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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me emphasise these points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recently published is a new book by the stakhanovite, Domenico Losurdo, called: Western Marxism: How It Was Born, How It Died and How It Can Rise Again.

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The brief description (found here) reads:

Western Marxism was afflicted by a sort of myopia: it didn’t realize that the wind of the revolution was blowing  from Russia to China and the Third World, joining with the national revolutions against Western imperialism.

There was a time when Marxism was an obligatory point of reference for any philosophical and political debate: those years saw the biggest victories for ‘Western Marxism’, which presented itself in stark contrast to its Eastern counterpart, accused of being a state ideology that propped up ‘Socialist’ regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia. Although at first the October revolution was viewed with hope, 20th century Communism contributed to the disintegration of the global colonial complex rather than creating a radically new social system. An extraordinary result that Western Marxism failed adequately to understand or appreciate. Hence its crisis and collapse. If it is to be revived, it must examine the anticolonial revolution and answer three key questions: What has the global anticolonial uprising meant in terms of freedom and emancipation? How is the clash between colonialism and anticolonialism played out today? What relationship was there between the anticolonial and anticapitalist struggles?

Losurdo puts these questions to the great authors of the 20th century – Bloch, Lukács, Adorno and Foucault – and of today – Agamben, Badiou and Žižek – in a heated debate that combines historical reconstruction and philosophical enquiry.

Exactly! For it was the Soviet Union that developed a thoroughly anti-colonial policy (arising from its ‘affirmation action’ nationalities policy). This policy enabled arms, personnel and know-how to support most of the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century as part of the global undermining of imperialist capitalism. Indeed, what is now called ‘post-colonialism’ could not have arisen – temporally and theoretically – without the anti-colonial theory and practice developed in the Soviet Union (especially by you-know-who).

From a stall in Xi’an

Lunli, they call it in these parts, or Gongchanzhuyi daode – ethics or communist moral principles. These are by no means abstract terms, debated by philosophers with little connection to real life. I encounter it day to day in a very concrete fashion.

Here Chinese tradition meets Marxism in a way that continually amazes and bewilders me. To begin with, the dushuren or xuezhe, the intellectual (literally ‘book reading person’) and scholar has a venerable place in Chinese society. The intellectual is simultaneously expected to devote significant time to reading, thinking and writing – whether scholarly works, moral maxims, poetry, or a range of other genres – and to the good of public life. This expectation is embodied in part in the word yiwu, which means both to volunteer and a duty. One volunteers to contribute in some way to the greater good of society, but this is simultaneously a duty or obligation. Although it is manifested at many levels of social relations, for an intellectual it means service in or for the government, or perhaps work that contributes to solving a commonly recognised problem.

Further, the first character in yiwu is yi (义), a significant aspect of Confucianism. Its literal meaning is ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’, but it also includes ‘human relationships’ and ‘meaning’. Thus, yi involves the intertwining of justice and relationships, in a moral framework of doing good and the understanding of how to do so in a sensible and fit manner. In other words, one must know the underlying reason for such righteousness and not simply follow precepts.

For a scholar, this means that one is engaged and not engaged. Or rather, when one is engaged directly, one longs to be disengaged, to find the tranquillity to think and write and identify the deeper framework. But even in this situation, one does so with the public good always in mind.

By now it should be obvious that the ethics of a scholar are somewhat high.

What about communist moral principles? By now, they have been etched into Chinese culture, distinct and yet meshed with Confucian ideas. A communist is expected to be honest, direct and trustworthy, not concerned with personal gain and focused on the public good.

This morality appears at many levels. For instance, an ethos first developed at Ruijin in the early 1930s – during the first Chinese soviet – focused on providing poor peasants not with communist ideas, but with enough food, clothing, and shelter. They should feel secure (anquan) in life – a fundamental desire of Chinese life. When people find they have such things through the communists, they will flock to join the movement and become revolutionaries.

Or it can be seen in Mao Zedong’s urgings for party members (cadres) after achieving power. In 1949, Mao wrote: ‘I hope that the revolutionary personnel of the whole country will always keep to the style of plain living and hard struggle’. Again, in 1957, he wrote that party members must not lose the revolutionary spirit of wholeheartedly serving the people. Instead, they must ‘persevere in plain living and hard struggle’, ‘maintaining close ties with the masses’.

Chairman (or president) Xi Jinping has been consistently evoking these admonitions from Mao over the last few years, especially in terms of uniting and strengthening the party through the ‘tigers and flies’ anti-corruption campaign – the most thoroughgoing and pervasive in modern Chinese history. As he does so, he and the leadership evoke the deep chords of communist morality.

Already five years ago, a new ‘eight rules’ were promulgated, echoing the ‘eight points for attention’ from 1927. The new eight rules focus on how leaders and party members should reject extravagance and reduce bureaucratic visits, meetings and empty talk. Crucially, the purpose is to strengthen ties between the people and officials, which had been eroded through corruption and power abuse.

That this approach resonates deeply with people shows up in complex surveys, with 80 percent or more of people supporting the measures. Why? Communist morality has become deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and society. If one is a communist, which means a party member, one is expected to live up to these ideals. If one fails, the fall is even greater.

What if you are a Marxist and a scholar? By now it should be obvious that the ethical standards are higher still. The combination of Confucian and Marxist ethics entails an expectation of almost impeccable morality – speaking plainly and directly, being honest, living simply, avoiding any sign of personal gain, and substantially focused on the public good.

This project – involving Chinese and international researchers – seeks to provide the philosophical and historical framework for understanding the realities of socialism in power. Taking China, Cuba and the former Soviet Union as the principal case studies, it focuses on the crucial questions of the nature of the socialist state, democracy, civil society, and the role of the communist party. It also elaborates on the more abstract theoretical issues of contradiction, justice and human rights – issues that have significant practical implications. Since these topics remain relatively unexamined at a philosophical level, the task of this project is to take the first steps in a rigorous theoretical analysis.

The method is as follows: theoretical reflection on practice. The actual practice of socialism in power is rich in a century’s worth of primary material: from the 1917 October Revolution to ‘Socialism for the 21st Century’. This material arises from specific problems, which have resulted in policies, pronouncements and laws. However, the task of systematic philosophical and historical reflection concerning socialism in power remains to be done.

This is very much an international project, with key Marxist critics in China, Europe, Russia and Australia engaged for the long term.

CORE TOPICS

Part A: Political Realities

1. Socialist State

While there has been considerable practice in relation to such a state, relatively little attention has been paid to philosophical, historical, scientific and literary analysis. Indeed, while it easier to say what this state is not (federation, empire, colonising power, or bourgeois nation-state), the question remains as to what form of the state it might be. Some have suggested they may be characterised as a developmental or contender state, but this neglects the distinctive socialist dimension. The experience and practice of the state in China, the Soviet Union and Latin America provide ample material for constructing a theory of such a state – well beyond the initial formulations of Engels and Lenin. The major features of this analysis may include: whether the state is an instrument used by one or more classes, or whether the state changes its deeper structures in light of capitalism or socialism; the role of class in analysing the state; the agency of a strong state; the relationship between power and apparatus, as well as the specific structures of governance; the role of the communist party in governance; specific policies, such as those relating to nationalities (or ‘preferential policies’, youhui zhengce), anti-colonial struggles, education, and so on.

2. Socialist Democracy

Crucial to a socialist state is socialist democracy, which must be understood in a very different way from other forms of democracy. It stands in contrast to Greek democracy, liberal (bourgeois or – as it sometimes called – ‘deliberative’) democracy, illiberal democracy, or indeed a warmed over bourgeois democracy championed by Social-Democrats and indeed some Marxists. By contrast, socialist democracy includes the majority of the population – workers, peasants and intellectuals. It is a constantly evolving process and may include, but is not restricted to, stages of new democracy, authoritarian communism, democratic dictatorship and democratic centralism. The history of socialism in power provides ample material for analysing these forms of socialist democracy, although the project also seeks to delineate the possibilities of yet other forms.

3. Socialist Civil Society

In a socialist state we examine whether a socialist civil society arises. This is in contrast to bourgeois civil society, which entails a basic alienation between private individual and the state, as well as a systemic exclusion of the majority. The constant danger of bourgeois civil society is that it easily becomes a lynch mob. Instead of this type of civil society, socialist civil society operates in a different way. This takes place in terms of a recalibrated dialectic of collective and individual. In alternative terms, this civil society appears in the space between official communist policy and individual expression. Indeed, socialist civil society is based on a redefinition of freedom, which provides a new universal based on the open particularity of the majority. In sum, this freedom is a freedom from bourgeois civil society and freedom for the socialist project.

4. The Communist Party

Integral to the socialist state and indeed socialist democracy is the communist party, which the project examines in light of a thoroughly reshaped dialectic of immanence and transcendence. This dialectic has both ontological and temporal dimensions. Ontologically, it suggests that the focus on immanence in the development of European modernity misses the way transcendence has been reworked in the political sphere. Further, the project draws upon Chinese philosophical reflections on transcendence and immanence, understood in light of Marxist contributions. All of this leads to a reconsideration of the relations between ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ in relation to socialist consciousness and the relations between the party and the people. Temporally, transcendence becomes the goal of communism itself, with the resultant distinction between socialism and communism. Such transcendence in turn has a proleptic effect on the immanence of the presence, being creatively active and yet awaiting fulfilment.

5. Socialist Market Economy

Instead of the assumption that a ‘market economy’ is inherently capitalist and thereby universal, this topic examines the different forms of market economies. While its focus is a socialist market economy, it situates such an economy within the history of markets. This historical examination reveals that markets throughout history have been of different types, often generated by states to solve specific logistical problems. In these cases, profit is at best a secondary phenomenon. Analysis of a socialist market economy itself focuses on the following areas: the differences with the ‘market socialism’ of Yugoslavia; the nature of a preliminary socialist market economy in the Soviet Union; the realities of working within capitalist market economies; the detailed structures of a socialist market economy in China and how it differs markedly from a capitalist market economy.

Part B: Theoretical Considerations

1. Contradiction

The crucial question here is whether contradictions continue to exist under socialism, and, if so, how. Pre-revolutionary Marxist theory tended to hold that the contradictions of capitalism would be overcome with communism. However, the actual experience of the exercise of power by communist parties indicates otherwise. This situation first became apparent in the Soviet Union, although the preference was to restrict contradictions – such as between the forces and relations of production – to the period of socialism. They would disappear, it was held, in the era of communism (which was now a distinct period). It fell to Mao Zedong to argue that contradictions would indeed by a constituent feature of socialism, if not communism (see ‘On Contradiction’, from 1937, and ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People’, from 1957). Contradiction and the dialectic are, of course, constituent features of Marxist analysis and practice, but the step forward was to apply them to the long period of socialist construction. However, this is not merely a historical question, for one may argue (following Ernst Bloch) that contradictions are actually exacerbated under socialism, especially today. So this project seeks to identify the main contradiction today in China, with a view to explicating its features and proposing a possible solution. A major feature of this analysis is to draw upon Chinese philosophical approaches to contradiction, which have remoulded the question in a Chinese situation.

2. Justice

Contradictions in China, especially between socialism and capitalism, have increased in the context of the all-important reform and opening (gaige kaifeng). This period has also raised the urgent philosophical problem of justice (and equality). Debate continues as to whether the reform and opening up has created the conditions under which such considerations are necessary, or whether the problems faced are due to the incomplete nature of the reform process. The problems include, in the context of the unleashing of the forces of production, the gap between rich and poor, access to education and medicine, and environmental factors. In this context, the question of justice is crucial. However, our approach draws not so much on European liberal traditions, but on Marxist thought and China’s specific historical experience – in which justice and equality are major concerns. As a result, such a theory of justice will seek to make a new contribution to China’s current situation and to international Marxist theory.

3. Human Rights

The third area of theoretical deliberation concerns human rights. Key features of this analysis include the following points. First, the origins of the plural ‘rights’ in European thought with Hugo Grotius (sixteenth century), who first proposed plural ‘rights’ in contrast to the medieval singular of ‘Right’. Grotius clearly saw such rights as commodities and private property. Second, the tension between universal and particular, in which one may – with qualifications – agree to a universal category of human rights, but be wary of universalising from a particular situation. Further, the particular historical situations of different countries indicate specific emphases. For example, European and indeed Atlantic history has led to an emphasis on political rights at the expense of economic rights. By contrast, countries with different histories and Marxist influences have found that economic rights are paramount – the right to economic wellbeing. Third, each particular situation offers a different approach to the complex relations between collective and individual. In a European context, the individual tends to be paramount, although the collective is by no means absent even if is mediated through the individual. In other situations, such as China, the relation is different and exceedingly complex. One may initially suggest that the individual (and indeed the issue of privacy) finds expression through the collective, but this is merely the first step in analysis. Once again, a Marxist approach to human rights is crucial.

Part C: Comparison: Socialism with ‘National’ Characteristics

In order to make best use of the rich history of socialism in power, the project includes an important comparative dimension. This we call an examination of socialism with ‘national’ characteristics, which draws its inspiration from the Chinese characteristics of Marxism. Such comparison draws upon the theories and practices of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Obviously, it will require collaboration with specialists in these areas. This area of research raises two types of distinctions. The first concerns the differences between socialism seeking power, socialism in power, and socialism after power. Thus, some forms of socialism fall into only one category, such as in Western Europe and North America. Others have experienced socialism both seeking and in power, especially in Asia. And some have experienced all three, as we find in Eastern Europe. These differences will be able to produce distinct insights into the particular varieties of socialism. The second distinction concerns unity and diversity. Marxism may have core theoretical principles and topics, but the actual experiences of socialism in power have produced new developments.

 

Conclusion

To sum up, the concern of this long project is with the theoretical implications of socialism in power. This means the complexities, developments and changing conditions of socialism after it has achieved power in a revolution. As both Lenin and Chairman Mao pointed out repeatedly, it is one thing to win power through a revolution; it is a much more difficult and complex task to construct socialism in a global context. Today, China provides the richest example of this process, so it is the task of philosophers, political theorists and social scientists to develop theories by examining the realities and facts and perhaps point the way forward for Marxist theory in the context of socialism in power.