What the hell kind of country is China? – China Rising, Part 1

In this series of articles, I am going to be digging into the the most populous nation on Earth and its ambitious plans for a China-lead future.

China is on the rise.

If you are a leftist, you need to be paying attention to China. Since the dawn of the 21st century, this giant of a nation has been expanding its reach across the globe and building power. Today China is fielding an ambitious package of foreign and domestic programs that will be grabbing global attention for years to come.

As the largest and oldest nation in the world to claim to adhere to communist principles, China centers heavily in reactionary propaganda targeting leftism. The Chinese Communist Party is used as a bogeyman to demonstrate the evils of communism by everyone from liberals to fascists and everyone in between.

But is the Chinese government even communist? That’s an issue that’s hotly debated, even within leftist circles. I’ve seen China labeled as everything from Marxist-Leninist to fascist to state capitalist. The liberal media simply labels them as “Communist,” but anyone with a basic grasp of Marxist communism should be baffled by the fact that there are so many flagrantly billionaire capitalists permitted to do business and turn profits within China.

China’s official state philosophy is described as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

So what the hell is China? What terminology can best be used to describe the form of government and economy modern China has assumed?

China’s official state philosophy is described as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” That’s a pretty slippery description of a complex foundation of principles, ideals, ambitions, and, yes, characteristics that the Chinese state is built upon.

It’s not really surprising that there is no simple answer to this question, given the complex nature of Chinese social, economic, and political systems. Perhaps we can start with the process of elimination. What isn’t China?

Is China a Republic?

Chinese citizens can elect representatives, but only at the lowest, local level.

The official name of China is the “People’s Republic of China.” In a Republic, leaders are elected to represent citizens in a legislative body.

In China, elections are hierarchical. On the local level, Chinese citizens directly elect representatives to their local congresses. These local congresses elect higher officials, who in turn elect higher officials, and so on, up to the National People’s Congress, which currently consists of 2,980 people.

Technically it is possible for non-members of the Communist party to run for office. However, the Communist Party must approve any appointments to positions of power, so in practice there can never be a true opposition party to the Communist party beyond a limited local level.

What this means is that party membership is not necessarily required for local offices, but it is required to attain any higher level offices. In addition, Chinese citizens do not vote directly for national-level officials. They vote for local representatives who, in turn, vote for the higher levels of office.

This does, certainly, have Republican features. However, the Chinese Republic has many limitations: it is effectively single-party and highly indirect in nature when you get to the highest levels of national power. And, as we’ll see, the Chinese Republic may not be as democratic as it seems on paper.

Is China an Autocratic Dictatorship?

How much power does Xi Jipining really have?

It isn’t uncommon to see China described as a dictatorship, especially since the rapid rise to power of current president of China, Xi Jinping. To be sure, Xi is a powerful man with a complicated past that includes multiple rises and falls throughout his life before cementing his current position as head of the Communist Party of China.

Today, Xi has three primary official titles: as President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi is the head of state. This is a largely ceremonial position. As Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi is the commander and chief of the armed forces of China. But Xi’s real font of power is his position as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China.

Since China is in practice (though not officially) a single-party state, the leader of the party has sweeping power over the state apparatus.

It’s an open question as to how much direct power and influence Xi has over these bodies, but it’s certain that Xi has been central in developing many of China’s most important and far-reaching policies. . .

By most accounts, Xi has been strengthening the office of the General Secretary since taking power in 2012. He has built two new bodies of the Communist Party: the National Security Commission, and the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms. These bodies were formed to develop general policy direction for national security and economic reform, and both groups are headed by the General Secretary.

In short, Xi now holds the reins to the Chinese military and economic policy development.

Xi’s status as leader of the Chinese military is not much different than powers held by most heads of state. The president of the United States of America, for example, is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

But Xi has powers over economic and social policy that extend beyond the powers of most Western-style liberal democracy executives. It’s an open question as to how much direct power and influence Xi has over these bodies, but it’s certain that Xi has been central in developing many of China’s most important and far-reaching policies, including the “Belt and Road” initiative, the “Go Out” initiative, and the initiative to eliminate poverty in China by 2021.

The vote to scrap term limits for the Chinese presidential office was almost unanimous.

Since the announcement that China will be scrapping term limits, many Western pundits have speculated that Xi has become president-for-life. The truth is slightly less sensational: term limits have been removed, so he could be president for life in theory, though there’s no explicit guarantee.

One noteworthy example of Xi’s power is the lionization of his political philosophy by the Communist Party of China. In 2017, the Communist Party Central Committee embedded Xi’s political philosophies, referred to as “Xi Jinping Thought,” into the Party Constitution. The only other person in Chinese history to have this honor was Mao Zedong himself.

All of Xi’s offices are, technically, elected positions. In the recent presidential election, Xi netted a 100% victory, receiving each of the 2,970 votes that were cast.

Xi’s unanimous re-election can be viewed in two different lights:

Cynically: We could assume that Xi’s re-election was more or less “rigged,” a foregone conclusion, and that Xi holds so much power that the National People’s Congress that elected him essentially had their hands forced to re-elect him.

At face value: On the contrary, we could assume that Xi’s re-election was earned by way of the significant achievements and results he has shown as president.

Now, I hate to do this, but let me get anecdotal. I’m not an expert on Chinese culture, nor on the Chinese communist party, but I have met and spoken with exactly two members of the Chinese communist party who have voted in Chinese Communist Party elections.

Social harmony is an important cultural value in China.

The way they explain it, Chinese culture emphasizes things like collectivism and harmony in ways that can seem pretty alien to outside cultures. Because of this, they tend to work together to reach a consensus on an important issue before any official ballot is cast. For them, it’s a matter of social harmony and unity, and unanimous election results are seen as a sign that society is functioning properly.

I don’t expect you, dear reader, to take these anecdotal explanations as conclusive evidence that China’s government is a perfectly functioning democracy. I am just raising the point that it could very well be a Western-centric position to expect democracies and elections to function exactly like ours do in every nation.

So is China’s democracy truly free and above-board, or are all of China’s elections complete shams? I believe the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Xi will likely need to continue to succeed to maintain his power.

Xi certainly holds wide and sweeping power over the Chinese state apparatus, but it’s unlikely that his power is absolute and eternal. Based on my experiences living and working in Asian societies, I personally believe that Xi’s power is incumbent on showing results and making progress. Xi will likely need to continue to succeed to maintain his power. If he had made a mess of things after taking office in 2012, I highly doubt that he would have ever been re-elected twice.

Of course, the determination of whether Xi is seen as a success of a failure is made by the highest level echelons of the Communist Party of China, and it’s entirely possible that they would put their own selfish agendas before the needs and wellbeing of the public at large.

Ultimately we just have no way of knowing for sure just how far Xi’s power extends. The best we can say is that China does have autocratic tendencies, though to some extent there might be cultural explanations for some of these dynamics. The real extent of Xi’s power is unknowable, but he does not wield absolute authority for life — at least officially.

Is China a State Capitalist Economy?

China has a lot of State Owned Enterprises, but they are heavily outnumbered by private businesses.

State Capitalism is a system in which capitalist institutions are owned and operated by the state as state-owned enterprises. China definitely has state-owned businesses, banks, and other entities, which means it does embody State Capitalism to some degree. But even the USA owns some enterprises, such as the US Postal Service. True State Capitalism would place all (or at least a clear majority) of market entities in the direct control of the government.

China does not own and operate the vast majority of for-profit enterprises in the country, and most Chinese workers collect wages from privately-held businesses. The lines do blur a bit, however, when you consider the degree of power the Chinese government holds over capitalist enterprises.

The Chinese state can impose its authorities on capitalist institutions however it sees fit. The Communist Party of China has far-reaching authority to set policies and guidelines which corporations must follow. Even though China has a large and wealthy capitalist class, and even though these capitalists own the means of production and take labor value from employees in the form of profit, they are still very much subordinated to the state apparatus.

This is very different from capitalist nations like the United States, South Korea, Japan, and most European nations. In Western-style capitalist democracies such as these, the capitalist class in many way rivals the state in terms of clout, reach, and power. In Japan and South Korea, large family-owned corporations (called “zaibatsus” and “chebols,” respectively) have incredible and far-reaching power. In the USA, corporations like Amazon and Uber have so much power that they are able to bully and manipulate municipal, state, and federal government authorities.

This could never happen in China, at least not in the bold and open manner that it occurs under Western capitalism. I have no doubt that Chinese capitalists have far-reaching political influence, but you will never see a Chinese corporation openly flouting or challenging state authority in this manner.

So there are aspects of state capitalism at play in China, however, since most businesses are privately owned, we must ultimately declare that China is not truly engaged in State Capitalism.

Is China Fascist?

There is a cult of personality in China, but it revolves around the deceased Chairman Mao.

Fascism can take many forms, but there are some ironclad features that most fascist governments have maintained.

Going back to the subject of executive authority, most fascist states are controlled by one strong, charismatic leader. Italy had “il Duce” Mussolini, Germany had “der Feuhrer” Hitler, Spain had “el Caudillo,” etc.

So, what about “Big Xi?”

I don’t see Xi as a fascistic ruler. He has certainly managed to consolidate a tremendous amount of power for himself, but his power is not explicitly absolute. Likewise, there has not been any effort to build a cult of personality around Xi. We don’t see public campaigns to plaster his face all over Beijing, for example — that privilege is still reserved for Chairman Mao, who has been dead since 1976.

Fascist nations are invariably nationalist in character, and the government of China is certainly nationalistic. But here, too, we see stark contrasts between fascist nationalism and Chinese nationalism.

Fascistic nationalism is typically exclusionary in nature, with an emphasis on racial or national superiority over outsiders.

Chinese nationalism is certainly not ethnocentric, since one key aspect of Chinese nationalism is the notion that every inch of Chinese territory is Chinese. To the Chinese nationalist, Tibet is not some kind of colony of expansionist conquest – it is simply China, and Tibetans are considered Chinese by Chinese nationalists. Although there continue to be tensions over suppressed or resistant regions such as Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the official stance on domestic issues of nationality is simple: it’s all settled, beyond the scope of debate.

According to University of Michigan professor Kenneth G. Lieberthal, the Chinese consider Tibetans to be backward, feudal, superstitious, and reliant on China for modernization.

“So I think they regard it as bizarre that the advanced industrial countries would humiliate them by boycotting the opening ceremonies of the Olympics over the Tibet issue,” says Lieberthal, “as America would find it if [former Chinese President] Hu Jintao suddenly refused to visit the United States because of our history of treatment of Native Americans.”

Chinese nationalism is complex and multifaceted.

Chinese nationalism has other unique characteristics: Chinese nationalist propaganda maintains strong anti-imperialist rhetoric that positions China as a victim of Western colonialism, and also plays up the nation’s “5,000 years of glorious civilization.”

Broadly speaking, Chinese citizens have become increasingly nationalistic over the years, and modern Chinese youth have been prone to pouring out intense, emotional nationalist rhetoric, especially online. This emotional nationalism is in part due to state propaganda campaigns and education that play up the official (altered) history of the party. Ironically, the state media has urged Chinese citizens to tone down nationalist rhetoric to project an image of peace to the outside world.

All of this taken into consideration, I don’t find Chinese nationalism to be fascistic in characteristic at all. Chinese nationalism is just too complicated and nuanced – nothing like the stark and aggressive nationalism of fascism.

How about economics? As I’ve explained in a previous article, fascist economies tend to blend capitalism with authoritarianism. The state’s primary economic function is to broker relations between capitalists and workers, and the state accomplishes this primarily by organizing and imposing its will on the working class.

While the Chinese government does support capitalist entities and helps to preserve capitalist power structures, these wealthy corporations must still submit to the power of the Communist party, and there are many examples of the Communist party running roughshod over large Chinese corporations. The power dynamics are completely different than the cozy relationships between the state and the bourgeoisie typically observed in fascist nations.

Given the lack of an explicit authoritarian ruler and explicit nationalist fomentation and the official subjugation of capitalist entities to the Communist Party of China, I’m ready to call it: China is not a fascist state.

Is China Communist?

Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, oh my!

China was ostensibly founded on Marxist-Leninist principles, and these principles were further refined by Mao Zedong into what is now referred to as Marxist-Leninist Maoism, known in leftist circles as MLM.

Marxist-Leninism relies on a planned economy and stated-owned industry as opposed to capitalist institutions. Of primary and immediate concern is the dismantling of the capitalist bourgeois class and the elimination of for-profit institutions and corporations.

Maoism is an ideology dependent on iconoclasm – the elimination of cultural and social systems and ideas that are incompatible with Marxist proletarian dictatorship. Economically, Mao also advocated for smaller-scale industrial development and agricultural collectivism.

Mao also made tweaks to Leninist principles. For instance, he replaced Lenin’s concept of a “vanguard party” with the principle of “mass lines” that are supposed to connect the ruling party more directly to the working people.

All of this is largely irrelevant in a discussion of modern China, however, since the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in 1978. This massive overhaul of the Chinese state replaced most of Mao’s policies with a new set of ideals known as “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”

Deng ushered in capitalist institutions and businesses with the goal of fostering economic growth and boosting productivity. Today, China has a well-established stock market that is about to go fully global.

The wealth gap in China is tremendous (comparable to Western capitlaist democracies), with 1% of the population owning a third of the country’s total wealth.

The state does own a large number of banks, corporations, and other such institutions, which does nominally put at least some of the means of production in the category of “collective ownership,” but by and large, most Chinese workers are wage laborers who work for private for-profit entities.

There are certainly socialist policies in effect in China, including the previously mentioned  plan to eliminate all Chinese poverty by 2021. The official goal of the Communist Party of China is to eventually develop the nation into a state of communism, but that is a distant fantasy as capitalist free markets drive the present-day Chinese economy. The means of production are not owned by workers, a bourgeois class is allowed to steal labor value from workers on a grand scale, and the majority of commerce and industry is driven by for-profit corporations and capitalists.

China may be ruled by a Communist party, but it is not a Communist state.

 

Final Tally

So, here’s a breakdown of the scoring so far:

Republic: sort of…?
Dictatorship: kind of…?
State Capitalist: a little bit…?
Fascist: NO
Communist: NO

Well… So… What is it?

Will China continue its rise? Will it maintain its current form of government or continue to evolve?

I have been studying and analyzing China’s social, political, and economic systems for quite some time. I have talked to Chinese people, including members of the Chinese Communist Party. I have spoken to professors and United States military officers about China. All of this is to say that my survey of China has been wide and deep and, dare I say extensive, so I am pretty confident with my ultimate conclusion about the Chinese form of government:

China is…

China.

It’s a complicated country with a lot of moving parts, shifting power dynamics, and complex social systems embedded into the fabric of the state.

The Chinese system of government is far from perfect – indeed, from an anarcho-communist perspective, it’s deeply flawed.

China’s governmental system is a chimera which exhibits aspects of autocracy, republicanism, state capitalism, free market capitalism, and socialism. Ironically, China carries almost no concrete features of fascism or communism, even though these are the labels most often applied to the nation by its detractors.

The Chinese system of government is far from perfect – indeed, from an anarcho-communist perspective, it’s deeply flawed. In my mind, it gives capitalists too free of a hand in robbing workers of their labor value. The state apparatus is far too authoritarian in nature and I am certainly not a fan of the roles state media, propaganda, and bowdlerized education play in controlling the Chinese people. China is overly antagonistic of regional neighbors and too oppressive of certain ethnic groups within its own borders. However, China deserves respect for playing a strong hand strategically in building its economy and its power abroad, and I certainly give China credit for going to such great lengths to eliminate poverty with their 2021 initiative.

Moving forward, I hope that the Chinese state will do more to ease repression of its citizens and give them freer access to information. I urge China’s Communist party to flatten their governmental hierarchy, reduce the autocratic powers of high government officials, and eliminate all capitalistic exploitation of the Chinese working class.

If you liked this article, I hope you’ll also check out my YouTube channel where I cover a wide range of leftist topics. In my next article about China, I will be discussing China’s ambitions plans for the years ahead – follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Mastodon if you don’t wanna miss it!

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