Defend Truth


Socialism with Chinese characteristics — a study tour


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

China’s Deng Xiaoping realised in 1978 that socialism cannot mean the equal and inclusive distribution of poverty and hence came to the inescapable conclusion that the market must play a part in the development agenda of any nation. A socialist market economy is thus the result — referred to as socialism with Chinese characteristics. What does this mean?

These past two weeks have been a very cerebral experience for me in China. So many questions about how this country managed to advance in a period of about 40 years to become such a success story on all fronts.

GDP growth with trillions in reserves, a politically stable environment, technological advances in every conceivable field and also, socially having lifted so many millions out of abject poverty. South Africa can only but continue to aspire to such socio-economic and political advancement. The consistent answer one gets when inquiring after the secret recipe from the Chinese is “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Which begs the question, what does this actually mean?

Socialism as we know it in the classical sense means an equitable and inclusive distributive system of our means (wealth), while capitalism, simply put, means the exact opposite — not an equitable and inclusive distributive system. In fact, capitalism is all about the individual, profit-making and exploitation while socialists argue that their system is more about the overall well-being of the people.

The Chinese informed me that they follow the simple teachings of Mao when he says that the three most important guidelines to follow for China are:

  • Seeking truth from facts, meaning that all decisions must be informed through research and/or investigations. We must seek out the actual truth based on facts before embarking on a plan.
  • Mass mobilisation. Like the ANC, the Communist Party of China (CPC) also places much emphasis on organising the people and keeping them informed at every step of the struggle.
  • An independent China, meaning a sovereign China that can decide for itself what is best for the country and its people.

Their path is their choice, unlike us in SA who are frequently told either by ratings agencies or illusive foreign investors and, in certain instances, threatened by some world leaders (Barack Obama) as to what we should, can and cannot do in our domestic affairs, especially when it concerns our economy.

The Party School informs us that the socialist market economy practised here in China occurs within the rule of law. In other words, laws govern the rules and practices of the CPC as well as the country as a whole.

However, when asked whether the courts can overrule decisions of the party taken at its National People’s Congress, the answer is a bit more circumspect. There still exist a bit of a tension between these two — the party and the judiciary — organs of state, they tell me. Something I’m sure will in time be resolved. After all, this tension exists in most liberal democracies, including ours.

A few years ago, the Supreme Court of the US ruled that the government must close down the illegal Guantanamo Bay Prison facility, where a number of so-called international terrorists are supposedly tortured and held captive without a proper trial, but to no avail. The US government simply ignored the highest court in the land, all under the guise of national security.

Back home, our government also had its fair share of tension with Constitutional Court rulings on several issues. Former president Jacob Zuma violated his oath of office and did not uphold the Constitution of the Republic, ruled the Constitutional Court, yet nothing happened. Parliament did not fulfil its constitutional obligation, so ruled the Constitutional Court, yet again nothing happened. The point I’m making is simply to illustrate that this is not unique to China.

The people are the masters of the country

So, having indicated what the underpinning philosophy is of the Communist Party of China, the next issue is of equal importance, and that is that the people are the masters of the country. The party basically says that the people must have a say in the affairs of the country in order to fully participate.

This is done through election of the party leadership, being consulted at the National People’s Congress every five years, making decisions about which path to follow at a given time, and of course being given supervisory responsibilities in every village and/or town and city to conduct oversight and report any suspicious activities and/or corrupt officials of the party. The second important aspect of the party is of course its leadership.

The leadership of the Communist Party of China

Much emphasis is placed on the concept of collective leadership and yes, this is held up as very important in the party, but they also make a clear distinction with what they call the leadership core, which they argue is equally important.

The collective leadership, one could argue, is what they refer to as the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which comprises about 200 members from throughout China. They meet at least once every year and in some special cases have met twice a year when required.

The leadership core, on the other hand, is what they refer to as the Politbureau of the party. This is comprised of only seven members, of which Xi Jinping is the head.

The General Secretary of the party is not only the administrative and political head of the Communist Party of China, but also the president of the country and the Commander in Chief of the People’s Army of China.

Full confidence must be placed in the party leadership, we are told, as they must be trusted to execute all programmes and plans of the party. The ongoing improvement of the party officials is also another key component and remains an ongoing exercise. The leadership must always lead by example.

Fighting corruption in the party

Next we moved on to how the fight against corruption is being managed by the party. Discipline goes hand in hand with anti-corruption practices, we are informed in one of our sessions at the Party Political School. If you want to build a clean party, you have to deal with corrupt officials decisively.

An example of a basket of apples is made, which in essence says that if you have a bad apple in the basket, removing that apple will not deal with the underlying causes of the problem. Instead, you should move the entire basket to a more conducive environment where the humidity is right, so that all the apples remain in good condition.

And just in case you did not get the metaphor, a further example is given, this time about flies, tigers and foxes. With regards to the swatting of the fly, it is said that if you don’t swat the individual fly, more flies will gather. And together they can be a formidable force to reckon with. Foxes, refer to party and government officials who have engaged in corrupt practices and have opted to flee the country before facing the wrath of the party. The party leadership actively pursues those and returns them to China in order to stand accused of their crimes. Usually, the punishment is death.

The same retribution must be meted out against the leadership collective of the Party in order to set an example. After all, we are told that ideological and political education is key to fostering party discipline and ethical behaviour of all members. The session is concluded with the simple realisation that all party leaders must be servant leaders and not harbour ambitions of wealth creation and accumulation while in office.

Party discipline

A further session then deals with the very reality of party discipline, which we are informed can be categorised into six sections.

Improving the purity in the party is achieved through ideological purity, organisational purity, work style purity and political purity. The first basically says that there must be no ideological confusion among the members of the CPC.

This is a very big challenge for the ANC at the moment, where there is simply no clarity or purity around what exactly the ideological orientation of the ANC is today. Yes, we are and remain engaged in the National Democratic Revolution but to what end? A capitalist dispensation, a socialist one perhaps, or have we finally decided that we are indeed moving towards a social democratic system?

This is most important since the path you agree upon (how) must lay the necessary foundation for whatever the end desired dispensation ought to be. Confusion simply means we will be lost forever, moving in circles and not being able to deliver on the triple challenges faced by our poor and destitute — unemployment, inequality and poverty.

The second is organisational purity, which means that there must be a clean party, clean from corrupt officials first and foremost. There must be a leadership collective and core trusted by the people, but also unified in its objectives. That remains transparent and accountable to the country. It means that the constitution of the organisation/party must be adhered to at all times and that party rules and procedures are enforced.

The third is work style, and what is referred to here is selflessness, volunteerism and servant leader mentality. The “Batho Pele” principles that the government refers to must become the real mantra of the public service. Leaders must stop thinking that government is a short cut to self-enrichment and aggrandisement.

And finally, political purity refers to constant political education and training, so that members and leaders of the party can have clarity concerning unity of purpose. In the case of the Communist Party of China it is to strive towards the realisation of the three guidelines of Mao as outlined above, while for the ANC it is to strive towards the realisation of a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. That was the first of the six sections.

The second is Restraint of membership. The restraints referred to here are twofold — the Confucian way of living one’s life and the the outside restraints, the laws of the country. Confucius dictates that personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity are all qualities one should aspire to. But in addition to this one must also obey the laws of the land and the internal discipline of the party’s regulations. Party members must do this and also promote the values of the party.

The third is what is known as top line and bottom line of the Communist Party of China. Simply put, the top leadership of the party must lead by example lest they also face the party internal disciplinary processes. They are not exempt. How we punish and deal with the top leadership means a lot for the bottom line.

The fourth is top structure plan and detail bottom plan, led from the top, having agreed on a high-level plan (strategic) and cascading downwards.

The fifth is political education. I have already mentioned this, but the lecturer could not overemphasise this element. I’m reminded of an old proverb: “Practice without theory is blind and theory without practice is suicide.”

Finally, the last section is intra-party ecology, which simply means that the party-political left review one anther routinely and share constructive criticism where needed, so that the necessary corrective measures can be implemented.

Self-improvement from within the party is strongly encouraged. This, they argue, can only strengthen the party in the long run. I suggest the ANC also take heed of this one, since for the longest time over the last 10 years or so in the ANC one could hardly criticise, let alone disagree with party leadership. Let’s hope we will take some lessons from this.

So you see when I say it has been rather cerebral and intellectually stimulating to say the least. Too many questions still persist and satisfactory answers are not always forthcoming, but what I’m sure about is this. When Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher, tells the “global left” that they must stop criticising only capitalism, but rather must think so as to come up with a workable alternative system, I think that is exactly what Deng Xiaoping did in 1978.

He realised that socialism cannot mean the equal and inclusive distribution of poverty, and hence came to the inescapable conclusion that the market must play a part in the development agenda of any nation.

A socialist market economy is thus the result, and it is referred to as socialism with Chinese characteristics. Deng, like Mao, foresaw and realised that the Soviet-style system under Lenin which placed emphasis on central state control of the entire economy is what led to its final downfall and hence another approach was needed.

I can tell you it is not a perfect system by any stretch of the imagination, but as you very well know, so too is capitalism. DM


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