Published: 23:32, June 20, 2024
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The West’s fundamental assumptions about China need updating
By David Cottam

Whenever China is in the news, many people in the West don’t get beyond the pejorative label “Communist China”, conjuring up images of mid-20th-century austerity and class struggle. It was these images that fueled Western anti-China sentiment during the Cold War, the McCarthyism era of the late 1940s and early ’50, and the regular demonization of China in the years since 1949. 

Hostile Western media and politicians persistently use the term “Communist China” as an effective dog whistle to generate a Pavlovian anti-China response from their audiences. There’s a saying that the truth shouldn’t get in the way of a good story, but it really is time for the West to update its perceptions about China. Western critics who weaponize the phrase “Communist China” are guilty not only of lazy rhetoric, but also of the cynical use of an outdated label that no longer reflects the reality of a dynamic, innovative and forward-looking China.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded in Shanghai in 1921. Twenty-eight years later, after a series of armed struggles with both the Japanese invasion army and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces, the leader of the CPC, Mao Zedong, declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China on Oct 1, 1949. As we approach the 75th anniversary of this momentous occasion, it’s appropriate to reflect on the remarkable evolution of China during this time.

In doing so, we need to consider whether the word “Communist” is still an appropriate epithet in defining China. The Oxford Reference definition of communism is: “A theory of classless society with common ownership of property and wealth and centrally planned production and distribution, based on the principle ‘from everyone according to their skills, to everyone according to their needs’.”

To determine whether this definition still applies to China, we need to examine how it has evolved over the past 75 years. The most obvious change has been in the Chinese economy, which has undergone a complete transformation since the late 1970s, with the introduction of private enterprise and elements of market-oriented capitalism. In its State-owned enterprise reforms, the government has increased efficiency and competitiveness by introducing market competition, corporatization, and partial or complete privatization in many State-owned enterprises. It has promoted competition and reduced central intervention by implementing market-oriented reforms in various sectors of the economy, including banking, trade and foreign exchange. It has also opened its doors to foreign investment by allowing a range of joint ventures and foreign-owned enterprises. Notably, it has established special economic zones in select areas, including Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Xiamen, to attract foreign investment and promote export-oriented industries. These zones offer preferential policies, such as tax incentives and fewer bureaucratic restrictions, encouraging foreign investment and economic development. China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. This committed the government to a range of trade and investment liberalization measures, further integrating the country into the free-market global economy.

Reforms such as these have transformed China’s economy and contributed to its remarkable economic growth over the past few decades. This has led many observers to describe China as having a hybrid or mixed economy, combining both entrepreneurial and socialist characteristics, rather than a command economy that is characteristic of communist systems. It is clearly no longer true that all means of production and distribution are centrally controlled.

Neither is it true that all property is commonly owned. In addition to private business ownership, the vast majority of individuals throughout China own assets such as residential property. Indeed, according to the World Population Review’s international rankings of homeownership rates, a remarkable 90 percent of people in China own their own homes. This compares with 66 percent in the US and 63 percent in the UK.

Furthermore, the concept of “from everyone according to their skills, to everyone according to their needs” no longer applies, with disparities in income and wealth steadily increasing as China has become economically stronger. According to the Stanford Center on China’s Economy and Institutions: “Since 1978, China has transformed from a poor, relatively equal society to a leading global economy with levels of inequality surpassing much of Europe and resembling the US.” Extreme poverty has now been eradicated and the whole population is much more prosperous. As a side effect of this modernization process, the share of China’s national income earned by the top 10 percent of the population increased from 27 percent in 1978 to 41 percent in 2015, nearing the United States’ 45 percent and surpassing France’s 32 percent. Similarly, the wealth share of the top 10 percent of China’s population has reached 67 percent, close to the US’ 72 percent and higher than France’s 50 percent. Clearly, the economic realities of China no longer correspond to the standard definition of communism.

It’s a similar story of change in the political development of China over the past few decades, with many of the “autocratic” characteristics generally associated with communist states being removed or modified. There are two strands to these changes. First, greater civil and human rights have been introduced in China, very much in line with Western liberal values. China always endorses basic human rights and the concept of equality before the law. Slavery, genocide, torture and racial discrimination are all prohibited. Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the 2018 Constitution (subject to not inciting criminal acts or undermining the interests of the State). Chinese citizens also enjoy the freedom to practice their religion, own property, and travel abroad. The social scientist, Daniel Bell, points out that there is sometimes a gap between the ideal and the reality of human rights, including in Western countries, but the direction of travel in China is clear.

The second strand of political change in China is its affirmation of political meritocracy: the selection of political leaders by proven ability rather than through the ballot box. Meritocracy is clearly a different political approach to Western electoral democracy, but this doesn’t necessarily make it inferior or autocratic. Indeed, Bell points out that, unlike in totalitarian states, political meritocracy, in addition to its intrinsic strengths, is compatible with many democratic values and practices. These include political participation such as sortition (using a lottery system to select from a pool of suitable candidates), consultation, social surveys, and elections at lower levels of government. Moreover, polling in China has consistently shown widespread support for the ideal of political meritocracy, especially at higher levels of government. Clearly, China’s meritocratic approach is still within the framework of a single-party state, but this doesn’t automatically equate to either tyranny or autocracy.

Taken in conjunction with the country’s dramatic economic and social transformation over the past few decades, these political developments and characteristics add strength to the argument that communism is no longer an accurate description of China’s current philosophy. At some point, the CPC may even decide to update its name to reflect this, but as with the Labour Party in the UK, pride in the Party’s history makes this unlikely in the near future.

Over 200 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly said: “China is a sleeping giant; when she wakes she will shake the world.” The giant awakened many years ago and the world has witnessed its remarkable transformation. However, rather than shaking in trepidation of “Communist China”, the world should embrace the new China for what it is: a modern, dynamic, increasingly entrepreneurial economy and society, run by its ruling Party on meritocratic lines, acknowledging human rights, and promoting a vision of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and peaceful international relations.

The term “Communist China” is no longer accurate and Western critics who persist in using it as a crude dog-whistle are irresponsibly stoking the flames of East-West tension. At a time when harmonious relations, peace and international cooperation over climate change are more important than ever, they need to reflect on how history will judge them.

The author is a British historian and former principal of Sha Tin College, an international secondary school in Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.