Farmers work in an orchard in Pishan County, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on October 8, 2020 (XINHUA)
It became commonplace during former U.S. President Donald Trump's tenure to hear the Communist Party of China (CPC) maligned in Cold War-style rhetoric, with the emphasis on "communist" and Marxist as the dirtiest of words, which were then stretched into alarmist fantasies alleging China's efforts to impose a communist vision globally.
One of the great problems many have when it comes to understanding the CPC is discerning its continuities and changes. On the one hand, in many respects, it is still the Party that Mao Zedong helped build, and indeed, many of Mao's concepts and values are still embraced positively.
On the other hand, both the Party and China have undergone dramatic changes since the Party's founding in 1921. If we express this in Marxist terms, we will understand continuity and change through "negation of the negation," the idea that we step forward, remain transformed, but are not completely different.
To be sure, many changes came into view and were further developed during the reform and opening-up period that Deng Xiaoping is credited for initiating, but too often we forget that it was Mao who set the table for these changes in part when he welcomed U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon to China in the early 1970s.
One of the reasons the anti-communist rhetoric prevails is due to the popularity of the "end of history" thesis, which in fact existed well before U.S. author Francis Fukuyama popularized it after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This thesis normalized the idea that there was but a single path and outcome to human development, exemplified by the West and above all the United States, and that China itself had understood this and was reforming its way toward that reality.
Of course, this thesis has not fared well, particularly as the Western model has tended toward increasing crises while China has continued to rise, and this has led some to promote the aforementioned idea of a longstanding Chinese communist plot to thwart superior Western values.
Neither a model nor portable
It was popular in recent years to describe a "China model" that might be learned and either countered or transferred elsewhere. While there are positive lessons to be drawn from the Party's experience and even the sinicization of Marxism, the reason for its success is the extent to which it's been developed and particularized for China, deeply rooted in Chinese culture and values, expressive of a native Chinese worldview, and capable of leading modernity within a China teleology.
While it's appropriate to describe China's development path and share lessons with others, particularly those who seek alternatives to the Western model, it's simply impossible to export that path to a different culture and different conditions. In this sense, it's not a model. This limit, however, carries another important consequence. Because China's path and political system are so particular to itself, it's impossible for that system to effectively rule those who are not Chinese, whether by imitation or imposition from Beijing. The Party simply does not and cannot work or think that way; no one understands these limits better than the Party itself.
Crisis-seeking is not crisis wanting
The CPC was founded as a potential solution to several existential crises then confronting China and that soon confronted the Party itself. While we can speak of a Marxist orientation toward addressing contradictions that hamstring progress, it's perhaps easier to understand that the Party became intrinsically "crisis-seeking" as it directly encountered the early crises of its own survival and that of China. It learned how to adapt and reform itself. In short, it learned how to change and save itself in ways that the Qing Court (1644-1911) and the Kuomintang regime were unable to realize; and this ability proved instrumental in changing and saving China. In recent times, perhaps the clearest example of this can be seen in the massive anti-corruption drive. This desire to move toward crises and to address them is not the same as wanting them, normalizing them or intentionally exploiting them in competition with others.
China advocates to transform international relations to realize a post-imperial, post-hegemony global system, and likewise to find win-win solutions for further development that benefit both China and others.
Western countries that conveniently blame China for their own problems and who feel threatened by China's progress ought to look more deeply at themselves and understand their crises have emerged from their own failures and unmet challenges.
Above all, Westerners should avoid simplistic and often mistaken renderings of the Chinese language and values, e.g., the unfortunate "scholarship" that incorrectly holds that the Chinese word for "crisis (weiji)" etymologically (and therefore culturally) is based on the same concept as "opportunity (jihui)."
The dialectics of leading and serving
One of Mao's most important practical contributions to adapting Marxism to the Chinese context is his concept of the Mass Line, which President Xi Jinping has reemphasized. This concept has been instrumental in terms of how the Party established its dialectics of leadership. On the one hand, it has the role of helmsman, or center, who guides the ship. On the other hand, it has the role of steward, who serves the people.
On the level of national praxis, this offered an effective ethos of becoming a responsible steward of the national interest, and the nation has risen accordingly. While this has confused some binary thinkers into the simple formula of either the Party putting itself over the nation or vice versa, in fact, the dialectic that exists between these two in actual practice is neither as dichotomous or hierarchical as it might seem or sometimes pretends itself to be. Nor, for that matter, is it so singular, given both its multiplicity of being and differences across a massive country undergoing constant change and development.
The vanguard of Chinese modernity
The Chinese authorities often decry "Western universalism" and instead emphasizes "Chinese characteristics." This has led some critics to accuse the Party of "Chinese exceptionalism," or worse, to allege that it speaks directly to the Party's neglect of a particular Western "universal:" human rights.
The Party's position is more nuanced than most perceive. To be sure, the discussion on differences in human rights has been well-expressed, although too often ignored. For example, the success of raising hundreds of millions out of poverty and eradicating extreme poverty altogether has not been achieved by any other political system or country in human history, and demonstrates an unequalled contribution to human rights.
And yet, this is perpetually ignored or discounted by the strange bedfellows that sometimes appear together in the West—impractical idealists and warmongers with blood on their hands, both of whom tend to hold China to higher standards than they hold themselves to.
Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci famously described the communist party as the "modern prince," and here we can stretch his expression to say specifically, in China's case, the CPC has served as the vanguard of Chinese modernity.
Specifically, one of the key crises the Party encountered was the need to transform China into a modern nation capable of advancing in a world that had done its utmost to lay it low. This required a lot of changes at every level, but to summarize them succinctly, it required closing the technology gap that had emerged between China and other countries, especially Western countries, that they then exploited to subjugate the Chinese people.
Over the course of China's modern development, this is precisely what the Party has accomplished—helping China emerge as an advanced technological society, both rejuvenated and still capable of making progress in a world that remains dangerous and competitive.
(Print Edition Title: Continuity and Change)
The author is professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai
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