Leaders of the Communist Party of China use the phrase “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” as the preferred moniker for the political and economic system that they govern. The now ubiquitous phrase was invented shortly after the death of Mao Zedong to describe the distinctive features of a Leninist political system retreating from a Stalinist economic model. Yet if Socialism with Chinese Characteristics was originally intended to explain CPC deviations from orthodox Marxism, in the decades following the fall of the communist bloc it has most often been used to justify China’s deviation from the liberal norms of the world’s richest nations. To invoke Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is to remind cadres that China follows a distinct path to modernity. This path not only precludes the wholesale importation of Western institutions and values, but also provides an explanation for perceived Western hostility to China’s National Rejuvenation.
The origins of the Socialism with Chinese Characteristics concept can be traced back to Mao Zedong’s various statements on the need to develop the “Sinicization of Marxism” [马克思主义的中国化]. In his most famous proclamation on this theme, Mao declared that “the history of this great nation of ours goes back several thousand years. It has its own laws of development [and] its own national characteristics.” These characteristics must be integrated into the revolutionary programs of the Chinese communists because even though “a communist is a Marxist internationalist…. Marxism must take on a national form before it can be put into practice.” Mao thus championed a
Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China, and not Marxism abstractly used. If a Chinese Communist, who is a part of the great Chinese people, bound to his people by his very flesh and blood, talks of Marxism apart from Chinese peculiarities, this Marxism is merely an empty abstraction. Consequently, the Sinicization of Marxism—that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics, using it according to Chinese peculiarities—becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole Party without delay (Schram 2004, liii).
Mao spoke these words as the leader of a guerilla revolutionary movement. Neither Marx’s writings nor the Soviet experience provided much practical guidance in this situation. Stalinist models would prove more relevant to Mao after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Using Stalin’s Short Course as a guidebook, China’s new communist regime imported Soviet economic and political structures with little alteration. The failure of these structures over the next few decades would eventually prompt the leaders of the Communist Party of China to seek a new path—and to justify that path with language that echoed Mao’s early calls for a Sinicized form of Marxism. “We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China,” Deng Xiaoping would report to the 12th Party Congress in 1982, “and blaze a path of our own and build a Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” (Deng 1991).
The phrase “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” has featured in the title of every subsequent Political Report given by a General Secretary to a Party Congress. In these reports Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is consistently identified as comprising a distinctive theoretical system [理论体系], a set of institutions [制度], a culture [文化], and a path [道路]. As Xi Jinping describes it, the theoretical system of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics offers intellectual “guid[ance] to the Party and people,” the institutions of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics “provide the fundamental guarantee for progress and development” of socialism, the culture of Socialism with Chinese characteristics “is a powerful source of strength and inspiration” for individual cadres, while the path of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics “is the only path to socialist modernization and a better life for the people” (Xi 2020). Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is thus defined both by the aims of China's political system and the tools cadres must use to accomplish these aims.
The political debates of the 1980s powerfully shaped both these tools and aims. As the failings of the Chinese economy grew clearer, Party leaders concluded that “the practice of implementing orthodox socialist principles in the style of the Soviet Union was excessive for China’s level of socioeconomic development and productivity” (Zhao 2009). A country starting from such a low economic base must prioritize economic growth over class struggle—even if this required marketization of parts of the Chinese economy. In Zhao Ziyang’s 1987 Political Report this developmental stage—called the INITIAL STAGE OF SOCIALISM—was linked to the political structures and priorities of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics:
The basic line of our Party in building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics during the initial stage of socialism is as follows: to lead the people of all our nationalities in a united, self-reliant, intensive and pioneering effort to turn China into a prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and modern socialist country… The fundamental task for a socialist society is to develop its productive forces and concentrate on a drive for modernization (Zhao 1987).
Zhao and his fellow economic reformers were aware that statements like these broke from Marxist orthodoxy. “Building socialism in a big, backward, Eastern country like China is something new in the history of the development of Marxism,” Zhao told the Party. “We are not in the situation envisioned by the founders of Marxism” (Zhao 1987). Deng Xiaoping echoed this theme in an interview with a doubtful member of the Japanese socialist party: “Ours is an entirely new endeavor, one that was never mentioned by Marx, never undertaken by our predecessors and never attempted by any other socialist country. So there are no precedents for us to learn from. We can only learn from practice, feeling our way as we go” (Deng 1994).
Statements like these gave reformers the cover they needed to defeat “hidebound thinking” and introduce market mechanisms to Chinese life. The idea that China must bend Marxist-Leninism to fit its national circumstances allowed the reformists to obscure the differences between capitalism and socialism. Tolerance for market processes and an open embrace of international trade would remain a distinguishing feature of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the decades to come.
Yet a return to “hidebound thinking” and “leftist deviation” was never the only danger that Socialism with Chinese Characteristics sought to avert. From its origins the concept was associated with Deng Xiaoping’s FOUR CARDINAL PRINCIPLES—a set of commitments that Deng did not allow the Party to retreat from or tolerate debate over. The four items that party members must remain loyal to include: the socialist path, the rule of a dictatorship of the proletariat, the political predominance of the Communist Party of China, and Marxist and Maoist thought. In practical terms these Four Cardinal Principles were understood as a party-wide commitment to maintain communist control over Chinese politics even as the Party relinquished a measure of control over China’s economy. These political commitments remain in force. “The leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” Xi Jinping instructed in his Political Report to the 20th Congress, “and [is] the greatest strength of the system of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” (Xi 2022).
From the concept’s origin in the 1980s, the leaders of the CPC have identified liberalism as the most dangerous threat to the Party’s monopoly on power. Zhao Ziyang’s discussion of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics warns that “the tendency towards bourgeois liberalization, which rejects the socialist system in favor of capitalism… will last throughout the initial stage of socialism” (Zhao 1987). Socialism with Chinese Characteristics can thus be thought of as an attempt to ward off not only the temptations of the orthodox Marxist “left” but also the liberal-capitalist “right.”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the allure of leftist deviation was much diminished. In recent decades Party leaders tend to contrast the theory, institutions, culture, and path of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics not with Marxist orthodoxy but liberal heresy. Thus Xi Jinping warns party cadres that
Since the end of the Cold War, some countries, affected by Western values, have been torn apart by war or afflicted with chaos. If we tailor out practices to Western capitalist values, measure our national development by means of the Western capitalist evaluation system, and regard Western standards as the sole standards for development, the consequences will be devastating—we will have to follow others slavishly at every step, or we subject ourselves to their abuse (Xi 2017, 356).
The contrast with China could not be clearer. In Xi’s home country, “[our] party has led the people in independently blazing the path to success over the past century, and the success of Marxism in China has been realized by Chinese Communists through our own endeavors.” Xi insists that as cadres “strengthen [their] confidence in the path, theoretical system, institutions, and culture of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” they will be able to “deal with China’s issues… in light of the Chinese context.” In the eyes of Xi Jinping and other senior leaders of the Communist Party of China, this is the only path by which China can become strong, wealthy, beautiful, and modern (Xi 2022).
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