Is China a Communist country?

Recently, I started a White House Petition to “abolish the capitalist mode of production.” My intention was mostly sarcastic, as I did not expect the petition to reach even the threshold to get an official response, much less to be acted upon. The petition prompted a glorified open thread on an Atlantic blog (which mysteriously did not mention my name) as well as many responses on Twitter, all of which subsequently prompted a rant from me about the profound ignorance that prevails around Communism in its Actual Existing forms — including, I argued, the People’s Republic of China, which has been continually controlled by the Communist Party since the time of Mao and is currently carrying out a variation of the economic policies pursued by one of Mao’s close associates, which is itself broadly similar to the New Economic Plan proposed by Lenin but abandoned by Stalin.

The argument that China is not a Communist country seems to be based on the fact that China is pursuing market-based policies in some respects — or, more ignorantly and simplistically, the fact that inequality exists in China. In point of fact, the “communism” of 20th-century Communist Parties indicates the goal toward which they are striving, and no actual Communist country has ever claimed to have reached it. As for the use of capitalist methods, Marx had always maintained that capitalism is a necessary step along the way to communism, insofar as it vastly increases productive capacity, to the point where scarcity can be eliminated and a fundamentally new set of political and economic choices becomes possible. Many Western Marxists believed that we would basically need to let capitalism run its course, but in non-Western countries (first of all Russia), people like Lenin were more impatient and thought it was possible for a determined Communist party leadership to push through the necessary developmental stages much more quickly and purposefully.

Opinions differed on how best to achieve this goal — as I mention above, Lenin was experimenting with limited market-based policies toward the end of his life, a stance that Stalin initially embraced but then rejected in favor of a more centrally-planned model, and Mao famously tried a lot of seemingly crazy rapid-development plans. Deng Xiaoping — who was already a powerful figure under Mao, though his political fortunes went through some vicissitudes — began implementing China’s current system of embracing a certain level of free market competition and welcoming foreign investment. His successors — who all assumed power peacefully by rising through the ranks of the Communist Party — extended and developed these policies, which have proven to be more successful than the efforts of any previous Communist regime at promoting economic development. (I emphasize the political continuity as a point of contrast with the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc, where the Communists clearly lost power. There, former Communist elites explicitly changed their political and ideological allegiances, and state industries were generally expropriated. China’s supposed “transition to capitalism” looks nothing like the post-Soviet experience.)

The type of economic development achieved via Deng and his successors’ policies is broadly similar to the type pursued by previous Communist efforts: highly capital-intensive and, as this important article that you need to read points out, not driven primarily by monetary “return on investment.” While Western countries are willing to sacrifice essentially every other important priority to sustain the rate of profit for capitalist enterprises, China uses fictious capital as a tool to pursue its priorities. This is, again, broadly in keeping with the history of Communist economics, which (in keeping with their reading of Marx’s critique of capitalism) has sought to prioritize “use value” over “abstract value.” For instance, the Chinese solar panel industry has proven to be extremely unprofitable on capitalist terms, needing constant influx of state funds. The Western business press believes that this is a bad thing and that a day of reckoning is inevitable. Meanwhile, however, the Chinese have revolutionized the industry by making solar panels more cheaply and at a greater volume than previously believed possible — and as long as material resources continue to flow into China, the government can “afford” to write off these supposed “bad debts” indefinitely. A capitalist country never could have achieved this, at least not within the same short timeframe as China.

I do not believe China to be a paradise on earth by any means. The treatment of workers is terrible in most cases, inequality is rising in a way that threatens the legitimacy of the system (though Xi is working on this with his anti-corruption campaign), and for all the promise of future environmentally sustainable development, China’s development, like the Soviet Union’s before it, has come at the price of considerable ecological devastation. There is no guarantee that the Chinese Communist Party will maintain its hold on power, nor that their efforts will contribute to the attainment of “full communism” any time in the near future — or indeed that they will ultimately contribute materially to important global priorities like the environment. For all the many faults of China, however, I view it as a valuable example of the fact that it’s possible to have improving standards of living while pursuing important goals other than abstract return on capital. It is a living testament to the fact that there is an alternative — and it has the capitalist powers genuinely worried.

Hence I believe it is important to emphasize that China really is still a Communist country. Thank you for your time and attention.

16 thoughts on “Is China a Communist country?

  1. I’m also glad to have found the Kaminska article via this post, which is one of the best I’ve read in the last several months. She’s fantastic.

  2. You take Kaminska’s intriguing (and I think largely correct) thesis–that the Chinese government is not operating according to a capitalist logic–and reduce it to a simplistic (and I think essentially wrong) argument that therefore, China must be Communist. But to turn Kaminska’s piece into an argument that China is communist requires, among other violences, pretending that Communism or a not-quite-yet-full version thereof is the only alternative to capitalism. Stated outright, that’s clearly false: history up until quite recently was chockfull of non-capitalist, non-communist societies and governments. For example, China’s attention to economic-development-in-service-of-the-state looks an awful lot like early modern European mercantilism, down to the focus on commodity stockpiles.

    Your other main argument that China must be communist is the continuity of the CCP. This evidence doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny: having a single party state only rarely means a higher level of political unity than in multi-party state. There can be just as much ideological diversity among the ruling class, just all dressed in the same party platitudes.* As many scholars have pointed out, the pre-Deng period of CCP rule can fittingly be understood as a backstage civil war between two factions within the CCP, the Reds and the Experts, with the Cultural Revolution merely the most obvious sally. To point to the existence of the Party as indicating ideological continuity makes about as much sense as arguing post-WWII Labour and Blair’s Labour are just the same.

    It’s possible to argue that Chinese governmental policies aren’t capitalist, though you’d best limit your claim to a finer resolution than “country.” Calling it communist, though, is a considerable stretch. Regardless of Deng’s intentions (and I’m pretty convinced he was of the “use capitalism to get to communism” school) there have been scads of capitalist billionaires appearing in China who didn’t come through the Party and couldn’t care less about what he, Mao, or Marx had to say. The CCP has responded by welcoming them into the fold. Their shared interest with the Party insiders is nationalist economic triumphalism, not communism.

    *Or, in the case of the US, far less ideological diversity despite different party logos.

  3. China’s is a regulated economy allowing certain forms of free enterprise, led by a communist party, functioning in a globalized neoliberal system. The Chinese system involves massive contradictions, but as Mao pointed out, both sides of a contradiction can be true.

  4. The beauty of your theory is that it is impossible to falsify; so long as China is ruled by a nepotistic class of super-rich despots who call themselves the Communist Party, China is a communist country.

  5. While I would often like to believe China still has a lot of communist qualities, actually living there and reading a lot on its contemporary politics leads me to think the CCP leaders have backtracked a lot from any actual communist ideals. Xi Jinping likes to cover up his actions through a lot of “return to Mao” rhetoric, but he also directly attacked and destroyed the most powerful, openly Maoist leaders in the party when he went after Bo Xilai and his clique. Other measures, like the anti-corruption campaign and crackdowns on the internet, are as equally about targeting intra-party rivals as they are maintaining the Party’s effectiveness and legitimacy. In many ways the CCP treats communist ideology as bankrupt since 1989 and leans much more heavily on nationalism, hence always provoking Japan and South Korea, and modernization. This would place communism in China as more about seeking an ideological and government system that could restore “wealth and power” for the country after its semi-colonization in the 19th century and that managed to last longer than its other rivals of republicanism and neo-Confucianism (though the CCP also is bringing back Confucian values in a lot of contradictory ways now too). So I would definitely say China isn’t capitalist in the way the West often says it should be, and ideally there should be space to say how China could fix a lot of its problems that isn’t just adopting more neoliberalism, but it also doesn’t seem to be on the path to communism any longer either.

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