- Victor C. Bolles
Deng Xiaoping had a problem. At the time of the death of Mao Zedong, China was desperately poor and in the midst of the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Although Deng was never official leader of the country, he was able to exert his power and influence to become the “Supreme Leader” of China behind a smokescreen of positions as chairman or vice-chairman of key Communist Party of China and People’s Liberation Army committees.
Deng was a strong proponent of the concept of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” This concept (also known as Deng Xiaoping theory) stated that, because of China’s lack of development, it could not fully implement communism which requires advanced productive forces and an industrial proletariat. The “Chinese characteristics” mandated that certain pragmatic steps not in line with Marxist theory are acceptable in order to achieve the level of industrialization necessary for the eventual implementation of communism. This allowed China to adopt certain capitalist practices in order to spur economic development. In other words, China could try to remain a pure socialist country but would remain weak and poor, or it could adopt certain capitalist practices and be rich and strong (so that it would have the productive forces to become communist at some time in the future).
Deng also advised his followers to “hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile.” So, the Chinese have bided their time for four decades while building an industrial powerhouse and creating the second largest economy on the planet. However, I think they are beginning to believe that the time for maintaining a low profile is over.
Deng also emphasized the importance of the continued leadership of the country by the Communist Party of China (CPC), which was to retain a monopoly on political power in order keep the country on the path toward communism. While the pragmatic steps taken by Deng and his successors have created a powerful form of state capitalism, the CPC still maintains its faith in Marxism and communism. And this belief has led to President Xi Jinping’s dilemma.
Now that China is an economic powerhouse, President Xi has reasserted the control of the CPC in China. For four decades, the power of the Communist Party of China was more latent than overt as the Party maintained a low profile and bided its time, only displaying its true power in the Tiananmen Square Massacre to squash the protest for political liberalization and democracy in 1989. This massacre of students and other protest leaders provides evidence that while it appeared that the CPC faded into the background during this period, its power and authority was as potent as ever.
Because of this history, President Xi and most of the 90 million members of the Communist Party of China long for the day when China can resume its path towards communism. Not today or tomorrow. The Chinese can be very patient. In 1982 Deng Xiaoping established two centenaries as goal posts on China’s journey toward communism. The first centenary was the one-hundred-year anniversary of the founding of the CPC (2021) and the other one was the one-hundred-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (2049). The goals of the first centenary have largely been achieved. China is now strong and prosperous. This fact has led President Xi to declare in the 19th National People’s Congress (2017) a “new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” where Xi Jinping thought was elevated to the god-like status of Mao Zedong Thought.
One of the hallmarks of this new era has been the renewed prominence of the CPC and the increased repression of the Chinese people as a first step toward reintroducing socialism in China. This, however, presents President Xi with the first half of his dilemma; socialist economies are slow growth economies. The necessities of rapid growth inevitably produce inequalities that are anathema to true communists. Profit is squeezed out of socialist economies so there is no incentive to expand production, innovate, diversify or to increase productivity. Socialist economies feature large production of standardized products. Taking time to create new products or innovate are only distractions from current production. Why should a plant manager waste time improving productivity if it will replace workers with machines? Why would a line worker work overtime if the only benefit is to the general public?
One could say that the improved product choices of a free market economy are only materialistic displays of avarice and greed while the goal of socialism is true equality. Isn’t that important? Could be, but President Xi does not have that option. If China switched to a slow growth socialist economy, it would start to lag behind the more dynamic West. Marxist theory states that a socialist economy can not only equal but surpass capitalist economies. But the harsh reality is that they can’t - as history has shown. Humans are still human and have not been transformed into the more egalitarian “Communist Man” envisioned by Marx. And the further behind this socialist China fell behind the West, the more of GDP that would have to be diverted from supplying the needs of the people in order to maintain military parity with the West. This is what doomed the Soviet Union. Xi Jinping certainly doesn’t want to repeat that disaster.
But the continuation of the Chinese style of state capitalism is as untenable as it is unpalatable. State capitalism in an authoritarian regime is inherently corrupt. Business leaders know that the profits they seek do not come the market but from the government. And they know that bureaucratic delays came be sped up with a liberal application of bribes to influential government leaders or balky bureaucrats. President Xi has been diligent in prosecuting corrupt officials (which surprisingly included many of his potential rivals). But others will take their place because the power dynamics of state capitalism will entrap the replacements of the jailed officials.
In addition, state capitalism has generated a high degree of income inequality. Exactly the opposite of their stated communist ideal. Corruption and income inequality are key ingredients to create social unrest so China’s form of state capitalism is unsustainable in the long run.
There is, of course, another alternative. The Chinese could take the path of “democracy with Chinese characteristics” and open up politically while converting the current state capitalism into a free market economy. They could also ditch their social credit system and give their people some freedom; but I don’t think the current crew in Beijing is likely to do that.
Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky wrote in his book, Behave, that people from collectivist cultures such as those found in East Asia are better at Theory of Mind tasks because they are more accurate at understanding someone else’s perspective. This is an important trait in a communist country where people are conditioned to think more about the collective society than themselves as individuals. But he also noted that people of East Asian descent living in the United States do not exhibit this collectivist attitude and are more like other Americans. So this conditioning is cultural and not inherent.
Just ask the protestors on the streets of Hong Kong. They are fighting for the freedoms that we Americans are frittering away. They aren’t asking Beijing to give them a universal basic income or Medicare for All. They want their freedom and are willing to risk their lives and livelihoods to be free (could I say their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor?). Beijing just wants to absorb Hong Kong into its collectivist, socially credit scored communist society, just like the blob in the 1958 movie of the same name (starring Steve McQueen).
President Xi is unlikely to assent to the protestors demands (although, hopefully there will not be another massacre) and is also unlikely to choose the third option. So, this is Xi’s dilemma. He wants to convert China into a truly communistic society but cannot do so while the Western countries, led by the United States, keep growing and advancing with their free market economic system and their individualistic-oriented democracy.
But Xi is patient, just as Deng was. He reads President Trump’s tweets and smiles. Just as he does when he hears the campaign speeches of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Soon, he thinks, America will not be much of a problem.
If we, the American people, want to preserve and improve our way of life in the face of rising authoritarianism around the world, we need to return to our roots – the ideals and principles that made America great in the first place. The Founders knew, even in those early days after the Revolution, that other countries and other peoples would look to America for guidance and inspiration. We need to renew the faith and hope that others had in us. For their sake and ours.
A prerequisite for world peace is that America must be economically and militarily strong and united politically in our goals. Internationally we must refill the void in Western leadership that has been created by recent administrations. Leading from behind and aMErica FIRST created a void that has allowed authoritarian regimes to grow and multiply.
We need to rebuild our alliances and reforge the trust of our friends and allies in our ability to lead. As former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine General Jim Mattis stated in his resignation letter to President Trump, “We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.”
The divisiveness we are experiencing in America would be unpleasant in a benign world environment, but in the actual world environment it is downright dangerous. The politicians and so-called leaders that promote all this divisiveness along with the accompanying hate and anger, are doing a disservice to America and its people. How can we restore the Western Alliance and provide it with the necessary leadership if we keep arguing incessantly among ourselves? But that alliance is essential if we are to survive as a free people.