Red China Isn’t ‘Back’ Under Xi Jinping. It Never Went Away

About a year ago, former Prime Minister of Australia and sinologist Kevin Rudd wrote that Red China is “back.” If only Beijing could come to its senses and return to the policy of “Reform and Opening Up” it pursued so successfully for 40 years, he argued. But Rudd, like many others, has based a pious hope on a faulty analysis, one which goes as follows: Deng Xiaoping and his followers abandoned Marxism the moment Mao Zedong died in 1976 to transform an insulated country reeling from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution into the world’s second-largest economy.

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The key term is obviously “reform.” For decades, a motley crew of foreign politicians, entrepreneurs, and experts have told us that “Reform and Opening Up” meant a move from the planned economy to a capitalist one. And in the wake of economic reform, they have assured us that political reform would inevitably follow, turning China into a responsible stakeholder if not a thriving democracy. There were major economic reforms but the political shift never happened. None of these fortune-tellers had bothered to genuinely read the country’s constitution, listen to its leaders, or understand its past.

One common view is that since every one of China’s leaders after Mao was a victim of the Cultural Revolution (Deng was purged three times; Xi Jinping was sent into exile in the countryside at the age of 15), they understood all too well the danger of power wielded by a capricious hand. But the opposite is true. After Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in the summer of 1966, he first allowed select students called Red Guards, then the population at large, to ferret out and denounce every party member who might have harbored misgivings about his leadership and the revolution at large. “Bombard the Headquarters,” he urged his followers. The result was a social explosion on an unprecedented scale. Party officials recoiled in horror, many of them hauled to denunciation meetings, paraded through the streets, demeaned, tortured, occasionally locked up and the key thrown away. Mao used the people to purge the party of real and suspected enemies, but then in 1968 used the army to purge the people in turn, making sure no one was left standing to challenge him. After his death, the leadership was determined never to allow ordinary people to criticize the party again.

Deng, who had long warned against “bourgeois liberalization,” codified that approach in 1982 with the Four Cardinal Principles in the constitution. These four principles boil down to two core values: keep to the socialist road, and uphold the leadership of the party, or, in two words, Marxism-Leninism. The Four Cardinal Principles have been regularly invoked by every leader to this very day.

Although Deng wanted his country to “Open Up,” by which he meant that foreign capital and technology should be welcomed, he regularly launched campaigns against “spiritual pollution” from abroad. It was not merely an old man railing against long hair, jeans, and pop songs. Like Mao, Deng was all too well aware of the concept of “peaceful evolution,” first formulated in 1957 by John Foster Dulles. The Secretary of State proposed that the U.S. and its allies use peaceful means, including loans, commerce, and the arts, to accelerate the transition toward democracy of countries in the Soviet orbit, thereby shortening the life span of communism. This is precisely what happened in Poland as people voted themselves out of communism on June 4, 1989, the very same day Deng sent 200 tanks and some 100,000 soldiers to grind the democracy movement into the dust at Tiananmen Square.

Even before the Soviet Union disintegrated a few years later, Jiang Zemin, Deng’s chosen successor, placed the party on high alert against efforts by the “capitalist camp” to infiltrate and undermine the party through “the plot of peaceful evolution.” The alleged conspiracy remains, to this day, the Chinese regime’s greatest fear, feeding paranoia and ill-will in a country that has arguably benefited from more good-will than any other in the world. Everything, from stamping out Mickey Mouse under Jiang and Winnie the Pooh under Xi is seen as a devious plan to bring down the communist party. Every time a Bill Clinton or a George Bush suggested in Beijing that with economic reform, political change was not far on the horizon, they were providing the leadership with all the evidence it needed to confirm their view that sinister foreign powers were trying to overthrow the Chinese government.

Even the economic reforms are overstated. Mao wreaked havoc on the economy with the Cultural Revolution. It had to be rebuilt over decades. But in a one-party state, politics is always in command. The vision pursued by the regime was to invigorate the socialist economy, not to completely abandon it. The radical collectivization of the past was left behind, but the Marxist principle of state ownership over the means of production, including land, capital, labour, energy and raw materials, was largely maintained. When, in 1992, Deng proposed leasing land to attract more foreign investment, he called it “Capitalist Tools in Socialist Hands”: why fear the capitalist dollar when the state controlled everything? After 2000, Jiang made sure powerful party committees were set up even in private enterprises, making the distinction between private and public ownership all but meaningless. Control over the means of production is precisely what has allowed China to provide chosen enterprises with endless subsidies and a seemingly inexhaustible line of cheap credit. That has made sure that no country could compete the moment access to the World Trade Organization was granted in 2001.

In 1987, China’s then-Premier Zhao Ziyang met the 75-year-old Erich Honecker in Berlin. The party leader of East Germany expressed his earnest concern over the nature of China’s “Reform and Opening Up.” Zhao explained that the policy was temporary only: in the future, once its living standards had been raised, the population would acknowledge the superiority of socialism, at which point the “scope for liberalization will be reduced further and further.” A few months later, at the Party Congress in Beijing, he explained that “we will never copy the separation of powers and the multi-party system of the West.” It was an uncanny prediction. East Germany has long since vanished, but Red China never went away.

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