How the Chinese Talk about Socialism

Jan Turowski


China has changed dramatically since Deng Xiaoping introduced the policies of reform and economic liberalization in the late 1970s. This was a historically unique period of growth driven by market expansion, the influx of foreign capital, technology and expertise, massive urbanization and industrialization, economic steering, and investments in infrastructure. Within just one generation, economic growth transformed urban China into a middle-class society, and lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in rural China.

Throughout the course of this transformation, the state leadership has consistently emphasized that the country is on a path of socialist development. It claimed to have implemented a “socialist market economy” and declared its intention to complete the country’s transformation to socialism by 2050. However, in China, especially within the Communist Party (CPC), socialism is understood less as a state of affairs and more as a developmental process aimed at strategic goals.

Given the multitude of socio-economic challenges and constraints posed by developing and implementing new policies, the Chinese debate on socialism is essentially a background melody accompanying practical policy making, sometimes louder, but usually faint. This theoretical debate constantly incorporates feedback from real-world developments and conflicts of interest in order to change, experiment, or adapt accordingly, and yet it still manages to lend a clear direction and structure to the policy-making process. Last but not least, it has provided a normative, yet abstract set of goals in addition to a comprehensive catalogue of concepts and historical reference points.

By contrast, in the Western world, the debate about socialism in China tends to be less productive, since the issue is reduced to a simple binary that can do little more than ask whether China is socialist or not. Given the immense speed of change, however, it is extremely difficult to pin down the Chinese model at a particular point in time, even within the historically brief period of the last forty years. As a result, not only does any nuanced discussion disappear — the debate also fails to take account of the developmental options that are inherent in the Chinese system, or that have only emerged from the transformation that has taken place in recent decades.

Anyone interested in socialism in the twenty-first century must take what is happening in China seriously. Its future economic supremacy will either shape global capitalism, which socialists worldwide will have to respond to, or the future of socialism will be determined by China’s planned transformation toward a socialist economy. At any rate, China’s rise has too great an impact on the rest of the world for it to be ignored.

Western debates about China always include a few Chinese voices that complement and corroborate Western expertise and interpretation. However, in broader discussions in Europe or North America, little attention is paid to how China’s society’s self-conception, how the landscape of intellectual discourse is structured there, what questions and interests are important for Chinese figures, and what ideas are disputed.

Moreover, Western debates over socialism rarely touch on figures or positions from China. However, the Western discourse on socialism has lost its purchase as a discourse that can set an example or serve as a touchstone for the rest of the world, not least due to the political weakness of Western socialist parties and organizations. In any case, it can no longer be the only explanation of what socialism is and is not for the rest of the world.

Debating Socialism after Mao

In China, too, debates take place about whether the country is socialist or not, whether it is still on a path towards socialist development, or even whether the socialist objectives are still relevant at this point in time. The fact that the Chinese constitution defines China as a socialist state is the starting point of the debate and not the end.

Although Chinese intellectuals were still under the shock of the Cultural Revolution in the 1980s, this period of time was characterized by the gradual emergence of new dynamics in the publishing world, new political orientations, and intellectual currents. During this period, fierce debates between liberals, cultural conservatives, and authoritarians flared up once again — for example, after the release of the television documentary Heshang (“River Elegy”), which was highly critical of the decline of traditional Chinese culture.

In some respects, these debates are reminiscent of those which took place at the beginning of the 20th century. Although public debates were still subject to extreme forms of regulation and repression during this time, the fact that the CPC leadership was searching for a useful identity narrative after the ideological shocks of the Cultural Revolution meant that the development of relatively free discussions in small university circles was tolerated. The society’s structure was still very simple: the vast majority of the population lived in the countryside, and even most urban dwellers were learning to deal with the stress of transformation and were preoccupied with the new opportunities and constraints. This meant that these debates took place almost exclusively within tiny circles of intellectuals and party cadres.

Following the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests, the first half of the 1990s was marked by a renewed state of shock. However, the reforms that unfolded thereafter transformed society and its institutions into something distinct, creating new freedoms and raising new questions. In the second half of the 1990s, it was still difficult to openly criticize the government in the mainstream media, although some important and formative journals did emerge in academic contexts during those years, such as Dushu (“Reading”), Tianya (“Frontiers”), and Zhanlue yu guanli (“Strategy and Management”). These journals grappled with theoretical and practical issues, becoming influential platforms for different schools of thought and political tendencies. They became theoretical forums of postmodernism, modernization theory, semiology, world-systems theory, or even postcolonialism, and provided an outlet for critical political discussions about China’s path of reform.

In the early 2000s, new, commercially oriented magazines and newspapers emerged as well, further broadening the scope of the theoretical debate. Nanfang Zhoumo (“Southern Weekly”), for example, was an important liberal weekly newspaper that repeatedly came into conflict with the authorities. In terms of social structure, a new middle class slowly took shape in the cities, posing new questions and expectations and searching for new materials to read and discuss.

As a result of the Chinese government’s decision to expand higher education, the number of students enrolling in higher education institutions each year had increased more than tenfold between 1990 and 2020, and the number of higher education institutions has more than doubled. Although there are contradictions and problems, the expansion of the country’s education system has also brought new opportunities. University institutions were transformed by the millions of students who were the first in their families to attend university.

As a result of being exposed to Western, and especially liberal thinkers, a young generation of Chinese intellectuals developed an increasingly complex understanding of the West and of China. Many of them became advocates of the “free market” and opponents of the “old system”. Many recently hired teachers have new room to explore, while many highly educated graduates are now flocking into new media, public welfare institutions, as well as foreign and private companies. All of this radically transformed the discursive stage.

The political debates of those years were framed by two narratives: the narrative of systemic collapse in China and the narrative surrounding Western standards of development. The predictions circulating in the West which claimed that China’s economy and/or political system would soon implode and collapse like a house of cards gained traction in China as well. In both leftist and nationalist discourse, there were calls for the country to be judged and analysed independently of “Western experience”. At the same time, however, China was seen as a country that not only had to catch up with the West in terms of development, but also had to become — sooner or later — like the West itself.

New Developments, New Actors

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, this debate received little public attention. The year 2008 was an important turning point in this regard. On the one hand, “thirty years of reform and economic liberalization” had much to show for in terms of its success and seemed to confirm that the path taken was the right one, while hosting the Olympics did the rest. Contrary to some assessments in the West, up to that point the Chinese leadership was far from self-confident in its decisions regarding the country’s path of development. In fact, the reform and open door policy were more like cautious steps taken in search of footing while crossing the river.

On the other hand, the financial and economic crisis in the West revealed how fragile the liberal capitalist model is. After this, the West could no longer serve as a practical and normative model. These events permanently changed the social mentality in China, both among the elites and the wider population — as well as the corresponding conflicts. The narrative of imminent collapse has since disappeared almost entirely from public discourse, but after 2008, more and more Chinese citizens were convinced that “the rise of China” was more than an abstract prospect — indeed, it was more of a self-confirming trend. The debate shifted noticeably, and the more a “Chinese model” or “China’s path of development” were discussed, the more the archetype of modernization inspired by a uniform and Western-centred historical narrative lost its credibility.

While official party discourse and public debate coexisted alongside each other in the previous years and often simply ignored each other (as long as they did not attack each other directly), starting in 2008 there was an increase in overlap. These two distinct discourses gradually began taking up each other’s terms and concepts and influencing each other. This cross-pollination also spawned a political re-organization — for example, the CPC became more open to hearing different positions. Younger people in both contexts made their perspectives more widely available, in addition to making more political demands. Public policy debates became less ideological and more technocratic.

The liberals, who had been long-time proponents of swift privatization, deregulation and reforms with respect to property rights and the rule of law, saw the level of their influence plummet. During the 2010s, the neoliberal movement retreated and consisted largely of “technocratic officials,” with “professional” or “realistic” demands. Above all, this was because their narrative of economic and political reform no longer inspired the younger generation. While their parents had lived through the scarcity, poverty and chaos of the Mao years and thus had high hopes for the market reforms, they themselves were born into the market economy and consumer society and had thus been directly impacted by the negative effects of these reforms. Thus, while their parents’ generation glorified a possible capitalist future, the young people, for their part, glorified a socialist past that they themselves had not experienced.

The new Left — which calls itself “new” in order to distinguish itself from the Maoist conservatives — criticized the excesses of privatization, a form of thinking that valued the laws of the market above all else, and the reductionist logic of growth promoted by the reform   policy. Scholars of this new Left pointed out that migrant workers, workers in state-owned enterprises, and farmers in particular paid a very high price for the rapid development of the Chinese economy. They believed the “reform dividend” from the first 30 years after Mao’s reforms must now be paid out to the “masses”. A simple return to the pre-reform era was not possible, so the new left demanded a reinvention of the socialist model in light of the challenges of the 21st century.

Finally, the traditional “revitalization theorists” conceded that although market-oriented reforms had rapidly developed the economy, this development was socially and culturally destructive and unsustainable. The Chinese government can also rely on the benefits of Confucianism and other traditional ideological resources, which makes it easier for them to enforce a kind of “cultural braking” to reduce the speed of capitalism.

A Growing Discursive Field

In the early years of the twenty-first century, the discursive field in China discourse was — as was to be expected — divided: here the official political and party discourse, there the academic-cultural one with its platforms of different political tendencies. However, the rapid growth of the Internet made the field of discourse both more complex and more confusing in the 2010s. The government had no experience in dealing with “public opinion on the Internet,” while academic circles and their traditional publications had equal difficulty in finding their place in the face of direct and unfiltered online communication. They lost their exclusive — even elitist — function as a mediator between government and the public.

Topics such as the blatant social contradictions, unpaid wages, environmental scandals and corruption were now shared and directly addressed on the Internet. The Internet brought a massive influx of new people participating in this emergent landscape of discourse.

Firstly, there was participation from a new, second generation of migrant workers. Unlike their parents, they did not want to return to the countryside and settled in cities instead. Yet they were faced with the reality of “high real estate prices” and “low incomes”. This second generation had mostly attended secondary schools, knew how to use the Internet and had a whole range of means of expression at their disposal. In particular, this generation of migrant workers proved to be very capable of forming identities and communities on the Internet, especially in the context of the discussion about a new set of new workers’ rights (which were implemented by law in 2014). A mix of self-deprecation, satire, and critique allowed them to communicate with specific roles or niches within society, such as “people carrying bricks”, “losers”, “the second generation of the poor”, and in doing so amassed a considerable amount of adherents, who collectively consolidated some type of discursive power.

Secondly, rapid urbanization, increasing social inequality, rigorous urban planning, and environmental protection problems repeatedly caused protest movements and conflicts between landless peasants and the new bourgeois class to emerge. Online content formed an important part of these movements.

Thirdly, topics such as such as feminism, the equality of same-sex partnerships, and related social protest practices were introduced into the discursive landscape as part of a global exchange of ideas that reflected on increasing social mobility and the rapid growth of the urban middle class, and the resulting new forms of employment and new lifestyles. The Internet created the necessary conditions for the development of these ideas and group identification.

In 2011, the 3G mobile network was rolled out — first in urban areas, and in rural areas shortly thereafter. The abundant supply of inexpensive domestic smartphones contributed to its popularization, and in this way, China entered the “age of mobile Internet”. Smartphones not only replaced computers and became a tool for data collection, they also launched a series of intelligent apps which became part of people’s lifestyles, and even shaped their habits.

Thanks to the expansion and development of the new media since 2011, the influence of “Internet public opinion” in Chinese society has accelerated, while the relative importance of traditional media continued to decline. The popularity of microblogs in particular changed the tone of public debate. This new mode of communication produce an entirely new type of thought leaders and public intellectuals, including Yao Chen, Han Han, and Mao Yushi. The 140-character limit in effect on most microblogs keeps most content from straying beyond the personal and emotional. The complexities that accompanied these changes in Chinese society occasioned a surge in political discourse on microblogs.

In 2015, the app WeChat began to replace microblogs and became the most influential social media platform. WeChat introduced the middle-aged group — especially migrant workers and farmers, all of whom had been left out of the early stage of mobile Internet development — to the mobile Internet era. Public opinion on the Internet, originally dominated by the urban middle class, became more diverse.

The different groups even had conflicts over what demands and issues were most important for them. But by this time the state leadership had a clearer idea on how to embed itself online and steer the digital debate in its interests. At the 2013 National Conference on Propaganda and Ideological Work, the new state and party leadership called for “considering the work of public opinion on the Internet as the top priority of propaganda and ideological work.” This was done, on the one hand, by increasing regulations and massive surveillance, and on the other hand, by the party itself adopting the skills necessary to pursue their interests online.

Mainstream media started to focus on networking. Traditional mainstream media such as Renmin Ribao (“People’s Daily”) and the Xinhua news agency always maintained a presence on the new media platforms. In addition, the central government implemented mechanisms to hold local party and government organizations at all levels accountable, in addition to establishing “offices for managing public opinion on the Internet”. These offices were tasked with de-escalating online situations that threatened to go on for days, eventually boiling over.

Relapse and Recession

In comparison to the early 2000s, public debate in recent years has been far less stimulating, controversial, inspiring or even visionary. This development is certainly due to increased surveillance and censorship, pressure on public figures and organizations, and a corresponding self-censorship. But other factors also play an important role.

The new media landscape made it difficult for traditional newspapers, and to retain their readership and subscribers, or to attract new ones. This led to a massive reduction in revenues from subscriptions, advertising and distribution, which threatened the very existence of these traditional forms of media. To meet this challenge, traditional print media tried to reinvent themselves digitally, developing their own smartphone apps and entering onto mobile Internet platforms such as micro-blogs or WeChat. However, they are usually incapable of carrying out their often-complex discursive role in these new technological environments.

The political controversy of the 2000s spawned a search for new political ideologies, a process that also benefited from the enormous expansion of the university system. A large number of new institutes and faculties were founded and many new university positions were created, which massively increased the demand for new topics and ideas. In 2011, the peak of this expansion was reached, and the university systems were structurally oversaturated. This meant there was fierce competition for the few remaining positions and enormous pressure was exerted for them to teach and conduct scientific research for the next generation of young scientists. External research grants and prizes, and an absurd compulsion to publish also led to disciplinary specialization, and the rise of quantitative empiricism and mathematization in the humanities and social sciences. This left little time for normative theories or reflections on fundamental issues.

The Chinese culture industry has grown enormously over the last twenty years, and is also proving to be apt at setting the agenda for national issues. For example, it can be observed that Chinese audiences are losing interest in products from the American culture industry. Finally, society has become heterogeneous: Lifestyles have drifted apart — especially the interests of young and old, high-paid and low-paid, private-sector and public-sector employees.

Yet the positions are not as clear and coherent as was previously the case with the various intellectual discourses and current platforms. Political representatives have different approaches to various issues, occasionally demonstrate pronounced realist and utilitarian positions toward action, and tend to focus on concrete issues such as educational equality, food safety, social order, the financial market, environmental protection, etc.

The Debate Continues

These public debates and arguments are overshadowed by and at the same time embedded in the CPC’s official policy discourse and Chinese political communication — in other words, the process by which political leaders, the media, and the people exchange and interpret political information as well as messages that relate to the political process and government power. A country’s political communication is always shaped by the institutional and structural framework of its governmental system, political culture, and history.

This creates a sense of cohesion that allows political discussion and interpretation, and a certain internal consistency in the forms of debate. The interests, orientations, and interaction patterns of political actors and their respective access to communication resources and processes also shape a form of political communication that is particular to China. They determine the interaction of media and politics, and shape the political language.

This language, in turn, appears overly formalized, almost rigid and unresponsive compared to that of the West. It is characterized by fixed and unchanging political terms and formulas, long lists, keywords and slogans. If fiery election campaign speeches and heated television debates are prototypical of Western political communication, political communication in China is characterized by long speeches, accountability reports, and statements that are usually perceived as empty formulaic propaganda in the West.

However, if one takes these formulas seriously, political communication in China is quite dynamic and exceedingly rational within its framework. It is very often intellectually stimulating in its conceptualizations, its legitimization of policy and its ability to shape debates. Nevertheless, as in the West, there are of course plenty of political “soapbox speeches” with empty phrases. There are several intersecting factors that determine the way people behave and communicate within China’s political communication structure. At the same time, it often provides a social framework — which obviously contradicts general knowledge in political science — and has a dynamic influence on the overall discourse. For the purpose of consideration here, two of these axes are worth mentioning.

First of all, the CPC’s official party discourse has a long-term vision of how society and development could be organized the future. In this discourse, the policy problems pertaining to the here and now are always linked to goals to be achieved in the future. While in Western political debates, “future” as a political category is usually limited to short periods of time, and target goals such as emissions function as solutions to present-day problems, the Chinese discourse always refers to a development period of 100 years.

This discourse is characterized by long timeframes (“two-stage strategy”, “five-in-one” modernization, “moderately prosperous society” by 2020, “shared prosperity” by 2030, “modern socialist country” by 2049, etc.) and quantitative development stages (in terms of industrialization, poverty or urbanization rates, income development, etc.). These in turn consist of shorter planning intervals, programs, and campaigns (five-year plans, “Made in China 2025”, “Belt and Road Initiative”, etc.).

Secondly, there are specific communicative modes of understanding and negotiation situated within the Chinese system. New terms and slogans pertaining to short-term goals are constantly affixed to a discourse geared toward the long-term goals of a “harmonious society”, a “Chinese dream” or a “peaceful development”, are initially quite abstract and almost devoid of content. Whenever such political terms are introduced, the Chinese government usually intends to provide as little concrete information as possible about the actual meaning of the slogans and terms. However, this vagueness often creates room for lively debates in academia, in the media, or even among the general public.

Most of the political concepts put into circulation by the CPC offer only starting points and preliminary visions of goals: they are not yet comprehensive and well-thought-out policy programs. In fact, they rely on experts and policymakers to develop them into the concrete ideas that can be further fleshed out and eventually implemented. To this end, think tanks, research institutes and various branches of government at all levels, as well as provincial governments are encouraged to hold international workshops and conferences throughout the country. The goal is to stimulate and improve the level of debate. Discussions in civil society are also shaped by the long-term horizons and corresponding programme ideas advocated within party discourse, as well as the specific communicative feedback.

These discussions also proceed in a specifically Chinese way. Concepts and formulas, goals and questions of the CPC are taken up, discarded or developed further. Although there may not be a public sphere in China in the sense that Habermas uses the term, the last decades of reform and economic liberalization have created a specific Chinese civil society (gongmin shehui). This civil society participates in the public discourse defined by the party, and to a certain extent helps shape it.

It is not useful to chart out the antagonisms and differences between civil society, the party and the state in this context. Members of civil society can be found in party structures, and the CPC, in turn, is present in many civic spheres. It also is not helpful to separate civil society discourse from official CPC discourse. The latter certainly serves as an ideological, conceptual and political space of reference for social disputes, but it is nevertheless highly controlled. The official state discourse and the civil society discourse are not the same, but they are not completely opposed either. Their greatest similarity is that they are unfinished and governed by constant change and rupture.

The Chinese government claims it is on track to complete its transition to a socialist society by 2049. What that means has yet to be defined. It is still “too early to say” what this socialist society and its socialist economy will actually look like. This is in keeping with the words of Zhou Enlai, who, when asked in the 1970s about the historical significance of the French Revolution for China’s development, replied that it was too early to judge. Until we’ve reached that point, the public debate regarding China’s path to socialism will continue — above all in China itself.

Jan Turowski
Jan Turowski

is the Chief Representative of RLS Beijing Representative Office.

“Academic Papers” aims to be a repository of academic papers related to our work in China. It serves as a comprehensive platform for sharing in-depth scholarship in the fields of critical political and economic research on China.

“Academic Papers” aims to be a repository of academic papers related to our work in China. It serves as a comprehensive platform for sharing in-depth scholarship in the fields of critical political and economic research on China.

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