Skip to main content

Insights on China's 19th Communist Party Congress

China's communist party held its nineteenth congress which adopted Xi Jinping Thought and inspirational plans to build a modern socialist country by mid-century. Western capitalist press accounts were generally negative and focused on Xi's consolidation of power. However successful implementation of the program despite difficulties will have great bearing and positive impact on the global balance of forces between socialism and capitalism and prospects for world peace.

printer friendly  
A freight train leaves for Duisburg port of Germany from Weihai port in East China's Shandong Province on September 15, 2017., China Today

China, Xi Jinping and the Nineteenth Party Congress

Xi Jinping as a strong leader: western and Chinese views

The Communist Party of China held its 19th Party Congress in October 2017.  The congress, held once every five years, is China's most important political meeting as it makes the critical policy and leadership decisions.  US press accounts of the 19th Congress focused on Xi Jinping's consolidation of power, and the supposed emergence of a new Asian strongman.  Xi was depicted as having attained the status of a powerful Chinese leader like Deng Xiaoping or even Mao Zedong and there was speculation that a new cult of personality will emerge, focused on Xi Jinping Thought. This would enable Xi to stay in power beyond the usual two terms, perhaps for life.  Repeatedly noted was the stronger role of the Chinese Communist Party in many aspects of society, which would be the basis of Xi's power.  Also noted was the lack of what Westerners regard as reform, that is, political and economic policies moving towards bourgeois liberalism and capitalism.  The western press portrayed China ambitiously seeking a central role in world affairs, a rising competitor to the U.S. in global power.

Assessments of the party congress in the capitalist press ranged from skepticism to outright condemnation.  The Financial Times of London was very clear in its editorial on the congress, which commented, "China under Mr. Xi is promoting a governance model...that is anathema to the democracy America and the west have championed" (Oct. 26, 2017).  This is straight to the point, strong communist leadership is indeed an anathema to western capitalism.

Xi Jinping has in fact attained a very strong position.  Prior to the Congress, Xi was described as a "core leader," a phrase indicating the elevation of his status.  The concept "Xi Jinping Thought" was written into the Party Constitution, after the citation of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory.  The contributions of the party general secretaries immediately after Deng (Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao) were referred to but not by name.  While Mao in my view holds a unique position as one of the founders of the CPC with legendary accomplishments, it is fair to conclude that Xi has attained an elevated and equivalent status to Deng Xiaoping.    Notions as to whether Xi will remain in power for a third term or extended period remain speculation.    

General Secretary Xi's policies

Yes, Xi is a strong leader, but what kind of leader?  His political speech at the Party Congress was that of a devoted communist applying Marxist-Leninism to China's conditions.  He is determined to lead and drive China towards a developed socialist society.  Xi also wants to realize the "China dream," the historic rejuvenation of the Chinese nation which went into a period of decline after the Opium War of 1839-42.   An important idea written into the party constitution is "Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era."  Reference to the "new era" indicates a new stage is beginning in China's socialist development, the major focus of Xi's policies.  The period dominated by Deng's opening and reform policies adopted in 1979 has ended with major accomplishments, and now a change in course is needed for the new situation created by those policies.  Clearly Xi's program will not be easy; it will face significant obstacles.   Part of understanding China today is grasping the contradictions inherent in its socialist development.

What is the New Era?

The "new era" means in my view the transition from the primary stage of socialism to the more advanced, intermediate stage where the influence of the old society will be greatly diminished.   When the Peoples Republic was established in 1949, the Communist Party was challenged to implement a socialist program in a country that was mostly agricultural and backward in economic development, semi-feudal and semi-capitalist.  Socialism in China cannot be built quickly -- Mao tried and failed during the Great Leap Forward.  It is a step by step process taking a long time; China is still in what the CPC describes as the "primary stage of socialism," that is, a mixed situation where advanced socialist institutions are created but the backward ideas and practices of the old society, two thousand years of the feudal dynasties, still bear a heavy influence.  For example, China still has a heavy burden of rural underdevelopment. 

These conditions formed the basis of the mixed socialist/capitalist economy resulting from Deng's program which facilitated rapid industrial development and modernization but also exploitation of Chinese migrant labor.  By the early 21st century this program had achieved many of its historic goals, with serious problems also emerging such as income inequality and environmental degradation.   

General Secretary Hu Jintao's scientific development policy of 2005 began to shift to a more balanced and people-centered approach, leading to the "new normal" of 2012, the current economic model.  China is shifting from driving rapid GDP growth through foreign direct investment and labor-intensive, export oriented manufacturing to a strategy emphasizing internal consumption, expansion of the service sector and value added, innovative products.  For example, the expansion of imports is now faster than exports.  The new model is based on slower, more balanced quality growth taking care of social services and environmental problems.

Specific goals and a timetable

The Congress set forth a timetable.  China will achieve a "moderately prosperous society" by 2020 and then advance to basically realize socialist modernization by 2035.  This means China will become a global leader in innovation, make a qualitative improvement in the environment, ensure prosperity while closing income gaps and eliminating poverty, and enhance the rule of law and the rights of the people to participate and develop as equals.  By 2049, one hundred years after establishing the socialist government, Xi's strategic vision is that China will attain the status of a "great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful."  This is an ambitious agenda.  

Major challenges

China's program of rapid industrialization and modernization in the 1980s and 1990s was one of the most successful in modern world history; consequently, one should not underestimate the capacity to accomplish Xi's goals.  However, it would also be folly to underestimate the serious problems and difficulties, especially in light of the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and the preponderance of strength of capitalism worldwide.  Foremost among these problems as identified by both Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, is corruption in the Chinese Communist Party itself.  Xi's popular anticorruption campaign targeted "tigers and flies," including about 10% of the previous Central Committee.  The 19th Party Congress took steps to address root causes as well as the symptoms of corruption, and strengthening public oversight of the CPC as well as party self-supervision.  Xi emphasized that the struggle against corruption requires resolve, tenacity and is never ending; corruption includes not only bribery and criminal behavior but official arrogance, bureaucratism and incompetence.

The huge expansion of the private sector has led to greater influence by capitalism both Chinese and foreign, and spread of bourgeois values like the drive for money and career.  International capitalism-imperialism led by the United States sees China as a rising threat, and has the goal of regime change in Beijing, whether by military pressure or a color revolution.  The nonpublic or private sector has made great contributions to China's economic growth, however, it has also brought corrosive and potentially dangerous influences contrary to socialism.  But the communist party retains its position of power and is increasingly using many ways to contain the private economy while affirming its positive, complementary role. 

The state continues to implement macroeconomic control through state ownership of strategic sectors and enterprises, heavy industry such as petrochemical and automobile manufacturing. This is reflected in the effectiveness of the Five Year Plans in achieving economic goals.  Central is the state-run banking and financial system which controls decisions on major capital investments, prioritized for state owned enterprises especially since the 2008 capitalist economic crisis.  US and global finance capital has made sustained efforts to open up and privatize China's entire financial system without success.  Forbes online complained of the state's "heavy hand in financial markets...backtracking on exchange rate liberalization" and a high level of state control in the services sector (October 4).

With rising wages and stricter government regulations, the business atmosphere in China is now less inviting for some foreign capitalist corporations who complain about the “chilly atmosphere.”  For example,  "China's communist party is establishing or reviving 'party committees' within many foreign insurance joint ventures...to keep the foreign-invested ventures in line with China's broader goals" (Financial Times, 10/24).   Regulators are demanding equity stakes and board seats from the biggest private tech companies.  Mixed ownership models are promoted where the state retains control while seeking more private resources.  Huge corporations such as Google and Facebook are currently shut out of the China market because they won't abide by government regulations. 

Study and practice of Marxism-Leninism

The party congress also laid emphasis on the study and practice of Marxism-Leninism and keeping to the vision of socialism and communism.  Funding has increased for research institutes such as the Institute of Marxism in Beijing.  There is a widespread public campaign publicizing the 12 "core values" of socialism; colorful posters with popular design are common.  A number of colleges and universities have already taken up the call to enhance study of Marxism and scientific socialism in the new era, including Xi Jinping's book The Governance of China (available in English translation from Foreign Languages Press).  The government is rewriting school textbooks to emphasize socialism and traditional Chinese culture and has set up 231 experimental Red Army schools.  Given the preponderance of small producer mentality in the old society and the surge of materialism during the Deng era, a great deal of work is needed to strengthen the position of socialist and communist thinking in China.

During Mao’s last years, China was active in connecting with and supporting communist parties and national liberation struggles around the world.  Results were mixed.  Foreign Languages Press editions of classic works of Marxism-Leninism were widely distributed and enthusiastically received; however, too often Chinese actions were dominated by an anti-Soviet policy.  Deng Xiaoping changed this outward orientation to emphasize China’s economic development.  Today, China is again beginning to reach out, sponsoring conferences such as the World Socialism Forum in Beijing and sending more frequent Marxist delegations abroad.  Xi Jinping will be attending a briefing in Beijing on the nineteenth congress for leaders of over 200 political parties and organizations from around the world.

Principal contradiction

Mao's essay "On Contradiction" said that the nature of a process will be determined by the principle aspect of the principal contradiction.  Xi specified that the principal contradiction facing China in the new era is that "between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people's ever-growing needs for a better life."  This means a people-centered approach promoting well-rounded development and common prosperity.  In my view, Mao during the Cultural Revolution emphasized class struggle as permeating all aspects of society; Deng's reform program emphasized the primacy of economic production.  Xi sets forth a basic frame of growing social harmony moving towards developed socialism which nonetheless has within it struggle against corruption and bourgeois values.

US China relations and conclusion

US capitalism-imperialism is divided over relations with China.  There is consensus that rising China is an obstacle to US hegemony; regime change and capitalist restoration is the imperialist goal.  However, there is difference between those capitalists who want a confrontational strategy of military pressure, and those who want to protect corporate interests and profits and favor soft power and a color revolution.  Trump shows this ambivalence as his harsh campaign rhetoric moderated once he took office.  His recent Asia trip did little to change this situation.  China from its perspective wants to build a "win/win" new type of state to state relations based on cooperation and mutual benefit.

According to Xi, "scientific socialism is full of vitality in 21st century China."  Is this rhetoric or an accurate statement?  The answer to this question has great significance for the global balance of forces between capitalism and socialism, and the strength of the international working class and Left.   This bears mightily on the prospects for world peace, economic development and justice.   China's impact is more and more felt on the world stage, as the world's foremost trading nation and initiator of the huge "Belt and Road" infrastructure construction program through Eurasia.  China is also assuming a leadership role in containing and reducing global warming, now that the US has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord.  At stake is nothing less than what China calls the common future of humanity.

Duncan McFarland, Center for Marxist Education (Cambridge) and CCDS Socialist Education Project, West Newton, Mass.

About the 19th National Congress of the CPC

Rolf Berthold, China Today, November 23, 2017   http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/2017-11/23/content_50080961.htm

The national congresses of the Communist Party of China (CPC) always polarize global attention, but the 19th National Congress plays a particularly important role in the history of the CPC. Expected to form a new milestone on the successful path to socialism with Chinese characteristics, this assembly is of immense importance to China's growing international weight.

China's policies, steadily implemented by the CPC over decades, will be permanently enhanced.

The report submitted to the 18th National Congress of the CPC put forward that, "Improvements to the material and cultural life of the Chinese people constitute the basic goal of our reform and opening-up and socialist modernization."

This goal is a task that is socialist in nature. No party governing a capitalist country has formulated a central objective comparable to that of the CPC. In the five years since the 18th National Congress, this task has been the focus of CPC policies, and its fulfillment has brought visible results.

I witnessed during my trip to China in October 2016 the great changes that had taken place, both in China's cities and countryside. In the bigger cities, ramshackle dwellings have given way to modern residential buildings, and in the countryside space has been cleared on which to build large areas of affordable housing. New roads have also been built throughout the country to meet the growing demands of passenger and freight transportation. In just a few decades, China has successfully built the world's largest motorway and high-speed railway networks.

Fast becoming a leading economic power

Today, China achieves top performances in many industrial sectors. The country has successfully caught up to global technological advances, and also begun to lead global technological progress in many fields.

People's living standards and incomes have significantly risen, and educational opportunities and medical services have considerably improved.

Governmental management, democratic participation, and social order and stability have also been enhanced. And the fight against corruption has made substantial progress.

The country's domestic stability has been consolidated, and any attempts at destabilization have been successfully prevented.

Achievement of the aim to create moderate prosperity throughout the country by the year 2021, which marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CPC, looks certain. Its fulfillment also includes the task of lifting China's remaining 70 million poor people out of poverty. This is a crucial challenge for China as it advances towards the goal of building a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious. The date set for completion of this a goal is 2049 – the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

The development of socialism with Chinese characteristics has now entered a new phase, evident in the daily practical work of the CPC and its concrete results. Socialism is no longer a vision for the future; it has now become a concrete reality for the Chinese people.

One wonders, however, why it is that certain people in the West consider modern living and transportation, and higher living standards to be features of capitalism. Better living conditions for all are by no means necessarily the fruits of a capitalist system. On the contrary, they are only possible under socialist circumstances. A better life for all is clearly the aim of socialism.

China constitutes the paradigm for a new social order in the 21st century. While in the highly developed countries of the Western world the question of overcoming the capitalist system remains unsolved, the development of a socialist system that has arisen from semi-colonial and semi-feudal social conditions has, in principle, been achieved.

New model of socialism     

China is creating a new model of socialism, one based on the new situation in the field of science and technology, and the country's successful development since its founding, 68 years ago.

Although the traditional system of socialism no longer meets the requirements of the current situation, the basic principles of scientific socialism are nevertheless still valid. They moreover correspond with the principles of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

 General Secretary Xi Jinping, the core of China's leadership, quite rightly stated: "Socialism with Chinese characteristics is socialism and no other-ism." Whoever looks back on such a long history and keeps it alive, as China has done, indeed looks ahead to a great future.

However, certain people still seem unable to comprehend the demise of traditional socialism in the former U.S.S.R. and several other European countries. Considered as a whole, this defeat was not just a counter-revolution initiated from the outside, but also a result of internal strategic mistakes, and hence made possible by the ruling parties of these countries.

The historical advance whereby capitalism is superseded by a higher form of social order, namely socialism, is now taking place in a different way from that sometimes assumed.

Socialism in China and other countries of the world that have chosen the socialist way will look different from that in countries where socialism faced defeat in the past.

Socialism in the 21st century will draw upon the principles of scientific socialism, on the concrete circumstances of each particular country, and on the given international situation.

China's solutions for the world

The 19th CPC National Congress revealed further elements of socialism with Chinese characteristics. The example China has set by its successful ongoing shaping of socialism will become ever more important to the international community as a whole.

General Secretary Xi Jinping recently stated: "Members of the CPC and the Chinese people are highly confident of their ability to provide for humankind through Chinese solutions during the search for a better social order."

One program that offers multiple possibilities for further social development to all participating countries but without forcing them to become embroiled in the complicated trappings of a capitalist social order or deal with difficult inner conflicts is China's Belt and Road Initiative.

Bearing in mind the knotty, tense and hazardous international status quo, China contributes immensely to maintaining peace and international security. China carries out a policy of international multi-polarity, promotes peaceful solutions to international problems, and avoids conflicts and confrontations. China advocates equitable international cooperation, mutual respect, and mutual benefits, and the international support for this strategy is continuously growing.

What China's critics do not take into consideration, however, is that although it participates in economic globalization, the country clearly rejects political globalization, because this would result in Western world dominance. Solving the disputes that surround this question will require much strength in the future.

Growing International Influence

Meanwhile, China's international influence is visibly growing. The BRICS mechanism, for example, is an organization that plays an ever greater role in international affairs, and supersedes older modes of political and military alliances.

In 2015, the BRICS states contributed 54.7 percent to the world's production. A meeting of BRICS leaders took place at this year's G20 Summit in Hamburg, during which the BRICS leaders agreed to renew efforts to promote an open world economy.

Furthermore, the international importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is also growing. This is evidenced by the recent admission into the organization of India and Pakistan.

New financial institutions also complement the functions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Membership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for example, stands at 70 member states, many of whom are European countries.

The Belt and Road Initiative is of particular importance. So far over 100 states and international and regional organizations have joined in this platform. Through this initiative, China is paving the way for many less developed countries to catch up with and achieve modern economics and science and technology.

The Belt and Road Initiative is a multi-billion dollar development program that covers half of the globe. As a natural consequence, this policy will further strengthen China's global reputation. It marks the beginning of brand new international relations that reach beyond the capitalist mode of production.

In this way, traditional international forms of organization receive new stimuli for their renewal. One that demonstrates this trend is the G20. But it also holds true for the future of the G7. The international influence of China as archetype of a new social order and a new type of international relations will assuredly expand in the future.

That the developing countries choose an anti-capitalist development path with a socialist perspective is both possible and likely. But a main precondition, of course, is the maintenance of peace.

In October 2016, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences organized the Seventh World Socialism Forum in Beijing. I was among its attendees. Themed "Marxism in the 21st Century," the event was a valuable experience for all concerned, not just by virtue of learning from China's experience during its process of implementing its socialist way, but also about the struggle of many other countries to find their socialist path.

Thus, the forum clearly strengthened the common belief that the world's future lies in socialism, to which the decisions made at the 19th National Congress will undoubtedly make an important contribution.

Rolf Berthold was ambassador of the German Democratic Republic to the People's Republic of China from 1982 to 1990.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.