The World That China Wants (III): Taking Chinese Communism Seriously

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few months back I promised I would highlight some of the key passages in Dan Tobin’s testimony to Congress, “How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions.” Tobin’s testimony has since been published by CSIS as a full length report, but in my citations below I will be referencing the page numbers in the original testimony. Tobin’s work has strongly influenced my understanding of China’s intentions for the global order. You can see the full influence of this testimony (along with the work of Nadege Rolland, whose reports will be covered in a later post) in my recent essays for Tablet Magazine and Palladium.

Tobin’s testimony takes as its starting point Xi Jinping’s political work report to the 19th Party Congress. I have compared these reports to the State of the Union address, but that is not really very accurate. These reports are less rhetorical and more technical that any SOTU, the product of six months of bargaining between factions, input from various bureaucracies, and ceaseless drafting and redrafting. They are better thought of as the “executive summary” of a planning process that will guide the efforts of the Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, and the state organs of the People’s Republic over the entirety of the next five years.

A lot of attention is paid to these reports. Tobin is not alone in viewing the 19th Congress report as especially significant. What sets Tobin’s analysis apart from others like it is his ability to contextualize this report within the history of the last sixty years of work reports, plenum read outs, and major addresses by Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jiantao, Xi Jiping, and even Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang, and Hua Guofeng. What results is an incredible synthesis of PRC strategizing and planning over the course of its history.

To give you an idea of what that looks like in text, let me excerpt a long section from the introduction of Tobin’s testimony. All bolded emphasis is my own:

Rather than reactive, defensive, and besieged, the Party’s pursuit of modernity, power, and international status for China has been strategic, active, and purposeful. One of the most striking features of Xi’s 19th Party Congress address is its combination of articulating China’s ambitions on an explicitly global scale (a dramatic departure from recent decades) with an assertion of the continuity of the Party’s goals throughout its rule. Xi uses long sections of the speech to reframe his signature formulation “the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation” as the Party’s “original aspiration” and “mission.” 

In a nutshell, to read Xi in the context of the speeches of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and their successors—whose language Xi’s is meant to invoke—is to realize that Beijing’s aim is nothing less than preeminent status within the global order. The Party’s consistent focus has been to transform China into a modern, powerful socialist country that delivers a leadership position in the world commensurate with China’s endowments of people, land, and past cultural triumphs. Xi (and his predecessors) have continuously underlined the continuity of their goal of developing China to the point where it can, in Mao’s words (language Xi self-consciously echoes), “stand tall in the forest of nations.” “National rejuvenation” is an effective political slogan precisely because it represents the common denominator aspiration of Chinese elites since the country’s humiliation in the mid-19th century Opium Wars. This aspiration is to transform China into not only a modern, powerful, country, but also a country respected for its achievements across the all fields of human endeavor by which great powers measure themselves, from prosperity to military power to cultural influence, to scientific discovery. Equally crucial, both Mao and Deng Xiaoping identified the goal not merely to “catch-up” with “the most advanced countries,” but to pass them.  

The Party’s past strategy documents and leadership speeches underscore it has been pursuing comprehensive modernity for decades via a state-led process of identifying long-term targets, embedding them in plans, making investments, and adjusting and elaborating on targets as it proceeds. Under Mao, horrific policy experiments caused millions of deaths, but the Party’s leaders today claim credit for taking China from poverty and backwardness to the number two economy (and implicitly, power) in the world in four decades (pp. 2-3).

 This is all very well written. What you do not recognize from this excerpt, however, is the titanic amount of research behind almost every statement made therein. These three paragraphs include twelve separate footnotes. Below is one of those footnotes. Do not feel obligated to do anything more than skim it:

Mao Zedong had originally articulated the goal of modernization by the end of the twentieth century. See his discussions in “On the Dra  Constitution of the People’s Republic of China,” Speech at the Thirtieth Session of the Central People’s Government Council, June 14, 1954, in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Volume V, pp. 145-146, and “Speeches at the National Conference of the Communist Party of China,” March 1955, in the same volume, p. 155. In the early post-Mao era (1976-1987), the end of the twentieth century remained the explicit deadline. This is the objective identified in Hua Guafeng’s report to the 11th Party Congress in 1977 (see note 17 above for the availability of that text) and Deng Xiaoping’s agenda-setting speech in 1980 on the eve of his wresting power from Hua. See Deng, “The Present Situation and the Tasks Before Us,” Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume II (1975-1982), p. 226. While there is also more continuity than generally recognized across the Mao and post-Mao eras, the functional policy areas in which the party is seeking to realize its vision of a comprehensive modernity (i.e., not just economics and the military but also culture etc.) exhibits great consistency since the mid-1980s. Then General Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s 1987 encapsulation of the mid-century end state for China as “a strong, modern, democratic, and culturally advanced socialist country” (富强、民主、文明的社会主义现代 化国家) remains the party’s explicit goal as expressed in the preamble of the party’s constitution. Only three words have been added to the phrase since: the word “harmonious” (和谐, in 2007 to reflect prioritization of social welfare), the word “beautiful” (美丽, in 2017 to reflect prioritization of a clean environment), and an extra “强” (strong, powerful) added in front of country (国家), in 2017, which the official translation rendered as “great.” See Zhao, “Advance Along the Road of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” pp. 16-17. From 1992, this description was contained in the party’s constitution, amended at each Party Congress. For the texts of past Party Constitutions, see the pages for each Party Congress available here. On long-term targets, see also note 3 above. Jiang Zemin’s report to the 16th Congress in 2002 identified the goal of achieving a “moderately prosperous society in all respects” (全面建设小康社会) by the centenary of the party’s founding in 2021. This reflected a more comprehensive vision of well-being than Deng’s original target of “a moderately prosperous society” by the end of the twentieth century, which had been expressed solely in terms of per capita GPD. (China hit Deng’s original target.) For Jiang’s explanation of the target, see “Explicitly Set the Objective of Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects,” Excerpt from a speech at a training group meeting for the Sixteenth National Congress of the CPC, in Selected Works of Jiang Zemin, Volume III, pp. 400-404. The 2020 target, however, also includes goals for improving the “complete set of systems” by which the party governs China, identified by Deng Xiaoping in 1992 and conirmed by Jiang at the 14th and 15th Party Congresses in 1992 and 1997. The Chinese texts of these Party Congress reports are available here. For Deng’s original remark, see Deng Xiaoping, “Excerpts from Talks Given in Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Shanghai,”February 21, 1992, in Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume III, p. 360 (p. 20).

I will not excerpt any more of these footnotes. You are free to read the document yourself and peruse them at your leisure, but know that all of  Tobin’s judgements that I highlight below have similar footnotes behind them. There are 104 footnotes in total; they take up 20 of the testimony’s 35 pages.

Part of the reason Tobin goes to these extremes is that he wants to emphasize the long-term, strategic planning process of the Communist Party. For

scholarship in English has largely ignored the Party, state, and military target setting and long-term planning processes. Otherwise excellent textbooks on Chinese politics explore the challenges of day-to-day governing and of crisis response, the mechanisms of domestic control, and the Party’s political succession processes, but have not provided students and U.S government officials with a sense of the strategic agency of the Party’s leaders. This neglect may reflect mirror imaging. Our political system is not designed to take the United States in a specific direction (p. 3).

How successful the Chinese Communists have been at achieving these goals is a question I will return to later on. For now, we focus on one of the major items that Tobin identifies as an animating strategic goal for the Communist Party of China—the creation of a Sino-centric world order:

The Party seeks an order in which China’s achievements as a great power are not only recognized but also credited to its particular brand of socialism and lauded as a moral triumph both for socialism and for the Chinese nation. Here, Chinese diplomats’ frequent exhortation to the United States to respect China’s “social system and development path” is not just a call for tolerance but moral recognition (p. 6).

Why is reshaping the world order necessary for China’s “socialist modernization?” First,

the current order does not provide security for its political system. Beijing has consistently seen “the West” as seeking to overturn China’s socialist system via “peaceful evolution” and worried about “hostile Western forces” combining with forces within China to “split” the country and change its political system…. [but this new order] would do away with both the norm of democratization and the global and regional system of U.S. security alliances and partnerships that endow that norm with coercive potential (p. 5).

Short-term regime security thus requires a world order whose institutions, norms, and discourse is friendlier to authoritarian system’s like the People’s Republic of China. This is a largely “defensive” objection to the current order or things.

But it is not the only reason the Chinese Communists wish to change the global order:

Second, the kind of order Beijing desires is not just one where its socialism system is secure, but covered in glory. Xi’s aim is not simply, in the colorful phrase some Western scholars have used: “a world safe for autocracy.” Rather, the Party seeks an order in which China’s achievements as a great power are not only recognized but also credited to its particular brand of socialism and lauded as a moral triumph both for socialism and for the Chinese nation. Here, Chinese diplomats’ frequent exhortation to the United States to respect China’s “social system and development path” is not just a call for tolerance but moral recognition (p. 6).

Part of this is simply the universal and utterly human drive to seize glory, win renown, and celebrate in-group pride. But this quest for glory is also wound up in the survival and continued rule of the Communist Party, or at least of the current generation of its leadership. The “social contract” of the Communist Party is and has always been “we are the only ones who can restore China to greatness.” This is not a new goal. Despite talk of bide-and-hide,

every post-Mao leader also vowed the Party would ultimately prove “the superiority” of socialism. This, not convergence with the West as some hoped, has always been the purpose of the “reform” component of Deng’s “reform and opening” that remains part of the Party’s “basic line” (p. 7).

Failure to advance this goal would mean at minimum the disgrace of the current leadership, at maximum the fall of their Party.

There is a strong demand then to remake the world in a fashion that reflects Chinese glory and protects authoritarian norms. Growing integration with the outside world makes this a more urgent task, not a less urgent one:

China must begin shaping international norms and rules precisely because its growing integration with the world constitutes a vulnerability as long as those norms are the liberal democratic ones favored by the West. In the Party’s vision, Beijing’s standards on everything from technology to domestic policing will not only exceed Western ones in influence, but also constitute the sinews of an even more deeply interconnected world where the benefits of the “Community of Common Destiny” are so attractive that no country wants to be excluded from it (p. 9).

Tobin provides a succinct single-paragraph precis of the network of concepts bound up in the phrase “Community of Common Destiny for Humankind:”

Community of Common Destiny envisions that by boosting global connectivity and interdependence such that countries benefit much more from joining the order Beijing is building rather than being left out, they will be motivated to shelve disputes (either with China or among themselves) and bury any criticisms of China in favor of the benefits of common development. In time, deeper connections will produce both “mutual learning” and some convergence. Common development will allow other countries to benefit from China’s emergence as a leading country, and the global network Beijing builds, running on the Party’s standards, will cement the country’s leadership, radiating harmony to the globe.

 The point then is not to force other countries to adopt the Chinese development model, or even evangelize the glories of the Chinese Party-state to foreign audiences, but rather to slowly weave a web of economic and institutional ties that link all countries to a Chinese center, a center which the Communist Party of China has control of. In such a world, few countries would want to risk their share of surging global economic growth by doing things the Party-state might object to (say, hosting Uyghur dissidents or protesting against mass camps in Xinjiang). Common development turns Chinese interests into global interests. 

If in this new world some other countries observe Chinese success and do want to adopt Chinese methods or models for their own political system, Chinese assistance will come as those countries request it.

 Tobin thinks all of this has a few obvious implications for the West:

For Washington, these visions ought to underscore that the trope that Beijing’s ambitions are largely regional—either out of a culturally-rooted aspiration to restore the status of imperial China or because the country has so many disputes and problems along its periphery that it cannot become more ambitious until these are resolved—is a woeful misreading of the contest. The challenge Beijing represents is not to Washington’s status in Asia, but to the nature of the global order’s predominant values, and the vehicle for that challenge is an effort to build both the physical and intellectual infrastructure underpinning the next phases of globalization. China is not exporting violent revolution as in the period of high Maoism, rather it is seeking to rewire the global order from a position of connectedness to it (p. 12).

In this contest, globalization and economic integration do not lower the stakes—they raise them:

The present contest is not between separate blocks or camps as in the Cold War—with each trying to flip individual countries—but over an integrated, globalized world. Yet this raises the stakes over values because we do not have the luxury of retreating to separate worlds and simply comparing which system can generate more human flourishing (p. 7).

 As I was putting this post together over the last few days, I reread David Ornby’s translation of a Jie Dalei essay in May’s Beijing Cultural Review and realized that Jie makes the exact same point, but from the Chinese perspective. Jie claims that America is more ideological than China is. To my mind this is obviously true. But China is not without ideology, and much of that ideology is a heritage from the Marxist tradition. Tobin identifies one of the big differences between liberal ideology and Leninist values:

Leninism, by contrast, makes individuals into means towards the achievement of collective ends. For Beijing, as for Lenin, collective material welfare (“common prosperity” in the Party’s contemporary official lexicon) rather than political freedom is the criteria by which it judges success (p. 7).

But this conception of individuals as means towards the common end has counter-intuitive effects on how Party thinkers conceive of the task of politics. Westerners understand politics as clashes between competing interests, ideologies, and group identities. One way to think of democracy is as an attempt to channel conflicts over who exercises power into a non-violent and rules-based arena. This is an anathema to the Chinese communists:

Lenin saw democratic institutions as mere tools of oppressive class interests and the democratic process as a mask for the class interests of the group in power. He advocated instead rule by a single Party governing on the basis of its scientific deduction of the laws of history. 

Beijing today continues to argue that the Party, representing the Chinese people’s interests as a whole, is a bulwark against the particular interests that capture the political process in liberal democracies. For the Party’s leaders, the dictatorship remains justified by the need to repress the enemies of the Chinese people’s collective interests. Worse, since Leninism defines the Party’s ideas and decisions as “scientific” and “correct,” for Beijing dissent is not the legitimate expression of individual interests or those of a specific sub-group but rather sabotage of the Party’s collective, nation-building effort. It is not political participation but state subversion. These are precisely the ideas that characterize Xi Jinping’s “holistic concept of national security” and the increasingly stringent laws and institutions promulgated during his tenure under its banner. (p. 7)

A core Leninist tenet is that neither the free market nor liberal systems are neutral. By their nature they benefit most the powers that be. The current set of international institutions largely fall in the same category. They must be reshaped.

How exactly the party-state should go about doing that is not made clear in any of these speeches beyond broad generalities. In the Chinese party-state system, party leaders often articulate new goals as broad slogans or slippery generalizations. It is then the job of think tanks, academics, and various government bureaucracies to propose initiatives that fit in with the general vision. Some of these proposals are mere exercises in branding; many others are bureaucratic infighting by another name, as one organization or working group tries to claim ownership over something near and dear to the Chairman’s heart. 

That process happens below the level of Congress political reports or Xi Jinping speeches. The best summaries I have read of how these directives and priorities are being debated and implemented a level down are found in Lee Jones and Zeng Jinghan’s paper, “Understanding China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” (which I discussed with some depth in my post “The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road“) and Nadege Rolland’s China’s Vision for a New World Order, which will be the subject of the next post in this series.

If you are interested in other things I have written about China’s Communists, you might also find the posts “A Note on Historical Nihilism,” Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy,” “The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road,” “Review: Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping” and “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II” ” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

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"A core Leninist tenet is that neither the free market nor liberal systems are neutral. By their nature they benefit most the powers that be. The current set of international institutions largely fall in the same category."

Lenin was spot on there, and the inability or unwillingness of liberals to recognise that the system they claim is only guided by principles of individual freedom in fact serves to entrench those in position of power and wealth is a deep moral failing.

The irony is that China claims to want to "balance the scale" and "democratise international relations" but in practice just seeks to replace Western powers at the top of an equally rigid hierarchy of power and status. This is China's own deep failing. It is unable or unwilling to recognise that, by its own standards, it is adopting the same kind of "hegemonic behavior" toward smaller states that it criticises the US for.

No matter what the Communist Party still faces the challenge of efficiently managing the allocation of capital to meet the economic needs and desires of 1.4 billion people who are simultaneously producers and consumers. How this can be done without a genuine price system, which implies things like freedom of information, the rule of law, enforcement of contracts, an independent judiciary, private banking, and much besides remains a mystery. In fact, as Hayak convincingly argued, without a genuine price system, the task is impossible. Therefore expect fraud, corruption, waste, above all waste, leading eventually to inflation and massive unemployment and untold human misery as Chinese working people nearing retirement discover their life savings,upon which they were depending for support in old age now that they can no longer depend on their one child to supply it, have been squandered on boondoggles. This is a circle that cannot be squared. Xi will pay the price or else, and this would be big, initiate democratic reforms starting with the Party itself when he realizes there is no other choice.

From the outside, it appears that Xi is ordering a significant change in tactics, even if the long-term goals remain the same. Xi has decided that the leading place of the CCP must be maintained at all costs, even if it means causing significant economic damage internally.

It's possible he made that decision because he realized economic disruption was close on the horizon and threatening, or he may have perceived more direct threats to control by the CCP and decided those were a bigger threat than economic disruption would be. But his policies do mark a significant change in means, even if the ends remain the same.