What ideological principles and values underpin the link between the economic model and the political model in China?

Alejandro Santana

There is no doubt that, in the last three decades, China has experienced a meteoric rise in the global arena thanks to its economic achievements.

Today, it is the worlds second largest economy and the leading exporter of goods and services. Indeed, this success is reflected in the country's economic growth. According to data from the World Bank, in the last three decades, China's annual GDP growth has averaged 9%, far more than countries such as the US, which recorded 2.5% over the same period.

Furthermore, China is competing with the US in the areas of technology and emotional intelligence to become a leading player in these fields. At the same time, it has significantly reduced its poverty rate.

Data from the World Bank show that China's poverty rate fell from 88% in 1980 to 27% in 2019. Moreover, so-called Chinese millennials have greater opportunities to own their home than their American counterparts. According to an HBSC study conducted in 2017, 70% of the Chinese population owns their home, compared with 35% of Americans.

In the last three decades, China's annual GDP growth has averaged 9%, far more than countries such as the US

Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that alongside this success there are problems that need solving, since they pose a threat to the economic growth and stability of the country.

These problems are centred around the ageing of the population, which will entail high social costs in the future. There is also the uneven distribution of income between urban and rural workers, and the differences between those who live in coastal areas, both in the east and the south of the country, and those who live in western China.

Mention should also be made of the environmental problem affecting the country, which has its roots in China's industrial model based on a market economy. One example of this problem is the city of Beijing, which has recorded very high levels of pollution in recent years.

Beijing pollution
Beijing has recorded very high levels of pollution in recent years (Photo: 4H4 Photography/Getty Images)

Moreover, this "success" should be put into perspective. One need look no further than a comparison between China's per capita GDP and that of the US. Whereas China's per capita GDP in 2019 was USD 9,976.67, the corresponding figure for the US was USD 65,118.40, according to data from the World Bank.

Clearly, this comparison shows that we cannot refer to China's economy as a total success.

Leaving aside these problems and the relative success of the economy, my aim is to focus on the link between the economic model and the political model in China. This leads to my first question. Is it viable for the link between the economic and the political models put into practice in China to be maintained over time?

To answer this question, it should be remembered that both these models have their origins in ideological projects that emerged from a concept of modernity proposed by the Western world. Among other things, this modernity is grounded in a faith in progress based on reason and science, and one of its fundamental objectives is to improve the material lives of the majority of individuals in a society. 

In this respect, Marxist-Leninist ideas, which aimed to eliminate economic inequality and to end the exploitation of the working class by the bourgeoisie, served as a starting point from which to move towards a revolution and the establishment of a socialist political model in China. The objective behind this model was to set up a regime in which the population could become directly involved in the key political decisions affecting the country.

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Let us not forget that, once the 1949 revolution was over, China was reunified under a strong government led by Mao and the CCP. Since then, the CCP has justified the regulation and control of citizens' private lives by citing the importance of maintaining the political stability of the country on behalf of the people. Thus the Chinese government gives priority to the stability of the Chinese political system.

However, that socialist regime led to the establishment of an authoritarian government, as occurred in those countries that introduced socialist regimes of a Marxist orientation during the period known as the Cold War.

At the same time, Marxism-Leninism served to bring in a planned economy model, whose purpose was to eliminate economic inequalities by abolishing the social class system and to distribute resources more fairly. However, the economic exhaustion caused by revolutionary Maoism generated internal conflicts in the Chinese hierarchy, poverty and difficulties to modernise the country. This spurred the Chinese government to carry out reforms from the 1980s, which led to the establishment of a market or capitalist economic model. The objective behind launching this model was to solve the problem of poverty and improve the material well-being of the population.

Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that this economic model is based on economic liberalism, which sees a need to respect private property and to exercise the freedom to buy and sell with little or no state intervention, as a means of satisfying the material needs and improving the material well-being of a society. In fact, the Chinese government has adopted a capitalist model in which the state has played an important role.

The harmonious interaction between the economic and the political model will be difficult to maintain in the future

Of course, one may think that the liberal economic model comes into conflict with a political model based on Marxism-Leninism, but which is authoritarian in the exercise of power. Particularly so because a Marxist regime is based on the abolition of the class system and the socialisation of the means of production, which contradicts key aspects of capitalism; namely that the owners of the means of production are individuals, and that producers and consumers may freely establish prices and volumes of goods and services to satisfy the material needs of the population. This suggests that the harmonious interaction between the economic and the political model will be difficult to maintain in the future.

Bearing the aforesaid in mind, we might ask the question, how has it been possible for the two models to co-exist in today's China?

By way of answer, I must point out that they are not solely underpinned by life projects that have emerged from the ideas of modernity originating in the Western world. There is an important factor that must be taken into account when seeking to explain how the two models have been able to co-exist until the present day. I refer here to the thought and teachings of Confucius and the School of the Learned. For this is the source of some ideas that the Chinese government has incorporated to implicitly justify the co-existence of the market economy model with a Marxist-Leninist political regime with authoritarian tendencies.

Confucius statue
Confucian tradition has served to give China's current political regime an implicit legitimacy (Photo: Pawopa/Getty Images)

In the case of the political model, I will begin by explaining how important the ideas of Confucius are with regard to its justification and legitimisation.

First, there is the idea of hierarchy. Confucius considered it was important to respect the hierarchy, values and justice in order to achieve individual and also collective well-being. He thought it was necessary to establish a hierarchical order between ruler and subject, father and son, etc. For Confucius, it was a serious matter for a subject to disobey his or her ruler or a son to disobey his father, and it should not be accepted. This offers an insight into why maintaining the political unity of the State, based on a system of hierarchy and social control, has been a predominant factor throughout China's history.

In this respect, Confucian tradition has served to give China's current political regime an implicit legitimacy, since the Chinese Communist Party has been concerned to maintain its unanimous and monolithic convening power, and to avoid any situation that questions the country's political order. I consider this to be important, because it shows that the Chinese government is not interested in reinforcing the political model by drawing on the orthodoxy of Marxism-Leninism or the freedoms and liberal democracy promoted by the West. 

Secondly, I would like to focus on the idea of harmony. Confucius attached importance to the establishment of a good relationship between the governors and the governed, since this fosters a peaceful relationship free of danger. In this respect, harmony has been a key idea in the political discourse of China's leaders in the course of this century. For example, Hu Jintao's government began to include the idea of a "harmonious socialist society" in its discourse. Furthermore, the speeches made by China's current leaders emphasise this idea, for what is important is to preserve the order and stability of the political system, and, therefore, of the political regime that rules the country.

Harmony has been a key idea in the political discourse of China's leaders in the course of this century to preserve the order and stability of the political system

Thirdly, I would draw attention to the idea of benevolence as one of the basic principles of Confucius, since it contributes to a justification and legitimisation of China's political model in the same way that the ideas of hierarchy and harmony do.

Confucius considered that a benevolent government is not questioned by society and can be legitimate, regardless of whether or not it has been elected, since the important thing is to improve the living conditions of the people. In this respect, the speeches of Chinese leaders seek to reinforce the idea that their policies and actions are applied for the benefit of the people, and therefore there is no room for questioning their procedure in the application of these or the social repercussions they may have for the Chinese people. 

As for the economic model, since the creation of the People's Republic of China, Confucian thought has been of fundamental importance to the relative "success" of the Chinese economy.

Three elements of Confucian thought have played a crucial role here. The first is the relationship between ruler and subject, since the CCP was established as a centralised and dominant power, while the people followed the decisions made by the leaders of the party. This applies to both the period in which the Chinese government introduced the planned economy, and to when it was decided to establish reforms in order to bring in the market economy model. The intention of the government has been to maintain social cohesion and to be the social and political agent that decides on the economic plans or models to be adopted, with the justification that it is acting at the service of the working class and, at present, of the Chinese people as a whole.

Chinese president
The speeches of Chinese leaders seek to reinforce the idea that their policies are applied for the benefit of the people (Photo: Paul Kagame/Flickr)

The second element is pragmatism. Confucius believed that pragmatism allows for flexibility in response to changing circumstances, as well as for the application of gradualism and experimentation. This explains why, from the year 1978, the CCP was able to gradually introduce market-opening policies and reforms with the intention of fairly representing the interests of the Chinese people. The purpose behind the implementation of this model was to promote China's economic development and to improve the standard of living of the Chinese people.

This paved the way for the emergence of a middle class that has preferred to see its prosperity tied to the indefinite permanence of the party and its political leaders. It would appear that this social class prefers to maintain its economic privileges and subdue its political aspirations rather than apply pressure in order to change the Marxist-Leninist political regime with authoritarian tendencies.

The third element is the application of Confucian ethics. In the last two decades, the CCP has appropriated Confucian values for political ends, such as the concept of harmony, when it insists that it seeks to consolidate a "harmonious socialist society", i.e. avoid the class struggle and preserve harmony and stability in the social relationship between the party and the people.

Confucianism has been used as an instrument by those who govern to gain legitimacy in the eyes of Chinese civil society and to maintain their power status

In the Confucian code of ethics, an important role is played by the Confucian concept of the mandate from heaven, according to which leaders must use their power to the benefit of their people. This is why the CCP refers in its speeches to putting the people first. In this respect, Confucianism has played a key role in guiding the CCP in the development of its economic policies.

Taking account of the Confucian ideas and principles I have mentioned, an understanding may be gained of why the Chinese model's process of modernisation has not necessarily involved following the path for modernisation established by the Western world, but rather it has established its own path, that is to say, its own modernity. For example, the political discourse used to launch the market economy model is not wholly inspired by liberal democracy or liberalism, or by the ideological roots of the Chinese revolution steeped in Marxism-Leninism. Rather, it finds its inspiration in China's own cultural tradition, that is to say, in Confucian thought and the School of the Learned.

However, it should be pointed out that this discourse, grounded in Confucian thought and the School of the Learned, has been used as an instrument by those who govern to gain legitimacy in the eyes of Chinese civil society and to maintain their power status.

There can be no doubt that Confucian thought has been implicitly used in the discourse and policies applied by the CCP to guide the destiny of the country and to maintain control over the market economy model. In fact, all the indications are that the leaders of the party do not have the slightest intention of losing their power status. 

Therefore, my final question is: what implications does this have for the West and for the world in general?

In answering this question, I believe there are three important considerations.

  1. Firstly, concern that the Chinese model might be seen by developing countries as a model to follow in order to achieve economic growth and generate wealth. I am a little worried by this possibility, since it opens the door to establishing or maintaining political regimes which have clearly dissociated themselves from the democratic principles that are essential to helping members of any society to live together. And I say this regardless of whether or not these democratic principles originate in the West.
  2. Secondly, there is the co-existence between a Marxist-Leninist political model with authoritarian tendencies that attaches little importance to individual freedoms and a capitalist economic model which, essentially, is only driven by the constant accumulation of capital. I find this worrying, since it justifies the idea that capitalism can be guided and led by authoritarian governments. Quite clearly, this should not occur. The precursors of economic liberalism did not advocate that the market economy model should be directed in this way. On the contrary, they proposed that it must be the members of society as a whole who should exercise their freedom of deciding what must be produced and what must be purchased to satisfy the needs of society and to improve its material well-being. Nor did Marxism hold that leaders should take decisions without taking the people into account. On the contrary, it proposed that the people should take decisions via assemblies.
  3. Thirdly, it is worth stressing that it must fall to Chinese civil society to exert pressure and drive through a change to ensure that their freedoms are respected and they can become genuinely involved in taking political decisions that shape the running of the country. The upshot of this is that change will not take place through political pressure being brought to bear by the West. On the contrary, this role will be played by civil society, which may even base its actions on the teachings of Confucius and the School of the Learned. Confucius attached importance to the role of education as a driving force for regenerating public and private consciousness, for the purpose of establishing a social order guided by leaders sensitive to what is considered fair, thereby avoiding arbitrary actions on the part of these leaders.

Finally, I would like to emphasise that my thoughts here have been based on the parameters of Western interpretation that I have used, and it is likely that they do not fully reflect the way in which Chinese society perceives itself.

This leads me to ask the question, should developing countries continue to adopt the models of living and development that have originated in the West, or should they apply models of living that are more consistent with their values and cultural traditions? It is a question that I will leave open for reflection, since it may serve as a stepping stone to a debate about the search for models of living based on which a society can offer its citizens a decent and a prosperous life.

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