–1936.” In Stalin: A New History, edited by Sarah Davies and James Harris, 121-39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davies, Robert William, Mark Harrison, and Stephen Wheatcroft, eds. 1980-2003. The Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union, 1913-1945. 5 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davies, Sarah. 1997. Popular Opinion in Stalin’s Russia: Terror, Propaganda and Dissent, 1934-1941. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Deutscher, Isaac. 1967 [1949]. Stalin: A Political Biography. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. 1994. The Russian Revolution. 2 ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goldman, Wendy Z. 1993. Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gregory, Paul R. 2004. The Political Economy of Stalinism: Evidence from the Soviet Secret Archives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hirsch, Francine. 2005. Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Kollontai, Alexandra. 1971. The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman. Translated by Salvator Attanasio. New York: Herder and Herder.

Kollontai, Alexandra. 1980. Selected Writings. Translated by Alix Holt. New York: Norton.

Kotkin, Stephen. 1997. Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kuromiya, Hiroaki. 1990. Stalin’s Industrial Revolution: Politics and Workers, 1928–1931. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, Terry. 2001. The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Priestland, David. 2007. Stalinism and Politics of Mobilization: Ideas, Power, and Terror in Inter-war Russia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reichman, Henry. 1988. “Reconsidering Stalinism.” Theory and Society no. 17:57-90.

Retish, Aaron. 2008. Russia’s Peasants in Revolution and Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, John. 1989 [1942]. Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel. Bloomington: Indian University Press.

Siegelbaum, Lewis. 1988. Stakhanovism and the Politics of Productivity in the USSR, 1935-1941. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Siegelbaum, Lewis, and Andrei Sokolov. 2000. Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents. Translated by Thomas Hoisington and Steven Shabad. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stalin, I. V. 1935 [1978]. “Speech Delivered at a Reception Given by Leaders of the Communist Party and the Government to Women Collective Farm Shock Workers, 10 November 1935.” In Works, Vol. 14, 85-88. London: Red Star Press.

Stites, Richard. 1978. The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tauger, Mark. 1991. “The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933.” Slavic Review no. 50 (1):70-89.

Tauger, Mark. 2001. Natural Disaster and Human Action in the Soviet Famine of 1931-1933. Pittsburgh: Center for Russian and East European Studies.

Tauger, Mark. 2005. “Soviet Peasants and Collectivization, 1930-39: Resistance and Adaptation.” In Rural Adaptation in Russia, edited by Stephen Wegren, 65-94. London: Routledge.

Thurston, Robert, ed. 1996. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Timasheff, Nikolai. 1946 [1972]. The Great Retreat. New York: Arno.

Viola, Lynne, V. P. Danilov, N. A. Ivnitskii, and Denis Kozlov, eds. 2005. The War Against the Peasantry, 1927–1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[1] It was prefaced by the 1920 decree on abortion, which enabled women to obtain free abortions in hospitals. This was the first such law in the world.

[2] Hirsch goes further and argues for an intensification of revolution in response to the Nazi threat, while Clark argues that the 1930s constituted the adoption of an ‘even grander narrative’, which she calls ‘cosmopolitan’ (Hirsch 2005, 268, Clark 2011, 7).

[3] The most balanced works are by Davies et al and Tauger (Davies 1980-2003, Davies, Harrison, and Wheatcroft 1980-2003, Tauger 1991, 2001, 2005). A relief from the ritual denunciations of the failures of the program (Deutscher 1967 [1949], pp. 317-32, Davies 1997, p. 23-58, Boobbyer 2000, p. 29-64, Davies 2005, Gregory 2004) is Allen’s arresting reinterpretation of the significant gains made (Allen 2003).

[4] For fascinating insights into the varying positions taken by people in everyday life, see the documents collected by Siegelbaum and Sokolov (2000).

[5] Tauger argues that ‘resistance was not the most common response, and that more peasants adapted to the new system in ways that enabled it to function and solve crucial agricultural problems’ (Tauger 2005, p. 66). Retish (2008) shows how in the earlier period (1914-1922), the majority of peasants opted for the Bolsheviks and the effort to construct a new society.

[6] This was in the context of a massive shift by peasants to cities to work, which placed immense strains on, and thereby frequent time-lags in, the state’s ability to provide such facilities (Siegelbaum 1988, p. 214-22).

[7] Short for zhenskii otdel, the women’s department of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks).

[8] I would add that the dismantling of welfare states even in Scandinavia is a direct result of the ‘collapse’ of communism in Eastern Europe after 1989. By contrast, China with its long view of history is gradually introducing a comprehensive welfare system for 1.3 billion people.

China-Russia ties: Is the rest of the world finally listening?

It has taken 29 meetings between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin over the last few few years for the rest of the world to begin to take notice. As Xi observed during the latest meeting in early July, China-Russia relations are at their “best time in history,” saying the two nations are each other’s most trustworthy strategic partners.

Plenty of stories on Xinhua News and the People’s Daily. These include general reports on the meeting, with both sides agreeing on coordination on major economic, military and geopolitical issues. You can also find specific reports on their positions regarding Syria and North Korea, with a statement that the USA should cease deploying weapons in South Korea and Eastern Europe. It may well be that the considered and united position concerning the Korean Peninsula is the reason that the relations are finally gaining attention.

I am also intrigued by the statements on the Paris climate accord, as well as joint efforts to counter a “Western” discourse that attempts to spread a “Hobbes’ style world view upon China and Russia,” distorting facts and hyping up “claims that China and Russia are self interested and have no regard for international orders and rules.” Indeed, they are quite clear that the China-Russia partnership underpins global strategic stability.


Celebrating Hong Kong’s Return: Xi Jinping’s Speech

Big celebrations this weekend in Hong Kong, with the 20-year anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China. For some strange reason, corporate media is not making much of the important speech by Xi Jinping, who today is wrapping up a three day visit. The full speech can be found here, but I would like to highlight a few features.

First, the story of Hong Kong is very much part of the story of modern China, moving from the humiliation at the hands of European colonialism to the overcoming of humiliation under the leadership of the CPC. As Xi puts it:

The destiny of Hong Kong has always been intricately bound with that of the motherland. After modern times, with a weak China under corrupt and incompetent feudal rule, the Chinese nation was plunged into deep suffering. In the early 1840s, Britain sent an expeditionary force of a mere 10,000 troops to invade China and got its way in forcing the Qing government, which had an 800,000-strong army, to pay reparations and cede the island of Hong Kong to it. After the Opium War, China was repeatedly defeated by countries which were far smaller in size and population. Kowloon and “New Territories” were forcibly taken away. That page of Chinese history was one of humiliation and sorrow. It was not until the Communist Party of China led the Chinese people to victory in a dauntless and tenacious struggle for national independence and liberation and founded New China that the Chinese people truly stood up and blazed a bright path of socialism with distinctive Chinese features. Thanks to close to four decades of dedicated efforts since the launch of the reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s, we have entered a new era in the development of the Chinese nation.

Further, the role of Deng Xiaoping is crucial, not merely with the reform and opening up (gaige kaifang) from 1978, with its emphasis on the central Marxist feature of unleashing the forces of production under socialism, but also the policy of ‘one country, two systems’.

It was against the historical backdrop of reform and opening-up that Mr. Deng Xiaoping put forward the great vision of “One Country, Two Systems”, which guided China’s diplomatic negotiations with the United Kingdom that led to the successful resolution of the Hong Kong question, an issue that was left over from the past. Twenty years ago today, Hong Kong returned to the embrace of the motherland. This ended past humiliation and marked a major step forward toward the complete reunification of China. Hong Kong’s return to the motherland has gone down as a monumental achievement in the history of the Chinese nation. Hong Kong has since then embarked on a journey of unity and common development with the motherland.

In case you wanted to know about the exact status of Hong Kong in relation to the rest of China, Xi lays it out very clearly:

As a special administrative region directly under the Central Government, Hong Kong has been re-integrated into China’s national governance system since the very day of its return. The Central Government exercises jurisdiction over Hong Hong in accordance with China’s Constitution and the Basic Law of the HKSAR, and corresponding systems and institutions have been set up for the special administrative region. Hong Kong’s ties with the mainland have grown increasingly close, so have its interactions and cooperation with the mainland.

In short, one country, two systems, means that Hong Kong can remain capitalist while the rest of China is socialist. This is also a model for global cooperation.

But they say of Xi Jinping that he is ’round on the outside and square on the inside’ In other words, he is very gentle and understanding in dealing with people, but very tough inside. For example:

To uphold and implement the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” meets the interests of the Hong Kong people, responds to the needs of maintaining Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, serves the fundamental interests of the nation, and meets the shared aspiration of all Chinese. That is why I have made it clear that the Central Government will unswervingly implement the policy of “One Country, Two Systems” and make sure that it is fully applied in Hong Kong without being bent or distorted.

Indeed, as is common in the tradition of leaders of socialist states, a speech also engages in criticism and self-criticism. Of course, there are problems that need to be addressed, such as distorted images among some of Chinese history and culture, public consensus of key political and legal issues, the challenges as Hong Kong loses its economic edge, the pressure on housing and opportunities for young people, and so on.

Let me emphasise these points:

First, in line with the nationalities policy from the 1990s, China’s sovereignty is not negotiable:

“One Country” is like the roots of a tree. For a tree to grow tall and luxuriant, its roots must run deep and strong. The concept of “One Country, Two Systems” was advanced, first and foremost, to realize and uphold national unity. That is why in the negotiations with the United Kingdom, we made it categorically clear that sovereignty is not for negotiation. Now that Hong Kong has returned to China, it is all the more important for us to firmly uphold China’s sovereignty, security and development interests.

Dialectically, this enables the diversity of the ‘two systems’, as embodied in the Constitution:

We must both adhere to the “One Country” principle and respect the differences of the “Two Systems”, both uphold the power of the Central Government and ensure a high degree of autonomy in the HKSAR, both give play to the role of the mainland as a staunch supporter of Hong Kong and enhance Hong Kong’s own competitiveness.

Another aspect of Chinese (and indeed socialist) culture is the simultaneous desire for peace and harmony, as well as the constant process of criticism. At times, this relationship can suffer by focusing on one or the other side too much:

So it comes as no surprise that there are different views and even major differences on some specific issues. However, making everything political or deliberately creating differences and provoking confrontation will not resolve the problems. On the contrary, it can only severely hinder Hong Kong’s economic and social development.

In other words:

Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the Central Government and the authority of the Basic Law of the HKSAR or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible.

As Mao would put it, contradictions are to be expected, but antagonistic contradictions are not acceptable. Or as Xi puts it, invoking a traditional concept: ‘Harmony brings good fortune, while discord leads to misfortune’.

Xi wraps up his speech by invoking key features of CPC policy:

China is now in a decisive phase to finish building a moderately prosperous society in all respects. People of all ethnic groups across the country are engaged in a joint endeavor to realize the Two Centenary Goals and fulfill the Chinese Dream of national renewal. Ensuring the continued success of the practice of “One Country, Two Systems” in Hong Kong is part and parcel of the Chinese Dream.

All the key ideas are here (which I have written about extensively elsewhere). The ‘moderately prosperous society’ (xiaokang shehui) isa key element of Chinese socialism, drawing on a Confucian term, xiaokang. This is expressed in Xi’s signature ‘Chinese Dream’, which has the concrete elements of the two centenary goals. The first is the centenary of the CPC in 2021 and the second is the centenary of the People’s Republic in 2049. During this period the moderately prosperous society through ‘socialist modernisation’. How? Through lifting the remaining people, mostly in western China, out of poverty (700 million have so far been lifted out of poverty since 1978), through gradually bringing about a socialist welfare state (an original invention of socialism), through the Belt and Road Initiative, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Asia Infrastructure Development Bank, and – with specific reference to Hong Kong – the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area.

So what is Hong Kong to do in light of this? Xi quotes a local saying:

After leaving Suzhou, a traveler will find it hard to get a ride on a boat, meaning an opportunity missed is an opportunity lost.