Reforming China’s State-Market Balance


Joseph Stiglitz, ChinaBy Joseph Stiglitz

Social Europe Journal

March 3, 2014- No country in recorded history has grown as fast – and moved as many people out of poverty – as China over the last thirty years. A hallmark of China’s success has been its leaders’ willingness to revise the country’s economic model when and as needed, despite opposition from powerful vested interests. And now, as China implements another series of fundamental reforms, such interests are already lining up to resist. Can the reformers triumph again?

In answering that question, the crucial point to bear in mind is that, as in the past, the current round of reforms will restructure not only the economy, but also the vested interests that will shape future reforms (and even determine whether they are possible). And today, while high-profile initiatives – for example, the government’s widening anti-corruption campaign – receive much attention, the deeper issue that China faces concerns the appropriate roles of the state and the market.

When China began its reforms more than three decades ago, the direction was clear: the market needed to play a far greater role in resource allocation. And so it has, with the private sector far more important now than it was. Moreover, there is a broad consensus that the market needs to play what officials call a “decisive role” in many sectors where state-owned enterprises (SOEs) dominate. But what should its role be in other sectors, and in the economy more generally?

Many of China’s problems today stem from too much market and too little government. Or, to put it another way, while the government is clearly doing some things that it should not, it is also not doing some things that it should.

Worsening environmental pollution, for example, threatens living standards, while inequality of income and wealth now rivals that of the United States and corruption pervades public institutions and the private sector alike. All of this undermines trust within society and in government – a trend that is particularly obvious with respect to, say, food safety.

Such problems could worsen as China restructures its economy away from export-led growth toward services and household consumption. Clearly, there is room for growth in private consumption; but embracing America’s profligate materialist life-style would be a disaster for China – and the planet. Air quality in China is already putting peoples’ lives at risk; global warming from even higher Chinese carbon emissions would threaten the entire world.

There is a better strategy. For starters, Chinese living standards could and would increase if more resources were allocated to redress large deficiencies in health care and education. Here, government should play a leading role, and does so in most market economies, for good reason.

America’s privately-based health-care system is expensive, inefficient, and achieves far worse outcomes than those in European countries, which spend far less. A more market-based system is not the direction in which China should be going. In recent years, the government has made important strides in providing basic health care, especially in rural areas, and some have likened China’s approach to that of the United Kingdom, where private provision is layered atop a public base. Whether that model is better than, say, French-style government-dominated provision may be debated. But if one adopts the UK model, the level of the base makes all the difference; given the relatively small role of private health-care provision in the UK, the country has what is essentially a public system.

Likewise, though China has already made progress in moving away from manufacturing toward a service-based economy (the GDP share of services exceeded that of manufacturing for the first time in 2013), there is still a long way to go. Already, many industries are suffering from overcapacity, and efficient and smooth restructuring will not be easy without government help.

China is restructuring in another way: rapid urbanization. Ensuring that cities are livable and environmentally sustainable will require strong government action to provide sufficient public transport, public schools, public hospitals, parks, and effective zoning, among other public goods.

One major lesson that should have been learned from the post-2008 global economic crisis is that markets are not self-regulating. They are prone to asset and credit bubbles, which inevitably collapse – often when cross-border capital flows abruptly reverse direction – imposing massive social costs.

America’s infatuation with deregulation was the cause of the crisis. The issue is not just the pacing and sequencing of liberalization, as some suggest; the end result also matters. Liberalization of deposit rates led to America’s savings and loan crisis in the 1980’s. Liberalization of lending rates encouraged predatory behavior that exploited poor consumers. Bank deregulation led not to more growth, but simply to more risk.

China, one hopes, will not take the route that America followed, with such disastrous consequences. The challenge for its leaders is to devise effective regulatory regimes that are appropriate for its stage of development.

That will require the government to raise more money. Local governments’ current reliance on land sales is a source of many of the economy’s distortions – and much of the corruption. Instead, the authorities should boost revenue by imposing environmental taxes (including a carbon tax), a more comprehensive progressive income tax (including capital gains), and a property tax. Moreover, the state should appropriate, through dividends, a larger share of SOEs’ value (some of which might be at the expense of these firms’ managers.)

The question is whether China can maintain rapid growth (though somewhat slower than its recent breakneck pace), even as it reins in credit expansion (which could cause an abrupt reversal in asset prices), confronts weak global demand, restructures its economy, and fights corruption. In other countries, such daunting challenges have led to paralysis, not progress.

The economics of success is clear: higher spending on urbanization, health care, and education, funded by increases in taxes, could simultaneously sustain growth, improve the environment, and reduce inequality. If China’s politics can manage the implementation of this agenda, China and the entire world will be better off.

© Project Syndicate

Category : China | Green Economy | Marxism | Socialism | Blog

‘China is not an East Germany writ large awaiting a color revolution, as perceived by many in the West. Rather, it is a civilizational state, an amalgam of the world’s longest continuous civilization with a huge modern state, which is also a product of hundreds of states amalgamated into one over its long history’

By Zhang Weiwei
China Daily, March 12, 2014


Is China’s extraordinary rise a model of economic reform without political reform? Is China’s Achilles’ heel its political system? Is China’s one-party governance doomed in the face of mounting challenges from a more diversified economy and demanding society?

China’s political governance, adapting itself constantly to new challenges through many minor reforms, has proven crucial for China’s economic success.

These are questions in many Western minds whenever China is mentioned. But the assumptions behind these questions may be misplaced, as one’s understanding of China could be vastly different if a Chinese perspective were adopted. China’s political governance, adapting itself constantly to new challenges through many minor reforms, has proven crucial for China’s economic success. The following five aspects of China’s political governance merit special attention:

First, one-party governance. In fact, there is nothing new about one-party governance in China: in most of the past two millennia since its first unification in 221 BC, China almost always practiced a kind of one-party rule, or rule by a unified Confucian ruling elite selected through public exams (the Keju), claiming to represent — or genuinely representing — most if not all under heaven. Furthermore, in most of the one-party-rule era, China was arguably a better governed country and a more prosperous economy than Europe of the same epoch. China only began to lag behind Europe when it closed its door to the outside world and missed the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, but the country is now catching up fast.

The Communist Party of China has to a great extent followed this tradition and built an impressive system of selecting its leaders based on merit and performance. For instance, its top decision-makers (6 out of 7 Politburo’s Standing Committee members) all worked at least twice as much as party secretaries or governors at the provincial level, which means they have on average administered a population of about 100 million before being promoted to their current positions in Beijing.

The CPC today, like its predecessors in China’s long past, also claims to represent the whole nation, but with a mission to restore the country’s premier world-class status. Key independent surveys, including those by the Pew or the Asian Barometer over the past decade, show a consistent pattern in which the Chinese central authorities command a high degree of respect and support (above 75 percent) within the country. Depicting China’s polity as being on the verge of collapse, as appears so often in the Western media, is out of touch with China’s reality.


Category : Capitalism | China | Socialism | Blog



By Heiko Khoo

March 6, 2014 – The leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC) view the battle against corruption as a struggle of life and death that will determine China’s fate. The Party’s capacity to control the abuse of power is the defining issue that will shape future relations between the Party and the masses. To avoid the type of collapse that brought down Communist Party rule in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the CPC must stamp out corruption and empower the working masses to create a socialist future.

Last year, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, vowed that the "color of red China will never change." Strict measures to clean up the behavior of officials were released and enforced, and many displays of official extravagance eradicated. Xi explained, "The Party cadres should be firm followers of Communist ideals, true believers of Marxism and devoted fighters for the socialism with Chinese characteristics." State and Party leaders initiated the campaign by self-criticism and pledged their support for the "mass-line:" to connect as closely as possible with the masses and promote a frugal, honest, hardworking and clean government.

Xi explained that an understanding of revolutionary history is the "best nutrient" for Party members. In Mao Zedong’s time, China’s revolutionaries and state functionaries were known worldwide for their Spartanic lifestyles and their closeness to the masses. Wage inequality was minimal and a collectivist spirit pervaded society. This anchored communist ethics deep in the minds of workers and peasants. So, even when catastrophic policy errors occurred, the Party could draw on deep wells of social support. The people and Party believed they were transforming China, and that the world was moving towards a communist future.

Deng Xiaoping’s policies permitted markets, foreign investment and indigenous private ownership. This provided access to foreign capital and technology and actually developed indigenous capital: generating the most rapid modernization — as well as economic growth and reduction in poverty — of any major economy in world history. This happened because the CPC retained its control over the macro economy by means of the public ownership of the banks and the commanding heights of the economy.

However, the accompanying rise in inequality produced grotesque disparities in life styles and opportunities. Urban life in China appeared to become similar to that of many developing capitalist countries: beggars and billionaires pass each other in the country’s great cities; capitalists in Ferraris race past migrant workers who build five star hotels on poverty wages. However, in the minds of broad layers of the working classes, capitalism is associated with technical advance and dynamic development. The working class has become China’s largest social class. Workers with urban registration have adjusted to new forms of global, private and state capital investment, as well as to new types of employment. Migrant workers have been drawn into the global chain of production and consumption.


Category : Capitalism | China | Socialism | Blog

Using Coops and Other Ownership Forms to Build Upon the Foundations Began by Hugo Chavez

[Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal urges its readers to consider taking out a subscription to Monthly Review, where this article first appeared.]

By Michael Lebowitz

March 2014 — Monthly Review — It is now one year since the unfortunate death of Hugo Chávez on March 5, 2013. Shortly after, the editors of Monthly Review quoted a letter from István Mészáros to John Bellamy Foster which described Chávez as “one of the greatest historical figures of our time” and “a deeply insightful revolutionary intellect” (“Notes from the Editors” in the May 2013 Monthly Review). Whether Chávez will be remembered over time this way, however, depends significantly on whether we build upon the foundations he began.

As important as his vision and his deep understanding of the necessary path (so clearly demonstrated by his focus upon communal councils as the basis of a new socialist state—“the most vital revolutionary achievement in these years,” as the editors indicated) was Chávez’s ability to communicate both vision and theory in a clear and simple way to the masses. As demonstrated by Chávez’s articulation of the concept of “the elementary triangle of socialism,” that is what revolutionaries must learn to do.

Following Marta Harnecker’s long interview with Chávez (later published as Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution by Monthly Review Press), he asked her to come to Venezuela in 2003 to serve as his advisor and explained that he wanted someone around him who would not hesitate to criticize him. And that’s how we ended up in Venezuela. At the beginning of 2004, I became an adviser to the Minister of the Social Economy and, during that year, Marta and I became convinced that it would be important to create a center which could bring together foreign advisors who supported the Bolivarian Revolution. Accordingly, she proposed to Chávez that an institute be established for this purpose; he agreed, and, after we assembled people and found a home for the Institute (ultimately in the Ministry of Higher Education), the Centro Internacional Miranda (CIM) was formed in early 2006.

Since it was clear that Chávez would be re-elected in December and would be thinking seriously about directions for the new mandate, those of us involved in CIM decided to prepare a series of papers proposing initiatives which we felt could advance the process of building socialism in Venezuela. Although several of us engaged in these discussions, ultimately only three of the CIM directors (Marta Harnecker, Haiman El Troudi, and I) completed papers for transmission to Chávez in early December. In what follows, I include an excerpt from one paper I prepared plus a second paper subsequently developed in response to Chávez’s reaction to the first.1

Building new productive relations now

Everyone understands that it is impossible to achieve the vision of socialism for the twenty-first century in one giant leap forward. It is not simply a matter of changing property ownership. This is the easiest part of building the new world. Far more difficult is changing productive relations, social relations in general, and attitudes and ideas.


Category : Cooperatives | Marxism | Socialism | Venezuela | Blog

Still Waiting for Their Half of the Sky

By Yang Yang

China Daily

Feb 17, 2014 – has been made, gender stereotypes and a lack of specific laws continue to foster discrimination against women. [China Daily]

While progress has been made, gender stereotypes and a lack of specific laws continue to foster discrimination against women, Yang Yang finds out.

In 1968, Mao Zedong presented an inspiring vision of the role of women in society when he declared they "hold up half the sky".

His words have resonated across the decades, inspiring many Chinese women to aspire to greater heights of personal achievement, both at home and in the workplace.

But lingering sexist attitudes – leftovers from a patriarchal past – and outright gender discrimination in education continue to impede their progress.

Undeniably, significant improvements have been made for women, and in today’s China people frequently mention gender equality in a variety of contexts including education and employment – not just when the unavoidable biological reality of childbirth comes up.

Yet, on the whole, women remain at a disadvantage and there is still a long way to go, according to advocates for women’s rights.

For them, nothing demonstrated that fact more clearly than remarks by a male member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Guangdong province in January.

In a discussion with other members, Luo Biliang, a distinguished professor, compared women to a commercial product with a limited shelf life. Studying for a doctorate degree would devalue a woman, he said, if she has failed to sell herself to a husband in a timely fashion.

Women, especially educated ones, were incensed by the comment.

Adding fuel to the fire, another male CPPCC member, Chen Riyuan, also a professor, said that if a woman seeking to enter an advanced degree program had no husband or boyfriend, he would advise her to get one before taking the entrance examination.

Such insertions of marriage into virtually any discussion involving women is commonplace in China, where cultural expectations and assumptions run deep – so deep that many people don’t even notice the built-in patronizing sexism that separates women from men.


Category : China | Socialism | Women | Blog

Can Mao and Deng Be Merged into One Path?

China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 1

January 9, 2014

By: David Cohen

Chinese President Xi Jinping honored the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth on December 26, using the occasion to speak at length about the significance of the founder of the People’s Republic in Chinese and Party history (Xinhua, December 26). The speech was generally laudatory but made brief references to his “mistakes”: launching the Cultural Revolution and, in a possible reference to the Great Leap Forward, “simply copying Leninist theory and imitating the experience of Russia’s October Revolution, causing grave harm to the Chinese Revolution.” However, Xi quoted Deng Xiaoping’s verdict on the legacy of Mao to argue that his failures came second to his achievements: uniting the Chinese nation and achieving its independence, solving “difficult problems about the relationship of the Party and the people,” and establishing the “basic socialist system.”

The speech is Xi’s most detailed effort yet to explain the legacy of Mao, and it demonstrates two important aspects of his vision for China: first, that his alternating evocations of Mao and Deng do not represent vacillation, but an effort to reconcile the “two undeniables” of Chinese politics. As Xi put it in the speech, deploying a slogan: “Without Reform and Opening, there could be no China today; if we abandon this path, China can have no tomorrow” (for more on the speech, see “Xi invokes Mao’s image to boost his own authority” in this issue of China Brief).

Second, the speech—and, even more, its explication in the Party’s ideological journals—suggest strongly that Xi’s vision of China’s future has been shaped by the group of academics known as the “New Left.” The group is associated with nostalgia for Mao and especially with Bo Xilai’s experiments in Chongqing—making the resurgence of the New Left’s ideas after Bo’s downfall all the more interesting. In attempting to understand his plans for China’s future, his borrowings from Mao should be read not as ersatz efforts to justify policy, but as belonging to an established discussion about the future of China’s social and political systems.

The New Left—a controversial name rejected by many of the academics to whom it is applied—emerged in the 1990s as a criticism of unfettered capitalism, and emerged as a major player in the Hu Jintao-era debates about the idea of a “China model.” Essays such as Wang Hui’s (Tsinghua University) “Contemporary Chinese Thought and the Question of Modernity” expressed reservations about the dislocations of rapid economic change, while Pan Wei’s (Peking University) “Toward a Consultative Rule of Law Regime in China” examined Hong Kong and Shanghai to envision a future without Western-style democracy (Tianya, Issue 5, 1997; Journal of Contemporary China, Volume 12, Issue 34, 2003).

While the movement contains a great deal of ideological diversity—including some adherents sympathetic to forms of representative democracy—it is generally defined by an effort to challenge the account of the Reform and Opening Era as one of salvation from failed policies. Rather, they argue, the legacies of Mao and Deng are complementary: where Mao provided equality and a strong, “spiritual” version of Chinese identify, Deng and his successors created a powerful economic base at the cost of social and spiritual dislocation. They deploy Marxist dialectics to argue for a reconciliation, describing Mao and Deng as a thesis and antithesis in need of synthesis. In a particularly ambitious version of this story, Wang Shaoguang’s 2010 article on “Socialism 3.0,” the author observes that Mao’s rule and the period of Reform and Opening initiated by Deng had each lasted for 30 years—inviting China’s leaders to declare a new era uniting the two (for more on this, see “Socialism 3.0 in China,” The Diplomat, April 25, 2011; original article republished in English in China 3.0, European Council on Foreign Relations 2012).

While this school of thought was closely associated with Bo Xilai’s policies in Chongqing—Wang proposed them as a model for the next stage of socialism in China, while the distinguished New Left academic Cui Zhiyuan joined Bo’s government as an official—the careers of its proponents do not seem to have been adversely affected by his downfall, in contrast to the recent firings of liberal intellectuals associated with Charter 08, such as Peking University Professor Xia Yeliang (South China Morning Post, October 20).

Explanations of Xi’s speech in Party ideological journals, and of his earlier mentions of the “two undeniables,” reflect this account of Party history. A November 8 article in People’s Daily, signed by the CCP Central Committee Party History Research Department, provided a guide to help readers “Correctly Deal With Both Historical Periods Before and After Reform and Opening,” a theme that has been heavily emphasized in the last weeks as journals such as Qiushi (Seeking Truth) and Hongqi (Red Flag) have published articles on Xi’s speech, covering the historical appraisal of Mao, a “30-year Vision for China’s future” (an interview with Pan Wei), and “The China Road and the Chinese Communist Party” (Qiushi, December 9, 2013; January 1).

Xi’s New Year’s address to the nation likewise played upon themes drawn from New Left literature, with the title “Making a More Just and Equal Society” (Xinhua, December 31, 2013).

The ideas of the New Left are visible not only in Xi’s rhetoric but in his political efforts—his emphasis on national confidence and the unique historical circumstances of the “China Dream” and his combining economic reform with Maoist rectification. Looking at Pan Wei’s 2003 article may even help to understand the conundrum of the rise of “rule of law” rhetoric coming at the same time as a crackdown on advocacy of “constitutional government.”

If Xi is using New Left theory as a political guide, the current ideological crackdown is unlikely to be lessened, and indeed we may expect to see greater efforts at mass participation. Democratic political reform and large-scale privatization of state-owned industries will likely remain off the table. However, a certain set of long-promised reforms, targeting social inequality, corruption, and the privileges enjoyed by the Communist elite and state businesses, may play a central role in Xi’s plans for the future.

Category : China | Marxism | Socialism | Blog

By Gavin Mendel-Gleason & James O’Brien

January 1, 2014

(Part I of II, for Part II see: ‘The Strategy of Attrition:
Conquest or Destruction of the State?’ further down)


Right from its beginnings in early 19th century, socialism has been bedevilled by debates over strategy in a way that right-wing ideologies have not. Would salvation come, as Fourier dreamed, from wealthy benefactors funding new communist colonies or maybe, as Proudhon envisaged, through workers founding their own mutualist enterprises and bypassing politics altogether? Or perhaps a more aggressive stance was necessary, as advocated by the proto-syndicalist wing of the British Chartist movement in the 1830s, who even then were cognisant of workers’ leverage at the point of production and supported the use of a Grand National Holiday — aka a general strike. Or was the mainstream Chartist emphasis on political action, i.e. taking control of state-power after having won universal suffrage be the centre of socialist activity the best way forward.

These strands and more were already manifest in England, then the most advanced capitalist country, in the 1830s — a long time ago. And they remain with us to this day because the problem to which they attempted to solve, namely minority rule, remains very much with us. The various tendencies correspond to available oppositional niches in a society dominated by capitalist production and therefore elite influence.

It seems obvious that an adroit mixture of the strategies, one which combined the strength of labour, the potential wealth of co-ops and the leverage of mass parties, is the goldilocks of political strategies and indeed that is the position we advocate. However, once we get into the details the obvious quickly becomes very blurry indeed. It’s hardly surprising that socialists have lacked the clarity of the right-wing since they, unlike us, are in driving seat and don’t need to change a whole lot while we are searching for a way to achieve our goals.

And it turns out that a combined arms strategy of unions, co-ops, and political party is not, in fact, the dominant orientation on the radical left, and has not been since 1917, at least in the English speaking world. There are, for example, proponents of an exclusively non-state orientation and there are supporters of political means, but who both deny that co-operatives can play a meaningful role before the working class has seized power and that tightly knit revolutionary groups are the key to success.

In this essay we are going to focus on the political arena and make case for a robust mass party strategy that aims to win political power via democratic elections, and only touch upon the role of trade unions and co-ops.

The Democratic Road

The case for choosing the democratic road is best teased out in comparison with alternative approaches, which for our purposes is going to mostly be the strategy of insurrection pursued by Anarchists and Trotskyists that is common amongst the revolutionary groups in the Anglo-phone world.

If the basic strategic choices first emerged in the 1830s, they became permanent features of the political landscape in the era of the First International (1864 – 1873) when the Anarchists and the Marxists parted ways replete with their own theoretical justifications. The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, which saw the emergence of workers’ councils, moved the debate from being one that separated Anarchists and Marxists and landed it into the heart of Marxism itself.

Let us lay our cards on the table at the outset: the political strategy advocated here involves attempting to win state power in the advanced capitalist countries through legal means, taking the democratic road if you will. In practice, this involves winning a majority through competition in elections which are broadly considered free and fair.

However, a simple description of this approach isn’t sufficient. In order to evaluate its worth, we need to compare it to alternatives, of which there is no shortage, from anti-consumerism, to back to nature primitivism, NGO lobbying, Third Worldism, and Occupyesque protesting to name some of the lesser lights. For reasons of space, we’re going to limit the alternative to the principal one offered by revolutionary socialists since 1917: the smashing of the existing state and its replacement by participatory workers councils, i.e. the primary strategy offered by both the Trotskyists and the Anarchists. Moreover, we need a way of choosing between the alternatives. As the debate between them has gone on since the days of the First International, it seems likely that both sides have valid points to make. For instance, James Bierly, in a recent article on the North Star catalogued the many practical advantages of electoralism, such as the opportunities to engage with regular people that simply aren’t there when you are hawking the Socialist Worker at a demonstration. On the other hand, the anti-parliamentary left highlights the limitations of parliament in being able to bring capital under control given the strength of the unelected bureaucracy.


Category : Capitalism | Fascism | Organizing | Socialism | Strategy and Tactics | Blog

Chairman Mao Zedong (L) signs a copy of his Little Red Book for Sidney Rittenberg (R) in Beijing, 1966. (Sidney Rittenberg)

By Matt Schiavenza

The Atlantic

From 1944, when the 23-year-old Sidney Rittenberg first arrived in China with the U.S. Army, to his departure 35 years later, no other foreign national played as important a role in the country. A Chinese linguist and Communist sympathizer, Rittenberg served as a friend, confidante, translator, and journalist for the Communist Party leadership after first encountering them at their Yan’an base in 1946. During the first three decades of P.R.C. history, Rittenberg enjoyed remarkable influence in a country largely closed off to the outside world. However, his high profile came at a grave cost: He was imprisoned twice and held in solitary confinement for a total of 16 years.

Now 92, Rittenberg remains a sharp observer of contemporary China, commenting often about the country that has defined his personal and professional life. A genial man with an easy laugh, Rittenberg betrays little bitterness about his years in China, which he wrote about in his memoir The Man Who Stayed Behind, and has continued to visit since his return to the U.S. In a wide-ranging phone conversation with me last month, Rittenberg recounted his personal memories of Chairman Mao Zedong, born 120 years ago today, and why he believes that, through forging an early alliance with the Chinese leader, the United States might have avoided both the Korean and Vietnam wars. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

When did you actually first meet Chairman Mao in person?

It was October 20-something in 1946. I’d just come over land to Yan’an [the Communist Party home base in Shaanxi Province] from Inner Mongolia, and after arriving, I was immediately taken to the weekly dance in the Party headquarters building. When we opened the door to go in, Mao was dancing in the middle of the floor. He saw me and stopped dancing, and after I shook his hand he said, “We’d like to welcome an American comrade to join in our work.” Then, he took me over by the side of the hall and sat me down on a chair, and immediately said that he wanted to invite me to his place and spend a day or two just talking about America. The interesting thing here is—and this is confirmed by Li Zhishui, the doctor who wrote the book on Mao’s personal life—America was the only foreign country that really fascinated and interested him and was one he greatly admired. He would invite left-wing Americans to his place and sit and chat. To my knowledge, he didn’t invite foreign experts of any other nationality—just the Americans.

Why do you think he had such a fascination with America and Americans?

Mao’s modern education began when he went to high school in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan Province. There, he had a very enlightened liberal teacher, one whose daughter he actually married, who taught him about Rousseau, Franklin, Jefferson, and so on, and those first foreign thinkers really interested him. In fact, Mao related somewhere that he once thought Jeffersonian democracy was the future for China. Eventually, he came to believe that foreign backers would not permit China to evolve into a Western-style democracy, and that’s when he turned to Lenin.

What were your impressions of him? What was he like? Was he as charismatic as people say?

He was only charismatic because of the strength of his mind and his ability to put complicated political thinking into very colorful, popular language—which is a talent that seems to be totally lost in China these days. But, you know, he was no Fidel Castro. He was no orator. He didn’t keep people spell-bound—he was a rather slow and bumbling speaker. But the way he analyzed things was fascinating. And he was always careful to make it very simple, to put things in popular terms, not like the mind-numbing stuff that began coming out later.

You know, it was interesting: When you sat and talked with him, he was laid back. He talked as though everything was just a casual conversation and very humorous. Anyone who was talking with him in my experience would be constantly in stitches laughing, and he’d laugh too. So he gave the impression of a kind of sage from the backwoods, who was a great analyzer and a great talker. Nothing threatening at all, nothing tough.

What was the relationship like between Mao and [Chinese premier] Zhou Enlai? Was Zhou more sophisticated and more urbane? Did they balance each other well?

They were totally different. Zhou was a very gregarious, urbane person, an organizational genius who could do two or three different things at the same time without getting mixed up. In the early 1930s, Zhou had led the attack on Mao as one of the students Stalin had sent back from Moscow to run the Chinese Communist Party. But after the near-obliteration of the Red Army—when they took its remnants and started the Long March— Zhou decided that Mao had been right about the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare and dropped his opposition and made up his mind that from now on, he was going to follow Mao—and he did. He acted as Mao’s chief of staff: Whatever the leading team decided, Zhou would be in charge of executing the decision. He was an organizational genius, no question about it. Everyone respected him and looked up to him.

Was Deng Xiaoping a major figure in the Party by this time, or did he emerge later?

Deng only emerged later, really. He came to prominence in the Chinese Civil War, when he was the number one political commissar of the great field armies that wiped out or captured most of Chiang Kai-Shek’s elite troops. He was a little man who carried out Mao’s strategic concepts. Mao would send him a document on how to wage the campaign strategically, and Deng was in charge of making sure it was carried out. You know, one of Deng’s great advantages politically—and it probably saved his life in the Cultural Revolution—was that in the 1930s, he was persecuted for supporting Mao against Stalin’s people. Mao never forgot that. So, in the Cultural Revolution, Liu Shaoqi was enemy number one, and Deng was enemy number two. But unlike Liu, who was hounded to death, Deng was protected by Mao.

How did you earn the trust of these men in the 1940s?

[Laughs] Well, you know—that’s a curious question. I’m a kind of open, direct guy, and I think they understood that I was telling them the truth, whatever I said, as I saw it. I was working with the UN relief program and doing famine relief work in the Communist area that was under the command of Li Xiannian, who later became president of the P.R.C., and Wang Zhen, who later became vice president. I was able to give them some important information about the American decision to allow Chiang Kai-Shek to wipe out Communist troops in that area. At the time, the local leaders, Li Xiannian and his colleagues, were in dispute about the intentions of General Marshall and the American role in the Chinese civil war. Some people, including the then-political commissar, felt that the Nationalists would not be allowed to attack them and wipe the Communists, who were outnumbered four or five to one in that area, out. Others believe that Marshall would let them be killed.

I got a very clear statement from General Marshall’s attache, General Henry Byroade, that the Americans were definitely going to let the Nationalists attack and annihilate these 60-70,000 Communist troops in that area.  I took that information to the local commanders, Li Xiannian and so on, it proved to be right, and they totally escaped from encirclement. And when they came back to Yan’an, they thanked me and told me how correct my information had been. And in his memoirs, Li recalls this story and my role, which he exaggerates—my role wasn’t probably the decisive factor, but it was helpful. And then, these two commanders, who were both Central Committee members, Li Xiannian and Wang Jian, became my two sponsors in joining the Chinese Communist Party.

And was this in 1946, as well?

1946. It was all in 1946.

What were the circumstances of your arrest in the 1940s? How did you run into trouble with Mao? And did Mao personally play a role in your arrest or was it someone beneath him?

No, no, no. Nobody could have touched me, or any other foreigner, without the personal approval of Mao. Couldn’t be done. What happened was, the story came out some years ago. Stalin’s foreign trade minister and one of his old Bolshevik allies, Anastas Mikoyan, otherwise known as the “Armenian rug salesman,” made a secret trip to China in 1949, I think in January. He went to

the mountains where Mao and we all were, about 100 miles from Beijing, and held a series of talks with Mao, giving him Stalin’s opinion of what was going on in China. Among the documents that he brought was a personal message from Stalin to Mao, saying that they had identified me as a member of an American spy ring, the queen bee of which was Anna Louise Strong, a friend of mine, whom they had arrested in Moscow. Stalin had her deported and recommended that the Chinese arrest me as well. Of course, they never sent any evidence because there wasn’t any.

And how long were you in prison at that time?

Six years. The first year was in total darkness. It was not good.

Did you think you’d be in prison indefinitely?

Well, I’ll tell you, not this time. That was the second time (from 1967-1977). Because after the horrible first year in darkness, the warden suddenly came and told me that they understood that I was telling the truth. They understood who I was, and that I should forget about all the accusations that were hurled at me. So he gave me two choices. I’d been hollering all along that if they were going to keep me here, let me at least read and study and make some use of my time. He said “we can’t let you go until your case is cleared up,” which I knew meant while Stalin was alive. The other option, he said, was that I could just go back to America and forget about China for the rest of my life. If I wanted to go back, they’d send me back.

But that was not an option for me. I didn’t even think about it. My health was totally broken down. I was in shambles, just trying to get back to normal life. And besides, I didn’t want to go back with this cloud over me. What was I going to do? So I said I’ll stay and study. And I did that for five more years.

And what was it like to be released? How did that happen?

[Laughs] One day, the chief keeper unlocked my little cell and came in and said, “Come with me. Someone wants to talk to you.” So I went outside and into the main prison corridor and he unlocked a little door that I had never seen open and led me in. And there was a man whom later I learned was the first leader of the Chinese version of the CIA, the state security ministry. At that time, he was a bureau chief at the ministry of public security, which was internal.

Anyway, they had a chair there. I sat down and I knew immediately something big was happening because you don’t sit counter-revolutionaries down. He then issued a formal apology in the name of the central government, and said: “We were wrong. You’re a good man. We mistreated you, we misunderstood you. We’ll do everything possible to make it up to you.” After that, we went through the process of picking jobs that I wanted to do. He said, “Well, if you want to go back to America, we’ll send you back and we’ll give you enough money to start up whatever you want to do. If you want to travel in Europe, we’ll send you to Europe. If you want to stay in China, we’ll give you a villa in the south. You won’t have to work.” And of course, that was the funny thing, because what you want most when you’re locked up in solitary is the chance to do something, to work. So anyway, I told him, I said I want to go back to doing what I was doing on the day I was arrested.

What was that?

I was working at the Xinhua news agency, correcting English, teaching a little journalism, and doing some writing and some pinch hit announcing. But mainly just helping the Chinese journalists who were working in English just straighten their stuff out.

In 1955 when you were released from prison, did your relatives and friends think you were crazy for wanting to stay in China? Did they petition for you to come back?

They knew nothing about it. They had no idea. My brother-in-law was a flying Colonel in the Marine Corps and he stuck his neck out in the McCarthy days to get the government to figure out where I was, what happened. But they were only able to find out that I was somewhere in prison. They didn’t know where or why or what. So when I got out, they still knew nothing about me. They didn’t know what was going on.

When did they learn that you were released from prison?

As far as I know, the first time they got word was when Israel Epstein, who was working in the foreign languages press in Beijing, went to America and met my niece. He told her the story and then my niece got in touch with me, and then my sister, and so on. Oh, my goodness, but by then, that was after my second arrest. By then, it was 1977. In between, they didn’t know anything about me, and I didn’t try to contact them because in those days it was tricky for an American to be in touch with, you know, “Red China,” quote, unquote. It wouldn’t have been good for them. 

Was there any criticism of Mao in the mid-50s? Was there a sense of euphoria in China at this time? When did his so-called abusive power begin, in your mind?

I think there was a fundamental change that began as he was coming into power. He gave a speech in 1949 just before the proclamation of the P.R.C. on the people’s democratic dictatorship. Previously, he said that the government of the new China would preside over a pluralistic economy. He even once said, “China doesn’t suffer from too much capitalism; it suffers from too little.” So when the new regime took power, they’d develop socialism, collective economy, private capitalism, individual artisans; six different forms of economy, altogether.

But in this 1949 speech, he shifted his emphasis to one-party dictatorship. I remember feeling aggravated at the time because I thought if the U.S. had played its cards better, maybe he wouldn’t have gone that far. We may have been able to influence the kind of government that finally formed in China. In 1946, I translated a message from Mao to the United States saying that in five years, the Communists planned to be in power in China and wanted to have normal relations with the United States by then. They knew Americans supported Chiang Kai-Shek, but that once Mao took power, that would be over.

Mao cited two reasons why he wanted normal relations. The first one was that China was in shambles: They’d been fighting wars for over a century and everything needed to be rebuilt. They needed a major input of capital. And the only country in the world, after World War II, that had that kind of money was the United States. So China want to get construction loans from the U.S. Mao added that the Chinese were not asking for a handout. They had gold and they could pay at the ongoing rates of international interest. So that was point one, which was not surprising to me.

But point two really bowled me over. He said after the Communists came to power, they didn’t want to be unilaterally dependent on the Soviet Union. They wanted to have good relations with both East and West. Mao said, of course, the Soviets were China’s comrades.  "We’re all Communists, but there are many of their viewpoints that we do not share, and we have our own way of looking at things. And we don’t want to be shut off from you, from America, and dependent on them."

I think if America had taken those remarks seriously, it could’ve been different. I even think that we may not have had to fight the wars in Korea and Vietnam. But we totally ignored it.

And was that just because of the McCarthyist spirit in the U.S., the fear of a Red China?

Yeah. It was not just McCarthy, it was people like Dean Rusk—Secretary of State [under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson], undoubtedly a man of strong principle, a good man, but very, very ideological, and, in my view, bigoted. In Rusk’s view, a Communist was a Communist was a Communist. The differences between the Chinese and the Russians were not that important.

After your first arrest from prison, how did you get involved again with Chairman Mao? How long did that process take?

Actually, I didn’t sit down and talk with him again until 1963, when I had been working for two years on the translations of his works into English. Four Americans plus Israel Epstein, who was stateless, met with Mao to discuss some questions of translation, which turned into a long talk about everything under the sun, and then dinner. And then I saw him every year after that until my arrest in 1967.

What were the circumstances of your second arrest? They were very different from the first, is that right?

Very different. My wife and I were supporting young people who were trying to dismantle the dictatorship of the proletariat and establish a kind of town hall democracy in China. And I was making speeches in support of them all over the place. And, well, Mao lost his sense of humor about it and put me back in prison. 

And you were imprisoned for how many years this time?

Ten years.

And solitary again?


My goodness.

But this was better than the first time because I knew why I was there, you know. The first time, I had no idea what I was doing there. There was this terrible hurt, this feeling of being misunderstood. But the second time, I was not being misunderstood, so it was different.

You were in prison until 1977—how did you learn about the death of Chairman Mao in ‘76?

I had the People’s Daily in prison so I had the news.

And what did you feel when Mao died? Were you relieved? Were you delighted? Were you sad? It must’ve been complicated.

No, no—I still thought he was a revolutionary leader that had answers to the world’s problems. I thought his death was this terrible loss … but you know, here’s the thing, Matt. It was very strange. When Zhou Enlai died, in January that year, I was distraught. I thought he’d been a very dear, very warm and caring friend on a personal level. And I felt like I’d lost my father almost, I really, literally sat in prison, you know, and just cried and cried.

When Mao died, intellectually, I felt that this was much more important. A much greater tragedy, this was the leader, with a capital L, who had been lost to the world. But I didn’t have a single tear. And I remember thinking to myself at the time: why is this? What’s going on? And I didn’t have the answer.

I think my emotional intelligence, if there is such a thing, was smarter than my intellect at that point. Intellectually, I mourned him, but emotionally, I didn’t.

You moved back to the United States in 1980. What prompted that decision? Did you think you were through with China? Was it exhaustion?

No, no, not at all. When I was in the Army class at Stanford in 1943, I had this idea of learning to be a bridge-builder between Americans and Chinese. If I had both languages and both cultures, I could help these two peoples understand each other and to learn to work together. So by 1980, I decided there was nothing more that I could do on the Chinese end, and I needed to go back and work from the American end. What brought it about was my disgust at the corruption that was already rampant. It wasn’t yet like it is today, but it was already very much in evidence.

I was disgusted by the fact that Deng Xiaoping, after bragging to Robert Novak about the Democracy Wall, about how the government allowed people to put up posters and express their opinion and criticize freely and so on, he shut it down once he consolidated his power. He suppressed the Democracy Wall. We had lots of young democratic activists coming to our home every weekend and we had a kind of forum discussion, and we were living at the Friendship Hotel, where most foreign experts lived, and when they came in to the hotel compound, they had to register their names. So once Deng began suppressing democratic opinion, these people were all going to be in danger. I didn’t feel that my wife and I would be in danger because they weren’t going to fool with us anymore, but I thought these kids were going to be in danger.

But mainly, I was just disgusted by the shutting down of democratic activity and the corruption, and I just said to Yulin you know, it’s time to go to America and off we went.

I imagine that when you arrived in America after 35 years, the culture shock must have been incredible.

It was such fun! When I got back, the op-ed editor of the New York Times asked me to write a piece on July 4th on how it felt to come back after being away 14 years longer than Rip Van Winkle. And I did. And you know, we got a terrific welcome from the press. I was on the Today Show the day after we got back. And, unfortunately, Tom Brokaw wasn’t there that day, so it wasn’t a great program. But, then, the next day, Linda Charlton of the New York Times wrote a feature that took up the whole of page 2. And the headline was something like: "Native Son Returns to Tell His Folks About His In-Laws." And they had a picture of Yulin and myself. Then, everything was coming up roses. That week, I was invited to go to Washington and was formally received by the assistant Secretary of State for Asia, who was Richard Holbrooke. I spent two days talking with the guys on the China desk at the State Department. Everyone was very courteous and friendly. Nobody tried to put me on the spot or ask embarrassing questions. And I felt right at home. I felt great.

It was around this time that Deng Xiaoping made his famous assessment of Mao, saying that Mao was 70 percent correct and 30 percent incorrect. How do you feel about that?

I don’t buy that. I think of it more as before and after. I think Mao was a great leader up to coming to power in 1949, and maybe for three or four years afterwards, when they carried out these great social reforms in China. You know, the eight-hour day, jobs for all the intellectuals, and eliminating opium, eliminating prostitution, equality before the law for women; just ordinary social reforms, which really were a transformation in the China of that day. 

It started going bad around 1955. Initially, he encouraged the set up of co-ops, which worked very well. Farm production went way up. It was based on continued private ownership of the land, but the farmers helped each other to till the land. The harvest yield was distributed 60 percent in terms of how much land one had, 40 percent in terms of how much work one put in, or different proportions like that.

But then, Mao got overexcited and got into his build-Rome-in-a-single-day mode. They went from the co-ops to collective farms, so the farmers who had got their own land after centuries of hunger now lost their land to the collective. But being good Chinese patriots, most of them didn’t complain about it. They went along, but farm production, per capita, never went up again until the Deng Xiaoping reforms, when the land was de-collectivized. So that’s when it all really started going bad, really. So, in other words, what I’m saying is I think of it more in terms of Mao before power and after power, rather than a particular ratio.

Do you think there was something personal that changed him? Did he get drunk with power, to use the cliche?

I do. I do think that. In 1968, I think it was, he was up at the Tiananmen gate with Edgar Snow. I was in prison then, but I read about it. He told Snow that China was mostly a peasant country and needed an emperor figure. He was endorsing the kind of adulation and emperor-worship that was going on with him at the center. I think he consciously did get drunk.

It’s strange, Matt, because before coming to power, he wrote and talked constantly about the dangers of the arrogance of power. I remember in 1944, before I got to China, he had reprinted a little pamphlet about a peasant uprising in the Ming dynasty, where the peasant leaders drove the emperor out of Xi’an and assumed the throne. But as soon as they got into power, they became drunk with power and corrupt. And they lost power very quickly. The emperor brought his armies back and chased them away. Mao ordered every functionary in the party to study the pamphlet as a guard against being corrupted by power later on. And he kept constantly preaching this kind of sermon, and yet he was corrupted by power worse than most people. 

Jung Chang in her biography of Mao in 2006 argued that he was a megalomaniac who was after more than just power of China—that he wanted world power. What do you think about that idea?

Well, first of all, in my personal opinion, I think that whole book is pretty much garbage. It’s a terribly one-sided—well not really one-sided, but a lot of it is just fiction. You know, like the story she tells about the Long March being a conspiracy hatched by Chiang Kai-Shek and Stalin, working together. It’s ridiculous. Anyway.

Did Mao want to be a more consequential figure than just the President of China? That was one of her arguments.

No, I think that’s nonsense. You know, Mao, he had two sides. One, he was a great military strategist and tactician. I could cite endless examples of brilliant strategies that most people wouldn’t even dream of.  But the other side of him was that he was a terrific individualist, and sort of an anarchical populist. I remember after the border war between China and India in 1962, Marshall Chen Yi, who was also foreign minister, came back from the Himalayas and he brought a big cobra back with him. And he invited my wife and I to come eat the snake with him. And I remember asking him, playing devil’s advocate, I said look: the Indians were beaten, you’re at the peak of the Himalayas, you could have swept down, and in 200 hundred miles, you’d be in Calcutta. So why did you turn back?

He looked at me like I was crazy. He said: Lord, we have so many problems managing China, you think we want to have to manage India? I don’t think Mao or anybody else was really interested in anything but China.

If Mao were alive today, what would he think about China’s progress? What would he think about the country? I mean, I know it’s impossible to answer in a way, but would he be satisfied? Would he be disappointed? Is today’s China what he had in mind, in a strange way?

I think it’s a two-sided thing. I’ve thought quite a lot about this, actually. He would be very proud to see the strength of the economy and the change in the world position of China. He’d be thrilled at that. On the other hand, he’d be really disgusted at the breakdown of morality and values. And I think he would be very happy with the way Xi Jinping is starting out by trying to restore some of the old values. But, at the same time, I don’t think he would be happy about the added emphasis now, after the recent Third Plenum meeting, on letting market forces decide things and getting the government increasingly out of economic management. That was certainly against his fundamental views. Of course, he might have changed.

Does it surprise you that Mao is still the face on all the Chinese banknotes, that his portrait is still at Tiananmen, that he is still revered in China?

No, not at all, because the young people that are growing up now, including young Party members, have no idea really who he was and what he wrote and what he did. All they know is he’s sort of the George Washington figure. He was the founder of the country, the unifier of the people, and so on. And that’s all they know. And I wouldn’t expect that to change in the near future.

Category : China | Democracy | Marxism | Socialism | Blog

August 16, 2013, supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi gather in the center of Cairo to protest against the clearance of demonstrators. / Xinhua

Overcoming Difficulties in the Study of Democracy

By Su Changhe

English Edition of Qiushi Journal,
Central Committee, Communist Party of China,
Vol.5 No.4 Oct 1, 2013

I. From Africa to the United States

In October 2012, I had the chance to attend the Second China-Africa Think-Tanks Forum in Africa. After the conference, I travelled to the United States to observe the presidential election there. 

At the Think-Tanks Forum in Ethiopia, I remember hearing certain African scholars go on about Africa’s civil society and democratic transition. The forum was being held in a resort compound in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Leaving the compound, it was not long before I came across impoverished everyday people living in squalor. The state in which these people were living came in stark contrast to the talk of democracy that had taken place in the conference hall. I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the huge gap between academia and the real world.

The year 2012 was a big year for elections. This election fever began with general elections in Russia and France towards the beginning of the year, and came to a conclusion with the US and Japanese elections towards the end of the year. But while it all seemed so “perfect,” a feeling of democracy “fatigue” has nonetheless set in for many people. Democratic transition has become a topic of considerable interest among scholars in China over the past few years. For over a year, I have been a regular attendant at various academic symposiums on democracy held in China. The contrast I have experienced between reality and academia has been the source of some uncertainty in my mind over popular topics concerning democracy. As a researcher of diplomacy and international relations, democracy is certainly not my field of expertise. However, I do believe that looking at democracy from the perspective of diplomacy and international relations could have a meaningful bearing on how we think about the development of democracy of various countries in the age of globalization.

II. Misconceptions in the study of democracy

The academic study of democracy has long been centered around the democratic transition of developing countries. This gives the impression that democratic transition only concerns developing countries, and that it is not an issue for developed countries. In their studies, scholars, the media, and social groups tend to subconsciously regard Western-style democracy as the sole benchmark for gauging democracy. In their minds, the so-called path to democracy for developing countries must be to follow the standard that has been set by Western-style democracy. These research tendencies have proven seriously misleading for developing countries, with many paying bitterly as a result. The number of developing countries who have sealed their own tombs with the “democracy” they tried to emulate is not small either.   

A large-scale global industry has formed around the study of democracy. Of course, the agenda of these studies has been set by a small minority of Western countries for developing countries to follow. Moreover, the benchmark for appraising democracy is determined entirely by a small handful of countries. This involves a range of appraisal mechanisms, and a contingent of campaigners who are paid by various foundations to go around the world delivering speeches and selling the case for democracy. Thus, democracy, together with the social sciences founded on its basis, is more like a propaganda tool employed by the West than anything else, and the resulting knowledge bubble is far from small. Whenever the West, driven by its own interests, plans to intervene militarily in another country in the name of “democracy” and “humanitarianism,” this propaganda tool springs into action, relentlessly labeling the country in question as authoritarian and autocratic. When this happens, the country on the receiving end is never far from civil war and chaos. Scholars of diplomacy and international relations are almost constantly looking at countries and regions that have been thrown into chaos owing to external intervention. Faced with developing countries that have descended into killing and destitution as a result of foreign intervention, any scholar versed in the basics of politics who still believes that this is due to a lack of “democracy,” or to the need to constantly enhance “democracy,” as opposed to turning to external intervention for the answers, is making an argument that cannot be justified in reason or logic.

Under the Western-style appraisal mechanisms of democracy, there is only one precondition that needs to be met for a developing country to be considered a “democracy,” or to “graduate” from the class of authoritarian countries: that country must show obedience to Western countries, and must give up its independent foreign and domestic policies. Any country that does so is immediately rewarded with “international” praise. As far as international public opinion is concerned, some countries are able to become democracies overnight. But those who do not do what they are told may find themselves being put back on the “authoritarian” list without prior warning, which is what happened to Russia several years ago. Various appraisal mechanisms are like leashes tied around the necks of developing countries and emerging markets. If one of these countries refuses to do as it is told, the holders of the leash will not hesitate to tighten the knot.    

When Chinese academics study democracy in China, they tend to subconsciously see the West as being the perfect model for democracy. Sometimes they even subconsciously place themselves on the non-democratic side of the scale, a mentality that leads to a sense of inferiority in global academic exchanges. The result is that they are unable to hold their heads high in front of their teachers. I remember one time being at an event with scholars from English-speaking countries. As per routine, they began wielding their leash, putting questions to me about censorship and freedom of speech in China. It just happened to be around the time when the Muslim world was up in arms over the film the Innocence of Muslims. I responded by asking the scholars a question: If you had even the most basic respect for the religious beliefs of others, and if you had the necessary censorship in your countries to prevent such insulting material from going public, would it not have been possible to prevent the US Ambassador to Libya from being killed? My question left them in silence. In the age of globalism, all countries must seriously consider the issue of restraint and self-restraint in the expression of public opinion. Any country failing to do so has no credibility to talk about freedom of speech. 

So, it is evident that developing countries need to free themselves from this leash. This being the case, they need to liberate their minds from overly simplistic distinctions such as “democratic and non-democratic,” and “democratic West, authoritarian non-West.” And they need to free themselves from their superiority-inferiority mentality. Only then will they genuinely be able to approach the development of democracy on the basis of their own national conditions.

III. The retrogression of Western-style democracy and the re-democratization movement

Before we are genuinely able to boast a spirit of freedom and an independent national character, we must untie ourselves from the discourse of Western-style democracy. To do this, we must first downgrade the democracy that a small number of Western countries preach from “universal knowledge” to “local knowledge.” For a considerable period of time, the US has relied on diplomatic initiatives to turn American-style democracy from local knowledge into universal knowledge. If all of the world’s countries, north, south, east, and west, were able to cherish the democracy that they have built on the basis of their own national conditions and history, and if they were able to develop a new and more advanced theory of democracy, the so-called universal theory of democracy that is currently prevalent would naturally be reduced to a local theory of democracy. Admittedly, this downgrading will be a long and drawn-out process. The most important thing, therefore, is that researchers and practitioners start on this now. 

It will be impossible for us to free ourselves from the discourse of Western-style democracy unless we are able to think independently and communicate as equals in academic activities. Do the small minority of Western countries that have always been viewed as a paradigm of democracy not have the potential for democratic transition? In other words, are the democratic systems in these countries undergoing a process of retrogression? Going a step further, at a time when academics are speculating as to which developing region will see the emergence of “democracy’s fourth wave,” I personally am more inclined to make the assumption that this next wave of democratization is most likely to appear in the West. Without reform, it is possible that the standing of Western-style democracy in human political civilization will go into decline. Of course, most academics throughout the world, especially those engaged in the study of comparative politics, are busy devoting all their energies to the lack of democracy in developing countries. Few have the courage to go out on a limb and raise the retrogression of Western-style democracy and the democratic transition that the West is facing as a serious topic for academic discussion. Do those scholars who study ways of gauging the quality of democracy dare to apply those benchmarks to developed Western countries, instead of just developing countries?

There are indeed signs that Western-style democracy is retrogressing. According to the logical reasoning that has been established by the discourse of Western-style democracy, all problems in developing countries can be attributed to a lack of democracy. The same logic also dictates that many problems in the West, such as political polarization, the alienation of the social elite from the general public, high levels of national debt, irresponsible promises by politicians, falling voter turnout, the monopolization of public opinion, and authoritarian intervention in other countries, are the result of the system of democracy having gone wrong. From the perspective of international relations, Western-style democracy has clashed with people’s hopes for a world order of peace and development since its very inception. Being established on the foundation of exclusive, territorial politics, this system allows Western countries to legitimately discharge the negativities of their domestic political systems into international politics, and show absolutely no regard for the concerns, feelings, and interests of other countries. For this reason, this system is a major source of international conflict, and a domestic obstacle preventing the responsible participation of these countries in global governance. From the perspective of international relations, seeing how the US Federal Reserve has attempted to shift the crisis with round after round of quantitative easing, any observer with a basic understanding of politics will be hard-pressed to go on believing the Wall Street theory that a central bank should form policy independently, or go on believing that the US is a responsible country.

So, scholars of comparative politics in developing countries need to start researching issues such as democratic transition and the retrogression of democracy in countries that practice Western-style democracy. On this basis, they need to provide more rational suggestions with regard to re-democratization movements in these countries—which is by no means impossible—and even establish an agenda for them in the research of democracy. Only then will scholars of comparative politics from developing countries win the respect of the international academic community.  

IV. Shifting the agenda in the study of democracy    

The retrogression and decline of Western-style democracy should come as a warning to developing countries that are still exploring their path of national development. Any country that blindly copies this system will eventually encounter the same difficulties that Western countries are experiencing today. The kind of democracy that is just a game for the rich, that causes constantly falling turnout, that forces the morality out of politics, that makes people feel small and insignificant, that is increasingly used to legally bully people, that creates conflict and division, and that gives rise to more and more “lawful” wars, is absolutely not what the human race aspires towards in the pursuit of fine politics. This kind of democracy is a disaster for human civilization, and under absolutely no circumstances can China embrace it. 

Therefore, we need to rethink the current agenda in the research of democracy, and seek to bring about a change in direction. Chinese scholars must free themselves from meaningless debate over Western-style democracy, and work hard to shift the research of democracy back in the direction of national governance, a classical topic in political science that has more of a bearing on national development.

To do this, it is worth giving more consideration to China’s democratic development on the basis of the political resources that China already boasts. The word “democracy,” which in Chinese is made up of the characters for “people” and “rule,” has its own unique meaning in the political context of China. Breaking the word down, we can see that the word has at least three closely-related meanings. The first is “rule of the country by the people,” also known as “rule by the people,” which represents the foundation of the state. The second is “rule on behalf of the people,” which implies that the government must maintain close ties with the people and rely on the people. Only on the basis of these two conditions can “the position of the people as masters of the country” be truly realized. The notion of “rule on behalf of the people,” which is manifested in a political elite that maintains close ties with the people and serves the public, is an inherent political resource that not all countries can claim to enjoy. Many political elites from developing countries go on about democracy, civil society, NGOs, and elections when they are attending international meetings, but they have little sentiment with regard to “rule on behalf of the people” and “rule by the people.” Severe alienation from the public is a common phenomenon in these countries, and it is not difficult to understand why this leads to political degradation and social unrest. Maintaining close links to the public is an important means for preserving the vitality of democracy. In China, this close bond can be attributed to two things: the spirit of compassion for the people that China’s intellectual elite has preserved since ancient times; and the mass line, a distinct form of democratic practice conceived by the Communist Party of China. In the world’s democracies, if the ruling elite becomes alienated from the people, and if democracy becomes a game for a minority of 1% who show no regard for the wellbeing of the people and who even view the votes of the poor with open contempt, then it is hardly surprising to see this so-called democracy go into decline.

Another word that requires more consideration is “election.” When we research the topic of elections, we seem to devote all our thoughts to the practice of “one person, one vote.” We make the assumption that the word election simply means to hold a popular vote. And we assume that once we have a vote, a great deal of problems will be able to be resolved with great ease. Actually, the word for “election” in Chinese is much deeper in meaning than its English equivalent, being composed of two words, “select,” and “recommend.” China’s national governance, appointments, and policy making activities involve both “selection” as well as “recommendation,” with special emphasis being given to the latter. This is the quintessence of the election system. Of the world’s successful countries, not a single one relies entirely on votes. But if we look at countries gripped in chaos, we can see that every single one demonstrates a dogmatic belief in votes. Researchers of Western politics should be aware that “recommendation” also exists widely in Europe and the US; these countries are not run solely on the basis of votes. I have always thought that we need to thoroughly study the practice of “recommendation” in the American system. There is definitely a great deal that can be learned from this. If we fail to gain a clear understanding of “recommendation,” and instead focus all our attention on the more eye-catching aspect of “votes,” we will succeed only in oversimplifying US politics. Simply learning from the “votes” aspect of politics in the US will do nothing but lead us astray as we pursue our own path of political development.

In summary, in the development of democracy from generation to generation, the role of different peoples is to inherit and then pass on ideas. Even in Africa, there are scholars who believe that Africa once had its own indigenous democracy. However, these indigenous resources were destroyed following the introduction of Western-style democracy. This is something that is worthy of deep thought. 

Contemporary Chinese scholars have the fortune of living in a historic time that is witnessing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Would we not be a laughing stock to foreign observers and our later generations if we were to totally neglect the path and system that are fuelling this drive forwards? 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.11, 2013)

The author is a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University.

Category : China | Democracy | Elections | Socialism | Blog

After the Third Plenum – A Look into the Future

By Heiko Khoo, November 17, 2013

The Third Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee reiterated that China remains "at the primary stage of socialism." The fundamental economic principle remains unswerving adherence to the dominant role of public ownership in the economy. However, markets are to be allotted "a decisive role" in the allocation of goods and resources.

How is this to be understood in a world-historical context? Marx and Engels believed that socialist revolutions would begin in the most advanced capitalist countries: France, Germany and England. They thought that most important enterprises and means of production would be taken into public ownership; and the combined technical, scientific, and material wealth of these nations would provide the basis for a society of abundance. Socialism would end the fundamental class antagonism in society — between the workers and capitalists — laying the basis for harmonious social relations and a world of plenty for all. Consequently, the state — as an instrument for repression — would be replaced by popular participation and control, and begin to wither away.

However, socialist revolutions in the 20th century broke out in countries where capitalism was not fully developed, such as Russia, China, Cuba and Ethiopia. In Eastern Europe, revolutions came about as a consequence of the victory of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. The fundamental task for socialist governments was to try to catch up with advanced capitalism, in order to establish the material foundations for a socialist society. Experience revealed the tortuous contradictions inherent in this task.

The struggle to develop the state economy required inequality, i.e. that some get rich first. But if some are richer than others, the state becomes a defender of this inequity. The need to protect the revolution against invasion also required military and industrial might, but this focus came at the expense of the living standards of the masses. Such contradictory pressures gave rise to a new bureaucratic state apparatus, which emerged spontaneously and automatically in these societies. Therefore, in the eyes of the world, this system appeared to be the inevitable form of socialism.

Nevertheless, the economies of the socialist camp probably could have caught up with the USA, between 1960 and 1980, had they functioned as a unified and combined economic system. But instead of concentrating on planning the commanding heights of their economies — they tried to plan every tiny detail of production and consumer demand. This inevitably failed. The complexity, subtlety and flexibility of human activity, always confounds bureaucratic decision-making. Bureaucratic planning displays its greatest advantages where the systems concerned can be easily modelled and commanded within a constrained set of variables. China avoided collapse after 1989 by combining state ownership, of fewer, but more powerful state enterprises, with various subordinate forms of private ownership.

The rate of urbanisation forecast for the next 15 years will see China’s cities and towns swell by over 250 million. The new urbanites will be predominantly working class — producers by hand or by brain. The ever-increasing social weight of the working class will profoundly transform China’s class relations. They will hold fiercely egalitarian sentiments, will distain corruption, and will constitute the mainstay of the All China Federation of Trade Unions and the Communist party. The new working classes will inevitably take their socialist constitutional and legal rights more and more seriously and demand that officials work honestly to serve the workers they are supposed to represent. One can draw some analogies to the way workers in Europe demanded democratic representation and greater rights at the turn of the 20th century. But there will also be similarities to the position of workers in Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

For example, since 2003 labour shortages in China have led to rapid wage rises and increasing worker militancy. Over the next decades the balance of forces between capital and labour will shift so decisively in favour of the working class that their demands will appear to sweep the board. The state will be able to introduce a universal welfare with: free healthcare; free education; low cost housing for the people; and a dignified pension system for all — like that in Britain, Germany, France or Sweden between the 1950s and 1970s. Workers will also consistently be able to win above inflation wage rises. This will give impetus to invigorate and democratise the trade unions, and breathe real life into China’s workers’ congress democratic management system. Indeed, when China’s Premier Li Kejiang spoke to the All China Federation of Trade Union’s 16th Congress last week he said: "We should promote democratic management in companies and fully exploit the role of workers’ congresses." The realization of democratic management of enterprises by the workers is ultimately one of the defining characteristics of socialist as distinct from bureaucratic and capitalist management systems.

The theory of the primary stage of socialism adopted by the CPC in 1987 projected it would last for 100 years from 1949. By 2049 workers will constitute a crushing majority of China’s population. They will be highly skilled and educated, and will be connected with workers around the world. China will be the richest country in the world and its workers will have high per capita incomes. If, at that time, the workers democratically control production and are the real masters of the state; and if society is based on egalitarian principles — then socialism will surely conquer the world.

The author is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Category : Capitalism | China | Marxism | Socialism | Blog