By Kumar David –
Last week I used the adjective linearized to refer to China’s polity and upon reflection came to realise that it carried more substance than I had realised. I am using ‘polity’ to include organisation of the state, structure of constitution and certain socio-political aspects of society and ‘linearized’ to indicate political tractability and homogeneity. In the case of China, for the purposes of this essay, I touch on the CCP, the Chinese economic system and the unique Chinese social-family arrangement. Quite a handful you might say. Well yes, but there are many novel elements to the subject. Interestingly the PRC Constitution [Ref. 1] does not mention the 90 million member CCP by name anywhere but Article 1 describes China as “a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on an alliance of workers and peasants” which alliance can be interpreted as the Party. Technically China is not a one party state; there are eight recognised minor parties but the truth is that de facto all power is focussed in the hands of the CCP. I am throughout this essay seeking to be descriptive rather than judgemental and will avoid explicit criticism of the one-party state, economic strategy or social forms.
The opening paragraph of the Constitution of the Chinese Communist party reads as follows: “The Communist Party of China is the vanguard both of the Chinese working class and of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation. It is the core of leadership for the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics and represents the development trend of China’s advanced productive forces, the orientation of China’s advanced culture and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people” [Ref. 2]. The Party therefore claims its role boldly.
If I were to attempt to laboriously summarise the formal structures of state and Party I would be digressing too far from my stated subject. Only a few words will have to suffice. Constitutionally, the National People’s Congress (parliament) is the highest organ of state power and most legislation is presented to it by the State Council (cabinet) or by the CCP Politburo Standing Committee of 7 to 9 members which body drives most legislation. Is China a dictatorship of the PB or its General Secretary, currently Xi Jinping? No, in my view the source of ultimate power is a caucus of several thousand communists in central and regional leaderships of the CCP. (I am not able to estimate, maybe ten thousand). Any General Secretary if he loses this base is a goner. The distribution, exercise and structure of power is simpler than in liberal polities. Recall the complexities and convolutions when transacting, legislating and funding anything in the US and the horse-dealing the Executive Branch suffers before anything is implemented. For example think Obama’s Health Care legislation and the Republican castrations it suffered. I don’t need to put much effort into convincing readers that in China political execution is homogeneous and linear. The fall of Jack Ma and other corporate titans in the last twelve months is proof that in China money does not talk, the Party does.
China does not sport a jungle of competing political entities and lacks the many-sided relationships between politics and the domains of money and corporate ownership. This makes for simplicity but at the same time it makes foreign policy naïve. China often backs losers such as Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the Burmese Junta, the Naxalites in India, UNITA in Angola and I daresay the Rajapaksa clan in Sri Lanka will in time prove to be a bad bet. An ugly botch was the invasion of Vietnam in 1979; pointless, achieved nothing. The most egregious Chinese foreign policy blunder was to attack India in 1962. I say this without taking sides in the dispute about the demarcation of the Sino-Indian border. The point I am making is that the unsophisticated nature of Chinese foreign policy is related to simplistic polity. The US State and Defence Departments and CIA have a sophisticated approach that makes use of academia, think-tanks and private foundations. They assimilate and use views that are even opposed to the official line. They fund naive researchers. In China woe unto those who contradict the party line. See a recent report in CNN as an example.
The economy is not a rigid and inflexible state directed monolith as in the former USSR although directive principles regarding where to go and what to do are laid down by the Party or the state. Most impressive is that the firm decisions of the Party-State allowed China to pull 700 million people out of poverty in the last 50 years. This achievement, unparalleled in world history, was facilitated by a ‘directed’ economic model sans the dense foliage of a forest of crisscross financial, banking and corporate linkages that overflow in American and Western capitalism and in finance capital. The deep pockets of American dominated global capitalism and the ubiquitous role of the US dollar make the foliage even lusher. For better or for worse, the Chinse economy is comparatively sparse and simple in its interconnections. One can say that this has kept it effective in achieving social objectives such as mass poverty alleviation. In economics, unlike in foreign policy, the Chinese intelligentsia and academia and the Party have become sophisticated. This has contributed to much success in economics, to an extent in finance, and enabled successes over Trump Era US economic Neanderthals.
To complete the picture I need to mention the theory of land ownership. All urban land belongs to the state and is leased out to developers and citizens usually for 99 years. This applies to Hong Kong as well, except for traditional lands owned by the “Kuks”, pre-British era residents in the remote (non-urban) New Terrorises. Rural land in China is owned by collectives which allocate farming rights to households – this means that land alienation (sale) is not permitted. In the context of tens of millions migrating from the countryside to the cities in recent decades this has been a non-issue.
A crucial feature of development is the role and power of Provincial Governments which play a huge part in economic expansion and infrastructure expansion, though they are politically subservient to the Provincial Party. Administratively the country is split into provinces, prefectures, counties, townships, and villages. The Party is foremost and present at every level and in all institutions, and thus ensures that political and national objectives are not flouted. It is reasonable to say that relations between the state, economic institutions, provincial governments and their economies on the one side, and the Party and the Central Government on the other are linear and homogeneous.
I have touched on the political system and the economy and these closing paragraphs are on society. I am on slippery ground in suggesting that social relations too are simpler, linear and more homogeneous in China than in say India or in the atomised Western societies and families where capitalist values rule. Nevertheless let me push on; perhaps others will fill these out. My first thought is that family and personal moral codes and mores that govern life in China promote homogeneity and collectivism while the “myself and me alone” culture of captivity to the market encourages an atomised social and familial ethos in capitalist nations. The extended family structure is very strong in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and I guess in Singapore and among Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia. Every one of my friends and colleagues in Hong Kong “pays” a certain proportion of his/her monthly salary to parents. Come sun come rain this happens. The elderly are not neglected and are provided for within available means; this is common in other Asian societies such as Lanka but I found a stronger explicit commitment among the Chinese. This I believe comes from the Confucian moral code which is as deep among them as Buddhism ought to be among our people but is not. In advanced liberal-capitalist societies the erosion goes further and the pervasive ethic worships personal ambition, individualism, freedom of the wild ass and selfishness.
Confucianism lays emphasis on hierarchy, loyalty, discipline and filial duty. This I believe has a spill over into the political domain. Loyalty to the government and even the party is more natural in China than it was among Soviet Russians and East Germans, many of whom resented if not hated the one-party state. A uniform and homogenous – linearized – arrangement comes naturally to Chinese people. I don’t think my Hong Kong friends will resent these remarks and most may agree. For obvious reasons I am picking my way round these nettles with great caution since I have no depth of knowledge in sociology or psychology. It is from a political perspective that I make the comment that cultural mores and social attitudes in China complement prevailing political and economic systems in favouring a more uniform ethos than in the capitalist West.
1. The Constitution of the PRC. http://www.npc.gov.cn/zgrdw/englishnpc/Constitution/node_2825.htm
2. The Constitution of the CPC. https://fas.org/irp/world/china/docs/const.html