What’s happening in China? The US consensus seems to be that President Xi Jinping is upending the place. Yet, midway through an expected ten-year term China’s communist party general secretary delivered a report to the 19th Party Congress that reiterated all the language, ideas and policies that the Chinese communists have used to govern the country since the mid-1980s. The most remarkable thing about Xi’s China is that it hasn’t changed at all.
China remains a socialist country. Xi’s not only proud of that, he’s confident that continuing to follow the socialist road will put China on the right side of history. What makes his tenure at the top seem different is that he’s unapologetically elevated ideology over policy. In Chairman Mao’s parlance, Xi is a little more red than expert.
But that doesn’t mean he’s changed Chinese policy. Internationally, Xi reported China remains open to the outside world. Domestically, his government remains committed to economic and political reform. It may not be the kind of openness or the type of reform US officials hoped for, but US expectations for China have always been based on a different view of history. Even after the Chinese leadership used lethal military force to suppress nationwide public demonstrations in June of 1989, most US observers still believed that international engagement, market economics and the rise of the Chinese middle class would eventually lead to the fall of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the emergence of a multi-party Chinese democracy. Instead, if Xi’s report is to be believed, Chinese socialism has emerged from the crucible of Tiananmen Square stronger than it was before.
Continuity and Change in Communist China
The last time China really changed was when Mao died. Mao believed that global revolution was right around the corner and that China was ready for a rapid transformation to communism. The leaders who inherited the party in Mao’s wake, especially Deng Xiaoping, saw the world and China’s place within it very differently. At home, China was only in the beginning stages of a transformation to socialism that would take a very long time. And as the party set about engineering that incremental transformation, China would need to engage the world as it was rather than imagining they would change it. Deng told his comrades they needed to be humble as they worked to fulfill their Chinese socialist dream to modernize the country and restore Chinese influence in the world.
Xi Jinping’s report does not stray too far from that advice. China’s made a lot of progress since Deng died twenty years ago, but it is still, according to Xi, in the early stages of a long-term transformation to socialism. China’s progress may have elevated its position in the world, and given China a greater say in international governance, but there is nothing in Xi’s report about China leading a movement to upend the global status quo.
Xi does believe that Chinese socialism can set an example for the rest of the world to follow, and that more active Chinese participation can help transform the international order. As a committed Marxist, Xi should believe an eventual transition to a socialist global order is inevitable. But in the short term, Xi’s China appears squarely focused on the fifth of humanity that lives within its borders, where good governance is at a crossroads, crippled by endemic corruption rooted in the attitudes and behavior of party cadres who’ve lost the faith. Xi’s project, if you take his party congress report at face value, seems to be to save Chinese socialism and consolidate its gains, not to change it.
Implications for the United States
Is a consolidated and internationally persuasive Chinese socialism a threat to the United States? Unfortunately, that’s a question many US analysts and officials are no longer inclined to address. During the Maoist era, when China was “more red than expert,” there was greater US interest in the content of Chinese socialism. Today, US observers tend to view the CCP leadership’s repeated recitations of its socialist principles and practices as propaganda masking personal or national ambitions.
US commentaries on Xi’s speech reflect this. Most of them interpret Xi’s campaign against corruption as a personal quest to consolidate power rather than a campaign to save Chinese socialism. Instead of taking Xi and his recent predecessors at their word and seeing the principal aim of their post-1980s efforts as the achievement of a “moderate level of prosperity” for China‘s 1.4 billion, many US observers see this as an attempt to hide the CCP’s real aim, which they believe is kicking the United States out of Asia and supplanting US dominance of the region. For Americans, the contest between the United States and China is perceived as an historic struggle between rising and falling national powers rather than competing ideologies.
If Xi is a budding dictator leading a nationalist political organization focused on replacing the United States at the top of a global hierarchy then US policy makers should be concerned. But what if the Chinese dream articulated in Xi’s report to the 19th Party Congress is a fair representation of the CCP’s ambitions? Should the United States be alarmed? The answer is not obvious and the question seems to deserve greater consideration.
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