An economic system that was rapidly on its way to becoming capitalist, as was clear to all, was officially called “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Multitudes of intellectuals . . . were brought forth to construct a Marxian ideological rationale for the regime’s market policies. They drew upon the rather prominent strands in the original writings of Marx that celebrate the economic dynamics of capitalism and its historical progressiveness. They repeated Deng Xiaoping’s celebrated 1956 these that the main contradiction in Chinese society was between its “advanced socialist system” and “backward productive forces” (488-49).
ratified the virtually unlimited adoption of capitalist methods and ideas to accelerate economy growth, although the social result was officially called a ‘socialist market economic system.’ For inventing this oxymoron, Deng was extravagantly praised for making yet another ‘great theoretical breakthrough’ in the development of ‘Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought,’ which incongruously remained the title of official state ideology (518).
We who live in the representative democracies of the West are accustomed to misrepresentations and rationalizations by governments, for they often are pretending to represent the interests of the people, when in fact they represent the particular interests of private capital and campaign contributors. But as we seek to understand, we must be open to the possibility that government spokespersons are explaining the reasons for the measures that they are taking. Indeed, all governments have the right and duty to do so. We should avoid the tendency to dismiss; we should listen first, and critically analyze next.
In the case of China, one of the historic goals of its popular socialist revolution was to protect the sovereignty of the nation, reversing the concessions to the imperialist powers that had reduced a once-great empire to an impoverished nation. In analyzing the Chinese “opening” from the vantage point of this historic revolutionary goal, we need to know the conditions in which foreign capital was permitted to operate in China. However, Meisner’s book does not provide this necessary information. He observes merely that China created in 1978 conditions favorable for foreign investors, which is nothing more than a tautology, because if the conditions were not favorable for their investment, foreign capitalists would not invest.
The question emerges, were the conditions established by the Chinese government, in addition to being favorable to capital, also favorable to China? Chinese Marxist theoreticians and political leaders maintain that the Chinese government is establishing a situation different from the prevailing pattern for peripheral and semi-peripheral countries of the capitalist world-economy, which promotes underdevelopment in the countries where the capitalists are investing.* They sustain that the Chinese socialist state is requiring capitalist investors to adapt to conditions favorable to China, consistent with a concept of a market directed by the state, and in accordance with the principles of a socialist market economy. In their view, China is developing conditions that are mutually beneficial to capitalist investment and to the goals of revolutionary China.
If indeed it is the case that China has developed a strategy of attracting foreign capital, but imposing conditions in accordance with national interests, then China is developing a political-economic system different from capitalism, where the market rules (with state support). And different as well from the classic socialism of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, in which the state directs, but with regulations that inhibit the development of national productive forces. If this were to be the case, then China would be developing a new form of socialism, a socialism that responds to Chinese conditions and needs, or a “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which is the “official” claim of the Chinese Communist Party.
Taking into account the significant gains of the Chinese reform and opening of 1978 to 2012 in promoting the economic development and sovereignty of China, the Chinese road of pragmatic socialism should not be dismissed. It should be taken seriously as a subject for research and reflection, and as a possible alternative road for humanity in the context of the increasingly evident unsustainability of the capitalist world-economy.
* For more reflection on the prevailing patterns of the capitalist world-economy, the various posts in the following categories: The Origin and Development of the Modern World-System, Neocolonialism, and Colonialism, Semi-Colonialism, and Neocolonialism in Latin America.
Li, Minqi. 2008. The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World-Economy. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Meisner, Maurice. 1999. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, Third Edition. New York: The Free Press.