A country with several thousand years of distinctive cultural history is governed through European ideology
It is often said that China is one of the world’s oldest civilisations, tracing a history back to around 2,200BCE. Of course there were people living in China long before that, it’s just that the first Chinese dynasty, the Xia, is estimated to have started around that time.
Even older civilisations date from 4,000BCE (Mesopotamia), India (3,300BCE) and 3,100BCE (Egypt). China is often described as having a continuous line of civilisation back to those earlier times, whereas the other regions have suffered upheavals that make it harder to see the link with today’s countries and systems of government. One can argue about that continuity, because Chinese history is marked by periods when the country broke up and when it was invaded. But there is some recognisable continuous line of civilisation.
Yet modern China, the China created in 1949 by the victory of the People’s Liberation Army in the civil war, is governed by an organisation which, though it sometimes likes to stress continuity with the past, is dominated by a way of thinking that has its roots in Europe: Communism.
There is no intrinsic harm in borrowing ideas from other countries or cultures. But it is a little surprising to see this particular transfer, when Chinese government speeches continue to emphasise the “century of national humiliation” (a phrase that originates in Chinese nationalist thought in the 1920s) that began with the First Opium War with Britain in 1839 and continued until the defeat of the Japanese invaders in 1945. France, Germany and Russia also played a part in this century of humiliation through a series of “unequal treaties”. Russia may currently be friends with China but there is a section of southern Siberia that was Chinese territory until 1860; officially the two countries have resolved their border dispute, but I suspect China will get this back one day (1).
If we can regard Lenin, a Russian, as European, then the three most important influences on modern Chinese Communist Party ideology are all European: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, both German, and Lenin. This is not just a matter of curiosity. Understanding how the CCP thinks is more important today than ever, and an important part of trying to do that is decoding the language of CCP speeches and documents.
For example, it seems now clear that President Xi has shifted the emphasis of Chinese government policy away from the economy, towards a broader measure of the welfare of the Chinese people. How do we know this?
First, it’s clear from the content of multiple speeches in the last five years or so. China watchers count the frequency of key words and phrases over time to decode the message coming from the top. Rush Doshi, a China scholar and now working in President Biden’s National Security Council, used detailed textual analysis of CCP speeches and other documents to produce an influential and fascinating book called “The Long Game: China’s grand strategy to displace American order.” (It’s important to note that not everyone agrees with his argument).
But it’s also obvious from a change in the Party’s definition of the “principal contradiction” in Chinese society. Here is a translation of text from Andrew Batson, China Research Director for Gavekal Dragonomics:
The Sixth Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee held in 1981 pointed out that the principal contradiction in the primary stage of socialism was between the people’s ever growing material and cultural needs and backward social production. This was a scientific conclusion made by the CPC based on the economic and social development stage at that time. The key point is to meet people’s basic material and cultural needs.
In 2017, Xi said in a report to the 19th CPC National Congress that as socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, the principal contradiction facing Chinese society has evolved to that between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever growing needs for a better life.Source: https://andrewbatson.com/2023/03/15/pragmatism-as-ideology/
Ideology, especially in a Leninist party, is necessary to communicate policies to the membership. With the CCP having some 96 million members, diffusing ideas down to the lower cadres is quite a challenge. Party members are required to read President Xi’s speeches (there is an app for this) and so understand both the specifics of policy and the wider framework for correctly thinking about the Party’s goals.
A topical example is 百年未有之大变局 -“great changes unseen in a century”, a phrase used repeatedly by Xi Jinping since 2017, most recently in his farewell greeting to President Putin at the end of Xi’s visit to Moscow in March 2023. This phrase is widely interpreted as code for the decline of the USA, which many in the Chinese government appear to regard as both inevitable and underway. (Although many Americans may well agree with this view, I think it very unwise to bet against the USA, but we shall see). Rush Doshi (The Long Game, Introduction) notes that this phrase is a historic echo of the lament of a Qing Dynasty general Li Hongzhang in 1872: “great changes unseen in 3,000 years”. Li was urging more investment in shipbuilding to cope with the threat from the industrialised nations of Europe and a rising Japan. Xi inverts its meaning to refer to the rising opportunity that he sees for China today.
Other phrases and slogans also have their roots in Chinese pre-communist history such as “national rejuvenation”, which Rush Doshi argues goes back at least as far as Sun Yat-Sen and the early republican movement (The Long Game, p.29).
But anyone who has read Marx, or the Hegelian theory of history on which Marxist thinking is built, will recognise the idea of a contradiction as part of a dialectical way of thinking: thesis, antithesis and then synthesis. Marx grafted his materialist conception of history onto Hegel’s dialectical theory of history to produce what was later called dialectical materialism. The CCP, like other Communist parties now and in the past, regards this as a fruitful, indeed essential way of analysing history, which follows certain scientific laws. As diligent students of Marxist-Leninism, the Chinese Communist Party must first identify the principal contradiction, then logically select the necessary goals to advance “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
And in that last phrase we see the scope to depart from a purely European-derived ideology, to incorporate facts and ideas specific to China. All countries are unique, but China is surely more unique than most, in its history, size, geography and enormous economic impact on the modern world. Marxism was a theory based mainly on European history. Leninism is a version of Marxism turned into practical politics. There has never been a successful revolution of the type that Marx expected (an immiserated industrial proletariat rising up against an industrial bourgeoisie whose rate of profit had fallen). The revolutions in Russia and China took place in countries with relatively undeveloped industrial economies, and it was the peasantry that provided the force behind Mao Zedong and the CCP, not the proletariat. So the CCP’s goal of achieving socialism, as a prelude to communism, must of course take note of Chinese characteristics.
When US Secretary of State visited Beijing in 1972 as part of President Nixon’s historic opening of a new relationship between China and the USA, he apparently tried to ingratiate himself with Premier Zhou Enlai with a remark endorsing the Confucian way of thinking. But at that time, the CCP was firmly distancing itself from historic Chinese ways of thinking and Confucianism was not to be referred to. Zhou was not amused.
In his excellent book “The Avoidable War” Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister, distinguished Sinologist and now Australia’s ambassador to the USA, refers to as Chinese ideological orthodoxy under Xi Jinping as:
an amalgam of Marxism-Leninism, Chinese tradition, and Chinese nationalism—with the precise weighting of the amalgam to be defined by the party leadership from time to time depending on the need.Source: Rudd, Kevin. The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China (p. 366). Public Affairs. Kindle Edition.
Sinologists and other scholars disagree about the relative importance of ideology, national interest and the personality of the leader. The realist school of international relations argue that all that matters is national interest and everything else follows from that. Distinguished American historian Stephen Kotkin, who has written a defining biography of Josef Stalin, argues that the logic of Leninism is clear in the CCP and that there is therefore a lot to be learned from studying the history of the Soviet Union. (The CCP agree on this point, at least as far as studying the sudden collapse of the USSR and the Soviet Communist Party, to learn how to avoid that fate.) But the specifics of policy will of course depend on local circumstances and “characteristics”.
At some deep level, there is a common logic to all human organisations, because people are more or less the same. Those who wish to peacefully cohabit our world threatened by climate change and political tensions need to understand each other, including how governments think, so far as that is possible. In a strange way, there is some comfort in knowing that there is some part of Chinese government thinking that is forever European.
(1) The indispensable The China Project (whose chief marketing officer happens to be a Cambridge MBA alumna) recently reported that:
On February 17, China’s Ministry of Land Resources ordered maps to include traditional Chinese names for far Eastern Russian places (announcement dated February17 here, archived here, a draft version of it from November 2022 archived here, English-language report from Kyiv Post here.)
The rule from the Ministry of Land Resources means that maps published in China must include the names of places that are now part of Russia as they were rendered when China controlled them. For example Vladivostok would be:
The first word is Fúlādí wò sī tuō kè, the Chinese rendering of Vladivostok. The word in brackets is the Chinese name of the city before it was taken by Russia: hǎishēn wǎi. The China Project translates this as Sea Cucumber Bay but my Pleco dictionary suggests 崴 means “river bend and mountain recess”. Either way, this is an interesting reminder of the original Chinese history of that part of Russia.