China: Mao or Markets?

Reading the revival of leftist rhetoric in Beijing.

Why is Chinese president Xi Jinping embracing his inner Mao at a moment when China’s new leaders are on the verge of launching a new wave of reforms to retool China’s economy based on strengthening market forces?

Hint: it may have something to do with the regime’s efforts to bring down the former Chongqing Communist Party leader and darling of the “new left”, Bo Xilai. China’s politics, like its policy decision-making tends to be rather opaque. But Xi sent a clear political message in July when he visited Mao Zedong’s landmark lakeside mansion and declared, “our nation will never change color.”

Blast from the Past

As if to make the point, a secret memo called “Document No. 9,” issued by the Communist Party Central Committee General Office, was recently leaked to the New York Times issuing a directive to party cadres listing “seven perils” not to be tolerated. These included “Western constitutional democracy”, constitutionalism, civil society, an independent judiciary, press freedom, human rights and market “neo-liberalism.” The memo, according to the NY Times, says that “Western forces hostile to China and dissidents within the country are still constantly infiltrating the ideological sphere.”

There is far more at play here than, as one interpretation has it, a bit of political symbolism to placate the left while the regime attacks Bo Xilai, leading icon of the left. This old-school Communist “rectification” campaign may be in part about consolidating party control, and certainly underscores how terrified Chinese leaders are of their own people. But most intriguingly, this posturing raises questions about China’s political trajectory, and more immediately, how Beijing will implement a wave of market-oriented economic reforms needed to advance China’s $7+ trillion economy.

In recent months, Chinese state-run media have attacked Western ideas, most prominently the notion of constitutionalism—a debate that goes back to the latter days of the Qing dynasty. The idea, articulated in Article 5 of China’s current constitution, is that “No organization or individual has the privilege to overstep the constitution and the law.” Only last December, on the thirtieth anniversary of the 1982 constitution, President Xi defended the constitution.

No more. The official media has been trashing the idea. One of a series of recent People’s Daily editorials said that constitutionalism is absurd, “like climbing trees to catch fish.”

In practice, China has tended to be governed more according to rule by law than of law, with the Communist political elite largely exempted. With burgeoning concerns over corruption and inequality, reformers have focused on the need for constitutionalism—rule of law. Some in China may fear that is a slippery slope leading to political reform as well. Earlier this year the virulence of the debate has seen one reform-minded journal’s website taken offline, and a journalists going on strike after a liberal-leaning newspaper, Southern Weekend, was censored. These have been part of a wider trend of crackdowns on dissent, including on some prominent human-rights activists.

Mao in the Information Age

These trends raise a host of vexing issues. First, in a China with six hundred million on the internet, five hundred million on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and over 1.1 billion cellphones, is old-fashioned Leninist political control viable—or even possible? In recent years, China has seen tens of thousands of what are called “mass incidents—180,000 reported by the government in 2010 (and they’ve since stopped reporting numbers). Most are local affairs, often over environmental damage or property scams by local party officials.

This then raises another puzzling dilemma. If your objective is to fulfill China’s modernization— Mr. Xi has dubbed it the “China Dream”—and corruption and abuse of power by some of China’s eighty million Communist Party members are major impediments to the next wave of economic reforms that the Politburo is well aware are needed, then how can even a “purified” Party be the answer?

The legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party has been largely based on performance. More than three decades of double-digit economic growth, lifting three hundred million from abject poverty, have been the foundation for the success of this de facto social contract. But Beijing is well aware that the development model that has delivered this success has run its course.