Capitalism with Chinese characteristics

Ben Lewis wonders why some still consider China a model for socialist development

If ever there was a story that pithily summarises China’s transition from a ‘bloc of the four classes’ (National Liberation Army, national bourgeoisie, peasantry and workers) under Mao Zedong to a Stalinist sweatshop ‘big player’ in the global imperialist world order, then it is that of the 45-year-old Fang Fang.

In a story which was picked up by the Financial Times,[1] Fang Fang recently got into a spot of bother with his employers in the run-up to last week’s sessions of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC).

What is so unusual about that? After all, there are near-daily reports of labour unrest, spontaneous strikes and explosions of anger amongst Chinese workers increasingly disgruntled with overbearing bosses, grinding political repression and soul-destroying hours and conditions.

Yet Fang is no ‘ordinary’ worker. As JP Morgan’s top man in China, Fang had to explain to the bank’s rather perplexed US owners why he had been nominated as a delegate to China’s highest political advisory body, the CPPCC. After all, if the rather overblown rhetoric of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is to be believed, the CPPCC, as an “organisation of the Patriotic United Front of the Chinese People”, is an “important forum for promoting socialist democratic politics with Chinese characteristics” (my emphasis). Images of toiling peasants making fiery speeches and soldiers expounding on the nuances and intricacies of revolutionary war are immediately conjured up. But bankers?

We have all heard of ‘socialism for the bankers’ following the enormous bailouts of 2008, but how did Fang Fang explain his presence in a forum which, on the surface of things, should have nothing to offer him but a noose from which to hang himself? Rather revealingly, the only way Fang could explain himself was by likening his appointment to a banker being elevated into the House of Lords - hardly a body for summoning the revolutionary energy of the national bourgeoisie, the people’s army, the workers and the peasants.

Indeed, the story of Mr Fang speaks volumes. Whereas the CPC and its ‘official communist’ hangers-on internationally may labour under the illusion that China is on the long march to socialism by drawing the ‘national bourgeoisie’ into its four-class bloc, the reverse is actually true. China’s path may have been a difficult, tortuous and even contradictory one - but it is a path that has led straight back to capitalism. Not even Mao or Stalin had a vision of the international bourgeoisie playing an integral role in the struggle for so-called ‘socialism’. And, whereas under Mao the national bourgeoisie’s representation was essentially tokenistic, today those like Mr Fang have real influence. Sure, when it comes to actually voting in the assembly, Mr Fang and his friends will in all likelihood have raised their hands along with everybody else in the hall. As such, the sessions of the CPPCC and NPC are rather analogous to a Blairite party convention - a tightly controlled, freeze-dried media pageant attempting to parade unity and strength, with all the decision-making hidden from the public. The CPC is, of course, fully in control.

As Mr Fang himself puts it, “There is an enormous machine working behind the scenes to ensure CPPCC requests and suggestions are all taken seriously and answered by the relevant authorities.” As he doubtless made clear to his employers at JP Morgan, such benefits are absolutely essential to the flourishing of business in a capitalist society “with Chinese characteristics” (ie, an all-embracing Stalinist bureaucracy overseeing commodity production). Members of the CPPCC have the right to pick up the phone directly to ministers to frame legislation, and can also get the ear of local mayors to ensure that this legislation is also carried out in the way that they see fit.

The Financial Times comments: “In today’s China, Mr Fang’s very different roles - as a western banker and as a political adviser to the Chinese government - are, in fact, not contradictory. Rather, they reflect the increasing influence of business interests on the country’s political process.” The article then proceeds to provide further information which appears rather at odds with official Chinese descriptions of its ‘House of Lords’: the richest 70 of the 2,985 delegates to the CPPCC are worth an estimated $75 billion - no wonder, when they include representatives from some of the world’s most influential transnational companies like HSBC and Deutsche Bank AG.

Capital looks on

It should come as no surprise that the Financial Times has provided relatively extensive coverage of the official gatherings. It is, after all, the publication where the bourgeoisie is able to speak to itself in a relatively forthright and open fashion.

Indeed, whilst talk of a double-dip recession abounds, and doubt is increasingly cast on the nature of the global economy’s ‘recovery’, many a speculator, hedge-fund manager and government strategist will have their eyes on the enormous economy that is modern China.

For all the talk of the ‘decoupling’ of China and the west, one cannot help but sense a distinct tone of anxiety in the financial press. Concerns are beginning to surface both about China’s trade balance and about the low percentage of GDP made up by household consumption. Thus the run-up to the adoption of China’s 12th five-year-plan at the NPC was keenly followed. Some economic commentators have even gone so far as to describe the plan as a “market-maker”.

Financial Times commentators have also chipped in with their views regarding the Chinese ‘economic model’. As Michael Pettis puts it, “The heated debate between the reformers, who are as unpopular as anyone who brings bad news tends to be, and those who see no reason to abandon a model that has generated such spectacular growth, has become one of the debates in the world. How quickly it is resolved will determine the pace and nature of China’s economic growth over the next several decades.”[2]

Internally too there are big worries about the Chinese economy. Li Jinhua, vice-chairman of the national committee of the CPC, has spoken about public anger at the rapidly growing wealth of communist officials’ family members and the corruption that this breeds,[3] as well as problems resulting from rising inflation and property prices.

Of course, none of these big questions were to be aired publicly. And following days of surreptitious networking, arm-twisting and multiple dinners between bigwigs of the Stalinist bureaucracy and representatives of international capital, the 12th five-year-plan was eventually endorsed by 2,778 of the NPC’s 2,785 deputies - a rather impressive figure, given the contentious issues at hand!

These proceedings in the splendour of the Great Hall of the People are a world away from the day-to-day reality under the Chinese state: the People’s Armed Police seeking to crush even the smallest manifestation of political opposition, the imprisonment of critics of the regime and an execution rate which has only recently been surpassed by the tyranny of the mullahs in Iran.

Looking away

Yet many are so blind that they do not wish to see. Take, for example, the comrades from the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain.

The only coverage of these important events in China I could find was a piece reminiscent of some the more craven ‘official communist’ reportage of the Soviet Union. Whilst our class enemy seeks to get to grips with China in the pursuit of its profit interests, the CPB can only rehash standard fare based on a CPC press release, under the drab title ‘State expands healthcare to millions more’ (March 9).[4] It speaks of “government plans to spend 172 billion yuan (£16 billion) this year on healthcare, an increase of 16.3% on the previous year”, and to expand “the total number of urban residents covered by health insurance to 440 million - about 90% coverage”. Great stuff.

It is well known that, when it comes to China, our comrades at the Morning Star tend to put on their rose-tinted glasses. Now that the ‘socialist’ USSR has disappeared, they appear to have fully embraced Chinese ‘socialism’, or ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Whether this is out of desperation - a last-ditch attempt to enthuse and inspire new members - or out of the desire to chase ‘Beijing gold’, now that the Moscow source has dried up, is unclear.

Many leading CPBers make no secret of how they fondly look back to the ‘golden age’ of the USSR. Maybe errors were made and it was a pity so many died, and maybe Bukharin and Zinoviev should not have been executed. But, as the comrades put it in their programme, Britain’s road to socialism, “during its near 70-year existence the Soviet Union showed how socialist planning and public ownership could transform society in the interests of the mass of the population”.[5] Naturally, they add, “serious mistakes, pressures and unresolved contradictions eventually resulted in the collapse of the socialist system in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe”. But what of China? Can we really see China as showing how socialist planning and public ownership are transforming society “in the interests of the mass of the population”?

The programme fawns: “China’s communists have placed greatest emphasis on economic and social development” - leading to a situation where “state power is being used to combine economic planning and public ownership with private capital and market mechanisms, with the aim of building a socialist society in its primary stage”. Tell that to JP Morgan and HSBC, comrades!

Maybe they do genuinely believe that the Chinese communists are doing the right thing in a country where the working class enjoys far less political freedom than in most other large economies. Perhaps the comrades from the CPB view the noises coming from the high bourgeois press as merely further evidence that the ruling class simply does not have a clue what is going on any more. Perhaps it is the financial commentators who are falling for a trick: their supposed “market-making” Chinese plan is actually a step in the direction of universal human liberation. Of course, alongside the more general decline of its system, the poverty of bourgeois ideas and ‘solutions’ becomes increasingly evident. But our class enemy is far from stupid, and it would be disarming to our struggle against them to believe such a thing. The Financial Times knows a “market-making” scheme when it sees one. And so should we.

The big problem for the CPB is that its entire reformist outlook is predicated on ‘national roads’. Its thoroughly bourgeois conception of socialism is in theory and practice inimical to working class rule, control from below and democracy.

There is no such thing as a ‘national road to socialism’. Not in the USSR, not in China, not in Britain. As the history of the 20th century and the aborted transition from capitalism so painfully and frustratingly underlines, socialism must be international or it will represent nothing but a freakish, ectopic historical aberration: the long and winding road back to a particularly ‘red in tooth and claw’ form of capitalism at the cost of millions of lives.

The idea of ‘national’ roads to socialism was complete anathema to the Bolsheviks - up to and including Joseph Stalin - in 1917. All were fully aware that October had to be first and foremost a spark for the European revolution. Indeed, the theorisation of ‘socialism in one country’ marked a decisive break, a rupture with the outlook of orthodox Marxism: something which, in their various ways, bourgeois historians, Eurocommunist theoreticians, Maoist activists and Stalinist leaders are all at pains to deny.

Where China will end up at the end of its long and winding road back to capitalism remains to be seen. We are quite clearly seeing a vast expansion of the power of the capitalist class, a class which is also now welcome into the CPC with open arms. Rather aptly, ‘Communist Party of China’ now appears under ‘Businesses’ on the Financial Times website’s search engine!

We are still some way from what could be described as ‘normal’ conditions of bourgeois rule (anti-democratic rule-of-law constitutionalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, independent judiciary, private property protection, etc) being introduced to China. This would require the CPC to gradually relinquish its monopoly of power and accept the existence of other (pro-capitalist) parties.

That said, the regional and indeed global imperialist aspirations of China as a power are explicit - and already beginning to bear fruit. One key aspect of the 12th five-year plan is the expansion of military expenditure - up 12.7% on last year’s budget.[6] This will see the growth of the world’s largest standing army, and also see China’s navy in a stronger position for its exercises in the South China Sea and beyond.

Even by the bureaucratic and statist standards of the ‘official communists’ and their USSR-tinged conception of ‘socialism’, how on earth can China be a model for human liberation in any meaningful sense?


  1. www.ft.com/cms/s/0/22461922-4684-11e0-967a-00144feab49a.html#ixzz1GkydWugj
  2. www.ft.com/cms/s/0/94fe455e-4e70-11e0-98eb-00144feab49a.html?catid=20&SID=google#axzz1GloC2sQ4
  3. www.ft.com/cms/s/0/4477ffda-2df1-11df-b85c-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz1GlHATtZo
  4. Morning Star March 9.
  5. www.communist-party.org.uk/index.php?opt-ion=com_content&view=article&id=250&Itemid=13
  6. www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6525224c-462f-11e0-aebf-00144feab49a.html#axzz1GkunMkrf