Where is the Communism in the Chinese Communist Party?


The twelve core socialist values.
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The few intellectuals who incited the students to action oppose the socialist system and advocate bourgeois liberalization. By that I mean they want China to be totally Westernized and to take the capitalist road. Our experience has shown, however, that we cannot take that road. 

—Deng Xiaoping (1986)

For 40 years, we have sought truth from facts, advanced with the times, pragmatically yet staunchly followed the guiding position of Marxism, and steadfastly adhered to the basic principles of scientific socialism…. [our course] highlights the irrefutable, scientific basis and fresh vitality of socialism. The great banner of socialism will always fly high in the land of China.

—Xi Jinping (2018)

In a recent essay for the Texas National Security Review, Liza Tobin wrote a few paragraphs that I found valuable and clever.[1] Tobin’s larger topic was the Party term “community of common destiny” (renlei mingyun gongtongti 人类命运共同体). She spends most of her essay exploring the way this term is being used in official Chinese Communist writing. To contextualize the Party’s vision for the world she takes a small de-tour to explain how Party leaders understand a word they often use when talking about their vision for this future: democracy.

Those who have never been to China may be surprised at how central the word democracy is to the rhetoric of the Chinese Communist Party. Democracy is enshrined as one of the Party’s “Twelve Core Socialist Values.” These values are made into gargantuan electronic signs near highways, papered onto hutong walls, and posted in every classroom in the country. Barely a People’s Consultative Conference goes by without a thousand Xinhua broadcasts proclaiming the brilliance of Chinese democracy. From Secretary Xi Jinping down to lowly officials at the bottom, you will find Party voices eagerly asserting not only that China is a democracy, but that it is the democracy par excellence.

There is a temptation to dismiss this as mere rhetoric: talk of Party democracy is nothing but propaganda for the globe’s most gullible. I understand that impulse. A gulf yawns between what we normally associate with the word democracy and the harsh realities of Communist rule. A related temptation is to see the Party’s use of the word democracy as a cynical sort of word-game reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 (you will remember the slogan of the ruling party in Orwell’s novel: “war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength”). From this perspective, the Party intentionally uses words like democracy in an attempt to distort their meaning and rob them of their power. This is a common authoritarian tactic: forcing the ruled to utter lies as if they were truth has been a part of the tyrant’s tool kit for millennia.

In the case of the Communist Party of China, I find both of these explanations insufficient. Neither matches up with the way that Party leaders and thinkers actually use this word. I contend that the leaders of the Party take their own rhetoric seriously. They are not cynical—or at least not here. For these leaders, democracy is a real ideal, one they believe is worth striving for. They actually believe that they are democrats. It is just that they conceive of democracy in a very different sense than Americans do.

Tobin also recognizes this. Even better, she offers a succinct (four paragraph) summary of what the Party leaders mean when they talk about the need to “democratize” international institutions or the importance of “democracy” to the Party’s decision making process. I want to you to go read her entire essay, so I won’t quote her explanation here. Just click on this link to go do that as soon as you have finished reading this post.

I bring all of this up to introduce a broader point, something I find is often missing from discussions of the intentions and plans of the Communist Party of China. The Party often describes its goals, purpose, and plans with words that for Western listeners occupy a very specific conceptual and semantic space. Often these words are tinged with special moral valence. Democracy is a good example of this. Another example are the words “communist” and “socialist.”

Those who dislike the Party often emphasize the communist part of the “Communist Party of China.” This is good tactics: in the West, communist is a dirty word. Those who feel like tensions between the West and the PRC have risen too high tend to do the opposite. Rhetorically, that means talking about “Chinese leaders” instead of “Communist Party leaders.” Analytically, that means arguing that the Communist Party of China is not communist at all. I am sure you have heard these arguments before. The cleverest will say that the 21st century Party has jettisoned its Marxist heritage but maintained its Leninist traditions. More commonly, the doubters of Chinese Marxism will list a set of very un-Marxian attributes of modern China—incredible inequality, the government’s divestment from most sectors of the economy, the country’s crass consumer culture, or what have you—and then declare these things incompatible with a Marxist system. Marxism is a category modern China just does not fit anymore. If Chinese officials keep on yammering about Marx and Engels, it is mostly to signal loyalty to the regime. In the modern China socialism is a shibboleth, not a living part of its leaders’ world view.

This is not correct. The leaders of China are open about what they do and why they do it. Time and again they rest their analysis of Chinese society and international affairs on explicitly Marxist concepts. These concepts are not hollow. There are clear links between Marxist ideas and the policies Party leaders carry out, be it the Belt and Road’s “community of common destiny” or the sprawling surveillance system being thrown up across China. An accurate understanding of these policies and their intended purpose cannot be understood if you are not willing to take their Marxist roots seriously. [2]

But what of the capitalist aspects of the Party’s regime? How can we take the Party’s claims that it leads a Marxist system seriously when it ignores so many of the fundamental tenets of Marxist theory?

Let me offer an analogy.

The revolutionaries who established America as an independent nation did so using the rhetoric and logic of natural rights philosophy.[3] These ideas would later come to define what we today call liberalism. The American Declaration of Independence is the most famous statement of liberal political ideals in human history:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

But here is the catch: those words were written by a slave-holder. Over the course of their lives, the majority of the men who signed this document owned at least one slave. They would go on to build one of the largest slave-holding republics in world history.

Were America’s founding fathers phony advocates of natural rights philosophy? Was liberalism a mere shibboleth, a hypocrisy to be spoken but not lived? Were these men truly motivated by words like “equality” or “freedom?”

These questions can feel compelling. For many, slavery bars America’s founders from the qualifying as true liberals. No one who owned slaves can be classified as a true believer in the phrase “all men are created equal.” These men must be placed in a different category.

If your goal is make a list of the heroes and villains of human history, this sort of thinking is sufficient. But if you want to understand why American statesmen did what they did, you will find this approach limiting. The question “Do the American founders deserve to be called champions of natural rights philosophy?” is far less interesting and far less informative than asking, “How did the American founders’ understanding of natural rights philosophy shape their political decisions?” The the first question can only answer which arbitrary category the founders belong in; the second question’s provides a foundation for analyzing the political workings of the early republic.

The same logic applies to the current situation. Asking “are the leaders of the Party real socialists?” is not useful. It is far more useful to ask: “What does socialism mean to the leaders of the Party? How do they reconcile communism with the capitalist features of modern China? How do their Marxist beliefs shape the policies and plans of their Party?” These questions are a necessary foundation for any serious analysis of the Communist Party of China.


[1] Liza Tobin, “Xi’s Vision for Transforming Global Governance: A Strategic Challenge for Washington and Its Allies,” Texas National Security Review Vol 2, Issue 1 (December 2018).

[2] An excellent example of this sort of analysis can be found in Samantha Hoffman, “Programming China: the Communist Party’s autonomic approach to managing state security,” PhD diss, University of Nottingham (2017).

[3] The classic work on the relationship between liberal political thought and the American revolution is  Bernard Bailyin, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967). Thomas West provides an update to this thesis in The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Leave a Comment


Your last paragraph raises very good, very important questions! So… what are your /answers/ to 'em? Inquiring minds want to know.

This is a great post, but it ended too soon!

"What does socialism mean to the leaders of the Party? How do they reconcile communism with the capitalist features of modern China? How do their Marxist beliefs shape the policies and plans of their Party?"

These are great questions. But what are the answers??