Just what exactly is meant by 'Chinese characteristics'?

February 17, 2015 10:40
Deng Xiaoping stressed that China was "practicing socialist, not capitalist, democracy”. Photo: Reuters

Over the last 35 years, China has gone through great changes. This period of change presented major challenges to the Communist Party’s ideology. Many challenges were dealt with through redefinition and ambiguity. For example, Deng Xiaoping adroitly redefined “workers” to include intellectuals, arguing that while they worked with their minds and not their muscles, they were still workers.

Jiang Zemin went a step further by accepting capitalists into the Communist party through his “Three Represents” theory, which says the party represents advanced social productive forces.

Through all the ideological turmoil, the party has claimed to be guided by Marxism-Leninism, though the tent has been enlarged by including “Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important thought of the Three Represents and the Scientific Outlook on Development”. The last is the contribution of Hu Jintao, who stepped down as party leader in 2012 and was succeeded by Xi Jinping.

Although theoreticians had traditionally considered a planned economy to be a hallmark of socialism while the market economy characterized capitalism, the pragmatic Deng – known for saying that it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice – decided that China needed to jettison its old economic model and make use of the market economy.

He did this by asserting that “planning and market forces are not the essential difference between socialism and capitalism”.

“A planned economy is not the definition of socialism because there is planning under capitalism,” he said. “The market economy happens under socialism, too. Planning and market forces are both ways of controlling economic activity.”

And so, the market was incorporated into what was ostensibly still a socialist economy, first as being only complementary but, at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the party held in 2013, it was decided that the market would play a “decisive role” in the allocation of resources.

Deng called what he created a “socialist market economy”, differentiating it from a full market economy. Deng no doubt did not foresee that, in the 21st century, 13 years after China joined the World Trade Organization, the United States and the European Union would continue to refuse to recognize what exists in China today as a genuine market economy.

In addition to using “socialist”, the Communist authorities also like to hang the phrase “with Chinese characteristics” on their ideas and actions.

Thus, the Chinese Communist Party constitution qualifies even socialism in China as having “Chinese characteristics”. In fact, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is now the official ideology of the Communist Party of China.

The fourth plenum of the party decided last October to promote rule of law, or rather rule by law. A communiqué announced that the general target was to form a system serving “the socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics”, qualifying law with both “socialist” and “Chinese characteristics”.

The communiqué asserted that leadership of the Communist Party in the country’s “rule of law” would be ensured. That is to say, the party, not the law, is supreme. That certainly is not how the concept of “rule of law” is normally understood outside of China. Chinese characteristics, it would appear, mean that rule of law is not genuine.

In the “Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping”, the late Chinese leader is quoted as having said in a speech in January 1980, “We are practicing socialist, not capitalist, democracy.” Deng made no bones about the fact that “socialist democracy” is, in fact, not real democracy.

This led quite naturally to universal suffrage elections with Chinese characteristics, unveiled in 2014, in which candidates for the chief executive election in Hong Kong are to be determined by a committee more or less controlled by Beijing.

There is also the press conference with Chinese characteristics, which Barack Obama experienced in 2009, when reporters were not allowed to ask any questions.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi has spoken about “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics”, which China is actively pushing with the United States.

“Major country diplomacy” is indeed something to which China can claim ownership. The problem is, it has not been whole-heartedly embraced by any other major country.

But, as we have seen, “Chinese characteristics” are frequently used to indicate that what is being discussed is not what the rest of the world expects. Where “major country diplomacy” is concerned, it will be interesting to see how China defines it so as to benefit both sides.

If China doesn’t do this, there will be little interest in this type of newfangled diplomacy with “Chinese characteristics”.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.