Celebrating 70 Years of the New China: A Foreigner’s Perspective

There is a saying very common in China these days: keep the mission firmly in mind, do not forget your original desire.

I begin with this saying since it is part and parcel of the momentous occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the New China. I am currently in China, witnessing firsthand all of the preparations, anticipation, and then the day itself. Indeed, I write this on 1 October, when 70 years ago to this day Mao Zedong stood on the gate known as Tiananmen and announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Today it was of course Xi Jinping who stood in the same place, acknowledging Mao and the leaders who followed. I watched the whole proceedings live on my computer, quite taken with the celebration of the diversity of China’s many nationalities, the recognition of its provinces and autonomous regions, and the emphasis on young people who hold China’s future in their hands. Of course, I was impressed by the relatively brief military part of the parade, for a socialist country has to be able to protect itself from those who would seek to undermine it. Representatives from many countries were there, especially from developing countries like China. They are increasingly taken with the ‘China paradigm’ as a way forward, and so turning their backs on the shattered neo-liberal project known as the ‘Washington Consensus’.

But let us step back for a moment and ask what does a foreigner who is somewhat familiar with China notice. What do everyday people say about the celebration of the 70th anniversary? I have had a month or so to talk with people to find out what they feel and think.

The most common observation is that today is a recognition of all the hard work that has gone into the last 70 years. Again and again, people say: ‘We have worked so hard; now we can celebrate and enjoy our achievements for a little’. The achievements are clear: realising the basic human right of socio-economic wellbeing for all people; lifting more than 800 million people out of poverty; building a prosperous and increasingly strong China, so that the people I know have a greater cultural confidence in speaking about and explaining what makes China tick; the reality that Marxism is even more now at the core of all China does. Indeed, the CPC and its history was a major feature of the parade in Beijing that I watched today.

But work? My sense at times is that people here work too hard. By contrast, they often say that they do not work hard enough. Alongside work there is struggle: the past 70 years have had a large dose of international opposition and the Chinese have struggled against the odds. They know full well that what has been achieved today is as much struggle as it is work. Perhaps I should rephrase that: from their experience, they know that work is struggle. And they are not afraid of struggle.

After all, they are very aware that much remains to be done. Tackling environmental problems has already made great headway, but they know that much more needs to be done. There are still a few million people living in poverty and this is unacceptable for any notion of a moderately prosperous and well-off society (xiaokang shehui). They are tackling the desperate efforts of a fractured ‘West’ (a handful of former colonisers) to contain China and tell it what to do. But they will not deviate from their own path and will certainly not let others dictate the terms.

But isn’t this all just a version of nationalism, a Chinese version of ‘America first and screw the rest’? Not at all. In the past, I have sought to understand a positive sense of nationalism in terms of how it was thoroughly reinterpreted, first in the Soviet Union and then later in many colonised countries that sought national liberation. In this light, nationalism became an anti-colonial desire, with a strong focus on sovereignty. This also entailed a respect for the sovereignty of others: in the same way that you do not want your own country to be dominated by another, you also do not want to do the same thing to others. Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong’s ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence’ express this position most clearly.

As I have talked with people, another sense has begun to emerge. To begin with ‘nationalism’ is a bad translation of the Chinese term ‘ai guo’. Literally, it means ‘love of country’, with nothing of the ‘nation-state’ or ‘-ism’ about it. ‘Love of country’ is an inescapable identity, for all Chinese people anywhere in the world. It embodies 5,000 years of culture, history, tradition, philosophy and political forms. The most important point for me is that ‘love of country’ is not predicated on an ‘I win, you lose’ mentality, or ‘zero-sum’ as it is sometimes called (witness ‘America first’). Instead, it means that ‘love’ of my own country, my own cultural identity, is the basis for respecting, engaging with and promoting the identity of others. Thus, Chinese people see ‘love of country’ as a benefit to the globe, for as others also ‘love’ their country they have common project.

Still, a few may still feel that all the flag waving is an effort to find a replacement for Marxism in China. Not only does this assumption reflect a good deal of ignorance concerning Xi Jinping’s resolute focus on Marxism as the core and guiding principle of China’s path, let alone the 90 million strong CPC as a communist party clear in its mission, this suspicion also ignores the reality of the flag itself. In China, it is called the ‘five star red banner [wuxinghongqi]’. The red banner is of course a key communist symbol, as is the star. So every time someone waves a five star red banner, they are waving a communist flag.

And this brings me back to the saying with which I began: keep the mission firmly in mind, do not forget your original desire (laoji shiming, bu wang chuxin). Everywhere in China you find this saying, but it is one that immediately resonates with people. What is the original desire? Marxism. What is the mission? communism. And what does communism need for its realisation? More work and struggle.

The photos below were taken of my computer as I watched the parade live. You can find better quality pictures in many places, but I use these to give a sense of what unfolded as I watched. These are of course from Beijing, but all across the country events were held, including the area where I now reside in the northeast. The final picture is of a local version of the saying mentioned above.

Finally, here it is: keep the mission firmly in mind, do not forget your original desire.

 

Book outline: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

This book arises from a contradiction in our time: Chinese scholars and indeed most people in China are well aware of the key arguments and developments that form the basis of socialism with Chinese characteristics (zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi); non-Chinese scholars are largely ignorant, even though I find that more and more want to know at least something. In China, many of the topics presented in this book were settled quite a few years ago, so much so that one finds relatively little debate today. Other topics have a renewed vigour – such as contradiction analysis and rule of law – but these rely on earlier debates. By contrast, one struggles to find even remotely adequate treatment of these topics in foreign materials – if they are studied at all. I will examine some of the reasons in the introduction to the book, but three may be identified here: first, some have a tendency to say they prefer to look at the practice and ignore the theory, but this is a profound abdication of not only proper research, but Marxism itself (where theory along with practice is crucial); second, the material that does appear stops with the death of Mao Zedong (some, especially by Knick Knight, is excellent); third, the vast bulk of available scholarship is in Chinese. Obviously, one needs to be able to research this Chinese-language material.

Even so, the primary purpose of this book not to engage in polemics (lunzhan – fighting theories), but to make available for a non-Chinese audience the sophisticated debates and conclusions in China concerning socialism with Chinese characteristics. Without knowing this material, one can come to superficial perceptions and profound misunderstandings; knowing it, one begins the first steps in understanding and thereby trust. The following begins with a careful philosophical analysis of Deng Xiaoping, and the implications of his core ideas and practices. This study is the basis of what the rest of the book: contradiction analysis; the Marxist philosophy of the Reform and Opening Up; the basis and nature of the socialist market economy; socialist modernisation; rule of law; sovereignty and human rights; minority nationalities and the anti-colonial project; and Xi Jinping’s thorough Marxism in a Chinese situation. I should say that I have about a year of further in-depth research before me, so some of the material below will be revised as the project develops.

Introduction

The introduction begins by tracing the idea that while Marxism has core principles, or sets of problems, the way it develops in different locations has distinct characteristics. While there are global commonalities, each region has its distinct history, culture and philosophical tradition. As a result, in each situation the problems are somewhat unique and require new answers – hence the specific ‘characteristics’ of Marxism in such a location. We may trace this idea back to the late writings of Marx and Engels, as they faced developments of socialism in other parts of the world. But it begins to appear more clearly with Lenin and Stalin, and of course with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Obviously, the idea is not original to Deng, although he gave it a particular resonance in China.

The introduction also attempts to explain why there is precious little treatment in non-Chinese material of the Marxist basis of the Reform and Opening Up, with which ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has been most closely associated. In order to understand this situation, I elaborate on the distinction between ‘before’ and ‘after’ October. In other words, a crucial divide in analysis appears between those who take the perspective of ‘before October’, before the communist revolution, and those who analyse Marxism ‘after October’, after the revolution and in the difficult period of the construction of socialism. As Lenin and Mao said repeatedly, gaining power in a communist revolution is relatively easy; by contrast, constructing socialism is infinitely more complicated. Obviously, this study is concerned with ‘after October’, with the project of constructing socialism.

Finally, the introduction presents the main features of Chinese scholarship on socialism with Chinese characteristics. This material is immense, so I introduce the main resources, journals and themes – with a distinct focus on the philosophical foundations as they are manifested in practice.

Chapter 1. Reading Deng Xiaoping

‘Less talk, more deeds’ – Deng Xiaoping is mostly remembered as a leader of concrete acts rather than extensive theoretical reflection. In non-Chinese works, one may find biographies, studies of foreign policy, and scattered quotations taken out of context (albeit usually within a western European liberal framework). Few indeed are the studies of ‘Deng Xiaoping theory [lilun]’. Apart from Domenico Losurdo, no-one outside China has credited Deng with a sophisticated and insightful theoretical basis.

Through a careful study of Deng’s speeches and writings, along with relevant Chinese scholarship, I analyse the philosophical basis in two related ideas: liberating thought, and seeking truth from facts. While the terms seem simple enough on the surface, at a deeper level they identify the need to escape from the trap of Marxist dogmatism (as Mao also urged) and the need for careful analysis of the particular conditions of China in order to develop new answers in light of the Marxist tradition. From these two core ideas flow many of Deng’s positions: liberating the forces of production (see further the chapter on the socialist market economy), seeking a moderately well-off (xiaokang) society, to each according to work, and of course socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Chapter 2. Contradiction Analysis

Deng Xiaoping presented less of a break with Mao or indeed the Marxist tradition and more of a creative continuity within that living tradition. A significant element of this continuity was ‘contradiction analysis [maodun fenxi]’. This topic requires an initial step back to Mao Zedong (‘On Contradiction’) and how he developed a whole new phase in the Marxist tradition of dialectical analysis, via Lenin and Chinese conditions. Crucial for the construction of socialism is the idea of non-antagonistic contradictions: contradictions will appear under socialism, but the focus should be in ensuring they are non-antagonistic. Subsequently, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, we find contradiction analysis at the basis of philosophical thought and government policy. For example, it appears in: class analysis in the primary stage of socialism; socialist market economy; poverty alleviation; education: medicine; workplace realities; core socialist value; and – of course – the crucial need to identify a primary contradiction as the basis of all policy (as Xi Jinping did at the nineteenth congress of the CPC in 2018).

Chapter 3. The Marxist Basis of the Reform and Opening Up

It is perhaps less realised than it should be that the Reform and Opening Up is not a compromise, but a distinctly Marxist project. As Deng Xiaoping pointed out repeatedly, the Reform and Opening Up provides a distinct path to socialism (and not, as some misguided foreigners suggested, to capitalism). To understand this emphasis, we need initially to go back to Lenin and his insight into the relationship between revolution and reform. Instead of seeing these two terms as an either-or, Lenin argued that reform is absolutely necessary, but it should always be undertaken in light of the communist revolution. During the era of constructing socialism, this means that reform must be undertaken by a communist party in power. In a Chinese context, I would like to focus on the following issue (until more have been identified in research): the tension between equality-justice and improving the quality of life for all. In many respects, the Reform and Opening Up may be seen as an effort to keep the two sides of the contradiction in a productive and non-antagonistic relationship. Finally, this chapter offers a brief survey of the leading Marxist philosophers during the forty years of the Reform and Opening Up.

Chapter 4. Socialist Market Economy

With the socialist market economy, we come to a question that was settled in China 25 years ago, but of which foreigners remain noticeably ignorant. After immense debates in the 1980s and early 1990s, the following was seen as the solution. First and following Stalin, the core contradiction of socialism is between the forces and relations of production. How is this manifested? It can be – and often is – seen in terms of the ownership of the means of production. Thus, workers and peasants need to seize ownership of the means of production from the former bourgeois and landlord owners. But what happens after such a seizure and the destruction of the former ruling class? The contradiction shifts to one between the underlying socio-economic system (zhidu) and its specific components (tizhi). In the first category, we find – for example – a capitalist system and a socialist system; in the second, there are political, social and economic components. Here the productive forces also appear, of which one manifestation is a market economy. To summarise a more detailed analysis: a market economy may form part of a larger socio-economic system, including socialism; a market economy is not  always the same and is not inherently capitalist, but is shaped and determined by the system in question (as found already in Marx and in historical analysis); the overall system not only determines the nature of a market economy, but also its purpose, whether profit (capitalist system) or social benefit and meeting the needs of all people (gongtongti fuwu) as in a socialist system. Finally, this approach to a socialist market economy entails a recalibration of the question of ownership. Initially, the ownership of the means of production was related to secondary status, with a mix between public and private ownership, albeit with the state owned enterprises (SOEs) as the drivers of the economy. However, since the 2010s, one may identify a new development: the very distinction between public and private has begun to ‘die away’ (to parse Engels). How this works is the focus of the final part of the chapter.

Chapter 5. Socialist Modernisation: Seeking a Xiaokang Society

Since Zedong and Zhou Enlai, ‘socialist modernisation [shehuizhuyi xiandaihua]’ has been a major feature of government policy and action.[1] But what does it mean? Let us begin with Deng Xiaoping’s famous observation in 1979: ‘By achieving the four modernizations, we mean achieving a “moderately well-off family [xiaokang zhi jia]” … a moderately well-off country [xiaokang de guojia]’. For Deng, this is modernisation with Chinese characteristics.

To understand this statement, we need to go back and forward in the Chinese tradition. Deng was the first to pick and reinterpret the old Confucian category – from the Books of Rights and Book of Songs – of xiaokang in light of Marxism, with the sense of being moderately well-off, healthy and peaceful. It is a more achievable aim than datong, the ‘Great Harmony’, at least in the foreseeable future, although both terms (through He Xiu and Kang Youwei) are intimately connected. If we move forward in the more recent tradition, Deng’s insightful move led to a ‘moderately prosperous society in all respects’ becoming central to the Chinese socialist project under Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and especially Xi Jinping. Indeed, the end of 2020 – following hints from Deng – was set as the ambitious but achievable goal for a xiaokang society. But what are the benchmarks? Xi Jinping has identified three: managing profound risks, poverty alleviation and environmental health. The last section of the chapter considers each of these items, with a focus on the impact of lifting 750 million rural and urban workers out of poverty since 1978 and the noticeable advances in achieving an ‘ecological civilisation’.

Chapter 6. Socialist Rule of Law

‘Governing the country according law [yifazhiguo]’ – this four-character phrase encapsulates a range of permutations, from the new Social Credit system, through core socialist values, to religious policy. However, it also has a distinct history that enables us to understand what it means in China, specifically as a socialist rule of law. Although traces of usage appear in much older texts, the key development is precisely during the Reform and Opening Up.

Initially (1978-1996), most of the debate centred around the opposition between ‘rule of human beings [renzhi]’ and ‘rule of law [fazhi]’, after which the latter became the agreed-upon position. Subsequently (1997-2011), the relationship between ‘rule of law’ and ‘legal system [fazhi]’ (sometimes misleadingly translated as ‘rule by law’) was debated, with the two clearly demarcated. Thus, while ‘legal system’ is the basis and concrete manifestation of ‘rule of law’, ‘rule of law’ is itself the ultimate framework and goal of the legal system. During this time, ‘governing the country according to law’ entered the 1999 revision of the Constitution. Finally (2012 to the present) we find increasing clarity of more and more aspects of rule of law, along with its consistent and impartial application. Tellingly, in 2018, the Constitution was revised further, replacing ‘improve the socialist legal system’ with ‘improve the socialist rule of law’.

Theory is crucial, but so is practice. The final part of the chapter examines some concrete manifestations of the rule of law in China: the Social Credit System as an effective and creative way to ensure rule of law at all levels; core socialist values as the positive side of the anti-corruption campaign; and ensuring that the long-standing laws on freedom of religion are strictly observed, especially in light of the revised Regulation on Religious Affairs (2018) and its emphases on self-government, self-support and self-propagation. In all of this, it should re remembered that we are speaking of a socialist rule of law, which is a crucial bulwark of China’s socialist system and is distinct from a capitalist rule of law.

Chapter 7. Sovereignty and Human Rights

This chapter offers a comparison between two traditions concerning human rights, through the prism of state sovereignty: the Western European liberal tradition and the Chinese Marxist tradition. It does so as follows. The first part introduces the distinction between false and rooted universals. A false universal forgets the conditions of its emergence and asserts that its assumptions apply to all irrespective of context, while a rooted universal is always conscious of and factors into analysis contextual origins, with their possibilities and limitations. With this distinction in mind, the next part deals with state sovereignty. In a Western European context, the standard narrative of this development has two main phases: the initial Westphalian definition (1648) and its significant restriction after the Second World War. The main problem with this narrative it that it largely neglects what drove the shift: the success of anti-colonial struggles in the first half of the twentieth century (the last phase through the United Nations under the inspiration of the Soviet Union). In light of this global perspective, it becomes clear that in formerly colonised and semi-colonised countries the very definition of sovereignty is transformed into an anti-colonial and non-theological definition. It is not simply an extension of the Westphalian definition, an assumption that entails a false universal. The next two parts of the argument deal directly with human rights. Initially, it focuses on the Western European tradition, which is predicated on the identification of human rights as private property and their restriction to civil and political rights. Here is the risk of another false universal: the assertion that this specific tradition applies to all, irrespective of context and of anti-colonial sovereignty. The final topic is the Chinese Marxist tradition of human rights, which arises from the intersections of Confucianism and Marxism. In this tradition, anti-colonial sovereignty is a prerequisite but does not determine human rights, and the core human right is the right to socio-economic wellbeing, through which civil, political, cultural and environmental rights arise.

Chapter 8. Minority Nationalities and the Anti-Colonial Project

The main topic of this chapter – minority nationalities policy –arises from the Chinese Marxist approaches to human rights. In brief, the comprehensive minority nationalities (which are sometimes called ‘ethnic groups’) emphasises the core human right to socio-economic wellbeing. Before we get to that point, we need to engage in historical analysis. The Soviet Union was the first socialist country to develop a comprehensive minorities policy, so much so that it was crucial in the very formation of the Soviet Union and was embodied in government structures. Much was learned, from both successes and failures. The Soviet Union was also the first country to see the intrinsic connection between an internal minorities policy and the international anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle. It supported most of them, from logistics and weapons to initiating declarations in the United Nations (especially the 1960 ‘Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples’, which forced France, the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands, among others, to give up their colonies for the sake of independence).

But what did the minority policy entail? Here I turn to China, which – like other socialist countries – adopted the Soviet policy, adapting it and strengthening it in light of their own conditions. This ‘preferential policy [youhui zhengce]’ fosters minority languages, cultures, education, governance, and – above all – economic development as the basis for all the others. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the 1990s the policy was strengthened in a dialectical manner; minority rights and incentives were enhanced significantly, precisely as way of ensuring the inviolability of China’s borders. To give a sense of how this policy works, I deal with two pertinent case studies: Tibet and Xinjiang. In both cases, we find short-term and long-term programs. Short-term: enhanced fostering of security (anquan), stability (wending) and harmony (hexie), in order to counter the effects of separation, extremism and terrorism. Long-term: renewed and revised projects to improve the socio-economic wellbeing of all who live in Tibet and Xinjiang. At this point, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) plays a significant internal role, with marked results in the six years or so of its implementation.

The BRI brings us finally to the question of international relations. Here we find a distinct development: while material from the 1950s and 1960s still used the terminology of anti-colonial struggle, it substantially disappears from use thereafter. Why? Already in the late 1950s, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had proposed the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’, which was taken up with enthusiasm by Deng Xiaoping as China sought not confrontation but peaceful development (although he was also quite clear that China would always have closer connections with formerly colonised countries due to a shared common history). The more recent manifestation of this emphasis appears with Xi Jinping’s promotion of a ‘community of shared future for humankind [renlei mingyun gongtongti]’, concretely manifested in the BRI, and the policy – as an alternative to the Western European liberal emphasis on ‘zero-sum’ – of ‘both win, many win, all win’. Or simply, ‘win-win’.

Chapter 9. Xi Jinping on Marxism

Xi Jinping has confounded those international observers who ignored much of what I have discussed in the previous chapters and concluded that China had abandoned Marxism. But Xi Jinping’s resolute emphasis on Marxism makes perfect sense if we keep these developments of socialism with Chinese characteristics in mind. At the same time, it is true that Xi Jinping has also re-emphasised Marxism at its many levels, so much so that the CPC has been noticeably strengthened. Older members are once again proud of the party and what it has achieved, while young people are once again keen to join and study Marxism.

How did this happen? While Xi Jinping’s many writings and speeches (in the good tradition of communist leaders, he is also a thinker and writer) cover a wide range of topics, my focus is on his direct engagement with Marxism. The core piece for analysis is his major speech on the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, delivered on 5 May, 2018. While the speech deals with Marx’s biography (as an engaged intellectual), the basic premises of Marxism, its history as a living tradition and its emergence to sustained leadership in China, the main part of the speech elaborates on nine topics of relevance to China’s situation. Calling on all the ‘study Marx’ once again, he begins each sub-section with quotations from Marx and Engels and then elaborates on what they mean for the time after the communist revolution, during the complex and often difficult process of constructing socialism. The topics are: development of human society; sticking to the people’s standpoint; productive forces and relations of production; people’s democracy; cultural construction; social construction; human-nature relationship; world history; and Marxist party building. These topics open out to a series of other dimensions of Xi Jinping’s writings, with which I deal when analysing each section.

Conclusion

Given that most of the material in this book concerns material already known in China, it may be of interest to Chinese readers who wish to see what a foreigner engaged with and working in China thinks about socialism with Chinese characteristics. But I anticipate that it will mostly be of use to non-Chinese readers whose minds may already be open, or perhaps should be opened, to what such a socialism actually means in theory and practice.

Note

[1] The original four modernisations are: shaking off China’s poverty and backwardness [pinqiong luohou]; gradually improving the people’s living standards; restoring a position for China in international affairs commensurate with its current status; and enabling China to contribute more to humankind.

China’s poverty alleviation: One of the greatest human rights achievements

One of the greatest human rights achievements in human history is China’s forty years of poverty alleviation – given the fundamental right to socio-economic wellbeing. The World Bank estimates that 850 million people have been lifted out of poverty, but still some remain in poverty. Given that one of the three great challenges for a xiaokang society is absolute poverty elimination, there is a resolute focus to achieve the target. A useful background article can be found in Xinhua News.

Chinese Trust in the Government

The overwhelming majority of Chinese people trust their government like no other country on earth. This may seem strange to some foreigners who routinely mistrust their government. Yet the statistics speak for themselves. For example, the Edelman Trust Barometer of 2019 notes a rise in the general public’s trust of the government and public institutions to a staggering 86 percent. Meanwhile, the monthly Ipsos surveys indicate that on average 90 percent of people have confidence in the direction in which China is headed. And in the five-yearly World Values Survey, the vast majority trust the government to promote human rights in China and throughout the world.

Why is this the case? One reason is of course the effect of Xi Jinping’s leadership, with effective rule by law and its closely associated Social Credit System, anti-corruption campaign and recovery of both traditional Chinese and Marxist values.

Yet, this is only part of the story. The assumption of trust in governance runs deep in Chinese society – assuming of course that the government in question has earned that trust. To understand how this works at a deeper cultural and social level, we need to go back a few centuries.

He Xiu’s Three Worlds

Important here is a certain He Xiu, who lived from 129 to 182 CE. He Xiu wrote a commentary on a commentary; more precisely, he wrote a commentary on the Gongyang commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (reputedly edited by none other than Confucius). This particular history is not so important here. Instead, He Xiu[1] introduced a crucial distinction between three terms:

  1. What is ‘rumoured [suochuanwen]’.
  2. What is ‘heard [suowen]’ and thus reliably recorded.
  3. What is ‘seen [suojian]’ and therefore verifiable.

The importance of this distinction can hardly be underestimated. What is rumoured concerns words and indeed a world that is ‘decayed and disordered [shuailuan]’. This is a world of chaos in which the heart is ‘course and unrefined [cucu]’, the country is broken up into small warring states and the records virtually non-existent. Rumours abound of skulduggery, assassination, intrigue and inappropriate behaviour in light of established rituals. In other words, hearsay and gossip are highly unreliable, to be mistrusted at every turn.

By contrast, the world that is reliably reported is one that has written records, which enables the unity of the many different Chinese peoples. It is clearly better that rumour, hearsay and chaos, but it still has its problems. The best is the world that is ‘seen’ and therefore empirically verifiable. One has first-hand evidence, or what is now called scientific evidence, truth from facts (shishi qiushi), as Deng Xiaoping said on many occasions. This verifiable world is united, whether distant or nearby, large or small, and even the heart (xin) or inner being is now deep and thoroughly known (xiang).

In Chinese history, the prime body responsible for reliable records and verified facts is of course the government. Indeed, these are signs of good governance and thereby one that can be trusted.

He Xiu’s distinction has many further ramifications today, whether the refusal of newspapers to engage in gossip, the scepticism concerning oral traditions, the transparency of political statements, or the need for any government statistics to be based on solid research. Let me focus on three examples.

Mao Zedong’s Works

The first concerns editions of Mao Zedong’s works. In China, there are two main editions, The Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong Wenji) and The Selected Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong xuanji). Apart from these two, there are a number of other small collections, relating to early writings or those on specific topics. These have all been carefully produced by the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, which is fully resourced and responsible for reliable editions of all works in the Marxist tradition.

At the same time, there are a number of other editions of Mao’s works, the most notable being Mao Zedong ji, published in 20 volumes in Japan. While most Chinese scholars have copies of this edition, they are also suspicious. Why? An individual scholar has edited the works rather than a major institution funded by the government. Is it reliable? Can it be cited? Not sure. One has to wary indeed when relying on such material. And the five volume collection, Mao Zedong Thought Lives Forever, published without a place, date or editorship during the Cultural Revolution, is way beyond any form of reliability.

Number of Christians in China

The second example concerns the number of Christians in China. This has been the subject of what are now called the ‘Internet Wars’. The official government figure is 38 million, which foreigners interested in such matters disregard since they suspect that the government wishes to downplay the numbers. Instead, they postulate more than 100 million, based on an anecdote: supposedly Ye Xiaowen, the former director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, mentioned in a closed-door meeting at Peking University in 2006 that there were more than 100 million Christians in China. The problem here is that those who like to cite this anecdote provide no source for the statement, third-party evidence or indeed check with Ye Xiaowen himself. It turns out that – according to scholars who were actually present at the event – Ye Xiaowen had never said that there were more than 100 million Christians in China, but he did say that there were at that time more than 100 million religious believers. The difference is obvious, and the foreigners who like to peddle this number draw on unreliable rumour.

By now I am drawing on an article published in early 2019,[2] based on a long-term project at Peking University: the ‘China Family Panel Studies’. Carefully calibrated so as to be relevant to Chinese conditions, relying on a vast survey sample with multiple follow-ups, this sociological survey found in 2016 that there were 39.69 million Christians in China (about 2.8 percent of the population), of which 28.29 were ‘open Christians’ and 11.67 million ‘hidden Christians’. The ‘open Christians’ can mostly be attributed to the many legal forms of Christianity in China, such as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches (Protestant) and the recently united Roman Catholic Church, while the ‘hidden Christians’ are mostly from the illegal ‘house churches’.

While these figures are derived from a completely independent sociological survey, it is scientifically based and relies on the assumption that one can only trust what is recorded and verifiable. Tellingly, it is very close to the government figures for Christians in China, for the government does not release figures unless they are based on what can be verified.

As for the speculative foreigners, they are simply relying on hearsay and rumour.

Concept of (U)topia

The third example concerns utopia, which in the Western European tradition refers to both a no-place and a good-place. Typically, writings about utopia postulate a world yet to be realised, on a distant island (Thomas More’s Utopia), in the distant future (William Morris’s News From Nowhere), or even on another planet. The accounts are typically imaginative, hearsay upon hearsay, if not rumour itself. Obviously, if the world in question does not exist and therefore cannot be experienced, one must rely on nothing more than rumour and imagination. In other words, it is a transcendent world, much better than ours, but one that we cannot know empirically.

Let us go back to He Xiu, for his threefold distinction of rumoured, recorded and verified is actually the background to a major contribution to the Chinese tradition concerning what is often known as ‘utopia’. But his proposal is completely opposed to Western European assumptions. In more detail, He Xiu proposed three worlds:

  1. The ‘decayed and disordered world [shuailuan]’, which is characterised by rumour and gossip (suochuanwen).
  2. The world of ‘rising peace [shengping]’, which is determined by what is heard and recordable (suowen).
  3. The world of ‘great peace [taiping]’, which can only be known by seeing and is therefore verifiable (suojian).

By now you can see what has happened. What in the Western tradition is called ‘utopia’, based on rumour, is actually the world of decay and disorder. What cannot be known is highly undesirable, with plots, skulduggery and lack of unity.

By contrast, the world of rising peace can be recorded, leading to unity at least within the country and relative stability and security. But the most verifiable world is precisely that of the ‘Great Peace’ or what is also called the ‘Great Harmony [datong]’. This world can hardly be connected with the Western tradition of utopia, although not a few have tried to do so. Why? It is not a world of rumour and innuendo, but one that can be verified empirically and through scientific investigation.

Thus, ‘utopia’ is a particularly bad term to use in this context. If we stay with the Greek origins of the terms, the best term would be topos, a definite place, and the Chinese tradition concerning the Great Peace and the Great Harmony would have to be called ‘Topian Thought’.

Trusting the Government

Let us return to question of trust in governance. As mentioned earlier, throughout Chinese history, the body responsible for recording and verifying information has been the government itself. Given the size of the country, government has always been a somewhat large affair, and in this respect at least the communist government carries on a long tradition. Of course, it has a distinct trajectory determined by Marxism, but it is still responsible for the most reliable information, for it has the best resources to ensure such information.

I would like to close with an unexpected contribution from He Xiu, a contribution carried through in the later tradition via Kang Youwei’s Book of Datong and Deng Xiaoping’s evocation – in a communist framework – of the old Confucian category of a xiaokang society (one that is moderately well-off, healthy and peaceful). For Deng Xiaoping and even more those who followed – Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and especially Xi Jinping – this xiaokang society is the goal of the initial socialist phase of the new China, to be achieved by 2020.

This xiaokang society is equivalent now with what He Xiu called the world of ‘rising peace’. Most importantly, it is a world that about which one has reliable knowledge and is therefore able to provide reliable records. What does this mean for the core political program of achieving a xiaokang society in all respects by 2020? Is it merely political spin, a vague promise with little content? Not at all: it entails detailed and innovative planning, targeted projects, scientific analysis and rigorous assessment of results. For example, Xi Jinping has identified a peaceful and law-abiding country, environmental protection, and poverty alleviation as the three greatest challenges. Massive resources and initiatives have gone into each, with the Social Credit System, a wholesale shift away from environmentally destructive practices, and a last great push to lift the final 10 million people out of poverty (850 million since 1978).

Will these targets be achieved? Final assessment will tell. But one thing is clear: without them, a xiaokang society in unachievable; with them, it will be achieved. But such a society must be thoroughly recordable and verifiable. Trust in government turns on this fact.

Notes

[1] He Xiu. 1980. Chunqiu gongyangzhuan zhuxu. 28 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, p. 2200. Many editions of this work exist, in 28 volumes. It may also be found at https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&res=642006&remap=gb.

[2] Lu Yunfeng, Wu Yue, and Zhang Chunni. 2019. ‘Zhongguo daodi you duoshao jidutu? Jiyu zhongguo jiating zhuizong diaocha de guji’. Kaifang shidai zazhi 2019 (1):1-14. http://www.wyzxwk.com/Article/shehui/2019/01/398823.html.

The Maopai (Maoist sectarians)

Agence France Presse asked me recently about at item making the rounds in some quarters. It concerns a small group of Maoist sectarians who had travelled south to take part in some worker protests. Coming from a few universities in Beijing, some were put under house arrest upon return. I am told that Cornell University in the United States terminated a cooperative program with Renmin University of China over the issue.

Of course, all of this gains its inevitable spin and the full context is lost. The question is asked: why would a Marxist government seek to restrain a Marxist movement? Here is my response to AFP, although I am not sure they will do it justice:

These types of groups have been in existence for quite some time. One could, for example, outline earlier forms such as the ‘Utopia’ movement of more than a decade ago, which championed the corrupt mayor of Chongqing, Bo Xilai. There are also loose connections with what has been called China’s ‘New Left’, although the latter keep clear of these groups. Today one could perhaps say they are within the broad spectrum of Marxism in China, but they are really quite minor and on the fringe in relation to the vast reality of Chinese Marxism.

A brief outline of their main positions may be useful. Rather than simply calling them ‘Marxists’, they should really be seen as Maopai, Maoist sectarians. The phenomemon is in fact common in the history of Marxism and communist movements. A sectarian group typically assumes it is the bearer of truth, while other groups are heretics or betrayers.

The Maoist sectarians are no different. They believe that they witness to the truth of the last real expression of communism in China with Mao Zedong, especially during the Cultural Revolution. As any careful study of Mao’s extensive writings and acts indicates, their reading is quite selective, suiting their own agenda. For example, they stress a ‘break’ between Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, suggesting that the latter ‘betrayed’ Mao and took China on the road to capitalism. However, if one studies Deng Xiaoping, it soon becomes clear that the continuities are equally strong, if not stronger. Further, their perception of the Cultural Revolution is rather idealistic and starry-eyed, instead of seeing it as the complex and traumatic reality that it was: a trauma that still runs deep in Chinese society.

Their focus on some workers also indicates a difficulty in dealing with Mao’s emphasis on peasants as the core of the communist movement at the time. Here they disagree among themselves: some recognize the importance of peasants/farmers, while others dismiss them and assert that ‘true’ communism focuses on workers. It is also worth noting on this matter that when workers do strike in China (as happened more in the past but less so today), it is normally in relation to bosses breaking the law. Workers typically invoke communist slogans in their protests, which is a point where the Maoist sectarians can make a connection.

More significantly, their approach runs into severe problems when examined further. They hold to a rather stunning conspiracy theory, which has been running for the 40 years of the reform and opening up. Thus, they see the CPC now as ‘fake’, as using deceptive speech when stressing Marxism, and so on. They also dismiss 40 years of very sophisticated Marxist developments.

They are also rather astute in feeding into a particular form of Western European Marxism, which has – especially after 1989 – felt that no authentic form of socialism could develop elsewhere in the world, especially in China. Thus, they position themselves as the ‘authentic’ voice of Marxism in China. For example, the French Marxist philosopher, Alain Badiou, has been promoting this perspective and is used by some of these Maoist sectarians in their work in China. The problem with Badiou is that he seriously misunderstands Marxism in China today. He has to my knowledge never been in China where he would see a strong communist party, with Marxism promoted everywhere, even to the point where it is becoming part of Chinese culture.

Why have such groups stepped up their activities of late, becoming more open? Xi Jinping is the key here. Everyone in China has known for quite some time that Xi Jinping is very serious about Marxism, directing the development of China’s economy, reforming the communist party (it was in relatively bad shape some years ago), shaping academic developments, art and literature, and so on. Only this year – since the CPC’s 19th congress in late 2017 and Xi Jinping’s major speech in May 2018 commemorating 200 years since Marx’s birth – has the rest of the world begun to notice. These events are beginning to lead to significant reassessment in other parts of the world. In the process, Xi Jinping has successfully claimed Mao’s mantle – as the majority of common people (laobaixing) clearly sense. But this development is quite disconcerting for the Maoist sectarians, for it seriously risks undermining their approach and indeed their conspiracy theory.

A specific event can also be connected to this activity. On 29 October, 2018, Xi Jinping gave a major speech to new trade union leaders on the relationship between workers, trade unions and the communist party. Again, this was a very Marxist speech with a clear articulation of how workers and unions function in building a new China under socialism in power. The challenge to the Maoist narrative should be obvious.

Lenin would have called them ‘left-wing communism, an infantile disorder’. However, one usually grows up and gains some wisdom. I have witnessed a number of people do precisely that: entertain a sectarian perspective for a while but then realise there is a greater and richer Marxist reality reality with which to engage constructively.

Fidel Castro: ‘Xi Jinping is one of the strongest and most capable revolutionary leaders I have met in my life’

Yes, Fidel Castro said this in 2014: ‘Xi Jinping is one of the strongest and most capable revolutionary leaders I have met in my life’.

This is noted in an article by Ajit Singh called ‘China: A Revolutionary Present’ (well worth a read).

A couple of decades earlier, Fidel also observed:

I think China is a socialist country, and Vietnam is a socialist nation as well. And they insist that they have introduced all the necessary reforms in order to motivate national development and to continue seeking the objectives of socialism. There are no fully pure regimes or systems. In Cuba, for instance, we have many forms of private property. We have hundreds of thousands of farm owners … Practically all Cubans own their own home and, what is more, we welcome foreign investment. But that does not mean that Cuba has stopped being socialist.

An African perspective on FOCAC (Forum on China-Africa Cooperation)

You can read plenty of material on the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Chinese newspapers, including Xi Jinping’s important speech outlining 8 initiatives and 5 ‘nos’:

We follow a “five-no” approach in our relations with Africa: no interference in African countries’ pursuit of development paths that fit their national conditions; no interference in African countries’ internal affairs; no imposition of our will on African countries; no attachment of political strings to assistance to Africa; and no seeking of selfish political gains in investment and financing cooperation with Africa.

However, it is worth considering African perspectives on the cooperation. One examples appears in the Nigerian news outlet, Vanguard News, entitled ‘The African Road to China‘. After retelling the story of half a century of cooperation, it observes:

African leaders also need to learn from the Chinese elite who are focused, programmatic, result-oriented, patriotic, people-centred and for whom generally, the law is no respecter of status, beliefs or origins. Also, we need to learn from China which concentrates on programmes and projects that benefit the most people such that it lifted 700 million Chinese out of poverty within a short period making it the world’s model. Also, unlike the West, China is not domineering and overbearing; it does not decree that its enemies must be our enemies; it does not ask its allies to join its turf battles.
In contrast, when the Americans are fighting other countries such as its on-going dispute with Turkey and Iran, it insist that other countries join its economic sanctions, or be punished. China also teaches Africa that human circumstances and the world order can be changed not by threats, but in practice; its fundamental role in building the BRICS and its Silk and Road coalition are in practice, laying for a New Economic World Order. Unlike our colonial and neo-colonial experience, the Chinese have taught us that a candle does not lose its brightness by lighting other candles, rather, it makes the world brighter.