This article will feature in Issue 34: Protest and Revolution (November 2019)

On 1st September 1982, Deng Xiaoping addressed the 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Held approximately every five years, the National Congress allows the Party to change its leadership and alter the Party’s Constitution. The 12th Congress was the second since Chairman Mao’s death in 1976, and the first since Deng’s rise to power in 1978.

At the 12th Congress, Deng said:

We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build socialism with Chinese characteristics – that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history.

This article will explore what Deng meant by wishing to adapt Marxism to ‘the concrete realities of China’ and the meaning of the phrase ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. It will conclude by arguing that Deng’s reforms should be considered capitalist. First, however, let us explore how China got to the point of implementing drastic economic reform.

Four years after founding the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong wished to begin intensive industrialisation in order to lay the foundations for a socialist society (Karl Marx had suggested that a revolution would occur only once means of production – factories, machinery, tools, etc.– were fully developed). These were implemented in the Five Year Plan of 1953-57, based on the Soviet model: centralised planning, large scale collective farming, and state ownership. 

The plan was relatively successful. Agricultural output grew significantly, many industrial factories were created, and national income rose around 10% per year. For Mao, though, this was not enough. He was tired of the more ‘moderate’ officials, including Deng, who wished to continue the Soviet-style industrialisation before implementing socialism. Thus, he initiated the Great Leap Forward with the aim to ‘leap over history’ by rapidly developing agriculture and industry while implementing socialism. It was ideologically driven campaign; Mao felt ‘it is better to be red than expert’ and thought revolutionary spirit could overcome material challenges.

He was wrong. At least 23 million people died of famine because farmers were diverted to industry, which itself was a disaster as workers lacked skills and materials. Mao lost a lot of reputation and withdrew from Party matters as Deng took over economic affairs. Deng was later purged during Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-67), whereby Mao asserted his dominance in the Party and Chinese society.

Deng returned to power in 1978, following Mao’s death two years prior. This paved the way for Deng’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. As the term is vague, it is necessary to assess it through Deng’s general philosophy and the situation it is trying to remedy. Firstly, it is clear that any new policy must be a reaction against Maoism. Even while Mao was alive, Deng opposed Mao’s policies on the basis that China had not progressed through capitalism prior to revolution. Secondly, Deng was an ardent pragmatist, emphasised through his famous quote, ‘it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice’. This quote represents a u-turn for Chinese economic planning: from Mao’s ideologically driven policy to Deng’s pragmatism above all.

Deng eating with US President Gerald Ford 1975.

Deng’s pragmatism, in conjunction with his idea that China must progress through capitalism before revolution, led to market reforms in China. Agriculture was de-collectivised, meaning farmers could sell their grain on a free market. Entrepreneurship was legalised, as was foreign investment, while many state owned businesses were sold off or contracted. Of course, the results were spectacular. Forty years later, China is the world’s second largest economy after seeing growth of almost 10% every year for thirty-five years. 

When Deng referred to the integration of Marxism into ‘the concrete realities of China’, then, he was talking about the need to progress through capitalist industrialisation in order for China to be a developed nation. Why, though, did Deng refer to ‘socialism’ as the drive behind these reforms? 

During the initial stages of market liberalisation, Deng wanted modernisation in four key areas: defence, industry, science and technology, and agriculture. In 1978, human rights activist Wei Jingsheng posted an essay on a Beijing wall titled The Fifth Modernization. The fifth modernisation Wei called for was democracy. Often, when a country adopts market policies democracy is a natural, and usually necessary, extension. Indeed, market liberalisation without democracy led to the month long Tiananmen Square Protests – a student led movement demanding democracy – which was crushed by Deng. 

‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, then, refers both to China’s progress through capitalism and justifies market reform without democratic reform to go along with it. To what extent, though, can China be called ‘socialist’ or ‘capitalist’ based on Deng’s policy? Despite the lack of democracy seen in Western capitalism, China’s system bears capitalism’s defining features: private ownership of property and the production of goods and services for sale on a market for profit. However, the state retains significant control over the economy through state owned companies and ‘national champions’ – big business with ties to the government – and, under Xi Jinping, control over the economy is only growing. Due to the presence of the core tenets of capitalism, though, it is fair to call Deng’s reforms and China’s subsequent system as capitalist. It is important to note, however, that the Party officially remains committed to the notion that China is progressing through capitalism with a view to communism in the future. 

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