Book outline: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Chapter 1. Reading Deng Xiaoping

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

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

Chapter 2. Contradiction Analysis

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

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

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

Chapter 4. Socialist Market Economy

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

Chapter 5. Socialist Modernisation: Seeking a Xiaokang Society

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

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

Chapter 6. Socialist Rule of Law

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

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

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

Chapter 7. Sovereignty and Human Rights

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

Chapter 8. Minority Nationalities and the Anti-Colonial Project

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

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

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

Chapter 9. Xi Jinping on Marxism

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

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

Conclusion

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

Note

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

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Is it time to adopt China’s internet model? More and more countries are doing so

As someone who spends a good deal of time in China, I find that I can access all I want on the internet here. The search engines are generally better, the scholarly resources superior to elsewhere, and the news services reliable and well-informed. At the same time, China has developed a sophisticated approach to internet responsibility, which is carried out by the tech companies themselves. For example, as a few countries ponder what to do with Facebook after the live-streaming of the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand, the Chinese approach is very simple: it would not happen here. In fact, Facebook is unable to operate in China precisely because of its fundamental approach, which leads to chaos, disruption and insecurity. Instead, one can use Wechat, Weibo and many other platforms, which are socially responsible. Even more, this approach actually fosters democracy – socialist democracy.

And guess what: more and more countries are adopting a version of China’s model, as this article from the Global Times points out:

If targeting Beijing’s internet regulation is the new US strategy to wrestle with China in an imaginary cold war, Washington will be disappointed. Because China’s continuously improving management over the internet is becoming a trend in other countries and regions.

This is the answer to the question why “the US is losing a major front to China in the new cold war,” a topic raised by Bloomberg, which noted that “a swathe of the world is adopting China’s vision for a tightly controlled internet over the unfettered American approach.”

In January 2019, Vietnam passed a tight cybersecurity law, which requires social media in the country to remove offending content from their platforms and store personal data on users. Over a month later, Thailand also passed a similar bill. It is “a stunning ideological coup for Beijing,” said Bloomberg, adding that China is pushing Southeast Asia toward authoritarianism.

Yet, what caused the trend? The answer is the rising problems in those countries given their previous slack approach. The number of fake news spiked months before the just-concluded Indonesian election, in which many were targeting political candidates and electoral institutions. Hate speech and fake news photos flooded Myanmar’s internet after the outbreak of the Rohingya crisis in 2017, exacerbating local clashes. It is not an exaggeration to say the lack of governance jeopardized their social stability.

The situation does not only happen in emerging economies. As Bloomberg pointed out, “Facebook and Twitter manipulated the 2016 US election … American social media allowed a gunman to livestream the worst mass shooting in New Zealand.”

The so-called internet freedom, advocated by the US, has stirred up enough trouble not only for itself, but also for many developing countries, especially in those societies which were already facing sharp ethnic conflicts and social division. Social media has failed to consolidate or promote their democracy, but has facilitated the spread of misinformation and rumors. Take the Arab Spring. It showed the potential of internet freedom at the very beginning and seemed to have temporarily boosted local democracy, but in the end, it tore the society apart and caused long-lasting turmoil.

Developing countries are tightening internet governance, and so are developed nations, which are formulating stringent regulations to crack down on vicious dissemination of political misinformation. Some European countries including Germany even allow police to spy on encrypted messaging services so as to limit dissemination of pornographic, fraudulent and terrorist content.

Absolute freedom leads to freedom for no one. Compared to US-style internet regulation which is full of problems, China’s approach showed its worthiness.

Labeling China as an authoritarian country and calling countries that are learning from China authoritarian is dividing the internet into two completely different fronts, and splitting the internet in two.

US media needs to know that if more countries start to follow Beijing’s footsteps in internet governance while pursuing democracy in social media, it means China must have done something right.

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.

Xi Jinping on Marxism: Reading the Speech from Marx’s 200th Anniversary

Xi Jinping’s most important speech to date was delivered at the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth (5 May, 2018). Xi’s many other writings address a range of issues, but this one – as yet untranslated – goes to the heart of Chinese Marxism, or more properly, the sinification of Marxism. Given that the speech is not yet available in other languages,[1] the following provides primarily an exposition of the speech, although my perspective emerges at certain points. In particular, my interest is in the way Xi Jinping clearly claims Chinese communism as a major phase of the living tradition of Marxism.

One is initially struck by how much Xi Jinping quotes from Marx, Engels and Lenin. Of course, one may think, Xi is a Marxist and he knows this material well. But let us step back for a moment: here is a leader not merely of the strongest communist party in the world, but also the leader of a major global power, quoting extensively from the founders of the Marxist tradition. It is indeed some time since this has happened, but Xi continues in the tradition of communist leaders: they are also thinkers and philosophers, who develop a substantial body of writings that can be studied in their own right.

The speech itself has three sections, after an introduction that elaborates briefly on Marx’s continued influence on the world. Here Xi already identifies a recurring theme: the world may have changed much since Marx’s time, but this context makes Marxism not less but more relevant than ever. The first section focuses on Marx’s biography, which is both appropriate but also significant in a Chinese context. The second section introduces the basic premises before leading to the situation in China. The third and final section is the longest and most significant, for it develops nine topics concerning the importance of Marxism for China. Each topic begins by quoting texts from Marx and Engels, which are then used to explicate the developments of Chinese Marxism. Notably, it is an interpretation that takes place after 70 years of socialism in power; as Lenin and Mao said repeatedly, it is relatively easy to gain power through a communist revolution, but the task of constructing socialism, let alone communism, is infinitely more complex. This is Xi’s perspective.

The Biography of an Engaged Intellectual

Marx’s biography takes up a reasonable part of Xi’s speech. Xi hits the main points of Marx’s ideas, the meeting with Engels, the development of the first outline of historical materialism in The German Ideology, the profound influence of the communist manifesto and the detailed labour involved in Capital. So much is well-known, even to drawing on Engels and Lenin for additional perspectives on Marx’s genius.

But I am intrigued by a particular emphasis: Marx came from a situation – a lawyer’s family of Jewish background in southwest German town of Trier – that may have set him up for a comfortable and unremarkable life. But he and Jenny (who is explicitly mentioned) did not do so. They found themselves exiles and pariahs, mostly through circumstances beyond their control but also due to the direction of their thought and action. Xi stresses the hardship of a life on the run, all for the sake of what became the communist cause.

Xi’s emphasis plays off two themes in Chinese culture, themes that stand in tension with one another. On the one hand, one desires a life of good fortune and opportunity, not least for the benefit of the children, but also so that one may care adequately for one’s parents in their dotage. On the other hand, one’s calling is not merely to the family, however wide it may be. It is ultimately and more importantly to society as a whole. Security and stability should be put aside for the sake of the greater good. Thus, even though one may aspire to a quiet and secure life, Karl and Jenny’s path is by far the more admirable calling.

Let me go further: the idea of an intellectual in the proverbial ‘ivory tower’ is anathema in China. Selfishness is the only way to describe it, so much so that it is difficult indeed to find an intellectual who disdains to engage with social problems. In other words, the ‘engaged intellectual’ is the norm, even if it entails significant sacrifice. Marx is precisely such an intellectual, forsaking all for the sake of a greater and common good.

Given the way Marx’s life resonates so deeply with Chinese assumptions, it should be no surprise that by far the most visitors to the tiny two-room apartment in Dean Street, Soho, should be Chinese. Or indeed that Trier, Marx’s birthplace, should be a prime destination for Chinese people in 2018. It is not merely because the stunning new statue in Trier was created by Wu Weichan, the famed Chinese sculptor, and donated to the town, but because this is where the hard life began.

Theory and Practice

As a prelude to his engagement with Marx’s thought and practice, Xi emphasises its basis in careful historical and scientific study so as to become a material force for liberation. Five statements set the scene for what follows:

Basic Premises

Marxism is a scientific theory: in contrast to utopian socialism,[2] Marx developed a thorough explanation of historical material, the theory of surplus value, the specific dynamics of capitalist development, the nature of social development and the means for liberation.

Marxism is a theory of the people: in contrast to ruling class theories, Marxism arises from and expresses the common people’s hope for a society without oppression and exploitation, and with equality and freedom.

Marxism is a theory of practice: rather than knowledge created in a study, Marxism was formed out of the practice of liberation and this becomes a guide for such liberation.

Marxism is an open and developing theory: here we find the refrain that Marxism is not a dogma (jiaotiao) but a guide to action. Times, practices and knowledge change and develop, so new questions arise to which new responses need to be formed. In this light, the tradition begun by Marx becomes important, full as it is with examples of how Marxism has developed. Thus, Marxism remains forever young and suitable for ever new situations.

The scientific and practical dimensions are understandable emphases, but the focus on the people and openness have distinct resonance for a Chinese situation. A signature feature of Xi Jinping’s writings and speeches is a constant focus on the importance of work and the people. He has emphasising for some time the centrality of labour,[3] of both the rural and urban varieties: labour is a glorious activity; everyone should roll up their sleeves and get to work; workers and trade unions have a distinct and foundational role in the construction of socialism. This is what Xi means by observing that Marxism arises from the people and is for the people. Further, the tradition is vital. Marxism is not an ossified body of thought, determined forever by the letter of the founder’s texts. Instead, it provides a framework and a guide for new situations that Marx could hardly have imagined, let alone analysed scientifically. We will return to some of these points in what follows.

Marxism and Anticolonialism

With this point – concerning a guide for action rather than fixed dogma – Xi moves into the Marxist tradition, which he identifies as beginning with ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’. The way he presents it is crucial: initially, the theory of Marx and Engels inspired global workers’ movements and political parties, which took hold of their own destiny; with Lenin and the October Revolution, there was a crucial shift from theory to practice, in revolution and the construction of socialism; after the Second World War, more revolutions – such as China – developed yet another level of global socialist development; crucially, Marxism through Lenin inspired national liberation movements in colonised and semi-colonised countries, with more and more countries achieving liberation from colonial masters in the second half of the twentieth century.

Let me dwell on this point for a moment, since a number of foreign Marxists have unfortunately forgotten or neglected this important point. Implicit in Marx and Engel’s concerns with colonised and semi-colonised areas of the world and in Lenin’s concerns with imperialism and the ‘national question’ (minority nationalities within the state) in Russia, the breakthrough came in the 1930s with Stalin. It became clear that not only was the October Revolution also a national revolution, but that the global anticolonial struggle was the logical outcome. In other words, Marxism in its focus on overthrowing capitalist imperialism was also a deeply anticolonial project. As Xi Jinping puts, the Marxist-inspired anticolonial struggles and the liberation that followed ‘completely disrupted the imperial colonial system’. In many respects, China today – with other socialist states – carries on this project.

Marxism in China

This point brings us to the next topic, which concerns the central role of Marxism in China. Indeed, Marx foresaw (yujian) the birth of Chinese socialism itself, if not the People’s Republic. Xi reiterates a common narrative in China, from ancient civilisation, through brutal semi-colonial subjection to foreign powers, through the inspiration of the October Revolution, to liberation and the construction of socialism in China, which are leading to the rejuvenation of China. Let me pick up a number of emphases in this section.

To begin with, Xi makes it very clear that the Chinese project is inescapably a Marxist project. This emphasis not only reminds those in China who a decade or more ago were entertaining other possibilities – whether a liberal bourgeois path (despite Deng Xiaoping’s warnings in the 1980s), a revived Confucian path, or indeed a return to the trauma of the Cultural Revolution. Instead, Marxism is core and centre of the path China continues to take.

How so? The key is a combination of the basic principles of Marxism with the concrete realities of the Chinese context. One finds this emphasis right through from Mao and Deng to Xi. These basic principles – philosophy, political economy and scientific socialism – are a major feature of study and policy guidance in China. But they cannot be applied as a fixed and ossified dogma, for they are – as already mentioned – a guide to action. This emphasis is also expressed as ‘seeking truth from facts’, which has a distinct sense in a Chinese context: the specific historical, economic and cultural situation of China presents new problems which require new solutions, albeit always in light of the basic principles of Marxism. Or as Xi emphasises again and again – drawing directly on Mao – practice is the test.

All of this leads Xi to assert that ‘only socialism can save China’, indeed that the historical path of China has led to the ‘iron fact’ that only Marxism could provide the practical and ideological basis for struggle, standing up and becoming prosperous. Or, in Xi’s favoured phrases, only the communist party can lead China to the ‘great rejuvenation [fuxing]’ and a ‘strong socialistically modernised country’.

Let me say a little more concerning this notion of rejuvenation. Another significant term Xi uses is ‘leap [feiyue]’, especially in terms of three historical periods. Thus, he speaks of the ‘great leap [weida feiyue]’ China undertook, under communist party leadership, from being the ‘sick man [bingfu]’ of Asia to a liberated country; the ‘great leap’ of the reform and opening up, which has led to China becoming a country of abundance; and the ‘great leap’ of the new era, which has led to China being not only abundant, but also strong. Here the ‘great leap’ is equated with ‘rejuvenation [fuxing]’. Initially, we may be reminded of Mao’s controversial ‘great leap forward [dayuejin]’, but Xi’s usage is different. The key is his thrice repeated use of the ‘ironclad factual proof’ of Marxism that has enabled these leaps. In other words, we need to understand the usage of leap in terms of the Marxist tradition: Xi is indicating in his own way that China is undergoing yet another dialectical leap (bianzhengfa feiyue). It is not simply a case of ‘catching up’ with the rest of the world, but of undertaking a dialectical leap into the future.

Study Marx

The next part of the speech is the longest and most crucial, for here Xi stresses the reasons why Marx should be studied and practiced today. Urging all party members, as well as the common people, to study Marx once again in the new era, he does so with nine propositions. Each begins with the phrase ‘study [xuexi] Marx’ and a quotation or two from Marx and Engels, which is then elaborated in light of the Chinese situation.[4]

  1. Development of Human Society (renlei shehui fazhan)

The first quotation comes from the manifesto, where Marx and Engels speak of a future society, beyond bourgeois society, which will be an ‘an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.[5] And in the words of the final flourish of the manifesto, ‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win’.[6] The Chinese translation of ‘Assoziation’ is ‘lianheti’, which designates an organic whole, a connectivity of all parts. It is, of course, another way of speaking of communism.

Is the communism Xi mentions a utopian and transcendent ideal, forever delayed because it is ultimately unachievable? This may be a western European understanding, but it is certainly not a Chinese one. Xi speaks of the inevitable process of human history, of mastering the development of human society, of confidence in and adherence to the ideals and beliefs of communism. He does not shy away from the core goal of the communist movement and the necessary development of human society.

Let us see how this works. Some key phrases provide an insight: Xi speaks of realising the goal ‘step by step [yibuyibu]’; the constantly changing ‘actual movement of the existent [xiancun] situation’; and that the historical process of actualising communism entails ‘one-by-one phased goals [yigeyige jieduanxing mubiao]’ and is ‘reached [dacheng]’ progressively or ‘step by step [zhubu]’. In other words, communism is always a work in progress, rather than a reality achieved by fiat.

We should also understand this concrete and practical approach in light of the Chinese tradition, which Xi Jinping has – once again – been actively reframing in light of Marxism. From the Book of Rights (third to second century BCE) and especially the commentary by He Xiu (129-82 CE) on the Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals,[7] we find that the much-desired society of ‘Great Peace’ is not one that is beyond our knowledge and expertise, not an imagined utopia or ‘no-place’ about which we can know only by rumour and hearsay (suochuanwen).[8] Instead, it is a verifiable (suojian) and recorded (suowen) society; one can see it and read about it in reliable records. In other words, it is an empirical reality. To get there, we need careful planning, much testing, trial and error, considerable effort – in short, it entails ‘struggle for all one’s life [fendou zhongshen]’, as Xi puts it at the close of this first point.

  1. Sticking to the People’s Standpoint (jianshou renmin lichang)

On this point, the key quotation comes from The Holy Family: ‘Historical activity is the activity of the masses’,[9] which becomes the basis for a resolute focus on the people and the mass line. The point should be clear: the people’s standpoint (lichang) is basic and foundational (genben). Three times does Xi use genben – foundational – to indicate the party’s stand, mission and purpose. What mission? The people’s wellbeing and happiness. What purpose? Serving the people with whole heart and whole mind (quanxin quanyi). This is followed by the invocation not only of Mao – in terms of the mass line and keeping flesh-and-blood ties (xuerou lianxi) – but also of a slogan Xi had already stressed at the nineteenth congress of the CPC (November 2017): ‘forget not the original desire, keep in mind the mission [bu wang chuxin, laoji shiming]’.

Notably, this point concerning the people’s standpoint comes high up in the list of nine points, since (as indicated earlier) the focus on the common people (laobaixing), on urban and rural workers, has been one of Xi’s signature emphases. So effective has been the focus that they increasingly feel – as has been said to me on a quite a number of occasions – that Xi is ‘pretty good [bucuo]’, by invoking Mao and having their interests at heart.

  1. Productive Forces and Relations of Production (shengchanli he shengchan guanxi)

The quotation around which this important point turns comes from Marx and Engels’s The German Ideology: ‘the amount of productive forces accessible to human beings determines the condition of society’.[10] This is a well-known feature of dialectical and historical materialism: not only is the ‘base [jichu]’ determinative, but the means and relations of production, the economic base and superstructure, act in a dialectical manner of mutual constraint and advance, so as to become the motor of development. This much Xi Jinping reasserts.

But now he makes a fascinating move: it also provides the basis for socialist construction in terms of liberating (jiefang) and advancing (fazhan) the productive forces. Too many Marxists have taken the method – in relation to forces and relations of production – from Marx and Engels and applied it mostly to the capitalist market economy. But this move is actually a retreat from their work: thus, it is not for nothing that Xi quotes from the (edited) opening section of The German Ideology, for here we also find the first real outline of the history of modes of production until the European feudal period.[11] And if this works for earlier history, it also works for future history, namely, the construction of socialism. In particular, Xi stresses the insight from Deng Xiaoping, that the liberation of the productive forces is the core project of socialism, let alone communism. Deng did so repeatedly, pointing out that such a liberation had been relatively neglected until it became the focus of the reform and opening up from 1978. The result: in an astonishingly short period of time, China has lifted itself up from being one of the poorest countries in the world to being a serious global economic force. But the process is by no means over, for – as he does on many occasions – Xi stresses that further liberation is needed, that the relations between base and superstructure need constant refining and adjusting, and that the reform and opening up – as a revolutionary socialist project – must be deepened.

  1. People’s Democracy (renmin minzhu)

Not only has Xi Jinping for some time been emphasising socialist democracy, but he has also given the implicit go ahead – in light of the urging to tell China’s story well internationally – for Chinese speakers to address this question directly in international contexts. On this occasion, he quotes two texts by Marx and Engels, the first from the manifesto: ‘The proletarian movement is the independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority’.[12] And: ‘The working class, once come to power, could not go on managing with the old state machine’, for it requires a ‘replacement by a new and truly democratic one’.[13] The first text is the more obvious, for communism has always held that its form of democracy – in contrast to ancient Greek, liberal bourgeois and illiberal types – enables the vast majority, workers and peasants, to rule. It is the people who rule; this is what ‘demokratia’ or ‘minzhu’ means.

The second quotation is more intriguing and extremely important. It comes from Engels’s 1891 introduction to the third edition of Marx’s The Civil War in France. Why this text and not the one we find in The Civil War in France, which has – in the original English – ‘But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’?[14] Why indeed, for they seem to say largely the same? Let me briefly set the context. In the 1890s, Engels was struggling against both the moderating trend of the German Social-Democratic Party and the entrenched anarchist position (first clearly articulated in the 1870s). The moderates wanted to dispense with any notion of violent revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat after such a revolution, while the anarchists insisted that the first act after the seizure of power should be an active ‘abolition [Abschaffung]’ of the state. Thus, the moderate right-wing sought to work within the structures of the bourgeois state and the anarchists trenchantly asserted that any type of state was an evil. Engels would have nothing of either position: in a series of crucial texts,[15] he argued, on the one hand, that the Paris commune was also very much the proletarian dictatorship, and, on the other, that the ensuing structure would have many governing functions. One feature of this new structure was that it would be ‘truly democratic’.

Given its importance, Engels’s text needs some more attention, especially the second sentence from which Xi Jinping quotes. Engels writes: ‘This shattering [Sprengung] of the former state power [Staatsmacht] and its replacement by a new and truly democratic one [eine neue, in Wahrheit demokratische] is described in detail in the third section of The Civil War.[16] Understanding this sentence is crucial. In light of Engels other works at the time, the following points are clear: 1) The new structure includes both commune and proletarian dictatorship as one and the same, which must exercise force (Gewalt) to get rid of the old bourgeois regime and transform economy and society; 2) The old form of the state, as a ‘separated public power’ (as defined in Origin of the Family), will undergo a ‘gradual dissolution and ultimate disappearance [allmähliche Auflösung und endlich das Verschwinden]’ as ‘one of the final results of the future proletarian revolution’[17] – this is the sense of the fabled ‘dying away’ of the state, a term coined in the third edition of Anti-Dühring;[18] 3) The eventual form of governance will not be a ‘separated public power’, but one that ‘stands in the midst of society [steht eben mitten in der Gesellschaft]’[19] – that is, state and society are thoroughly enmeshed with one another, in a dialectical transformation of ‘pre-state’ forms of governance; 4) This is the sense in which socialist democracy should be understood, which is ‘for those concerned [der Betheiligten]’, that is, the vast majority of workers and peasants who had thus far been excluded from the exercise of power.[20]

Back to the sentence on which we have been focusing: its logic leads to the position that a new and truly democratic form of governance, if not a new state standing in the midst of society, will arise – as some English translations and the Chinese translations make clear.[21] From this basis, Xi argues that China must continue to build ‘socialist democratic politics [shehuizhuyi minzhu zhengzhi]’. What does this mean? It entails that – using one of the many four-character sayings (chengyu) beloved by Xi – that the people are masters in the house (dengjia zuozhu), supervising the servants of society (shehui gongpu) through the socialist rule of law and institutional guarantees. All of this, of course, take place in the ‘organic unity [youji tongyi]’ of all parts, especially in terms of the communist party’s leadership and people’s supervision. In short, it entails a constant process of implementing people’s democracy ever more effectively.

  1. Cultural Construction (wenhua jianshi)

Here Xi Jinping does not quote Marx or Engels directly. Instead, he points out that Marx ‘held that in different [butong] economic and social environments, people produce different thoughts [sixiang] and cultures’. This awareness actually entailed some struggle on Marx’s part, for he assumed that the positions he had developed in a Western European context were universal. Only late in life, as he engaged more with developments in other parts of the world, did he come to realise that his insights were in many cases ‘expressly limited [expressément restreinte] to the countries of Western Europe’.[22] This comes from a letter to Vera Zasulich, which was finally sent after four drafts, the first three much longer than the final letter.[23] In these drafts, we find a Marx struggling in light of his growing awareness of different histories and developments. Like a good old German philosopher, he had assumed that German philosophy, if not Western European philosophy, was ‘philosophy’ per se. Now he finds increasingly that this is not the case. So, in the drafts Marx elaborates further on the theme, dealing with the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the role of private property and the potential of the Russian agricultural commune (a topic Engels was exploring more deeply and widely at the time). The point is obvious: economic and social conditions, in light of their histories, are in fact not the same. This means that their potential paths to socialism will also have distinct differences.

These letter drafts and the letter itself are the subject of continuing study in China,[24] since there has always been a great awareness of the distinctness of Chinese history, political development and culture.[25] At so many levels, they are not the same as other parts of the world, for which the phrase ‘Chinese characteristics [zhongguo tese]’ – already emphasised by Mao Zedong – functions as the shorthand.

In order to explicate how China’s context works for the sake of cultural construction, Xi draws on a Marxist staple, which runs from Marx and Engels through the whole tradition. While ideology and culture are ultimately determined by the economic base, they also respond to and influence the base. Marxist theory is the obvious example, for it comes – through the communist party – to grip the masses and become a material force. But only advanced theory, advanced Marxist philosophy and culture, can become such a force. By contrast, if culture and ideology are backward, they become fetters on social development.

But what culture? Here we need to pause for a moment, since the Chinese term wenhua, culture, is a much broader concept that ‘culture’ in English. It embraces the all dimensions of what may be called the ‘superstructure’, but also history and politics. In this light, it is common to distinguish Chinese traditional culture and Marxist culture, but Xi has been responsible what is now known as a renewed symbiosis between them. Thus, we find emphases on continual in-depth study of Marxism by all party members (monthly), ‘core socialist values [shehuizhuyi hexin jiazhiguan]’,[26] socialist ‘spiritual civilisation [jingshen wenming]’ – in short, ‘advanced socialist culture’. But are they distinct from traditional Chinese culture? Not for Xi and many others, for socialist culture is increasingly seen as central to a ‘creative transformation’ and ‘innovative development’ of this long-standing and constantly changing culture. It is not for nothing that Xi has often observed that socialism with Chinese characteristics has a two thousand year history.

  1. Social Construction (shehui jianshe)

On the question of social construction – as distinct from but obviously related to productive forces, political structures and culture – Xi Jinping quotes from three texts. Note the emphasis in these quotations: for all, of all, by all, and to all.

The first comes from Marx’s economic manuscripts of 1857-1858 (also known as the Grundrisse), where Marx observes that ‘production will now be calculated to provide wealth for all’.[27] The second is a well-known text in China – Engels’s communist catechism, which formed a major basis for the later manifesto. Here Engels observes that a communist society would enable ‘the participation of all in the enjoyments created by all’.[28] The third text sums up the direction of the previous two, if not the aims of communism itself: a socialist society should ‘give healthy and useful labour to all, ample wealth and leisure to all, and the truest and fullest freedom to all’.[29]

As mentioned earlier, the emphasis is clearly on all people – suoyouderen – which is repeated in each quotation. Or as Xi puts it in terms of the new primary contradiction in China, people long for a beautiful and good life (meihua shenghuo).[30] What does this mean? Abstractly, it means improving livelihood, social justice and better education; practically, Xi identifies adequate income for labour, medical care for the sick, support for the aged, housing in which to live, and support for the frail. In short, it entails not so much a ‘welfare safety net’ found in some capitalist market economies, but ‘common prosperity [gongtong fuyu] for the whole people’ and not merely for a few. I would add that one needs a strong economic situation to ensure such a system, for the liberation of the productive forces (see above) is the key, leading to the current situation in which 700-800 million urban and rural workers have been lifted out of poverty since the beginning of the reform and opening up.[31]

  1. Human-Nature Relationship (ren yu ziran guanxi)

Xi Jinping has been promoting for some time the concept and practice of ‘ecological civilisation’ and he does not neglect the theme here. The relevant text quoted here comes from Marx’s ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ of 1844. Simply put: ‘Human beings live on nature’.[32] Alluding to the rest of this sentence from Marx,[33] Xi observes that it is an interactive (huodong) relationship: if human beings treat nature well (shandai), nature will present gifts (kuizeng) of food – an old agricultural assumption. But – and here Xi quotes a text by Engels well-known in China, ‘On Authority’ – ‘if human beings, by dint of their knowledge and inventive genius, have subdued the forces of nature, the latter avenge themselves upon them’.[34] All of this requires not simply the protection of the natural environment, as though human beings are separate from it, but working in terms of ‘harmonious symbiosis [hexie gongsheng]’ and ‘ecological civilisation [shengtai wenming]’. It is not for nothing that China is emerging as a world leader in green technology and ecological design.

  1. World History (shijie lishi)

As for world history, Xi quotes from The German Ideology: ‘the more the original isolatio[n of the separate nationalities is destroyed by the advanced mode of production, by intercourse and by the natural division of labour between various nations arising as a result, the more history becomes world history’.[35] For Xi, this prediction has already come about today in an integrated world, where the one who rejects such a world will be rejected by it. Here we find phrases and slogans that have become common parlance: ; win-win (gongying) cooperation, and community of common future or destiny (renlei mingyun gongtongti).

Nonetheless, let me focus on a few items from this point. The first concerns Xi’s observation: ‘neither dependent [yifu] on others, nor plundering [lüeduo] others’. This is of course an allusion not only to the era of European colonialism, but also to efforts by some countries today to harness others in the world their yoke (the United States being the obvious example). In reply, Xi draws on and maps further the long anticolonial project (see above), which was from the 1930s deeply Marxist in many parts of the world. It may be seen today in the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as the Asia Infrastructure Development Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, if not also BRICS. Some may ask: but is not China engaged in a new form of colonialism, a ‘creditor colonialism’ if you will? Apart from observing that it is little rich for former colonisers to accuse China of colonialism, I am reminded of the Danish proverb: a thief always thinks everyone else is a thief. Others may ask: what about the ‘global’ opposition to China, so much so that today it has few if any friends? It all depends on what one means by ‘global’? Somewhere between 12 to 15 ‘Western’ countries – former colonisers all – have been ramping up the ‘China threat’. But the number is small indeed. The reality is that the vast majority of countries in the world see a distinct benefit – ‘win-win’ – in accepting China’s offer of friendship.

The second point that arises is somewhat different. It concerns the sentence: ‘All things are nourished together without their injuring one another [wanwu bing yu er bu xiang hai, dao bingxing er bu xiangbei]’. This saying has been used by Xi on a number of occasions, but it is not original to him. Instead it comes from the Confucian Book of Rites, in the ‘Zhongyong’ section.[36] This is by no means the first, nor will it be the last time, Xi has quoted from the Chinese classics. Indeed, such is his liking for doing so, along with his love of four-character sayings, that two volumes explaining the origins and uses of these texts have been published thus far.

  1. Marxist Party Building (makesizhuyi zhengdang jianshe)

What do Marx and Engels have to say about Marxist party building? More than one might initially expect, especially in the second section of the manifesto. Xi offers no less than four quotations: 1) ‘In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they [the Communists][37] always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole’;[38] 2) ‘They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole’;[39] 3) The party works ‘in the interest of the immense majority’;[40] 4) And the communist party has ‘‘to set up bench marks [Marksteine] for all the world to see, whereby it may gauge how far the party has progressed’.[41]

In following Xi Jinping’s interpretation, let me begin with a small but significant linguistic point: the Chinese for ‘Communist’ – the noun – is ‘gongchandang ren’. Literally, it means a ‘Communist Party person’. In other words, to be a Communist is not so much an existential political choice or an individual faith. It means primarily that one is a member of a Communist Party. Indeed, one is able to call someone else a genuine ‘comrade [tongzhi]’ if that person is also a party member. Of course, one also needs the element of ‘faith [xinyang]’ – as Xi has been emphasising for some time – but it takes place within the collective context. Conversely, the idea that one can ‘be’ a Communist as a matter of existential choice without party membership is a very ‘Western’ idea, where the primacy of the autonomous individual has wreaked havoc with culture, politics and even religion. Instead, the Chinese approach primarily concerns belonging to the collective – hence ‘Communist Party person’.

Further, in each of the quotations from Marx and Engels, the emphasis is clearly on the interests of the proletariat and movement as a whole, if not the interests of the immense majority. Xi has not chosen these quotations at random, for they emphasise that the basis of the Communist Party, and indeed its difference from other political parties, is that it works with and fights for the people. Everything flows from this primary premise. But it also raises the crucial question as to how the party maintains such a focus and continues to have the trust and confidence of the people after seven decades in power.

Before Xi Jinping became chairman (zhuxi), there were grave concerns that the party was losing this trust. Party discipline was relatively lax, corruption was a real problem, companies and enterprises were regularly flouting the law, exploiting workers and dispossessing the collectively-owned land of villages, and factional strife led to what is now recognised as the beginnings of a coup. As one old Politburo member admitted recently, if Xi did not fix the party, many felt they were doomed. That the party has not fallen apart and that trust in government and public institutions is now between 84 percent and 89 percent,[42] indeed that confidence in the direction China is headed stands at an average of 90 percent,[43] is testament to the effect of Xi Jinping’s reforms. It should be no surprise that we find here a summary of emphases found on many other occasions: party unity and strength, strict management, correcting mistakes, political and ideological knowledge of Marxism, and the unity of the party’s central authority – these have produced a Communist Party in China that is now stronger than it has been for a very long time. In typical fashion, Xi uses two four-character sayings to conclude this point: ‘tested by wind and waves [fenglang kaoyan]’ and ‘full of youthful spirit and vitality [zhaoqi pengbo]’. These are the characteristics of the Marxist party in power.

Conclusion: Marxism at the Centre

Everyone in China might have known right from the beginning that Xi Jinping is absolutely serious about Marxism, but – as is typically the case – the rest of world has taken some time to realise this reality. Indeed, some sleepy and lazy observers had concluded that China had abandoned Marxism, so much so that they are increasingly scrambling to make sense of what is happening under Xi Jinping’s leadership. If nothing else does so, this speech makes it perfectly clear that Marxism is core and centre of the Chinese socialist project. I have attempted to present as carefully as possible the important features of the speech, offering more of an exposition rather than a critique. No doubt, others may want to assess Xi Jinping’s interpretation of Marx and Engels in a Chinese context. My perspective may have emerged at certain points, but I have deliberately identified the sources of all the important quotations to indicate how extensively Xi cites and elaborates upon the classic texts.

As for the centrality of Marxism, Xi stresses that it applies to both theory and practice. On the one hand, the speech urges party members and indeed all Chinese people to make the study of Marx a ‘life habit’ and even a vigorous and ‘spirited [jingshen] pursuit’. Why? As a ‘powerful theoretical weapon [qiangda sixiang wuqi]’, ‘Marxism has from beginning to end been the guiding thought [sixiang] of our party and country’. Or, in terms of yet another four-character saying, Marxism is China’s special skill, or the skill with which one looks after the house (kanjia benling). But it is not merely thought, for in providing the means to understand the world, it enables one to ‘transform [gaizao] the world’. The echo of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach should be obvious.

Here Engels is even more direct. Xi quotes Engels’s letter to Werner Sombart in 1895: ‘Marx’s whole way of conceptualising [Auffassungsweise] is not so much a doctrine [Doctrin] as a method. It provides, not so much ready-made dogmas [Dogmen], as reference points [Anhaltspunkte] for further investigation and the method for such investigation’.[44] This is a well-known text, which became in Lenin’s hands the slogan that Marxism is ‘not a dogma, but a guide for action’. It is difficult to find a communist who would not agree with this slogan, for no-one wishes to be seen as a dogmatic Marxist.[45] But now Xi Jinping challenges us with his second quotation from Engels, from Dialectics of Nature: ‘In every epoch, and therefore also in ours, theoretical thought is a historical product, which at different times assumes very different forms and, therewith, very different contents’.[46]

We need to be careful to avoid a wilful misinterpretation of Xi’s reason for quoting this second text. Engels is speaking of the history of scientific thought, but if one assumes that Marxism too is a science, a historical science, then the point applies to historical and dialectical materialism as well. But how? Here Xi follows Mao: the basic principles of scientific socialism can never be lost, but at the same time they cannot become an immutable and frozen (yicheng bubian) dogma. Thus, the complex process of the construction of socialism is neither an ‘original edition’ of Chinese history and culture, nor a ‘template’ applied from the classic Marxist texts, nor a ‘second edition’ of efforts to construct socialism in other countries, nor a ‘reprint’ of the process of modernization elsewhere.[47] Instead, one must take into account a country’s specific conditions, its history and culture, and always be aware of concrete requirements of the present.

In other words, Marxism is a work in progress. Not any Marxism, but the Marxism at the core of an ongoing project in the construction of socialism, with a communist party in power. In the context of such construction – which is simply beyond the experience of most foreign Marxists – Marxism is a living tradition and not locked in the past. Now Xi comes to his arresting conclusion: all this means that Marxism is even more important now! And it should be developed in new, creative and energetic ways. To do so is the ‘sacred duty [shensheng zhize]’ of every communist. To quote Engels one last time: ‘The prospect[48] of a gigantic revolution, the most gigantic revolution that has ever taken place, therefore presents itself to us as soon as we pursue our materialist thesis further and apply it to the present time’.[49]

To finish on a slightly different note: throughout the text and especially when Xi is elaborating on the nine core points, he begins each point with ‘study Marx’. The Chinese word for ‘study’ is ‘xuexi’. This usage has led to a pun used frequently today: the character xi is the same as the family name for Xi Jinping. So now it is common to use ‘xuexi’ to mean ‘study Xi’. Indeed, a whole section of the CPC newspaper, the People’s Daily, is entitled ‘study Xi [xuexi]’. Needless to say, the most important statement by Xi Jinping concerning Marxism has not only been a major impetus for renewed study – and practice – of Marxism in China, but is also the subject itself of much study.

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Endnotes

[1] My engagement with the speech was part of my ongoing study of Chinese language, which has included important works by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in the original texts. One may find the text of Xi Jinping’s speech on http://www.xinhuanet.com/2018-05/04/c_1122783997.htm, where a video is also provided.

[2] The Chinese for ‘utopian’ is kongxiang, bearing the senses of fantasy, daydream and empty wish.

[3] The terminology of ‘work [gongzuo]’, ‘worker [gongren]’ and ‘working class’ or ‘proletariat [wuchan jieji]’ appears 29 times in this speech.

[4] Given the importance of the quotations and their interpretation, the sources are given in the footnotes: first the English translation, then the original language citation, and then the Chinese translation. Where necessary, I indicate where Xi quotes from the Chinese Selected Works of Marx and Engels and where he uses the Complete Works or the more recent (2009) 10-volume Collected Works. The Selected Works are a fascinating collection, produced only in a Chinese context. The selections of relevant material and the narrative thereby produced witness to a significant focus on the realities of socialism in power.

[5] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 6, 1848 [1976]), 506; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, vol. 4, 1848 [1974]), 482; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 4, 1848 [1972]), 491.

[6] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 519; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 493; Marx and Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, 504.

[7] He Xiu, Chunqiu gongyangzhuan zhuxu, 28 vols. (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980), 2200.

[8] For He Xiu and this tradition, the ‘rumoured’ place is one of decay, disorder and chaos, where skulduggery, assassination and intrigue abound.

[9] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Shensheng jiazu, huo dui pipan de pipan suo zuo de pipan, bo bulunuo·baowei’er ji qi huoban (jiexuan)’, in Makesi Engesi wenji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 1, 1845 [2009]), 287. Xi opts for the more recent translation in the Marx Engels Collected Works. This text differs slightly from the earlier version in the Complete Works. See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Shensheng jiazu, huo dui pipan de pipan suo zuo de pipan, bo bulunuo·baowei’er ji qi huoban, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 2, 1845 [1972]), 104. The quotation is actually the first part of an effort render a somewhat difficult sentence in the original German, which may be translated as: ‘Together with the thoroughness of the historical action [geschichtlichen Aktion], the size of the mass whose action it is [der Masse … deren Aktion sie ist] will therefore increase’. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 4, 1845 [1975]), 82; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Die heilige Familie oder Kritik der kritischen Kritik, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 2, 1845 [1974]), 86.

[10] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 5, 1845-1846 [1976]), 43; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Die deutsche Ideologie. Kritik der neuesten deutschen Philosophie in ihren Repräsentanten Feuerbach, B. Bauer und Stirner und des deutschen Sozialismus in seinen verschiedenen Propheten, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 3, 1845-1846 [1973]), 30; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Deyizhi yishi xingtai. Dui Feierbaha, Bu·baowei’er he Shidina suo daibiao de xiandai deguo zhexue yiji ge shi ge yang xianzhi suo daibiao de deguo shehuizhuyi de pipan, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 3, 1845-1846 [1972]), 33. English translation modified. The Chinese translation for ‘Menge’, ‘amount’ or ‘quantity’, is ‘zonghe’, with the senses of ‘sum’ and ‘sum total’. Further, the German ‘zugänglichen’, ‘accessible’ or ‘attainable’, is translated as ‘dadao’, meaning ‘reach’ or ‘achieve’.

[11] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 32-35; Marx and Engels, Die deutsche Ideologie, 21-25; Marx and Engels, Deyizhi yishi xingtai, 24-28.

[12] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 495; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 472; Marx and Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, 477.

[13] Friedrich Engels, ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 27, 1891 [1990]), 189-90; Friedrich Engels, ‘Einleitung zur dritten deutschen Auflage (1891) von Karl Marx, “Der Burgerkrieg in Frankreich”’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. I.32, 1891 [2010]), 14-15; Friedrich Engels, ‘Falanxi neizhan de 1891 danxingben daoyan’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 3, 1891 [2003]), 12-13. Xi quotes from the translation in the Chinese Selected Works. The translation in the Complete Works has a slight difference: it translates Macht as quanli (power) rather than zhengquan (political power). Xi uses the latter. See Friedrich Engels, ‘Makesi “Falanxi neizhan” yishi daolan’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 22, 1891 [1972]), 228.

[14] Karl Marx, ‘The Civil War in France’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 22, 1871 [1986]), 328; Karl Marx, ‘Falanxi neizhan’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 17, 1871 [1972]), 355.

[15] This material is the focus of a monograph, called Friedrich Engels and the Basis of Socialist Governance, to be published in 2020. For those who are interested, the key texts from the 1890s should be consulted: Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels to Conrad Schmidt in Berlin, London, 27 October 1890’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 49, 1890 [2001]); Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels an Conrad Schmidt in Berlin, London, 27.Oktober 1890’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 37, 1890 [1974]); Engels, ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France’; Engels, ‘Einleitung zur dritten deutschen Auflage (1891) von Karl Marx, “Der Burgerkrieg in Frankreich”‘; Engels, ‘A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891’; Engels, ‘Zur Kritik des sozialdemokratischen Programmentwurfs 1891’; Friedrich Engels, ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 27, 1895 [1990]); Friedrich Engels, ‘Einleitung (1895) zu Karl Marx’s “Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850″‘, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. I.32, 1895 [2010]).

[16] Engels, ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France’, 189-90; Engels, ‘Einleitung zur dritten deutschen Auflage (1891) von Karl Marx, “Der Burgerkrieg in Frankreich”‘, 14-15; Engels, ‘Makesi “Falanxi neizhan” yishi daolan’, 227-28.

[17] Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels to Philipp Van Patten in New York (Draft). London, 18 April 1883’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 47, 1883 [1995]), 10; Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels an Philip Van Patten in New York (Entwurf). London, 18. April 1883’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 36, 1883 [1979]), 11.

[18] In this light, it is a quasi-anarchist misreading to assume that state structures will fade away immediately after a communist revolution.

[19] Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In the Light of the Researches by Lewis H. Morgan, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 26, 1884 [1990]), 270; Friedrich Engels, Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staats, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 21, 1884 [1962]), 166.

[20] Engels, ‘Einleitung zur dritten deutschen Auflage (1891) von Karl Marx, “Der Burgerkrieg in Frankreich”‘, 15.

[21] For example, English translations have either ‘new and truly democratic one’ or ‘new and really democratic state’. The Chinese translations offer, in the Selected Works, ‘xin de zhenzheng minzhu de guojia zhengquan [political power]’, and, in the Complete Works, ‘xin de zhenzheng minzhu de guojia quanli [power]’.

[22] Karl Marx, ‘Marx to Vera Zasulich, Geneva, 8 March 1881’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 46, 1881 [1992]), 71; Karl Marx, ‘Lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch résidant à Genève, Londres, le 8 mars 1881’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]), 241.

[23] Karl Marx, ‘Drafts of the Letter to Vera Zasulich’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 24, 1881 [1989]); Marx, ‘Premier projet de la lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]); Marx, ‘Deuxième projet de la lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]); Marx, ‘Troisième projet de la lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch’, in in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]); Marx, ‘Quatrième projet de la lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch’, in in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]).

[24] Karl Marx, ‘Gei wei·yi·chasuliqi de fuxin caogao: chugao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 19, 1881 [1972]); Karl Marx, ‘Gei wei·yi·chasuliqi de fuxin caogao: ergao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 19, 1881 [1972]); Marx, ‘Gei wei·yi·chasuliqi de fuxin caogao: sangao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 19, 1881 [1972]); Marx, ‘Wei·yi·chasuliqi de xin, 1881 nian 3 yue 8 ri yu lundun xibei lu, meitilan gongyuan lu 41 hao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 19, 1881 [1972]).

[25] Even today, Chinese history follows its own path. It may be influenced by events elsewhere, but – as a signal example – the four decades of reform and opening up have their own historical logic.

[26] The core socialist values, which have now been assiduously promoted for the last few years, are: prosperous and strong (fuqiang); democratic (minzhu); civilised (wenming); harmonious (hexie); free (ziyou); equal (pingdeng); just (gongzheng); rule of law (fazhi); love of country (aiguo); dedicated (jingye); honest and trustworthy (chengxin); friendly (youshan). Their tendency to be adjectival should be noted.

 

[27] Karl Marx, ‘Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft of 1857-1858) [Second Instalment]’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 29, 1857-1858 [1987]), 94; Karl Marx, ‘Ökonomische Manuskripte 1857/1858’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. II.1, 1857-1858 [2006]), 584; Karl Marx, ‘Zhengzhijingjixue pipan (1857-1858 nian caogao) [shougao houban bufen]’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 46b, 1857-1858 [1972]), 222. This is an intriguing quotation, for Marx is analysing the exacerbation of contradictions under the capitalist market economy, but as he does so, he provides glimpses of the potential of socialist society. This and other texts from the 1857-1858 manuscripts, which offer comparable glimpses, have been analysed in detail by Chinese scholars.

[28] Friedrich Engels, ‘Principles of Communism’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 6, 1847 [1976]), 354; Friedrich Engels, ‘Grundsätze des Kommunismus’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 4, 1847 [1972]); Friedrich Engels, ‘Gongchanzhuyi yuanli’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 1, 1847 [2003]), 243. Xi quotes from the Selected Works, which has a small difference from the Chinese Complete Works, albeit one without effect on the meaning Friedrich Engels, ‘Gongchanzhuyi yuanli’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 4, 1847 [1972]), 371.

[29] Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels’ Amendments to the Programme of the North of England Socialist Federation’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 26, 1887 [1990]), 620; Friedrich Engels, ‘Engesi dui yingguo beifang shehuizhuyi lianmeng gangling de xiuzheng’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 21, 1887 [1972]), 570. Intriguingly, this text is not directly from Engels’s hand, but from the program of the North of England Socialist Federation. Engels was asked to comment on the program, which he did at some points while approving the rest. Xi quotes from one part that Engels approved.

[30] The new primary contradiction (an emphasis stemming from Mao’s deeply influential ‘On Contradiction’ essay from 1937) was identified at the nineteenth congress of the CPC in 2017: ‘What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life’. See Jinping Xi, 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, 2017), 9-10; Jinping Xi, Juesheng quanmian jiancheng xiaokang shehui, duoqu xinshidai zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi weida shengli (2017.10.18) (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2017), 11.

[31] Elsewhere, I have addressed the charge that the CPC abandoned the old ‘iron rice bowl’ and exploited workers. The simple answer is that lifting 700-800 million urban and rural workers out of poverty since the beginning of the reform and opening up provides a far better basis for the social construction mapped out here by Xi Jinping.

[32] Karl Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 3, 1844 [1975]), 276; Karl Marx, ‘Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte (Erste Wiedergabe)’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. I.2, 1844 [2009]), 240; Karl Marx, ‘Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte (Zweite Wiedergabe)’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. I.2, 1844 [2009]), 368; Karl Marx, ‘1844 nian jingji zhexue shougao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 42, 1844 [1972]), 95. Translation modified, since Marx uses the generic Mensch.

[33] The fuller text, in the old MECW translation has: ‘Man lives on nature – means that nature is one’s body, with which one must remain in continuous interchange if one is not to die. That a human being’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for a human being is a part of nature’.

[34] Friedrich Engels, ‘On Authority’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 23, 1873 [1988]), 423; Friedrich Engels, ‘Dell’ Autorità’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.24, 1873 [1984]), 85; Friedrich Engels, ‘Lun quanwei’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 18, 1873 [1972]), 342.

[35] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 50-51; Marx and Engels, Die deutsche Ideologie, 45; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Deyizhi yishi xingtai (jiexuan)’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 1, 1845-1846 [2003]), 88. Xi quotes from the translation of the Selected Works on this occasion, which has a number of minor variations in comparison with the translation in the Complete Works. See Marx and Engels, ‘Deyizhi yishi xingtai. Dui Feierbaha, Bu·baowei’er he Shidina suo daibiao de xiandai deguo zhexue yiji ge shi ge yang xianzhi suo daibiao de deguo shehuizhuyi de pipan’, 51.

[36] The online version, with James Legge’s translation, may be found at https://ctext.org/liji/zhong-yong.

[37] As is the tendency in Chinese, the translation clarifies ‘they’ with ‘Communist Party people [gongchandang ren]’.

[38] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 497; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 474; Marx and Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, 479.

[39] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 497; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 474; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 1, 1848 [2003]), 285. A minor variation in the Chinese translation indicates that Xi is once again quoting from the Selected Works.

[40] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 495; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 472; Marx and Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, 477.

[41] Karl Marx, ‘Marx to Wilhelm Bracke in Brunswick, London, 5 May 1875’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 45, 1875 [1991]), 70; Karl Marx, ‘Marx an Wilhelm Bracke in Braunschweig, London, 5.Mai 1875’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 34, 1875 [1973]), 138; Karl Marx, ‘Zhi Weilian Bailake, Bulunruike, 1875 nian 5 yue 5 ri yu Lundun’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 34, 1875 [1972]), 130.

[42] Edelman, ‘2018 Edelman Trust Barometer: Global Report’, (Los Angeles: Edelman, 2018).

[43] Ipsos, ‘What Worries the World – July 2017’, (Paris: Ipsos Public Affairs, 2017), 4; Ipsos, ‘What Worries the World – September 2018’, (Paris: Ipsos Public Affairs, 2018), 4.

[44] Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels to Werner Sombart in Breslau, London,11 March 1895’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 50, 1895 [2004]), 461; Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels an Werner Sombart in Breslau, London, 11.März 1895’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 39, 1895 [1973]), 428; Friedrich Engels, ‘Zhi Weinaer·Sangbate, Bulesilao, 1895 nian 3 yue, 11 ri yu Lundun’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 39a, 1895 [1972]), 406. I have been very careful with this important observation by Engels, modifying the standard English translation to bring out more clearly the sense of the German. Thus, ‘Auffassungsweise’ means way of conceptualising, or mode of conceptualisation – as an active process. Here, the Chinese translation renders the term as ‘shijieguan’, which means more here than ‘world outlook’: it designates a way of observing the world. Further, ‘Anhaltspunkte’ is specifically reference points, which the Chinese renders as ‘chufadian’, the ‘point of departure’ for the next step of investigation.

[45] Although this does not prevent the odd foreign Marxist, who likes to suggest that China has at some point abandoned Marxism. This hypothesis may take various forms: the leadership is all talk and no action, or they are hypocrites who pay lip service to Marxism but act entirely differently, or – in stronger versions – they have betrayed Mao and Marxism and been engaged in a vast conspiracy, with coded language, for the last forty years. Xi Jinping’s resolute focus on Marxism as theory and practice has made such superficial hypotheses untenable (not that they ever were really tenable). But here it is also pertinent to note Engels’s related observation on some Marxists from North America. In a letter to Friedrich Adolf Sorge, he writes: ‘they themselves do not for the most part understand the theory and treat it in doctrinaire and dogmatic fashion as something which, having once been learnt by rote, is sufficient as it stands for any and every need. To them it is a credo, not a guide to action’ Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge in Hoboken, 29 November 1886’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 47, 1886 [1995]), 531-32; Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels an Friedrich Adolph Sorge in Hoboken, London, 29.November 1886’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 36, 1886 [1973]), 578.

[46] Friedrich Engels, ‘Dialectics of Nature’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 25, 1873-1882 [1987]), 338; Friedrich Engels, ‘Dialektik der Natur’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 20, 1873-82 [1973]), 330; Friedrich Engels, ‘Ziran bianzhengfa (jiexuan)’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 4, 1873-1882 [2003]), 284. Once again, Xi Jinping quotes from the translation in the Selected Works, which differs in minor details from the translation found in the Complete Works. Compare Friedrich Engels, ‘Ziran bianzhengfa’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 20, 1873-1882 [1972]), 382.

[47] I have tried to render Xi’s complex wordplay here: ‘original edition [muban]’, ‘template [moban]’, ‘second edition [zaiban]’ and ‘reprint’ [fanban]’.

[48] The Chinese translation of ‘Die Perspepktive’ is ‘yuanjing’, a long-range view, prospect or even vision.

[49] Friedrich Engels, ‘Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 16, 1859 [1980]), 469-70; Friedrich Engels, ‘Karl Marx, “Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie”‘, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 13, 1859 [1974]), 470; Friedrich Engels, ‘Ka’er·makesi “Zhengzhijingjixue pipan. Diyi fence” ‘, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 2, 1859 [2003]), 38. Xi quotes the version in the Chinese Selected Works, which differs slightly from that in the Collected Works Friedrich Engels, ‘Ka’er·makesi “Zhengzhijingjixue pipan” ‘, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 13, 1859 [1972]), 526-27.

The Socialist State: Philosophical Foundations

This book outline deals with the socialist state, examining an alternative path through the Marxist tradition in order to understand the realities of the socialist state, with a focus on China. These realities include a many-layered enmeshment of state and society, the nature of the multi-party system, the practices of socialist democracy, and future directions, all in light of distinct emphasis that Marxism – as a guide for action – is front and centre in China. The method is simply working very closely with the texts in their original languages, especially texts or aspects of texts that have been sidelined or even forgotten.

Chapter 1: Marx’s Ambivalence: State, Proletarian Dictatorship and Commune

I begin with Marx, who struggled with a tension concerning what happens after a communist revolution: between the proletarian dictatorship, with its force and violence (Gewalt), and the commune, based on the Paris experiment (1871). One entails strengthening the state and the other its breaking down – a tension bequeathed to the tradition. Marx also begins to offer a possible resolution, in terms of a narrative from one to the other, and in his struggle to delineate the forms of governance under communism. But he is reticent to speculate, aware that without the experience of constructing socialism, he could not undertake a ‘scientific’ study of what might happen.

Chapter 2: Engels: Enmeshed Governance

While Engels set the agenda for subsequent approaches – Weberian and Marxist – to theories of the bourgeois state, his real contribution is in the ‘enmeshed apparatus’. This arises from a contrast: while the state is a separated ‘public power (Gewalt)’ that – in this form – will in theory ‘die away’ with communism, non-state societies have complex patterns of organisation and governance that are not separated but enmeshed within society. This ‘enmeshed apparatus’ (my term) provides a potential theoretical model for understanding the state under socialism in power, although it also entails redefining ‘state’.

Chapter 3: Lenin and the Early Socialist State

In The State and Revolution (1917) Lenin tackled the tension bequeathed by Marx and Engels, between the strong state of the proletarian dictatorship and its ‘dying away’ under communism. His solution was to introduce the crucial distinction between socialism and communism. Socialism was the ‘transition period’ with many relics of earlier state forms and potentially lasting a very long time. Only after communism had become a global reality would conditions arise for the natural ‘withering away’ of the state.

Chapter 4: Stalin and the Socialist State

Since Lenin’s work remained incomplete, it fell to Stalin to develop a fuller theory. His texts (and debates at the time) reveal the importance of a strong state, for the purpose of establishing a comprehensive welfare system, the world’s first ‘affirmative action’ program for minority nationalities, fostering international anti-colonial struggles, and dealing with internal and especially external enemies. But what is this state? It is not a ‘nation’, but a redefined ‘Soviet people’ constituted by workers, collective farmers and intellectuals. Philosophically, this required the breakthrough of non-antagonistic contradictions – classes and tensions continue, but in a non-antagonistic manner. Stalin concludes: ‘We now have an entirely new, Socialist state [sotsialisticheskoe gosudarstvo], without precedent in history’ (1939, 336).

Chapter 5: Mao Zedong’s Contradiction Analysis

The second part of the monograph focuses on the Chinese situation. It begins with Mao’s ‘On Contradiction’ (1937, see also 1957), which is inescapable for understanding the philosophical basis of Chinese political forms. The main insight for my purposes is reframing non-antagonistic contradictions in light of the Chinese idea that contradictions not only oppose but also complement one another (xiangfan xiangcheng), that continuity is enabled through change (biantong). This approach enables a unique development of Marx’s problem – proletarian dictatorship versus commune – and Engels’s enmeshed apparatus, in terms of state-society envelopment, cooperative multi-party system, and socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics. Today, ‘contradiction analysis’ continues at the heart of government policy: a new primary contradiction was announced at the CPC’s 19th congress in 2017.

Chapter 6: State-Society Envelopment

This chapter investigates the envelopment or enmeshment of state and society (and economy), beginning with the proposal that the origins of civilisation and society in China are inseparable from the emergence of that state (Yi 2012). I take seriously the position that China is in the first, or long transitional stage, of socialism. Thus, the state is in some respects separate, as a relic of earlier forms, but also deeply enmeshed within society in all manner of complex ways. Ridding ourselves of the notions of ‘intervention’, the approach – drawing on both Engels and Mao – enables a new understanding of how this envelopment takes place.

Chapter 7: Consultative Multi-Party System

Here I set aside the notion of ‘party-state’ and investigate the philosophical implications of ‘consultative governance’ of the multi-party system (Wang and Wei 2017). Based on the reality of nine political parties, I examine the philosophical implications: political parties operating in a context of differences based on a complementary common ground; robust ‘criticism and self-criticism’ (at the intersection of Chinese and Marxist traditions) in contrast to agonistic models; the nature of the supreme decision-making National People’s Congress (NPC) and the consultative Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC); the separation and enmeshment of powers.

Chapter 8: Theory and Practice of Socialist Democracy

Does China practice democracy, and if so, how? In contrast to a universal notion of ‘democracy’, I begin by distinguishing between ancient Greek, liberal, illiberal and socialist democracies. Focusing on ‘socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics’ (Yu 2008, Yang 2009, Li 2013, Li 2015, Ma 2015a, 2015b, Fang 2015), I examine how ‘democratic centralism’ and indeed ‘democratic dictatorship’ are possible (contradiction analysis) and how they can be mutually reinforcing – as already seen in the Soviet Union (Kokosalakis 2018). This also requires analysis of the permanence of the communist party, feedback mechanisms, and wide-ranging direct and indirect elections.

Chapter 9: The Governance of China

The most recent development is found in Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China (Xi 2014, 2017), core texts in increasing number of works that now comprise ‘Xi Jinping Thought’. Xi carries on a communist tradition of the leader as philosopher, but also the Chinese tradition in which the leader is also tutor. Critical analysis reveals elaborations on the themes already discussed, but also a distinct future focus. Important here are the two centenary goals of a ‘moderately prosperous society (xiaokang shehui)’ by 2020 and a ‘great modern socialist country’ by 2049, as well as the new primary contradiction between uneven and unbalanced development and people’s desire for a ‘better life (meihua shenghuo)’. This 4-character saying has deep resonances in Chinese tradition, which is now being elaborated in light of Xi Jinping’s sustained emphasis on Marxism as the guiding principle of China’s transition into a ‘new era’.

Conclusion: The Socialist State with Chinese Characteristics

The conclusion draws together the themes of the book and delineates what is meant by a socialist state, especially with Chinese characteristics. Here I also broach issues for potential future work, concerning the socialist market economy and international relations. While the former entails further development of the category of enmeshment, historical analysis and distinguishing it from a capitalist market economy, the matter of international relations raises important questions. For example, is the Belt and Road Initiative another form of imperialism, or does it spring from Chinese tradition and older socialist practices of anti-colonialism? Does the ‘community of shared destiny for humankind [renlei mingyun gongtongti]’ – which underlies the BRI (Fu 2017) – really enable moving past geo-political zero-sum rivalry for the sake of ‘win-win’ solutions?

China’s multi-party system: ‘a great contribution to political civilisation’

The all-important ‘two sessions’ (lianghui) are underway in Beijing. These are the National People’s Congress (NPC), the highest law-making body in China, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which provides advice and recommendations to the NPC. You can watch a brief video about the two sessions of 2018 here. These two sessions are perhaps even more important this year after the landmark 19th congress of the CPC in November of 2016.

During the first session of the CPPCC, Xi Jinping and others met with representatives from other political parties, those without party affiliation and returned overseas Chinese. Among other items, Xi stressed the following (quoting from Xinhua News – see also a later piece in the People’s Daily):

President Xi Jinping Sunday called the system of multiparty cooperation and political consultation led by the Communist Party of China (CPC) “a great contribution to political civilization of humanity.”

It is “a new type of party system growing from China’s soil,” said Xi …

Xi said the system is new because it combines Marxist political party theories with China’s reality, and truly, extensively and in the long term represents fundamental interests of all people and all ethnic groups and fulfills their aspiration, avoiding the defects of the old-fashioned party system which represents only a selective few or the vested interest.

The Chinese system is new, Xi said, because it unites all political parties and people without party affiliation toward a common goal, effectively preventing the flaws of the absence of oversight in one-party rule, or power rotation and nasty competition among multiple political parties.

The Chinese system is new, Xi said, also because it pools ideas and suggestions through institutional, procedural, and standardized arrangements and develops a scientific and democratic decision making mechanism.

It steers away from another weakness of the old-fashioned party system, in which decision making and governance, confined by interests of different political parties, classes, regions and groups, tears the society apart, he said.

Fitting China’s reality and fine traditional culture, it is “a great contribution to political civilization of humanity,” he said.

Xi said upholding the CPC leadership was not meant to do away with democracy.

Instead, it aims to create a form of democracy that is broader and more effective, he said.

The CPC-led system of multiparty cooperation and political consultation stresses both the CPC leadership and socialist democracy which features political consultation, participation in the deliberation of state affairs, and democratic supervision, he said.

 

CPC Central Committee proposes changes to the constitution

In preparation for the two sessions of parliament, the CPC Central Committee met to discuss – among other things – changes to the constitution. It is useful to see these in the wider context, since some international commentators have been making a bit of noise about the removal of term limits to the presidency. As you will see, what the document actually suggests is that the terms for president and vice-president be the same as delegates for the National People’s Congress.

And it turns out that Xi Jinping Thought (in full: Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era), meshes rather well with my project on ‘Socialism in Power‘. Xi Jinping Thought has already been written into the constitution of the CPC, fostered more than 100 university research centres and entered into the school curriculum.

Here is the full list of proposals from the Central Committee, made public the other day:

The proposal, raised to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), was made in accordance with the new situation and practice of upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era.

— New thought

The CPC Central Committee proposed writing Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era into the country’s fundamental law. The Scientific Outlook on Development was also proposed to be included.

According to the proposal, under the leadership of the CPC and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, the Scientific Outlook on Development, and Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, the Chinese people of all ethnic groups will continue to adhere to the people’s democratic dictatorship and the socialist road, persevere in reform and opening to the outside world, steadily improve socialist institutions, develop the socialist market economy, develop socialist democracy, improve the socialist rule of law, apply a new vision of development and work hard and self-reliantly to modernize the country’s industry, agriculture, national defence and science and technology step by step and promote the coordinated development of the material, political, cultural and ethical, social and ecological advancement, to turn China into a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful and realize national rejuvenation.

— United front

The CPC Central Committee proposed including patriots devoted to national rejuvenation as part of the patriotic united front in the Constitution.

According to the proposal, in the long years of revolution, construction and reform, there has been formed under the leadership of the CPC a broad patriotic united front which is composed of the democratic parties and people’s organizations, and which embraces all socialist working people, all builders of socialism, all patriots who support socialism, and all patriots who stand for the reunification of the motherland and devote themselves to national rejuvenation. This united front will continue to be consolidated and developed.

— Harmonious relations among all ethnic groups

Harmonious socialist relations among ethnic groups were proposed to be written into the Constitution.

Socialist relations of equality, unity, mutual assistance and harmony have been established among the ethnic groups and will continue to be strengthened, according to a proposed revision to the preamble.

The State protects the lawful rights and interests of the ethnic minority groups and upholds and develops a relationship of equality, unity, mutual assistance and harmony among all of China’s ethnic groups, according to a proposed revision to a clause of Article 4.

— Community with shared future for humanity

The CPC Central Committee proposed writing building “a community with a shared future for humanity” into the Constitution.

The expression that China will “adhere to the peaceful development path and the mutually beneficial strategy of opening-up” should be added to the preamble, read the proposal.

China’s achievements in revolution, construction and reform are inseparable from the support of the people of the world. The future of China is closely linked to the future of the world, according to the proposal.

The proposal read that China consistently carries out an independent foreign policy, adheres to the five principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, peaceful coexistence, adheres to the peaceful development path and the mutually beneficial strategy of opening-up in developing diplomatic relations and economic and cultural exchanges with other countries, and works to build a community with a shared future for humanity. China consistently opposes imperialism, hegemonism and colonialism, works to strengthen unity with the people of other countries, supports the oppressed nations and the developing countries in their just struggle to win and preserve national independence and develop their national economies, and strives to safeguard world peace and promote the cause of human progress.

— CPC leadership

A sentence stressing the Party’s leadership was proposed to be added into the Constitution.

“The leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” read the proposal.

— Core socialist values

The addition of core socialist values into a clause was also in the proposed package.

The proposal read that the State advocates core socialist values, and the civic virtues of love of the motherland, of the people, of labour, of science and of socialism.

— Oath of allegiance

The CPC Central Committee proposed inclusion of pledging allegiance to the Constitution into the fundamental law.

All state functionaries shall take a public oath of allegiance to the Constitution when assuming office, read the proposal.

— Chinese President and Vice-President

The CPC Central Committee proposed revising the clause “The term of office of the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress, and they shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” to “The term of office of the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress.”

— New cabinet function

The CPC Central Committee proposed to list ecological advancement as a new function and power of the State Council, or cabinet.

Apart from economic affairs and urban and rural development, the State Council also has the function and power of directing and administering ecological advancement, according to a proposed change to a clause under Article 89.

— More cities with legislative power

Chinese cities, with subordinate districts, would be granted the power to make local laws and regulations under the proposed constitutional amendment.

The people’s congresses and their standing committees of these cities would be able to adopt local laws and regulations under the condition that they do not contradict the Constitution, national laws and regulations, and provincial laws and regulations, according to the proposal.

The local laws and regulations would take effect after being approved by the standing committees of provincial-level people’s congresses.

— Supervisory commissions

The CPC Central Committee proposed listing the supervisory commissions as a new type of state organs in the Constitution.

According to the proposal, supervisory organs will be listed together with administrative, judicial and procuratorial organs of the State, all of which are created by the people’s congresses to which they are responsible and by which they are supervised.

A new section about supervisory commissions is proposed to be added to the third chapter titled “The Structure of the State” in the Constitution.

The country sets up the national and local supervisory commissions, according to the document.

A supervisory commission will consist of one director, several deputy directors and a number of members. The director will serve the same term as that of the people’s congress of the same level.

The director of the national supervisory commission shall serve no more than two consecutive terms.

The organization, functions and powers of supervisory commissions are prescribed by law.

As the supreme supervisory organ, the national supervisory commission will oversee local commissions and answer to the NPC and its standing committee.

The supervisory commissions at higher levels will lead the commissions at lower levels.

Local supervisory commissions at various levels will be responsible to the state power organs that created them and to the supervisory commission at the next level up.

The supervisory commissions will independently exercise their power of supervision and not be subject to interference by any administrative organ, public organization or individual, said the proposal.

It also asked the supervisory organs to coordinate with judicial organs, procuratorial organs and law enforcement departments, and check each other in handling duty-related offenses.

The NPC will be given the power to elect and remove the director of the national supervisory commission, while the NPC Standing Committee shall supervise the national supervisory commission and appoint or remove deputy directors and members of the commission at the recommendation of its director.

Local people’s congresses at and above county level will elect and have the power to remove the directors of the supervisory commissions at the corresponding level, while their standing committees shall supervise the supervisory commissions at the corresponding level.

Members of the standing committees of the NPC and local peoples’ congresses at and above county level shall not hold office in supervisory organs.

In addition, supervision will no longer be a duty for the State Council and local governments at and above county level, according to the proposal.

Friend or Foe? The role of criticism in China

A central aspect of democratic practices in whatever type of democracy we are thinking about is the role of criticism. How does criticism work in the Chinese situation of socialist democracy? A common international perception of China is that nearly all criticism is simply squashed down; it is censored and you cannot engage with it. This is actually not the case.

Criticism works in a number of ways in a Chinese situation. First of all, there is a long socialist tradition of what is called ‘criticism and self-criticism [piping yu ziwopiping]’. This tradition also meshes with Chinese culture in a way that is pervasive and productive. But there is a fundamental distinction between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Or to put it another way, there are certain boundary lines. So it is very common to identify a particular problem, a shortcoming, and propose a constructive solution to that problem. But what is not accepted is a solution that would lead to the destruction of the current situation in China. So the boundary lines are there: forms of criticism and constructive criticism that are very much encouraged and fostered.

My experience in China as a foreigner, who spends more and more time in China, is that the range of criticism and debate is incredibly wide. But there is a really experience in China. Chinese people are extremely sensitive and can pick up very, very quickly the following: if a foreigner disdains or looks down on China and Chinese culture and Chinese people, they pick this up immediately. As a result the mode of engagement will change. You do not have to say anything, but they can sense it immediately. And you will certainly not get access to many dimensions of Chinese life.

But if people can discern that you are what they call a ‘friend of China’, then everything is different. The range of debate is much wider, the possibilities of constructive criticism are much greater, so much so that contributions from foreigners too are fostered and encouraged.

For anyone who is thinking of spending some time in China, it is very important to be aware of whether you are going there with an implicit attitude of looking down on China, or disdaining or dismissing it, or whether you want to go to China to understand, and at least to try and come through as someone who is open and is a friend.

Actually existing socialist democracy

The usual material you find trotted out in a small number of ‘Western’ media outlets (corporate and state-run) is that China is an authoritarian state that suppresses any form of ‘democracy’. For some reason, they fail to explain what actually happens here, which is the gradual development of socialist democracy. For instance, how are delegates elected for the annual parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), and the advisory body, the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)? By elections. Yes, they have elections. As a recent report in the People’s Daily points out, this is complex process:

Under China’s current Electoral Law, deputies to people’s congresses at the level of townships and counties, who account for more than 90 percent of lawmakers at all levels nationwide, are elected directly by voters.

They in turn elect deputies to people’s congresses of cities who then elect deputies at the provincial level.

NPC deputies are elected by people’s congresses of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities.

This process involves no less than 900 million people voting directly to elect more than 2.5 million lawmakers in county or township-level elections.

Quoting the person responsible for the process, Zhang Dejiang, ‘Adhering to the (Chinese Communist) Party’s leadership, we will fully promote democracy, follow procedures in strict accordance with the law, and strengthen guidance and monitoring of the election work, in order to ensure that elections are held honestly and election results meet public expectations’.

 

Reflections on China

The foreigner’s moment of transition is upon me: China is becoming familiar. This is a curious time, when much of what struck me on the first few visits starts to seem like normal. What was different is no longer so; what I once noticed I no longer do, since it is becoming part of everyday life. The downside is that I need to work harder to notice what I once did, to create that fiction of seeing for the first time. But the upside is that I am beginning to understand some aspects a little more deeply.

The first is a paradox, at least at first sight. China is at the same time more technologically advanced than any place on the planet and yet more traditional. The examples are multiple, including the highest rate of new technological inventions in the world (outstripping even places like silicon valley) or the development of an anti-aircraft-carrier missile that neutralises the key element of US military supremacy. But let me describe one such item in a little more detail. China has what is already the most comprehensive network of high-speed trains in the world, and the network is expanding rapidly. It may have borrowed the technology from Germany and France, but there only a few short lines operate with trains that run at over 300 kilometres per hour. As China extends its network over thousands and thousands of kilometres, it has developed the technology in its own way, so that now it is the global expert. The network is transforming travel in China in a way other countries can only imagine.

Yet China is deeply traditional. This is most noticeable in the rural villages, even in those close to the cities. Here people cook on wood fires, draw water from wells, use hand labour for farming and animals (mules) for traction. To be sure, they have motorised vehicles – of the ubiquitous three-wheeled type – but they often prefer the animals and their hands. With common rather than private property in land, they practice the age-old reallocation of land shares on a periodic basis. Need and capability are the criteria, depending on family size and capabilities.

I could cite other examples, such as attitudes to relationships, or assumptions regarding food, or the sense of what is important in life (spiritual as well as material), but the underlying paradox is one of the most advanced and yet most traditional societies one can find. However, a widespread sense persists in China that it remains backward, that it still has much catching-up to do to be equal with the ‘West’. I prefer to see it in terms of dialectical possibilities. As past experience shows, the places that feel as though they are still behind the rest usually find new ways to leap ahead. Call it dialectics if you will, but soon enough more and more people realise that backwardness is an advantage. It enables modes of creativity in which one realises that ‘catching up’ is not the path to follow. Instead, such backwardness produces new modes of thinking and acting that solve intractable problems elsewhere. Suddenly, what was once backward is now at the forefront. The fact that China has – as one person put it to me clearly – a very different social framework adds to that potential.

A second feature concerns perceptions of, or rather the production of, the ‘West’. This is a subtle term with many layers of meaning. Of course, the origins of the East-West distinction, as we know it, go back to the struggles between the Greek-speaking (east) and Latin-speaking (west) parts of the Christian Church. Dates for major festivals, doctrinal statements, church structures – these and more were part of the struggle. From this specific, small, and rather insignificant origin it has become a global distinction. But what does ‘West’ mean in China? Sometimes it refers strictly to Western Europe; at other times eastern Europe, the USA, North America as a whole, and even Japan are included; and at others it includes the whole world apart from China (which then embodies the East). Intrigued by these multiple senses, I often ask: what about Russia, is that Western? Some say yes, others say no, but few recognise that Russia is largely an Asian country. How about Eastern Europe – Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Serbia …? They are definitely Western. What about Africa? South America? Australia? Pacific Islands? Mostly people say they are not ‘Western’. Yet, just when I think I am getting close to the meaning of the term, to pinpoint what ‘West’ really means, it slips out of my grasp. So perhaps we need to ask a very different question: why do Chinese people need a subtle and slippery term like ‘the West’. It is crucial for the constant process of defining what China is, especially in the modern world. So the question should really be: what do Chinese people think the ‘West’ thinks about China?

I am often asked a question like this: what does the ‘West’ think of China? I usually point out that I do not come from the ‘West’ but from the ‘South’. But I also indicate what appears in the corporate media from time to time, indeed what general impressions are in the South Land (Terra Australis). China is still viewed with a mix of mystery and fear, both of which are based on ignorance. The mystery still has a good dose of the orientalism about it, which continues to haunt much of the rest of the world. Indeed, the ‘Forbidden City’ stands as a symbol of this mystery, especially in a country run by a ‘secretive’ Communist Party. So mystery folds easily into fear. Whether the ‘yellow peril’ of a bygone age in Australia when European whites were once the most numerous (now they are the minority), or China’s ‘aggressive’ and ‘dangerous’ rise that is on the minds of fading empires – fear is easy to generate, but especially so in the absence of knowledge. It remains true that people in China know more about the rest of the world than the rest knows of China; hence the ease with which the corporate media fills that space with a mix of fear and mystery, along with ignorance and misinformation. Indeed, I recall vividly my first arrival in China. No matter how much I sought to resist the near-universal images of China portrayed, I too was affected by them. Would I be followed by a secret policeman? What topics should I avoid? Would I be escorted carefully around the place so that I could not see ‘sensitive’ places? All of these preconceptions were simply destroyed. I experienced a near 180 degree reversal of my preconceptions.

Yet, the most significant impression took somewhat longer to build, a result of prolonged periods of living in China: it is the relief of being in a socialist democracy. At first, this experience is not so obvious, except that one begins to enjoy the absence of the inanities of bourgeois democracy – inaction as a result of parties focused on the opinion polls and elections, the to-and-fro of policies instituted only to be undone by the next bunch, the petty squabbles and character assassinations, the corruption that is inseparable from such a system, the absence of real and wide-ranging political debate, and the fact that the ‘parties’ in question are so similar to one another in seeking to gain ‘the middle ground’ that they are really factions of one pro-capitalist party. Far better to have the same party in government year after year – a necessity for the construction of socialism (although it is worth noting that China has more than 25 pro-socialist political parties involved in government).

The first sense of the difference of socialist democracy ‘with Chinese characteristics’ came from a curious angle. I began to notice that political debates were much more wide-ranging than those to which I had become accustomed. Everything was on the table and everyone had a passionate opinion. Was this a paradox of one-party rule, I wondered, which generates wider debate than a bourgeois democratic system? Since then I have realised the situation is more complex. Stability is the norm rather than the exception, which both allows decisions to be made and carried through, and produces the fascinating problem of long-term legitimacy. The government both fosters debate and listens closely, with many channels for gaining a sense of what people think. When it works well, this pattern of listening, processing, reformulating and sending out proposals for further considerations is what socialist democracy, or ‘democratic centralism’, is really about. And it needs to work well – although at times it does not – for a government that has been in power for a long time constantly needs to renew itself. Perhaps Chairman Mao sums it up best: ‘from the masses, to the masses’.