The history of contemporary China changed its course when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gained control of mainland China and the Kuomintang (KMT) retreated to the island of Taiwan after a long civil war spanning 1927 to 1950.
Why was there a split between the KMT and the CCP? What made the CCP a winner and the KMT a loser? When this author was on a tour of the late Deng Xiaoping’s residence in Chongqing, China, the guide quoted some of Deng’s words. And the answers lay therein — to Deng, the politics of the CCP is to serve the people, and the role of the CCP is to develop productivity. The keywords here are CCP, people and productivity. The governing logic of the CCP is to organize the relationship of these components such that there is a balance of the three, with the people being the pivot of this equilibrium.
While the ideology of the CCP may seem complicated, its core simply is “the people.” In this sense, although the concept of “political party” may have been imported from the West, specifically the Leninist party, the heart of the CCP is still Confucian culture. As a philosophy for governance, Confucianism is all about “the people.”
In balancing the three components comes the concepts of “ultra-left” and “ultra-right” in Chinese political speak. The so-called “ultra-left” is only concerned with politics, not with economics; the so-called “ultra-right” is only concerned with economics, not with politics. Either one will cause inefficacy or even failure of governance. The Confucian way of “taking the middle path” — or the modern idea of “preventing the ultra-right and the ultra-left from happening” — is a means to achieve the balance. This logic can be used to explain the CCP’s success and the KMT’s failure; it can also be used to explain the socio-economic problems faced by China after its reform and opening up. It can even be used to explain the rise and fall of a ruling party.
The contest between the CCP and the KMT is the subject of much scholarly research. Many theories have been thrown up about the failure of the KMT, but the core reason is that the regime did not start out with the people in mind, nor did it seek benefits for the people. Mao Zedong and communists of his era came to a conclusion: since the KMT regime was not able to serve the people, it should be toppled.
The People are Excluded from the Political Process
In retrospect, Chiang Kai-shek relied overly on warlords and local elites to carve out his regime. At the local level, factors such as people being shut out of the political process, elites not improving people’s livelihoods, and the corruption of officials had all made the KMT regime extremely shaky. In contrast, the CCP rose from China’s rural fringes. As most of the local elites had been absorbed by the KMT, the CCP had to rely on the masses to strike a bottom-up revolutionary path.
More importantly, the KMT government did not establish any political thought or belief that was acceptable to the common people. In other words, the political idea of the KMT was suited only for the elites. The KMT emphasized the centrality of power and excluded the lower rungs from political participation. It overlooked the fact that at that time, popular sovereignty appealed to many Chinese, especially the intellectuals. In contrast the CCP accepted the notion of popular sovereignty and further modified it such that the concept was embraced by most of the people. The CCP succeeded in employing a democratic idea to mobilize the various sectors of the Chinese society, thus winning it the popular mandate.
After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the ruling party set about developing the economy. In the early 1950s, China was successful in its economic development and achieved the initial stages of industrialization just before the onset of the Cultural Revolution. Even during the Great Leap Forward, the radical policies that were implemented were for developing the economy. However, the problem with both policies was that they were not objective and skewed towards voluntarism. In the haste to build up the economy, much harm was done to it. With Mao urging the nation to “continue the revolution,” China ultimately ended up on the ultra-left path, causing a vast imbalance between politics and economics. The emphasis on pauperism robbed the people of their livelihoods.
The revolution of the CCP is to liberate productivity and the goal is to provide welfare for the people. It has in fact become the governing logic of the CCP.
Naturally, with the return of Deng Xiaoping, reform and opening up became the most important agenda for the ruling party. Through liberating productivity, the CCP wanted to snuff out pauperism in the country and hoped that the people would see that the CCP could bring about benefits for them too. Deng, having witnessed in the early 1990s the fall of communist regimes in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, correctly analysed that the regimes’ downfalls were due to their inability to develop their economies and provide welfare for their people. The Soviet Union and the East European regimes, in power for a long period of time, seemed to have the support of the people. In actual fact, they ruled their countries with iron fists and their legitimacy was built on thin ice, which could be destroyed easily by any internal or external vicissitude. Academics from the Soviet Union and the East European regimes had long sounded the alarm, but their voices were suppressed or they were treated as dissidents.
After a series of speeches delivered by Deng during his inspection tour of southern China in 1992, the country embarked on a large-scale reform and opening up. In the two decades since, China’s economy has grown in leaps and bounds and it is now the second largest economy and the largest trading nation in the world. In terms of national income per capita, it has risen from less than USD 300 in the early 1980s to USD 8000 currently, placing China in the middle-income nation category.
The revolution of the CCP is to liberate productivity and the goal of liberating productivity is to provide welfare for the people. Deng had never wavered from this conviction and it has in fact become the governing logic of the CCP.
However, just like the Mao era when many wrong paths were taken, it was not always possible to strike a healthy balance between liberating productivity and providing welfare. During the two decades of heady economic growth, many social objectives were left behind. In the singular pursuit for economic development, GDPism has taken precedence over everything else.
The Ugly Consequences of GDPism
GPDism has created a series of social problems, especially in the areas of social security, healthcare, education, public housing, and environmental protection. Coupled with the effects of globalization, a huge income gap has opened up between different segments of society, creating deep social divides. Rather than bolstering social foundations, economic growth has weakened the social fabric. This is why some people are worried that Chinese society is becoming unstable or even turbulent. It seems that the ruling party has forgotten that its most important politics is the people’s welfare.
Of equally grave consequence is the corruption at every level of the CCP. Cliques and oligarchies are only interested in amassing benefits for themselves, their families, and their inner circles. The noble idea of providing welfare for society and the country has fallen between the cracks. The CCP is also suffering from a lack of unity and sense of identity. All these problems are deepening the crisis of a volatile China.
How should we resolve this quagmire — the imbalance of politics, economics, and the people? The CCP has delved into the problem by first cleaning up the party, launching a large-scale anti-corruption drive after its 18th National Congress.
Although some quarters are sceptical of this “internal surgery” of the CCP, speaking from experience, it is always more effective to change from within than being forced to change by external factors. The Soviet Union and the East European regimes are a good example of outside forces — a demand for democracy — causing the fall of governments. Consequently, a lack in political responsibility for economic growth resulted in the decline in the economic health of these countries.
Cleaning up one own’s party is just the beginning. The ultimate goal is to restore the balance between politics, economics, and the people. In fact, by first putting the CCP in order, more effective economic growth will ensue, which is no longer solely concerned with GDP, but which is beneficial to social justice. At the same time, after receiving their basic social needs, the people will also need to feel engaged with the political process. This calls for the CCP to become more open, so as to allow more people to participate in the political process.
In any society, whenever an imbalance arises between politics, economics, and the people, there will be a major political crisis. A good example is the upsurge of populism in the Western world today, showing us that a sole reliance on the system of “one man one vote” is insufficient to realise the aspirations of the people.
Abraham Lincoln’s famous words “of the people, by the people, for the people” have two important points: the people is the core of politics, and democracy is the means to realise the people’s aspirations. Comparing Lincoln’s words and those of Deng’s, we can see that both emphasized “the people,” but the CCP has a different method for providing welfare to the people. The Western system sees a separation of politics and economics, where market forces are the overriding factor. Governments have thus found it difficult to rescue ailing markets, productivity is adversely affected, and in the end, the people suffer. In contrast, the CCP has made it its responsibility to develop the economy, and it is now putting its own house in order so as to prevent a major social crisis from happening.
(Translated by Chean Chian Cheong)