The People’s Daily of 13 April 2021 proclaims that “Monopoly is the great enemy of the market economy.”
Re-read the headline. It says much about the path that China is travelling. Words such as “monopoly” and the “market economy” underscore the very significant changes that have been brought about in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976. Political Purity has now been displaced by People Prosperity. Does it pose key questions; Is the goal of human endeavours the creation of a highly politicised population struggling to make ends meet or hard-working people enjoying the fruits of their collective endeavours? Is Socialism about Marxist orthodoxy or a better life for all?
China in 1976 was dispirited, demotivated and unsuccessful. Giving priority to the Thoughts of Chairman Mao provided people only with the barest minimum of life. But what is the purpose of politics if it condemns people to poverty and puts the fruits of real endeavour (better clothes, better food, better accommodation) beyond their grasp? What is the meaning of Socialism if constant political study merely prolongs poverty? The priorities were wrong. People did not object to politics but they also wanted a good life with rising standards, more choice, greater prosperity. The Left’s diet of “Politics And Then Even More Politics” left people unhappy with a declining commitment to building Socialism. And we should not be surprised. Effort and determination and commitment need to see outcomes and successes and a better life. Something had to change.
The change is associated with Deng Xiaoping. He confronted China’s Left and he told them “You have failed. You have demoralised the people. You have hampered development. You have to go. We need something new”.
Deng was given his head. He was allowed to experiment – allowed to re-think political priorities and forms of economic development. He was in a hurry. Time was not on his side. Discontent was rising. The economy was not producing the goods. People were not experiencing the good life and they looked around and saw and witnessed corruption at the heart of the Party. Things were not good in China. The Party was in danger of losing its right to lead. The change was needed and the priorities were twofold – reward the people. Give them a better life. Unleash their productive power and their collective endeavour. And at the same time – attack corruption head-on.
For those of us following China over many years, the changes were significant – and revolutionary. Priorities were re-ordered. No longer were the slogans “Power Grows out of the Barrel of a Gun” “The Working Class must Exercise Leadership in Everything” “Uphold Marxism-Leninisim Mao-Tsetung Thought”. “Defeat the Liu-Deng Revisionist Line” – a reference to Liu Shaochi + Deng Hsiaoping. No attention was given to raising living standards, removing people from poverty, building better housing with clean water and central heating. The People had to see that the Party could deliver and improve a lot of the People. Experiments were also made in the structure of ownership and the organisation of production. The dead hand of total economic centralisation was jettisoned and replaced by decentralisation and enterprise and initiative as a rapidly growing number of people were brought into the decision-making process.
And the key to the process of change was not just a fundamental review of What Went Wrong during the Cultural Revolution but also What Went Wrong with the Soviet Revolution. The two topics were on the agenda of every Think Tank in every University in China. The Party has always accepted that there is so much to be learned from mistakes and so difficult questions were asked about failure – failure in China and failure in the USSR – so that the right lessons could be learned.
There is another point where – the Party was busy, active, investigating, asking questions, finding answers. Within the Party, it was an Up-Down process. Debate and discussion and review were carried on at all levels of the Party from the Politburo to the local Party Secretaries at township and village level. The process was embracing and not excluding. The wider the reach the stronger the value of the conclusions.
And throughout was the necessity to root out corruption. The Party needed to prove itself again. It needed to recover lost ground, re-assert leadership and resume its position as the leading organ of society and government and administration.
So when you fast forward to today and to the People’s Daily headline which focuses on the record fine of $2.8bn levied on the Alibaba Group for the bad commercial practice of “forced exclusivity”, you begin to appreciate the long journey China has travelled since Deng Xiaoping re-ordered priorities.
Today, China is prosperous + stable. Its ambition today is to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society for the benefit of all its people. It has jettisoned political extremism + a diet of constant propaganda. Now China uses all the talents, all the classes, all the abilities – provided the Party is in control. The Capitalists will be allowed to contribute their talents, enthusiasm and enterprise. But they will never have the power of capitalists in the West. This is Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and not the rampant Capitalism of the West. The key difference? In China it is the Party that has the power.