Liberating Thought, Part 4: Liberating the Forces of Production (jiefang shengchanli)

This is the fourth and final part of a draft concerning the philosophical basis of Deng Xiaoping Theory. In the previous three parts, I dealt with liberating thought as the correct theoretical line, democratic centralism and seeking truth from facts (I have now revised those posts). This fourth section deals with another significant feature of Deng Xiaoping’s approach: liberating the forces of production. This entails yet another contradiction that must be understood in light of Mao Zedong’s contradiction analysis.

In elaborating on the final contradiction – between planned and market economies – let me begin with the following quotation:

Not liberating thought is out of the question, even to the extent of including the question of what socialism is also requires the liberation of thought. If the economy remains stagnant for a long period of time, it cannot be called socialism. If the people’s living standards remain at a very low level for a long period of time, it cannot be called socialism (Deng 1980c, 312).1

I have begun with this quotation, since it raises more sharply the connection between liberating thought and liberating the forces of production, and thus the whole process of the Reform and Opening-Up (Cai and Pan 2008, 191). One of Deng’s signal contributions was to emphasise a feature of Marxism – liberating the forces of production – that was too often lost in the initial moves after a successful proletarian revolution. Given the prior realities of bourgeois and landlord ownership of the means of production, the primary task for a Communist Party in power had been to expropriate such owners and claim the means of production for workers (both rural and urban). This measure was necessary also to deal with the inevitable counter-revolution, and it initially enabled in all countries that began the process of constructing socialism an economic surge. However, the focus became too fixed in the realm of the relations of production, on ownership of productive forces. This imbalance inevitably led to new contradictions between the forces and relations of production, with stagnating economic initiative and improvement (Deng 1982, 16; 1985, 148).

So Deng’s emphasis was resolutely on the other – often neglected – side, on the forces of production. Socialism is all about the liberation of the forces of production: ‘The development of the productive forces … is the most fundamental [zui genben] revolution from the viewpoint of historical development’ (Deng 1980c, 311; 1980d, 310). There is no point to ‘poor socialism’; socialism means nothing if it does not liberate the forces of production, stimulate the economy and the improve the living standards of all people. Later, on his famous ‘Southern Tour’ of 1992, Deng defined socialism in terms of what are now called the ‘three benefits’: ‘whether it is conducive to the development of the productive forces of a socialist society, to the enhancement of the comprehensive national strength of a socialist country, and to the improvement of people’s living standards’ (Deng 1992, 372).2

Obviously, this emphasis requires a distinct liberation of thought, a freeing of the mind from past dogmatisms so as to bring about a redefinition of socialism. Or, rather, it requires a recovery of a feature that is too frequently forgotten in the Marxist tradition. It remains to see to how this re-emphasis entails a contradiction. It does so at two levels. The first is between the forces and relations of production. In response to efforts in the early stages of socialist construction in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to suggest that the contradiction had been overcome and that socialism was all about the relations of production and ownership, which could determine economic development, Stalin (1952) argued that the contradictions between forces and relations of production continue under socialism. Should one dimension outpace the other, economic policy required an adjustment in favour of laggard. In China too, the problem had been an over-emphasis on the relations of production, which may initially through a fully planned economy enabled an economic boost, but it had by the 1970s begun to stifle economic improvement. Hence the resolute emphasis on liberating the forces of production and on the ‘three benefits’.

This liberation was achieved through what in China is called a ‘socialist market economy’, which will be discussed in detail in a subsequent chapter. The point I seek to make here is that planned and market economies – as components or institutional forms (tizhi) of an overall socialist system (zhidu) – do not cancel each other out in a Chinese context. It is not a case of either-or, as is the tendency in the Western tradition, but both-and: ‘things that contradict each other also complement one another’. Thus, at the time of writing this material we find the emergence of arguments that the Chinese approach is enabling a dialectical sublation (yangqi, the Chinese translation of Aufhebung) or transcendence (chaoyue) of old-fashioned socialist planning and the capitalist market economy (Zhang 2009, 139; Zhou and Wang 2019, 41). In other words, planning has by no means disappeared with the socialist market economy, but has achieved a whole new level of complexity and flexibility (Heilman and Melton 2013).

With this observation in mind, we may understand the emphasis on planning in the final section of Deng’s speech on liberating thought (which has been the focus of this study). Deng introduces this material with the observation: ‘In order to look forward, we must study the new situation and tackle the new problems in good time; otherwise, there can be no smooth progress’. He goes on: ‘In three fields especially, the new situation and new problems demand attention: methods of management, structure of management and economic policy’ (Deng 1978b, 149; 1978a, 159). In what follows this quotation, we find an emphasis on overcoming bureaucratism in management methods, on strengthening the work responsibility system by not relying (and here he quotes Lenin) on collegiate excuses but on rewards and penalties, and on a deliberate policy of uneven development, in which some regions would experience the benefits of liberating productive forces so as to provide role models for others. The third item has its obvious dangers, with resultant discrepancies between richer and poorer regions and the rising polarities that were a distinct problem in the 1990s and 200s. The policies by Xi Jinping and the resolute poverty alleviation campaign in which ‘no-one will be left behind’ may be seen as a necessary correction.

Of most interest in this final discussion is the fact that Deng – the champion of the socialist market economy – focuses resolutely on management and thereby on planning. How is this possible? Do not planned and market economies negate one another? In the Western Marxist tradition this may be the assumption, although in assuming such Western Marxists share the view of the godfather of neo-liberalism, Count Ludwig von Mises (1932, 142): ‘the alternative is still either Socialism or a market economy’. But not in Chinese Marxism, and certainly not in the theory and practice of Deng Xiaoping, or indeed in the further developments that followed in his wake.

To recap: not only are planned and market economies institutional forms (tizhi) or components with an overall socialist system (zhidu), but even more both are planning devices, which may engage dialectically with one another so that they are thoroughly transformed.


Cai Xiaodong, and Pan Shaolong. 2008. “Jiefang sixiang de ‘xianyan shu’ – zhongdu Deng Xiaoping ‘jiefang sixiang, shishiqiushi, tuanjie yizhi xiangqian kan’ jianghua de ganwu”. Anhui sheng zhexue xuehui huiyi lunwen ji 2008 (12): 188–93.

Deng Xiaoping. 1978a. “Emancipate the Mind, Seek Truth from Facts and Unite as One in Looking to the Future (13 December, 1978)”. In Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 2:150–63. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1995.

———. 1978b. “Jiefang sixiang, shishi qiushi, tuanjieyizhi xiangqian kan (1978.12.13)”. In Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 2:140–53. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2008.

———. 1980a. “Adhere to the Party Line and Improve Methods of Work (29 February, 1980)”. In Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 2:273–82. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1995.

———. 1980b. “Jianchi dang de luxian, gaijin gongzuo fangfa (1980.02.29)”. In Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 2:274–83. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2008.

———. 1980c. “Shehuizhuyi shouxian yao fazhan shengchanli (1980.04-05)”. I Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 2:311–14. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1995.

———. 1980d. “To Build Socialism We Must First Develop the Productive Forces (April-May 1980)”. In Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, 310–13. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1995.

———. 1982. “Qianshinian wei houshinian zuohao zhunbei (1982.10.14)”. In Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 3:16–18. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2008.

———. 1985. “Shehuizhuyi he shichang jingji bu cunzai genben maodun (1985.10.23)”. Im Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 3:148–51. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2008.

———. 1992. “Zai Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai he Shanghai deng de de tanhua yaodian (1992.01.18 – 02.21)”. I Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 3:370–83. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2008.

Heilman, Sebastian, and Oliver Melton. 2013. “The Reinvention of Development Planning in China, 1993–2012”. Modern China 39 (6): 580–628.

Mises, Ludwig von. 1932. Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Edited by J. Kahane. London: Jonathan Cape, 1936.

Stalin, I.V. 1952. “Ėkonomicheskie problemy sotsializma v SSSR”. In Sochineniia, Vol. 16:154–223. Moscow: Izdatelʹstvo “Pisatelʹ”, 1997.

Zhang Xuekui. 2009. “Shichang jingji yu shehuizhuyi xiang jiehe de sange mingti jiqi zhexue jichu – 30 ninan gaige kaifang de jingji zhexue sikao”. Shehui kexue yanjiu 2009 (3): 134–40.

Zhou Zhishan, and Wang Xing. 2019. “Chanyang xin shidai zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi zhengzhijingjixue de zhexue jichu”. Zhejiang shifan daxue xuebao (shehui kexue ban) 44 (2): 36–43.


1 My translation. See also: ‘Liberating thought should be accompanied by really solving problems … We don’t yet have many comrades who carefully study fresh situations and solve fresh problems and who really use their minds to think out ways of accelerating our advance, the development of the productive forces and the rise in national income or of improving the work of the leading bodies’ (Deng 1980b, 279–80; 1980a, 278). Note also that once thought is liberated, ‘only then can we … fruitfully reform those aspects of the relations of production and of the superstructure that do not correspond with the rapid development of our productive forces, and chart the specific course and formulate the specific policies, methods and measures needed to achieve the four modernizations under our actual conditions’ (Deng 1978b, 140–41; 1978a, 151).

2 My translation.

The superiority of China’s socialist system (World Health Organisation)

By now the superiority of China’s socialist system is apparent to most countries in the world, as well as to the World Health Organisation. As the WHO expert, Bruce Aylward, observes, China’s scientifically based, differentiated and highly coordinated response to the coronavirus outbreak has actually changed the course of the epidemic. We are now at the point where infections are dropping in China, recoveries (also using TCM) are almost 12 times the death rate, and life is beginning to return to normal. And guess what: the majority of countries in the world may already have been impressed with China’s socialist model, but they are even more so now.

I do not usually copy articles from newspapers these days, but this one is worth noting, from Xinhua News.

GENEVA, Feb. 25 (Xinhua) — China has changed the course of the COVID-19 outbreak, Bruce Aylward, an epidemiologist who led an advance team from the World Health Organization (WHO), said here on Tuesday, noting a rapidly escalating outbreak in China has plateaued and come down faster than previously expected.

It’s a unanimous assessment of the 25-member team which has conducted a nine-day field study trip to China’s Beijing, Guangdong, Sichuan and Hubei, stressed Aylward.

Recalling details of the study trip in China, Aylward said he was impressed by China’s pragmatic, systemic and innovative approach to control the COVID-19 outbreak.

China has taken “differentiated approach” for different situations of sporadic cases, clusters of cases, or community transmission, which makes a massive scale of epidemic control work without exhausting its response, said Aylward.

Moreover, the WHO expert praised Chinese phenomenal collective action, stressing “it’s never easy to get the kind of passion, commitment, interest and individual sense of duty that help stop the virus.”

“Every person you talked to (in China) has a sense that they’re mobilized like in a war against the virus and they are organized,” said Aylward, who was particularly impressed by thousands of health care workers volunteering to go into Wuhan, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Aylward pointed out China has also repurposed machinery of government, for example by forming a central leading group on the epidemic, dispatching a central guiding team, which ensures the prevention and control of the virus.

Besides, Aylward highlighted that China’s pragmatic approach is “technology-powered and science-driven”.

“They are using big data, artificial intelligence (AI) in places,” Aylward said, adding that China has managed massive amounts of data in finding each COVID-19 cases and tracing contacts, as well as been able to make consultation of regular health services done online, by which the capacity of hospitals could be intensively used for COVID-19 cases.

Aylward was aware that China has issued six versions of national treatment guidelines for COVID-19, representing fast scientific evolvement in understanding of the new virus.

“It’s a science-driven agile response as well at a phenomenal scale,” He said.

What country leads the world in science and innovation?

You have probably guessed already: last year (2019) China lodged 1.54 million patent applications at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (see here). Staggeringly, this is about equal to the rest of the world put together.

By comparison, the United States dropped to 597,141, followed by Japan (313,567) and South Korea (209,992).

Simply put, China is now the world’s major scientific and innovation centre (see here).

This leap by China is in some respects a realisation of Deng Xiaoping’s dream: that the socialist system in China would one day prove to be superior to capitalist systems elsewhere.

Wish I was in China now: Leishenshan (Thunder-god Mountain) hospital completed in 12 days

Unfortunately, I am not in China as I write. I am in Australia, which is fast becoming a small-minded and fearful country once again. I remind myself constantly that the vast majority of countries in the world have expressed solidarity with China in light of the coronavirus outbreak, and that many of them have sent much-needed medical supplies. At the same time, China is – as acknowledged by the World Health Organisation, among others – setting a new global standard for dealing with an epidemic. The world is changing fast, almost as fast as the second (click here for the first) specialist hospital built in Wuhan. Called Leishenshan (Thunder-god Mountain) hospital, it was completed in 12 days and will cater for 1500 acute patients. The secret: China’s socialist system.

Here is a time-lapse video:


Huoshenshan (Fire God Mountain) Hospital completed today, ahead of schedule

Never let a crisis go to waste: the Chinese are clearly making the most of the COVID-19 outbreak to show the world what they can do these days. Earlier, I have noted that they call this ‘Chinese speed’. About 80 years ago, Stalin called it ‘Bolshevik tempo’. Only a socialist system can do this.

Below are two time-lapse videos, tracking the way Huoshenshan (Fire God Mountain) Hospital was built in 9 days – 3 days ahead of schedule. As I write, it is being handed over to the PLA’s medical corps to deal with coronavirus patients in Wuhan. The other hospital – Leishenshan (Thunder God Mountain) – will be ready soon.

Washing Brains: How to Understand Chinese Marxist Research

Some foreigners say that our ideological reform is brainwashing. As I see it, they are correct in what they say. It is washing brains, that’s what it is! This brain of mine was washed to become what it is. After I joined the revolution, [my brain] slowly washed, washed for several decades. What I received before was all bourgeois education, and even some feudal education … At that time, none of us knew anything about how the Chinese revolution was to be promoted! (Mao, Zedong. 1957. ‘Speech to Chinese Students and Trainees in Moscow’ )

I begin with this text from Mao Zedong, since it expresses very well an experience of my own from the last decade or so. Mao was addressing Chinese students studying in Moscow, when he was part of a 1957 delegation to the Soviet Union.

How is this text relevant for my own experience? Whenever you dig into research material on China, you soon encounter two different frameworks, two different languages. On the one hand, there is whole language that has been developed and is used by ‘China watchers’. They are typically informed by the Western liberal tradition and use terminology and assumptions deriving from this tradition. On the other hand, we have the Chinese Marxist approach, which is informed by the reinterpretation of thousands of years of Chinese history and thinking in light of an overall Marxist framework. The differences between the two frameworks and languages becomes clear when we look at a few examples.

1. History of the Reform and Opening Up, from 1978.

Among ‘Western’ historians, there is an overwhelming tendency to divide the Reform and Opening Up into two periods, with 1989 and the Tiananmen incident being the fulcrum. This division applies particularly to economic and political history.

By contrast, this periodisation does not appear in Chinese scholarship. This is not due to some mythical ‘repression’ of information – a beloved trope of ‘Western’ China watchers – but simply because 1989 does not mark a major turning point. For example, in my recent research on the socialist market economy, a three-fold periodisation is more common: the breakthrough, in which socialism can also engage in a market economy (1979-1982); the transition, in which planning and the market are combined (1982-1989); and the establishment of a socialist market economy (1989-1993).

2. Socialist and Post-Socialist.

Related to the previous point, it is reasonably common in ‘Western’ literature to find a distinction between the ‘socialist’ and ‘post-socialist’ phases of China’s recent history. The terms are left suitably vague, but they often turn on the distinction between a planned economy and a market economy. In this respect, they assume the old 1932 slogan from Count Ludwig von Mises: ‘the alternative is still either Socialism or a market economy’. The Count was of course one of the godfathers of a now defunct neoliberalism, but his deceptive slogan influences the distinction between socialism and post-socialism: socialism inescapably entails a planned economy, while a market economy is by definition capitalist.

When dealing with Chinese approaches, it is very soon clear that this distinction simply does not work. To begin with, China has by no means abandoned a planned economy; instead, both planning and market are components, or institutional forms, of an overall socialist system that determines the nature of the components. In this light, it is misleading to speak of ‘post-socialism’.

There is a further problem with this distinction: it seeks to draw Chinese developments into a European framework, where Eastern Europe and Russia are now in a ‘post-socialist’ phase. Few indeed are the ‘Western’ researchers who realise that this effort to align China with European history is distinctly unhelpful.

3. Approach to Politics.

This one is fascinating: when ‘Western’ interpreters deal with Chinese politics, they inevitably focus on what is perceived to be ‘factional’ struggle within the CCP. Why? The overwhelming assumption is that politics is antagonistic, that it must involve struggle between opposing camps. Of course, the effort to examine the inner workings of the CCP relies on hearsay, unnamed ‘sources’ and so on.

Occasionally, a ‘Western’ interpreter is forced to admit that the CCP has remarkably little factional struggle and that it a rather stable political party. This admission moves a small step towards Chinese approach, for which we should use the terminology already developed by Marx and Engels. When envisaging what socialist governance might look like, they speak of ‘de-politicising’ governance. What does this mean? More and more dimensions of governance are no longer determined by class struggle and antagonism. This applies to policing, law courts, policies and even elections.

Yes, elections can be and indeed are de-politicised in China. From local village and city-district elections (direct) to election (indirect) of the president, these are all based on qualifications and merit for office and not through populist rhetoric by opposing political parties. Even more, China’s 9 political parties do not engage in class-based antagonisms, but work in a consultative and critically constructive manner.

4. Deformation of Language.

This deformation is an ongoing problem in ‘Western’ approaches, but let me focus on one example. It is common to speak of ‘conservatives’ and ‘reformers’, in which the ‘conservatives’ are those who hold the Marxist-Leninist line (from Deng Xiaoping onwards) and the ‘reformers’ are those who would turn China into a bourgeois state with a capitalist system.

Obviously, Chinese research provides a very different framework, between communists who ensure that China follows Marxist policies, and liberals who seek to turn China into the chaos and populism of a ‘Western’ system. That the latter are also potentially guilty of treason should be obvious.

I could offer many more examples of the differences between the two frameworks and languages, but the point should be clear. Of course, within each framework there are many debates and differences of opinion, but one must assume the framework to engage in such activities.

A question remains: do the proponents of the two frameworks actually listen to one another? It is more common for Chinese researchers to engage extensively with Western liberal scholarship, but it is criticised and appropriated within a Chinese Marxist approach.

It is far less common for ‘Western’ researchers to engage with Chinese Marxist research. Instead, their typical approach is as follows: they begin with a brief mention of official government positions, which are quickly dismissed as mere ‘rhetoric’ and ‘ideology’; they suggest they are dealing with ‘actual’ conditions, and then perhaps cite newspaper articles, occasionally providing the Chinese title to give an impression of ‘serious’ research; they may also cite one or two scholars with Chinese names to give the piece some ‘credibility’, but who typically live outside China, write in English, and assumes the same framework and language. Obviously, this is a rather shoddy way to undertake scholarly research, indicated by both the method – if it can be called that – and the conclusions reached.

To return to Mao Zedong: it is precisely this whole Western liberal framework, with its in-group language, that needs to be washed out of one’s brain to approach the material afresh.