Chinese State Council White Paper: The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang

The much-awaited white paper on Xinjiang from the Chinese State Council was published today (18 March 2019). It is called ‘The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang’ (download in English here). Various newspaper articles have highlighted parts of the document, although the best is this article from the Global Times, which also mentions one of the visits by representatives from Muslim majority countries that are singulalry unimpressed by the efforts of a few former colonisers to slander China over Xinjiang.

As for the white paper itself, please note section 3, which lists many – but not all – of the terrorist acts that have taken place in Xinjiang, especially during the escallation of such acts in the 1990s. Sections 4 and 5 explain how anti-terrorism and de-extremism measures have been developed, through careful study of practices in other parts of the world.

To quote:

‘Education and training centers have been established with the goal of educating and rehabilitating people guilty of minor crimes or law-breaking and eradicating the influence of terrorism and extremism, in order to prevent them from falling victim to terrorism and extremism, and to nip terrorist activities in the bud.

At present, the trainees at the centers fall into three categories:

  1. People who were incited, coerced or induced into participating in terrorist or extremist activities, or people who participated in terrorist or extremist activities in circumstances that were not serious enough to constitute a crime;
  2. People who were incited, coerced or induced into participating in terrorist or extremist activities, or people who participated in terrorist or extremist activities that posed a real danger but did not cause actual harm, whose subjective culpability was not deep, who made confessions of their crimes and were contrite about their past actions and thus can be exempted from punishment in accordance with the law, and who have demonstrated the willingness to receive training;
  3. People who were convicted and received prison sentence for terrorist or extremist crimes and after serving their sentences, have been assessed as still posing potential threats to society, and who have been ordered by people’s courts to receive education at the centers in accordance with the law.

In accordance with Articles 29 and 30 of the Counterterrorism Law of the People’s Republic of China, people in the first and third categories will be placed at the centers to receive support and education. With regard to people in the second category, a small number of them should be punished severely, while the majority should be rehabilitated in accordance with the policy of striking a balance between punishment and compassion. Confession, repentance, and willingness to receive training are preconditions for leniency, and these people will receive education to help reform their ways after they have been exempted from penalty in accordance with the law’.

After providing further detail, section 5 concludes:

‘Thanks to these preventive measures, Xinjiang has witnessed a marked change in the social environment in recent years. A healthy atmosphere is spreading, while evil influences are declining. The citizens’ legal awareness has been notably enhanced. The trend in society is now to pursue knowledge of modern science and technology and a cultured way of life. Citizens now consciously resist religious extremism. The ethnic groups of Xinjiang now enjoy closer relations through communication, exchange and blending. People have a much stronger sense of fulfillment, happiness and security’.

Finally, sections 6 and 7 indicate how the measures in Xinjiang accord with the protection of human rights, in both the agreed international frameworks and the specific Chinese Marxist emphasis on the right to socio-economic wellbeing.

Well worth a read!

Note: you may also wish to read: ‘Progress in Human Rights Protection over the 40 Years of Reform and Opening Up in China‘.


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.


[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

[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.

Demystifying the Chinese Social Credit System (and Why Everyone Likes It)

Late last year I was travelling on one of the newest high-speed trains (the Fuxian, which cruises at 350 km per hour). At one point during the journey, an announcement was made: if anyone has not yet purchased a ticket, please contact a conductor. Failure to do so would register as a negative on the Social Credit System, with potential restrictions on travel.

This was my first real-life introduction to the new Social Credit System (shehui xinyong tixi) being rolled out across China. Much has been the misinformation concerning this system in a small number of formerly colonising countries, with evocations of George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ and the usual belief in ghosts – that is, communist parties are paranoid outfits terribly afraid of their people.

Let us set the record straight. Not so long ago hereabouts there was the law and then there was everyday practice. In between was a significant grey zone. For example, outside of the gates where I work was the place to buy China’s best fake student identity cards. These would enable you to travel at student discounts, especially during the major festivals. The police knew perfectly well what was going on, but as long as it was kept somewhat low-key, there was no problem. Once, I actually inquired about a fake identity card for myself and managed to get the price down to 100 RMB, before smiling and walking away.

This was only one example of a rampant fake ID business. But it was characteristic of what happened nearly everywhere. Under a hotel room door, a prostitute would slip a card. In a phone call, a fraudster would call and try to sell something. Disabled people would be paraded through metro trains in order to sequester cash. Contracts would not be honoured, debts could be avoided, and it was common to receive an envelope full of cash for work done. Unhealthy ingredients were mixed with food (even baby formula) and companies could exploit workers with impunity – as long as the companies in question lined the pockets of the inspectors. Needless to say, corruption at nearly all levels of government was common. The examples could be multiplied, but you get the picture.

Do not get me wrong: it was chaotic, exciting, a free-for-all; nearly everything could happen. But it was not an environment that bred trust and stability.

Enter Xi Jinping, a cleanskin and an old-fashioned communist hardman. He was not elected out of the blue, since the CPC knew something had to be done. Xi Jinping was the man to do it.

Among many initiatives, Xi Jinping began to advocate rule of law – a socialist rule of law (which I have discussed earlier). But it is one thing to make announcements concerning rule of law; it is quite another to make it work.

Inside the CPC, the task was relatively easy: the most thorough and wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign since Mao Zedong, the promotion of communist values, monthly study sessions, the recovery of ‘criticism and self-criticism’ sessions, party unity … these and more are commonplace today. The result has been that the CPC has risen in popular consciousness from an embarrassment to a party of which people are proud and which they trust.

But among the rest of the population, the task was much tougher. Communist billboards and placards make a small impression, although they are a welcome part of the urban landscape these days. The many levels of police, from citizen watch groups, through the local ‘public peace’ officers, to serious crime investigation are more comprehensive.

But the question remained: how really to breakthrough and effect fundamental change in daily behaviour? Think laterally, as is the custom, and consider China’s world-leading technology sector – hence the Social Credit System.

First trialled in 2013, officially announced in 2014, tested through the big tech companies like Alibaba, expanded to more and more places, the Social Credit System is now a reality in ever more parts of everyday life.

By early 2019, the results of the system have become quite clear. The big focus until now has been debt defaulters. It could be anyone, from those trying to skip paying tax, avoiding train fares, or a business trying to slip away from a bigger debt. As a result, a staggering 17.46 million people have been banned from taking flights since 2013, with a further 5.47 million people banned from boarding high-speed trains. A loss of revenue? Maybe, but like the anti-corruption campaign, it is popularly seen as more than worth it. On a positive side, 3.51 million had repaid their debts and fines within the time limit to avoid a negative score on social credit.

While we are on the negative side, let me add that in Beijing alone 5,028 people had been banned from taking planes by the end of January, 2019. Why? 70 percent of them had carried or consigned dangerous and prohibited goods, and almost 23 percent – believe it or not – had fabricated identification for flights.

The old way of doing things is very quickly passing. Thus far, about 150 penalties apply, including prohibitions on violators holding public office, taking air and high-speed train travel, making property purchases, seeking certain jobs and educational opportunities. There is widespread agreement that penalties need to be developed further to be more effective.

There is, of course, a positive side: you can easily exit the list of defaulters by simply paying your overdue tax, fine, debt or fee. And if you build up good social credit by following the rule of law, you can get more favourable treatment for job applications, education, government support for start-ups, social security, and – for foreigners – work visas.

At a deeper level, what has been the result? Back in 2010, a magazine conducted a survey and found that more than 70 percent of the respondents said that they did not trust their local governments. Anecdotally, I used to find a decade ago that old party members were embarrassed about the party itself. Fast forward to 2019 and the results are telling. In the monthly Ipsos survey, Chinese citizens average 90 percent confidence in the direction the country of heading. Further, the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer noted that trust in the government and its institutions continues to rise among the general public: 86 percent of them have such trust, while it is even higher among educated younger people. As for party members, they are now keen not only on the CPC, but also to promote its value internationally. How things change.

It should be no surprise that the vast majority of Chinese people are firmly in favour of the Social Credit System. After all, trust and honesty are not merely traditional Chinese values, but they are also hallmarks of communist ethics.

Let us go back to the fake ID peddlers near where I work. They have completely gone by now. This is not merely because the local police have cracked down on them, but more because no-one wants to buy a fake ID only to get busted at the train station or airport. This once lucrative business has simply dried up. As have more and more of the dodgy practices I mentioned earlier.

In short, socialist rule of law has found an extraordinarily effective means of implementation.

Chinese democracy in action: The annual two sessions

As the first of the annual ‘two sessions’ of parliamnet opened today (3 March 2019), a rather useful and insightful article appeared in Xinhua News. It explains clearly the development and nature of Chinese democracy, or socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics. The article is copied below:

Every year, just before China’s annual two sessions, there are voices in the West declaring that China’s democracy cannot truly represent the people. But the Chinese people disagree.

Nearly 3,000 lawmakers and more than 2,000 political advisors are gathering in Beijing to forge consensus and pool wisdom for the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects, the first of the country’s two centenary goals.

This is the mission of the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC), and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), two important platforms for China’s own style of democracy.

Democracy is not a decoration, but a means of solving problems.

The true meaning of people’s democracy is finding the best way to coordinate the aspirations and demands of the whole of society and making decisions that conform to the long-term interest of the people.

It is different from a system where some here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians obtain power in turn, often failing to keep their pre-elections promises.

To govern, in China, also means to serve.

While parties in the West increasingly represent special interest groups, Chinese democracy sees people, not capital, as the most important factor in society.

Chinese leaders are listening attentively to the people and responding to their demands.

The priorities of the Chinese government are how to keep the economy growing, provide better education, housing, environment, employment and healthcare for almost 1.4 billion people and maintaining social cohesion and peace and while achieving greater prosperity for all the people.

Over the past decades, China has been improving dramatically, not only economically but also ecologically, socially and culturally. China’s independence, sovereignty, security and the interests of development are well safeguarded.

China’s GDP has grown to 90 trillion yuan (13.4 trillion U.S. dollars), contributing about 30 percent of the world’s economic growth. Now the country has the world’s largest middle-income population. By 2020, there will be no extreme poverty in China. If this is not a proof of Chinese democracy at work, then what is?

China is a large country. Choosing the right path for its political progress is a fundamental and vital issue. The country began to learn about democracy a century ago, but soon found Western politics did not work here. Decades of turmoil and civil war followed.

It was after the founding of the People’s Republic of China that the country developed its own style of democracy. The first session of the first CPPCC National Committee was held in 1949. The first NPC, the highest organ of state power, was convened in 1954. The two platforms have been witnessing the vitality of Chinese democracy under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.

The system is an integration of the leadership of the CPC, the running of the country by the people, and law-based governance, which is guaranteed by the effective implementation of “democratic centralism,” the fundamental organizational principle of the CPC and the principle of China’s political system as stipulated by the country’s Constitution.

It ensures that the CPC’s positions become the will of the country through legally established procedures, and on the other hand, the CPC acts within the scope of the country’s Constitution and the law, and leads the people in effectively governing the country and engaging in democratic elections, consultations, decision-making, management, and oversight.

Rather than creating policy conundrums or delays – as is often the case with parliaments in Western nations when the ruling party or coalition does not hold a majority – the people’s congress system lends support to and supervises the governments, supervision commissions, courts and procuratorates to achieve effective governance and rule of law.

The NPC is the top legislative body. Lawmakers must learn about the most pressing needs of the people as well as national urgencies and push forward national policies. Deputies who fail to fulfill their duties lose their positions.

Chinese democracy also includes multi-level and institutionalized consultation. The CPPCC is an important organ for multiparty cooperation and political consultation led by the CPC.

The CPC and non-Communist parties cooperate with each other, working together for the advancement of socialism and striving to improve people’s standard of living. The relationship maintains political stability and social harmony and ensures efficient policy making and implementation.

There are also various mechanisms available for the public to give input into policy making, including self-governance at the grassroots level such as village committees.

Some traditional Western political theories state that it is inevitable that China will pursue Western democracy once it becomes well-off, eventually fully following Western political systems.

This reflects arrogance and self-indulgence, a warning signal that the model is in decline.

China wants to learn as much as possible from the West and work with the West. However, the Chinese are, just as many Westerners have become, wary of the deep troubles of a capital-manipulated and conflict-driven model of democracy.

China has never sought to export its system to other countries. Its example just shows there is more than one model of democracy in the world that can produce good governance.

If the West wants to retain and renew its values, it is time to stop judging other countries by Western norms and rules.

Democracy is a living organism. Any model that refuses to develop to meet the demands of time will only end up in the dust.

Top ten issues for this year’s parliamentary sessions in China

On Sunday, 3 March, 2019, the annual ‘two sessions’ will meet once again in Beijing. They are the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the highest legislative and advisory bodies in the country. Too little is known outside China about these core structures of Chinese governance, which involves more than 5,000 legislators and avisors, so here is a summary of results from a survey conducted by the People’s Daily. The survery, which asked people to list the top ten issues of public concern, garnered more than 4.4 million responses.

Chinese Rule of Law and Religion

In a small number of countries (former colonisers all) somewhat sensational and misinformed accounts have appeared of a new wave of religious ‘repression’ in China, targeted at Christian groups and certain forms of Islam (the Uyghur in Xinjiang). Crosses have been removed, churches have been closed down, pictures of Mao Zedong have been installed, and misguided believers have undertaken vocational and ideological training. What they do not say is that the only religious activities they mention are actually illegal. Why? They constitute so-called ‘house churches’, which are not registered with the government and are thereby outside the law. In this respect, they are no different from small Muslim cells in some (usually western) parts of China where extremism and radicalism are promoted. Obviously, these activities too are illegal.

What these reports miss is the underlying reason for such a development (I am never sure whether this is deliberate or due to ignorance). The reason lies in consistent, uniform and countrywide application of socialist rule of law. Since I have addressed the rule of law in an earlier piece, all that is needed here is a summary.

Rule of Law

On 11 March 2018, the annual National People’s Congress amended the preamble to the Constitution, from ‘improve the socialist legal system’ to ‘improve the socialist rule of law’. The change was only in the final character of the phrase, from 制 to 治 – although they have exactly the same pronunciation: zhì. Significantly, there is no inherent opposition between ‘legal system (fazhi)’ and ‘rule of law (fazhi)’: the former designates the legal system as one among others, such as economic, political and cultural systems; the latter indicates that law is foundational to all the other systems.

Why the shift? The reason lies in the opposition between ‘rule of law (fazhi)’ and ‘rule of human beings (renzhi)’. From the late 1970s to the 1990s, debate over this tension led to a clear preference for rule of law, since ‘rule of human beings’ recalled the ‘evil fruit (eguo)’ of the Cultural Revolution and the unwitting evocation of the sage-king whose virtue was key. In light of this debate, ‘rule of human beings’ came to influence the understanding of ‘legal system’, which at times bore the sense of ‘rule by law’. More specifically, the existence of a legal system was not enough to prevent ‘rule by human beings’. Thus, from 1997, we find the promotion of rule of law, or literally a ‘socialist rule of law country (shehuizhuyi fazhi guo)’, which entered the Constitution in 1999.

The test of all this is in practice, where the key phrase is ‘governing the country according to law (yifazhiguo)’, particularly ‘in all respects’ or ‘in an all-round way (quanmian)’. As Xi Jinping put it in his report to the CPC nineteenth congress in 2017: ‘We must promote the rule of law and work to ensure sound lawmaking, strict law enforcement, impartial administration of justice, and the observance of law by everyone’. It is precisely Xi Jinping – who is seen by some as an old-style communist hardman – who is assiduously promoting socialist rule of law. The implications are that everyone in China – from the highest officials through citizens to foreigners – is subject to the rule of law.


The impact is being felt in all areas, whether prostitution, corrupt CPC officials, foreigners on improper visas … Long is the list, but I would like to focus on the revised Regulation on Religious Affairs (published in 2017, coming into effect in early 2018). It is by no means new, for it continues an emphasis already apparent in the 1982 Constitution. As article 36 of that Constitution state: ‘Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief … The state protects legitimate religious activities. No one may use religion to carry out counter-revolutionary activities or activities that disrupt public order, harm the health of citizens or obstruct the educational systems of the state. No religious affairs may be dominated by any foreign country’.

The revised regulation of 2018 may be summarised in article 3: ‘protecting the legal, stopping the illegal, containing the extreme, resisting infiltration, and combating crimes’. Let us see what these phrases mean.

Protecting the legal (baohu hefa): legal religious activities are not only permitted, but also proactively protected by government at all levels. Examples of such activities include the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) churches of Protestant persuasion, the 2018 agreement between the Chinese government and Vatican on uniting the two arms of the Roman Catholic Church in China, Islamic institutions, Buddhism and so on. As the recent ‘white paper’ indicates, China now has 200 million believers of various faiths, of which the legal forms of Christianity number about 50 million. In other words, if you want to practice your religion in China, there are more than enough legally recognised ways to do so.

Stopping the illegal (zhizhi feifa): unregistered religious activities are illegal, including the ‘house churches’ that have been the focus of some sensationalised accounts in the small number of countries mentioned earlier. Through a complex and diverse history, some ‘house churches’ have developed more conservative evangelical theology, anti-communist assumptions and can be subject to foreign interventions by conservative international Christian bodies. Further, they can see themselves as the only genuine form of Christianity, dismissing organisations such as TSPM and its associated China Christian Council as ‘compromised’ or ‘heretical’. How is ‘stopping the illegal’ practiced? More directly, unregistered meeting places have been closed down, which has risen to a new level after the revised regulation – at times heavy-handedly and with reprimands from the government. Indirectly and informally, individual TSPM members often encourage those involved in ‘house churches’ to join registered churches, while TSPM ministers ensure that congregations are not tempted by ‘house church’ claims.

Containing the extreme (ezhi jiduan): the focus is not merely on terrorism in Xinjiang and Tibet, but also intolerance among other religious groups. Evangelical Christians, who tend to be found in unregistered ‘house churches’, are mostly at fault on this matter. In the new regulation and the white paper, key terms relating to these concerns appear: religious harmony (zongjiao hemu), social harmony (shehui hexie), stability or steadiness (wending) and security (anquan) – although each term is difficult to translate.

Resisting infiltration (diyu shentou): no religious organisation should be influenced or controlled by an outside body – a consistent feature of anti-colonial sovereignty.

Combatting crimes (daji fanzui): if ‘illegal’ includes sins of omission, ‘crime’ designates sins of commission.

By now it should be obvious what ‘governing the country according to the rule of law’ means in relation to religion. However, it is not a Western liberal approach to rule of law, which is framed to protect capitalism and the private individual. Instead, as an article by Chen Youwu and Li Buyun (2018) observes, ‘socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics’ arises from the fact that China follows the socialist road, which entails Marxist jurisprudence, takes account of China’s concrete conditions, socialist democracy and a socialist market economy.

To sum up: as socialist rule of law is being enforced across the country, everyone and every organisation is subject to this rule of law, which is central to the construction of socialism. In this respect, illegal religious activities are no different from: foreigners who operate in China under false pretences; the scam operators who used to be prevalent a decade or so ago; prostitution which has effectively been shut down in more and more parts of China; the fake student ID cards that used to be for sale close by where I live in Beijing; or the government official who secreted away monies in offshore accounts (these are rare indeed as I write).

Some may wish to practice religion in China and some may not, but if you want to do so, it is possible in perfectly legal ways. If not, watch out. The socialist rule of law is here to stay.

Pre-publication version of ‘Sovereignty and Human Rights’ available

The final item of three on human rights from a Chinese Marxist perspective is now available. It is my most complete study on the question, offering a comparison between Western European liberal and Chinese Marxist traditions. It may be found at Australian Academy of Humanties symposia website.

‘Sovereignty and Human Rights: A Comparison between the Western European liberal and Chinese Marxist Traditions’. Link here.

Socialist Rule of Law with Chinese Characteristics

Recently, I came across two assertions, peddled by Western liberal scholars who should know better:

1) China does not have ‘rule of law’, but only ‘rule by law’. The implication is that law is a tool or weapon of governance, and that the government itself is not subject to the law.

2) Since Xi Jinping became chairman, China has experienced an unremitting pattern of ‘authoritarian repression’. Governmental corruption, foreigners working under false pretences, unregistered educational institutions, illegal religious gatherings, malicious social media, shadow banking, prostitution – these and much more have all felt the sting. To use a metaphor used by Xi himself, it is like a hot chili dish: many have been sweating under the pressure of scrutiny.

But it is rarely asked what lies behind such a move. Is it simply because the determined Chinese government is by nature ‘authoritarian’, as Western European political terminology likes to characterise communism? Is it due to the trawling out of old Cold War rhetoric, since global communism is once more a threat to the fragile liberal ‘world order’? Or is it because Xi Jinping is simply an old-style Leninist hard man? The speculation could go on, but it routinely misses the mark.

Instead, we need to focus on the development of a socialist rule of law in China. This task entails engaging with the careful scholarship and often complex legal arguments that elaborate on the question of rule of law. While there is a plethora of such scholarship in China, I would like to focus on two recent and detailed studies: He Qinhua and Qi Kaiyue, ‘Rule by Law Becomes Rule of Law: The Constitutional Amendment Promotes Construction of a Socialist Rule of Law’ (2018); Chen Youwu and Li Buyun, ‘Forty Years of the Theory of Rule of Law in China: Development, Innovation and Prospects’ (2018). Both articles use the framework of historical development, especially over the four decades of the reform and opening up, but in the process they provide careful assessments of the debates over key legal terms and the overall framework of the construction of socialism.

Key Terms

On the 11th of March, 2018, at the thirteenth National People’s Congress, the preamble to the Chinese Constitution was amended from ‘improve the socialist legal system’ to ‘improve the socialist rule of law’. The change was only in the final character of the phrase, from 制 to 治 – although they have exactly the same pronunciation: zhì. The amendment may seem simple enough, but – as might be expected – it has a long history and entails careful differences in meaning. The following is an effort to explain, as clearly as possible, what it means.

Let me begin by identifying the main terms used in debates and government policies.

Fazhi (法制): This term is a two-character abbreviation of falü zhidu (法律制度), which has the meaning of ‘legal system’, although it is occasionally translated as ‘rule by law’. The term designates the various institutions that comprise the whole system of law in a country.

Fazhi (法治): Rule of law, with the sense that the law (fa)[1] rules or governs. In this case, zhi (治) has the senses of administer (guanli) and govern (zhili). This formulation raises the law from being one component of a larger whole to being a determining framework for the whole.

Renzhi (人治): This is the ‘rule of human beings’, and is the opposite of ‘rule of law’.

Yifazhiguo (依法治国): The most common phrase of all, with the meaning of ‘governing the country according to law’. The character yi (依) has the senses of ‘depend on’, ‘comply with’, and thus ‘in accordance with’. In many respects, ‘governing the country according to law’ is the practical reality of ‘rule of law’.

Shehuizhuyi fazhi (社会主义法治): ‘Socialist rule of law’, in clear distinction from a capitalist and ‘Western’ rule of law.

Legal System (Rule by Law) and Rule of Law

Let us focus initially on the relationship between ‘legal system’ and ‘rule of law’, especially in light of the constitutional amendment of 2018 (He and Qi 2018, 7-8).

From ancient usage to the multi-volume Cihai dictionary,[2] ‘legal system’ appears with two overlapping senses: a static meaning with reference to the existing laws and regulations of a country; a dynamic sense, which includes formulating legislation, revision, enforcement and supervision.[3] Further, a legal system is one system among others, comparable to the economic, political and cultural systems of a country. All of these are systematic components of a larger whole. Obviously, the term is in its basic sense quite neutral: every country has its legal system, in both static and dynamic dimensions.

As for ‘rule of law’ (fazhi), the modern Chinese meaning has three influences. The first is from the Western liberal tradition’s notion of ‘rule of law’. Chinese scholars are more than willing to acknowledge this influence, especially its role in spurring the development of a distinct Chinese approach. At the same time, they are also very clear that the concept should not be appropriated in its full liberal sense, in which rule of law has been developed within a capitalist framework in order to bolster bourgeois democracy and the sacrosanct private individual. Instead, it has – like Marxism – been ‘sinified’ (zhongguohua). Thus – secondly – a common move is to go back to classical texts to locate usages of fazhi. We need to be very careful here, since ancient usages of fazhi do not have the modern sense of ‘rule of law’. Instead, the basic position is that if standards, regulations, and thereby the law is the underlying basis and is systematically enforced, a country’s governance will be stable and strong; if not, the result will be chaos.[4] Intriguingly, it was the oft-maligned ‘Legalists’ (fajia)[5] who proposed that ‘strong governance arises from standards and the law’ (zheng qiang shengyu fa), and that governance should work ‘according to law as the basis’ (yifaweiben) (He and Qi 2018, 7).

Third – and most importantly – is the Marxist tradition. This is where the ‘socialist rule of law comes into play. As Chen and Li (2018, 73) observe, there is a fundamental difference between ‘socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics’ and the rule of law found in Western liberal traditions. How? China follows the socialist road, which entails Marxist jurisprudence, takes account of China’s concrete conditions, and embodies the will the Communist Party and the people.

In light of this brief exposition, it remains unclear why there was a distinct shift in the constitutional amendment of 2018, from ‘legal system’ to ‘rule of law’. On initial appearances, there appears to be relatively little conflict between the two terms, for they demarcate distinct realms. A legal system has both static and dynamic senses, and it is one among a number other systems in any country. Rule of law is different, for it frames not only the nature of the legal system but also the other systems in question.

Rule of Law versus Rule by Human Beings

At this point, another crucial distinction needs to come into play: between rule of law and rule of human beings (renzhi 人治). As Chen and Li point out (2018, 67-68), this opposition was the real impetus for emphasising the rule of law.[6]

On this matter, the debates from 1978 to 1997 are instructive. They may be divided into three positions: 1) Laws are made human beings and carried out by human beings, which in a Marxist framework entails the proletariat, Communist Party and people. It follows – so the argument went – that all a country needs is a legal system developed by human beings; it does not need rule of law; 2) The opposition between ‘rule of law’ and ‘rule of human beings’ is a false one, for a country requires both; 3) The superiority of the rule of law over the rule of human beings. Thus, the rule of human beings risks emphasising that it matters not whether the law is good or bad, but rather that the ruler is wise and virtuous (sheng zhu xian jun). By contrast, the rule of law is inseparable from socialist democracy: socialist democracy is the basis of rule of law and rule of law is the guarantee of socialist democracy.

The third position came to be accepted by the end of the 1990s, for the following reasons. To begin with, one can see a certain influence of ‘rule of human beings’ on the ‘legal system’. In its proper usage, ‘legal system’ is a neutral term – as we have seen earlier – but when connected with the ‘rule of human beings’ it may become ‘rule by law’, in which the law becomes an instrument of rule. In fact, it was precisely this influence that led to the alternative translation of ‘legal system’ (法制) as ‘rule by law’. The catch is that such a translation may be misleadingly ambiguous in English: on the one hand, it can mean ‘rule according to law’; on the other hand, it may suggest ‘by means of’, with law as a tool of governance, deployed by those in power as they see fit.

This connection facilitated a greater emphasis on rule of law, and thus the shift from ‘legal system’ – now understood as ‘rule by law’ – to ‘rule of law’. At the same time, there continue efforts to ensure that ‘legal system’ remains uncontaminated by ‘rule of human beings’. This approach is especially evident in the study by He and Qi: after delineating the different positions concerning ‘legal system’ and ‘rule of law’,[7] they argue that one must maintain distinct senses for both terms but also maintain their mutual viability. They are distinct entities but they operate in a fruitful dialectical relationship: the legal system requires rule of law to enable its improvement; at the same time, rule of law is meaningless without a legal system in which rule of law can be embodied. In other words, the legal system is the basis of the rule of law, but rule of law constitutes the goal and value of the legal system (He and Qi 2018, 11).

Further, we may identify a distinct historical reference (recent and ancient), which is embodied in the observation that the ‘rule of human beings’ brings eguo – evil fruit or results (He and Qi 2018, 14). The more recent reference is to the trauma of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in which Mao Zedong – through the ‘cult of personality’ – was raised to a whole new level as the leader who would keep matters on the right path against all those who would ‘deviate’. This is clearly the allusion in Deng Xiaoping’s observation in 1986: ‘Through the reform, we intend to straighten out the relationship between the rule of law (法治) and the rule of man (人制)’ (Deng 1986, 176-77). The twist is that during the Cultural Revolution Mao unwittingly embodied the ancient Confucian sage-king, whose virtuous will would ensure that all was good irrespective of whatever laws were in place. And this is the more ancient register of this point, for there is a tendency in Confucianism is to elevate the ‘rule of human beings’ above the ‘rule of law’ – as long as the human beings in question were rulers who embodied virtue. After the Cultural Revolution, the response has been to emphasise more and more that the rule of law requires human rationality, legal principles that are conducive to the maintenance of legal authority, and the need to protect human rights for the sake of a good and orderly society (He and Qi 2018, 8).[8]

Governing the Country According to Law

Finally, we come to the practical implications of all this complex legal debate. The practical dimension is embodied in the phrase, ‘governing the country according to law’ (yifazhiguo). In other words, this phrase indicates the connection between theory and practice: the development of the theory of rule of law is inescapably related to the practice of governing the country according to law. ‘Governing the country according to law’ is particularly favoured by Chen and Li – not least because it is a preferred designation by Xi Jinping – and they connect its development closely with the four decades of the reform and opening up (gaige kaifang). They identify (2018, 65-67) three main stages in its development:

1) 1978-1996, the early stage of fermentation, in which rule of law begins to appear as a term, in opposition to the rule of human beings.

2) 1997-2011, the gradual formation of the rule of law, with the landmark identification in September of 1997, at the fifteenth national congress of the CPC, that connected ‘governing the country according to law’ and building a – literally – ‘socialist rule of law country’. This phrase was incorporated in the Constitution in 1999.

3) 2012 to the present, which entails the development in all respects of both practice and theory. This period is based on the principle (from 2012) that ‘the rule of law is the fundamental way of ruling the country’. This principle was elaborated further at subsequent congresses and in statements by Xi Jinping.

This is all very well, but what does it mean in practice? The key term here is ‘in all respects’ or ‘in an all-round way’ (quanmian). At this point it is best to quote Xi Jinping, from his lengthy report to the nineteenth congress of the CPC in2017: ‘We must promote the rule of law and work to ensure sound lawmaking, strict law enforcement, impartial administration of justice, and the observance of law by everyone’. He added that the law must be ‘enforced in a strict, procedure-based, impartial, and non-abusive way’ (Xi 2017b, 35; 2017a, 16).

Simply put, it means that everyone in China – whether citizens or foreigners – are subject to the observance of the law. The socialist rule of law applies to all, from the highest official in the Politburo, through the common person working hard for the advancement of China, to any foreigner who happens to be in China for whatever reason.

To return to the (deliberately) misconstrued point with which I began: it is not that Xi Jinping is a communist hardman, repressing what Western liberals regard as ‘freedoms’. And it is certainly not the case that socialist China deploys ‘rule by law’ to achieve its aims – the use of this phrase is an ignorant and malicious misreading of the actual situation in China. Instead, it means that Xi Jinping and the government are serious about strict observance of the socialist rule of law. Anyone who takes time to study this matter will soon realise that this is the reality in China today.

These days, you simply cannot get away with paying lip-service to the law and doing otherwise, with a carefully targeted wad of cash for the official involved. This applies to a whole range of activities that were regarded as somewhat normal a decade ago: prostitution, which has been effectively shut down in more and more places in China; unregistered educational institutions that used compliant visa officials to give foreigners dodgy visas; fake student identity cards for discount travel in the holiday seasons; gifts during festivals for compliant government officials; unregistered religious activities, through which foreigners used to think they might undermine the Chinese government; foreign involvement in protests in Hong Kong in the recent past; or indeed foreigners working in China in a grey zone of tourist or business visas.

The list could go on and on, but the point should be clear: socialist rule of law in China is here to stay and it will be developed much further.


Chen Youwu and Li Buyun. 2018. ‘Zhongguo fazhi lilun sishi nian: Fazhan, chuangxin ji qianjing’. Zhengzhi yu falü 2018 (12):64-75.

Deng Xiaoping. 1986 [2008]. ‘Guanyu zhengzhi tizhi gaige wenti (1986.09-11)’. In Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 3, 176-80. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe.

Graham, Angus Charles. 1989. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Early China. La Salle: Open Court.

He Qinhua and Qi Kaiyue. 2018. ‘Fazhi chengwei fazhi: Xianfa xiugai tuijin shehuizhuyi fazhi jianshe’. Shandong shehui kexue 275:5-15.

Liu An. 2010. The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China. Translated by John Major, Sarah Queen, Andrew Meyer, Harold Roth, Michael Puett and Judson Murray. New York: Columbia University Press.

Xi Jinping. 2017a. Juesheng quanmian jiancheng xiaokang shehui, duoqu xinshidai zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi weida shengli (2017.10.18). Beijing: Renmin chubanshe.

———. 2017b. Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era: Report to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.


[1] I follow the modern Chinese approach in seeing fa (法) as primarily meaning ‘law’. Traces of its earlier meanings may be found in its semantic field, especially the two senses of ‘method’ and ‘standard’.

[2] The earliest appearance is in the ‘Yueling’ (Proceedings of Governments in Different months) chapter of the Book of Rites, dating back to the fifth-second centuries BCE. Here we find ‘restore the legal system’ (xiu fazhi), in the dynamic sense ( The Cihai is the most comprehensive dictionary in China, having first been published in 1915. It will appear in yet another revised version in 2019. The Cihai distinguished three senses of ‘legal system’: the widest, which incorporates all the laws (written and unwritten) of a state and its various political, economic and cultural systems; a medium, which incorporates legal system and legal order; and the narrowest, the legal system itself (falü zhidu). The narrowest is the most common usage.

[3] One may see this distinction in the use of the zhi (制) character, which can mean both ‘system’ (zhidu) and ‘formulation’ (zhiding).

[4] This is particularly the case with Huainanzi (compiled in the second century BCE), in the ‘Fanlun ’ chapter: ‘Knowing the origin of law-governance [法治], one can change with the times; not knowing the source of law-governance [法治], although following antiquity, one ends in chaos’ (zhi fazhi suo you sheng, ze ying shi’er bian; buzhi fazhi zhi yuan, sui xun gu zhong luan) ( Or, as the relatively recent translation of the Huainanzi puts it, somewhat more voluminously: ‘‘If you understand from whence law and governance arise, then you can respond to the times and alter. If you do not understand the origin of law and governance, even if you accord with antiquity, you will end up in disorder’ (Liu 2010, 611).

[5] ‘Legalism’ presents us with a classic trap of inadequate terminology that continues to be used widely, albeit always with caveats: the ancient fa is not restricted to ‘law’ and they were not a ‘school’ as such. Added to this is the denigration – based on selective readings of certain texts – of ‘Legalism’ as ‘an amoral science of statecraft’ (Graham 1989, 267-92).

[6] Notably, the fabled Cihai dictionary makes this distinction: rule of law is opposed to rule by human whim (He and Qi 2018, 8)

[7] He and Qi also delineate three positions, although now in relation to ‘legal system’ and ‘rule of law’ (2018, 8-11): 1) the two terms largely mean the same, whether ruling ‘according to’ law, or ‘rule of law’; 2) they are quite distinct, where ‘legal system’ can tend towards an instrumentalist and autocratic view, while ‘rule of law’ is closely connected with (socialist) democracy, the universally binding function of law, and the ability for the term to be more closely attuned with the times; 3) connection and difference, in which one can see certain overlaps (as with the first point), but also distinct differences (second point). Perhaps the best formulation is that every country has a legal system, among other systems, but not every country has rule of law.

[8] We may detect here an influence from the ‘Legalist’ tradition – which was praised by Mao in his anti-Confucian moments as an alternative path for the sinification of Marxism – with their implacable emphasis on the foundation function of law.

Lousy Evidence: On the Uselessness of ‘Defector’ Testimony (with relation to Xinjiang)

Some years ago now, there was self-styled ‘historian’ called Robert Conquest. He began his career, in 1948, working for the innocuously sounding ‘Information Research Department’, or IRD. This was an anti-communist unit under the auspices of the British Foreign Office. It was kept secret as long as possible (but the Russians knew about it) and was focused on developing anti-Soviet propaganda, in colonial countries and in the British labour movement. It soon became the largest unit in the Foreign Office.

Apart from a significant number of ‘defectors’ from the Soviet Union – in other words, anti-communist operators from the Russian bourgeoisie and aristocracy – it also employed a certain Robert Conquest. While undertaking this worthwhile task, Conquest also gathered much ‘testimony’ from the ‘defectors’. By 1956, Conquest had more than enough material and set out to become a ‘freelance’ historian and writer.

The result was a series of works, of which the most well-known are:

1968. The Great Terror: A Reassessment.

1986. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine.

1992. Stalin: Breaker of Nations.

I almost forgot the most intriguing work of all, co-authored with Jon White. It is called What to Do When the Russians Come: A Survivor’s Handbook, published in 1984.

These works appeared at the right time, when the ‘West’ was desperate for information to demonise not merely Stalin, but communism as such. In these works, we find the beginnings of the notions of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the ‘Holodomor’ (Ukrainian ‘Holocaust’). For Conquest, communism was simply an evil, a blight on history, and the communist party was a secretive, paranoid outfit bent on a hellish world domination.

There was one problem: the nature of his ‘evidence’. Conquest relied on the material supplied by the aforesaid ‘émigrés’ or ‘defectors’, who had escaped the evil clutches of communism to tell their stories. Lurid stories they were, with one competing with the other to tell yet another tale. Let us compare this with ‘defectors’ from the DPRK (North Korea). They are paid 1 billion won (almost USD 1 million) if they have ‘useful’ information. You can imagine what sort of ‘information’ they are keen to supply.

Real historians have been less than impressed with Conquest’s methods. For example, already back in 1986 Robert Thurston described Conquest’s methods as ‘deskbound parochialism’ that made use of ‘lousy evidence’. In other words, it is simply unreliable for any serious historical research.

Fast-forward to 2018-2019 and the situation in Xinjiang, China. As the confected narrative of ‘ethnic cleansing’ among the Uyghur minority nationality has begun to unravel in light of the full story, what have the media in a small number of former colonial countries begun to do? Trot out a ‘defector’. This person proceeds to give a heart-rending account of ‘torture’ at the hands of the evil Chinese authorities (are not all communists incarnations of the devil?).

This is an old trick, used on many occasions in the past – the Soviet Union, DPRK, China in relation to Tibet, and now in relation to Xinjiang, China.

But it remains pure anti-communist propaganda, in the tradition of Robert Conquest. It is simply lousy evidence.

Why is the debate concerning the socialist market economy settled in China?

When I asked a Chinese colleague recently about the socialist market economy, he said ‘why would you be interested in that? The debate is settled and no-one is much concerned with it’. I did point out that some international observers still do not understand the socialist market economy. For example, the EU acknowledges that China has a socialist market economy, but then misunderstands it: for the EU, it entails state ‘intervention’ in an autonomous ‘market’. Nothing could be further from the truth, for they use the framework of a capitalist market economy.

In my ongoing research, I have come across what is widely recognised as the most influential study on the socialist market economy, one that largely settled debates and defined the breakthrough. It is by Huang Nansen and entitled (in English translation), ‘The Philosophical Foundations of the Theory of the Socialist Market Economy’ (Marxism and Reality, 1994, pp. 1-6). Huang identifies two philosophical questions that lie at the basis of the theory and practice of a socialist market economy: contradiction analysis of socialist society; the relationship between universality (pubianxing) and particularity (teshuxing).

Contradiction Analysis

In terms of the first, he draws on an assumed approach that has much depth in Chinese Marxism: contradiction analysis. Briefly put, in his 1937 Yan’an lectures on dialectical materialism, one of Mao’s major breakthroughs was the necessity of contradictions after a communist revolution and during the long construction of socialism. The key text would later, with revisions, appear as ‘On Contradiction’ (1937), to be followed by ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People’ (1957). For Huang, the important points are, first, that Mao identified the basic contradiction as one between the forces and relations of production, or between the economic base and the superstructure, and, second, that such contradictions should always be managed in a way that is non-antagonistic (feiduikangxing de maodun). While the second point is a given and remains a cornerstone today, Huang faults Mao for his misdirected application of the first. Thus, Mao felt that the manifestation of this contradiction appeared in terms of ownership: if the basic contradiction of capitalist society is between socialised production and private ownership of the means of production, then socialism should overcome this contradiction through public ownership of all means of production. The result, argues Huang, was a decline in production.

Instead, the way the forces-relations of production contradiction appears is not in terms of productive forces and ownership, but between productive forces and economic structure (jingji tizhi). With this breakthrough – enabled by the circle around Deng Xiaoping – it was possible to develop a socialist market economy. To find out how, and indeed what ‘economic system’ means, we need to wait until the next section, for he now addresses the relationship between a planned economy and a socialist market economy. Was the former a mistake? No, for it is appropriate immediately after a communist revolution, but only for a specific period. A planned economy works initially to liberate and develop productive forces, but eventually its limits appear and further development requires a shift to a socialist market economy. I am not sure this temporal argument is the best way to see the relationship between planned and socialist market economies, for they both continue to work together (more later).

Finally (for this section on contradiction analysis), does this argument entail a shift away from public ownership? Not at all, but once ownership is not seen as the primary contradiction, both public and private may develop in a symbiotic relationship, albeit with private ownership in a recognised but subordinate role. Let me add here that twenty-five years later this question takes on a whole new dimension, so it requires further work.

Universality and Particularity

The second philosophical problem concerns universality (pubianxing) and particularity (teshuxing), or what he also calls commonality (gongxing) and individuality (gexing). Succinctly stated, Huang’s argument is while a market economy is a universal or common reality, its integration with a capitalist or socialist socio-economic system evinces the particularity of each type of market economy.

This argument is based on a crucial terminological distinction, between a structure and a system. The Chinese terms are tizhi (体制) and zhidu (制度), which are somewhat difficult to translate in a way that indicates their differences, for they are often rendered with the same words in English. Tizhi in this case is a specific organisation, arrangement, method or structure. For the sake of conciseness, I use ‘structure’. For example, Huang speaks of a ‘market economic structure [shichang jingji tizhi]’ In his argument, this structure is clearly a component or part of a larger system. The term for this overall and foundational system is zhidu, which embraces the realms of politics, economics and society. To make his usage clear, Huang refers to the ‘basic economic system of society [shehui de jiben jingji zhidu]’, which may – in this context – be either capitalist or socialist. It follows that a specific structure, whether a planned economic structure or a market economic structure, may be a universal, while the overall system is a particularity.

With this distinction, Huang points out that in the past it was not common to distinguish between the two, for reasonably good historical reasons. Thus, the market economic structure was seen as inseparable from a capitalist system, while a planned economic structure was part and parcel of a socialist system. But historical developments since the Second World War have indicated the increased tendency in capitalist systems for planned structures, while in socialist systems – he notes Yugoslavia – some elements of a market economic structure began to emerge. These developments enabled the awareness of the distinction between specific structure and overall system. The outcome: it is quite possible, if not necessary, for a basic socialist socio-economic system to make use of a market economic structure. This was, he points out, the distinct insight of Deng Xiaoping and his comrades.

Of course, this raises the question: is a market economy neutral, like machinery or the natural sciences. Not at all, for as a market economy is integrated within the overall system, its nature is shaped by that system. Thus, a socialist market economy is qualitatively different from a capitalist market economy. Now the relationship between universality and particularity takes another turn: while a market economy may have a basic commonality, in terms of the means and basis for the logistic functions of a market economy, it also takes on the specificity of the system in which it is shaped, whether socialist or capitalist. The conclusion is that one may therefore speak of a socialist market economic structure (tizhi) within a socialist system (zhidu).

The final matter concerns what distinguishes the socialist market economy. Huang identifies five features: 1) It contains a multiplicity of components, but public ownership remains the core economic driver; 2) While enterprises in a socialist market economy must be viable, their main purpose is not profit at all costs, but social benefit (gongtongti fuwu) and meeting the needs of all people; 3) It deploys the old socialist principle of from each according to ability and to each according to work, limiting exploitation and wealth polarisation, and seeking common prosperity; 4) The guide for action (to parse Engels) always remains Marxism; 5) The primary value should always be socialist collectivism (shehuizhuyi de jitizhuyi) rather than individualism.

Huang closes with a timely warning: the shift to a socialist market economy is by no means easy, for it entails profound social transformation, which will entail many unforeseen problems and challenges ahead.

I have taken some time with this contribution, since Huang’s sophisticated analysis effectively summed up debates and established the philosophical foundations for a socialist market economy. Many of his insights remain valid and one can see how they have been and are implemented, albeit not without a few significant problems on the way. At the same time, it is twenty-five years since Huang’s study and Chinese socialism, let alone the socialist market economy, have taken some major steps. The tell-tale signal is the awareness that China has almost achieved the ‘great leap [weida feiyue]’ to socio-economic wellbeing, and that it is embarking on the leap to become a strong socialistically modernised society. Or, as it was put at the nineteenth congress of the CPC, China has entered a ‘new era [xinshidai]’.

At least three questions remain from Huang’s analysis, especially in light of developments in the last two decades: 1) The delinking of ‘market economy’ from a capitalist system, in light of Marx’s analysis (in Capital, vol. 3) and historical examples; 2) The issue of ownership and the withering away of the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’; 3) The shift in a socialist market economy from being a component to basic logistical device. These are the subjects of further analysis.