The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

What the Chinese Communist Party Learned from the Fall of the USSR

Recently, I read a speech from 2013 by Xi Jingping, the General Secretary of China’s Communist Party, and China’s leader.

In one respect, it’s turgid and boring; it’s for insiders, other party members.

But in another, it’s fascinating.

In one part, Xi goes on and on about how there have been different periods in the Communist rule of China, and none of them must be repudiated. He doesn’t say that everything that was done was right, but that the earlier struggles and attainments were necessary for the later attainments.

There is no repudiation here of Mao. Perhaps Mao’s actions didn’t always work as expected, but the rule of the Chinese Communist party made China better, even before the reform period.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing and want more of it, please consider donating.)

(Yes, there was a big famine and the cultural revolution, but there were plenty of famines and purges before Communist party rule. What is important about Communist party rule (though Xingping doesn’t say this) is that this was the last famine.)

This very careful reaching back to Mao and, also, to Deng Xiaoping, the seminal leader of the reform movement, is in large part a response to the fall of the Russian Communist party.

Xi and the Chinese Communist party believe the USSR fell mostly because they stopped believing in their own ideology and their own history. The Communist party theoretically had the power to hold the USSR and Warsaw Pact together, but simply refused to use the Red Army and the KGB to do so.

Gorbachev was a communist believer, sure, but he repudiated most of what had been done in the past. A smart reformer, instead, Jingping seems to believe, but makes the necessary reforms without repudiating the past.

Equally, they do not repudiate Marxism. It brings a bit of a smile to the face of a Westerner, but the Chinese Communist Party is absolutely firm on the claim that what they are doing is still Marxism. It is Socialism with Chinese characteristics, and it is aiming towards a goal of full socialism. That will probably take many generations, but that’s the goal, and they are making progress.

So to Xi, he is the heir of Deng. Mao, Marx, and all the Communist leaders of China’s past. The party is doing things differently, yes, but strategy and tactics evolve, even as the goal (communist utopia) does not.

This is a near religious goal, as the translator notes:

One of the most striking aspects of this speech is the language Xi Jinping invokes: Party members must have “faith” (xìnyǎng) in the eventual victory of socialism; proper communists must be “devout” (qiánchéng) in their work; and Party members must be prepared to “sacrifice” (xīshēng) everything, up to their own blood, for revolutionary “ideals that reach higher than heaven” (gémìng lǐxiǎng gāo yú tiān).

Religions are special cases of ideology: a subset. All successful ideologies, especially hegemonic ones, must create true believers. When they stop believing, they stop being willing to enforce the ideology (and all ideologies, including ours, democracy and capitalism require enforcement). When they stop being willing to enforce their ideology, it will die.


So here, again, Xi is seeking to shore up the Chinese Communist Party. For it to continue to rule, it must not repudiate the past, nor its own ideology. Party members must truly believe and be willing to do whatever it takes to move the Party towards its goals, even if that means blood or death.

So I suggest readers take a moment and pop over and read the speech in full. It’s long, yes, but this is the leader of the world’s second most powerful state, the country that is threatening America’s hegemonic rule. What and how he thinks, and what the Chinese Communist Party believes, matters.

And one thing they think is that they’re not going to make the same mistakes their Russian communist brethren made.



Open Thread


Why the Consensus Environmental Predictions Are Wrong


  1. Herman

    There was also a material incentive for Soviet elites to overturn the system. Contrary to Western stereotypes, the Soviet intelligentsia did not have a particularly lavish lifestyle compared to ordinary Soviet workers. It was said that managers, scientists and other members of the intelligentsia would complain that their dachas were very similar to those of truck drivers and factory workers. Soviet elites knew that their counterparts in the West had much more wealth and status and this was a major incentive to transition to capitalism.

    China “solved” this problem by transitioning to a form of developmental state capitalism without completely dismantling the country itself as occurred in the USSR. For example, inequality is now much greater in China and you have private capitalists and even millionaires and billionaires in the country. There is also a sizable professional/managerial class.

    The new class system of China will likely be decisive in determining whether the country moves in a more socialist direction in the future since I cannot see all of these class elements having identical interests. Whether China will actually transition to some form of socialism is of course unknown. There are a number of competing ideologies within China. Paul Cockshott has a good video on the different ideologies within modern China.

  2. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    “…this was the last famine.” — Ye Proprietor

    So far.

  3. Dan Helton

    Minor quibble, but “Jinping” is his personal name. “Xi” is his surname. When you call him “Jinping” in the article, that’s like constantly referring to President Trump as “Donald”.

  4. GrimJim

    Well, if they truly want a Communist Paradise, they are working on the right path. The Russians thought you could go from a semi-feudal agricultural economy to full blown Communism with a quick jumpstart via the Dictatorship of the Proletariat; they were proven wrong.

    Now the Chinese Communist Party may well be trying the long game, developing proper Capitalism to enable the development of a post-Capitalist economy in which Socialism and thus Communism can actually blossom. It is an experiment that has never been tried before.

    After all, you DO need the development of a proper Capitalist economy before you even have a chance of success for a Socialist economy. One cannot exist without the other, as too many eager agrarian attempts have discovered… Venezuela, too, does not count, as they never really got beyond Resource Extraction Colonial economy; their industrial base was not remotely rich enough to hit proper Capitalist critical mass (in the classic sense of Capital).

    Then again, the Cause might be lost in the very development of the Capitalist economy, as the elites succumb to post-Capitalist oligarchy xand kill the experiment for self aggrandizement.

    Xi may very well be warning against that…

  5. Tom

    And all this posturing is irrelevant due to climate change. China’s population is concentrated on the coast and rising sea levels means 90% of their population is doomed regardless if they avoid war or not with the US.

    Nevermind that US bases around the world prevent the US from concentrating sufficient forces to make a push against China possible much less war with Iran which will quickly destroy the Oil Infrastructure if it got serious.

    The US can’t even wipe out the Taliban or IS/AQ, and by degrees, by increments, by bloody inch, they are winning, expanding into more countries, and bad governance and Islamophobia is opening up ever more places for them to expand into. IS/Taliban/AQ at times ruled large stretches, got beaten down to almost nothing and resurged right back, bigger than ever.

    They are truest practitioners of Xi’s maxims of absolute faith (Whether you agree with it is another matter entirely) and absolute sacrifice.

    Well a dark age is coming and we have only ourselves to blame.

    Neither Europe, China, the US, in fact very few Nations will survive climate change intact. As they go down, Warlords with the right organization, vision, and willing followers will fill the gaps and fight over the corpses of the World’s old nations.

    If you’re old, you won’t live to see it likely, but if you’re relatively young, be ready, even if it means submitting to a local warlord that rises up or fighting back.

  6. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Welp, if Chinese kinda-sorta-maybe-Communism requires faith and self-sacrifice to make it succeed, then we Amurkans can relax.

    Self-preservation, self-interest, even self-aggrandizement, override self-sacrifice in the vast majority of human beings any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

    And Xi, hilariously, apparently thinks he can pull this off without even promising an afterlife in which those who die for The Cause will be rewarded.

    Surely Xi himself, if he was smart enough to rise to the top without help from a foreign power (as Benedict Donald was not) is smart enough to know his bullshit is exactly that.

  7. rkka

    Marx was a huge fan of capitalism. It has the historical mission of developing human productive capacity to the point that scarcity is abolished. There’s no contradiction between us being a Marxist & being an enthusiastic capitalist.

    So yeah, he’s going about it exactly the right way.

  8. StewartM

    My contribution:

    (About why so many Western predictions about China have been wrong)

    Why have so many been so off about China for so long? In part it’s because policy makers and academics alike look for patterns, not exceptions. We are trained to generalize across cases and use history as a guide to the future. But China has always been sui generis—an innovator in the ancient world that became a poverty-stricken nation in the modern one; a nation with a deep and proud imperial history ruled by a post-1949 Communist leadership with an aversion to remembering it; a rural nation with some of the world’s most sophisticated high-tech surveillance.

    There is also a fundamental disconnect in how American and Chinese leaders see time. For Americans, memories are short, attention is fleeting, and policy lurches from crisis to crisis. In Washington, passing a budget and keeping the lights on seem more and more like heroic acts. In China, by contrast, memories are long, attention is enduring, and the government plans for the long haul. China’s rise in artificial intelligence and other technologies has been in the works for years. Its military modernization started in the 1990s. Back then, a Chinese admiral was asked how long before China would build its own aircraft carrier. He replied, “in the near future”—by which he meant sometime before 2050.

    This is why, everyone, that China is eating our lunch. They think and plan long-term, versus that in our system of deregulated capitalism we can’t plan beyond the next quarterly report. The decline of US industry is not just one of free trade treaties and outsourcing and Bain Capitals, it’s also a story of companies being driven into the ditch by their own leadership who practice a “start/stop” style of management that they congratulate themselves as “flexible” but in reality gets their companies nowhere—just like start/stop approach to dieting, or exercise, or learning a new skill by any individual will result in failure. The only way to get anywhere is to continue plowing through despite periods of adversity, but our capitalists (the investor class) demands our companies give them a hefty “cut” each and every quarter, and can and will oust the leadership of any company that doesn’t provide that for them.

    This attitude is not limited to the Chinese leadership, it also applies to the Chinese as individuals. To wit:

    I was born in southern China in what was then a small fishing village. Everyone lived in wooden shacks with tarps. A few months after we left, the government tore it down to build what’s now a third-tier city. My dad’s sister immigrated to San Francisco and she helped us come over when I was 9. When we arrived, it was my first time in a car. I couldn’t believe how neat all the houses were, in rows like that. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

    When we first got to San Francisco, our financial situation was awful. We lived in my aunt’s basement and her son, my cousin, told everyone at school about it. He said, “My cousin sleeps where my dog sleeps.” The pain of that, even now that I’m financially secure — it will always stay there.

    My parents were always taking whatever jobs they could. At first, my dad worked in the meat section of a grocery store. Then he worked as a baker-slash-janitor. My mom still works as a caretaker for an elderly woman. After a little while, they saved up enough money to rent our own flat. We found our mattresses on the street and put them on the floor and slept like that, in the same room, for years.
    It wasn’t until college that I realized how different other people’s lives were. I went to a private school in southern California because they gave me the best funding. There were a lot of legacy kids there. There were also a lot of second-generation Asian Americans who, because of their successful parents, could afford to go to a private college without taking out loans. I was impressed by that. It made me want to make sure my children get to have everything they need. A lot of Chinese people know this: It takes more than one generation to build stability. It takes multiple generations stacked on each other.

    Now contrast this to the guy working in in the financial fraud sector whose goal is to become a millionaire before the age of 35. The Chinese are essentially telling us “there’s no way to build that much wealth, the only way to accrue it in such a short period of time is to steal it”.

  9. StewartM

    Equally, they do not repudiate Marxism. It brings a bit of a smile to the face of a Westerner, but the Chinese Communist Party is absolutely firm on the claim that what they are doing is still Marxism. It is Socialism with Chinese characteristics, and it is aiming towards a goal of full socialism.

    Ian, from my experience (and I’ve yet to read the speech), Xi’s speech sounds like something a CEO might give. Which makes the claim ‘we do not repudiate Marxism’ even more ironic.

    You see, “believing in their past” is something that corporate management also holds dear–even when their actions are a 180-degree reversal of previous policies. The party line will be “What those guys did in the past made sense then, and given the situation today our policy also makes sense”. That way, no one ever is blamed or held accountable for past mistakes, because there were no mistakes. All the leaders, past alike, are sage wise men.

    In regards to China, as Solzhenitsyn would say, failing to repudiate Mao’s crimes comes at a risk of someone in the future repeating them . I think Xi also believes that repudiating Mao also comes at risk; I think Xi is instead looking at Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, which was the first acknowledged failure of Soviet Communism by its leadership. I’m guessing that Xi wants to nurture and keep alive the myth of the infallibility of Chinese Communist leadership because of this, so Mao’s reputation has to be preserved too.

    So their you have it. Just like corporate execs know that exposing the screwups of their predecessors know that it undermines their own authority (“how do we you you too aren’t a bunch of goofballs?”) Xe wants to take know chances at undermining the “faith” in his authority by undermining Mao’s. Communist leadership acts like corporate capitalist leadership.

    However, I think that myths of the infallibility of anyone–popes, political leaders, scientists, whoever–is detrimental. It is even detrimental to the survival of an ideology. That’s because eventually the ‘infallible’ ones will be proven to be utterly, undeniably, wrong, about something, and the ‘crash’ in the ideology they represent will be all the harder. Back in my college days, going back home from an astronomy class field trip, we somehow got into a discussion about religion, and our graduate school TA remarked that he never attempted to dissuade those of fundamentalist belief systems from their beliefs–“because once they realize that their belief set is wrong about any one particular thing, then because their belief system is so rigid and interlocked it shatters the whole system”. More liberal faiths, he said, that did not claim infallibility about any particular detail of fact in their faiths, were much more robust and much more survivable because, in the end, they can admit to error without calling into question the whole scheme.

    From my perspective, both Gorbachev and Khrushchev were the most serious ‘true believers’ of communism. Both actually believed in their systems, and that they could be both successful and humane. I don’t think their failures can be laid entirely on them or their systems; both had to deal with the hostility of the West. For Gorbachev, Xi is entirely correct that he could have sent in the tanks at many crisis points and could have preserved the Soviet Union, but to Gorbachev, he saw that preserving Stalinism wasn’t really preserving Communism as he and most others envisioned it.

    This was even true during Stalin’s rein; Robert Tucker in his biography of Stalin suggests that there *was* a sentiment in the ’34 Party Congress to replace him due to resistance to Stalin’s policies; as one attendee reportedly said “I didn’t become a Communist in order to starve workers and peasants”. Gorbachev and Khrushchev saw Stalinism as a betrayal of Communism, not a legitimate extension of it.

  10. Hugh

    China is an authoritarian regime run by a class of oligarchs and a political party (like most political parties nowadays) with a completely irrelevant ideology and presided over by a dictator Xí.

    Personally, I have always liked the formulation Xídì (emperor Xí) although I suppose the more technically correct form would be Xí Jìnpíngdì.

    I agree with Tom that China faces the same climate challenges that we do, but with 4 times the population.

  11. different clue

    Given China’s long history of Command Initiatives involving millions of people and their memory of past such exercises . . . the Grand Canal, the Great Wall, etc. . . . China may be able to save some of its most valuable seaside farmlands if China gets started now.

    If anyone can build the Great Seawall of China, China can.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén