THE “CHINESE DREAM” OF AUTHORITARIAN CAPITALISM
The idea of a “Chinese Dream” that introduced this chapter exemplifies current global capitalist fantasies of authoritarian nationalism. It is a politics that explicitly struggles against the colonizing effects of globalization in order to realize a perfect market economy uniquely tailored to Chinese conditions. The Party is championed as the only actor able to fully fend off this “global” menace and implement this Chinese-specific market utopia. Moreover, its hegemony and enhanced power resonates with the deeper desires of the population to shape not be shaped by global capital.
The New Maoist Fantasy of Capitalism
The politics of Maoism and marketization are on the surface complete opposites. Indeed, they are strictly speaking antagonists - each explicitly committed to the destruction and replacement of the other. Yet, amidst these ideological differences lies a common authoritarian political logic. One premised on the ability of the Party to singularly conceive and realize progress, the exclusive actor to properly adopt a universal ideology - communism and the free market, respectively - successfully to the Chinese context. Each reproduces authoritarianism, in this regard, by trumpeting the sole capacity and therefore legitimacy of the Party to lead the Chinese population “correctly” toward future prosperity.
The two-decade rule of Mao Zedong was marked throughout by repression and single-party rule. Coming to power in 1949, by the early 1950s Mao and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had fully consolidated their rule of the country. Over the next thirty years Mao would go to great lengths to retain this hegemony - against foreign threats, internal enemies and even those who opposed him within his own Party. During this time he would attempt to sustain this hold on power through a range of dramatic and ultimately disastrous social and economic initiatives - starting from the ill-conceived and collectively fatal Great Leap Forward and culminating in the genocidal anarchy of the Cultural Revolution.
Indeed the effects of this authoritarianism were and are appalling. The Maoist regime was characterized by harsh repression of dissidents, the use of forced labor “re-education camps,” the organization of mass campaigns to stifle dissent against “impure elements” and the deployment of a wide-ranging secret spy network amongst the populace. The human cost of these authoritarian practices are perhaps even more staggering. Upwards of 30 million Chinese died in the Great Leap Forward alone (Peng, 1987; Yang, 1998) with many more needlessly suffering in the Cultural Revolution (see MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, 2006; White, 2014). Yet, while it is imperative not to minimize these acts through comparison or overly rational analysis, it is just as important to illuminate the motivating and legitimating logic of this authoritarian discourse in order to better view its continued influence in the present day.
Primarily, Mao framed the exclusive rule of the Party as necessary for ensuring “ideological correctness.” Initially, this correctness conformed to existing universalist interpretations of Leninism-communism as approved by the USSR, yet for political reasons - notably an increasing rivalry with Soviet Russia - this increasingly took on a more culturally specific dimension. Indeed, as early as the 1930s Mao called for the “Sinification of Marxism,” whose goal in the words of Chinese scholar Nick Knight (1986: 18) was to “establish a formula by which a universal theory such as Marxism could be utilized in a national context and culture without abandoning the universality of that theory” (emphasis in original). Mao himself argued for the need to unite those parts of Leninism representing “a universal truth for all times and all countries, which admits of no exception” with China’s realities that “exists conditionally and temporarily and hence is relative” (see Wylie, 1979: 456).
However, as the political relationship and the situation between the Soviet Union and China changed in the mid 1950s this discourse began to evolve. It was now the sole responsibility of the Party to properly implement communism to meet Chinese conditions. By the summer of 1956 Mao was already in the formative stages of using this as the basis for defining the Party’s ideology. Speaking of art he declared “the art of the various socialist countries each has socialism as its content, but each has its own national character” (Mao Zedong, 1956). To this end, in 1955 he internally ordered that the Party should be the dominate power at the local level while publicly distinguishing between “advanced” and “backward” opinion:
In any society and at any time, there are always two kinds of people and views, the advanced and the backward, that exist as opposites struggling with each other, with the advanced views invariably prevailing over the backward ones; it is neither possible nor right to have “uniformity of public opinion”. Society can progress only if what is advanced is given full play and prevails over what is backward. But in an era in which classes and class struggle still exist both at home and abroad, the working class and the masses who have seized state power must suppress the resistance to the revolution put up by all counter-revolutionary classes, groups and individuals, thwart their activities aimed at restoration and prohibit them from exploiting freedom of speech for
counter-revolutionary purposes. (Mao Zedong, 1955)
In place were all the elements of an authoritarian fantasy of communist nationalism. One promising the romanticized vision of a “perfected” communist Chinese society on the horizon. The requirement of singleparty rule to correctly put in place this culturally specific nationalist vision. And finally, the need of the state to repress any and all enemies to the achievement of this Chinese “dream” of communism. Even more so, it associated the repressive agency of the government, in this case the Party, with individual and collective desires for greater power to control their own and their nation’s destiny, respectively. It responded to the very real previous efforts of the West and Japan to colonize and exploit the Chinese people with an affective authoritarian discourse in which freedom was found in a powerful state able to effectively put at bay foreign threats and do as they wish domestically.
The death of Mao and the rise of Deng Xiaoping represented a seismic shift in the country’s political, social and economic landscape. The rigid ideological orthodoxy and worst political excesses were replaced by a greater flexibility in terms of policy and less oppressive state regime. Soon after ascending to power, in a 1978 speech entitled “Emancipate the mind and seek truth from facts and united as one in looking to the future,” the new leader warned against people whose “thinking has become rigid” and therefore were “not guided by Party spirit and Party principles, but go along with whatever has the backing of the authorities” (Deng Xiaoping, 1978). Indeed, Deng would soon become known throughout the world for starting the country down the path of market- ization, and in doing so to economic revitalization. The famines and chaos of the preceding decades was giving way to a new communist China that embraced the market and while if not democratic was at least much more restrained in its repressive practices.
Underlying this transformation, however, was a similar authoritarian logic and fantasy initially espoused by Mao and his supporters. The guiding ideas of what was soon referred to as “Dengism” reveals the continued stressing on the exclusive right of the Party to interpret national policy and its state apparatuses for enforcing these decisions. Deng declared in June 1984 that since introducing reforms the regime had “formulated correct ideological, political and organizational lines” that “seek truth from facts, as advocated by Comrade Mao Zedong, and uphold his basic ideas” (Deng Xiaoping, 1984a).
This appeal to pragmatism was, thus, strategically deployed in order to reinforce the correctness of the CCP’s reform program and not to enhance democratic debate. It also continued to promote the need for the Party to adapt communism (now including certain market principles) to Chinese realities. Deng framed his reform program according to a similar authoritarian governing paradigm to the one first championed by Mao. More precisely, he based his agenda on a proffered objective ideology of socialism properly interpreted by the Party to produce the correct policies necessary for the country’s national development. This analogous strategy was reflected clearly in 1980 when Deng declared that:
We believe the socialist road is the correct one. While carrying out reforms, we still adhere to the Four Cardinal Principles, one of which is to keep to the socialist road. In building socialism, each country should adopt policies commensurate with its particular conditions ... The greatest contribution Chairman Mao Zedong made in building socialism was his integration of the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution. (Deng Xiaoping, 1980)
By 1984 Deng was promoting a culturally specific reform-oriented discourse of “socialism with Chinese characteristic.” Specifically, he linked these desires to past narratives of revolutionary utopianism, as evidenced in his October 1984 remarks at the 35th anniversary celebration of the CCP’s revolutionary victory:
In the past 35 years not only have we ended for all time a dark period of our past and created a socialist society in China, but we have changed the course of human history. On a foundation of national stability, unity, democracy and the rule of law, we have given socialist modernization the highest priority in our work. Our economy has grown more vigorously than ever before, and achievements in all other fields are widely acknowledged. Today, all our people are full of joy and pride. (Deng Xiaoping, 1984b)
The tragedy of Tiananmen would indelibly darken the reign of Deng and the widespread optimism that the country was moving in a more open and democratic direction. The stark image of CCP troops putting down protestors shocked the world and internally led the Party to become even more reactionary in safeguarding its exclusive authority. Yet it also revealed how Deng had created the foundations for a new Maoist fantasy of capitalism. One that effectively jettisoned established liberal rights or even more radical socialist ideals of emancipation, for an appealing discourse that combined political authoritarianism and an economic ideology of marketization. In doing so, he and his predecessors would champion a discourse where globalization and its Western puppet master were the enemies, while capitalism, as conceived and implemented by the CCP at whatever cost, was the country’s sole path to salvation.