Is China a communist country?

March 13, 2010 | Posted by Chris

Soldiers at the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, above. Official events like this may give outdated impressions of China.

In short, no.

More verbosely, the nature of governance in China is a topic of much debate, not the least because it is a moving target: the market economy reforms begun in the late 1970s continue to profoundly affect China and the party that rules it.

To be sure, the People's Republic of China during and shortly after the lifetime of Mao Zedong was communist and stoked revolutions beyond its borders. However, China never was a proxy or even a close ally of the USSR. As John King Fairbank makes clear, as early as 1960 the USSR and China were nearing the end of their diplomatic alliance, partly because American contact and influence across the Pacific had been far more extensive and long-lived than Sino-Russian relations by way of the Mongolian steppe.

The chaotic period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when China's youth were encouraged to rebel against "old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits" and Chinese society was turned on its head, effectively completed China's disenchantment with communism. Merle Goldman has written that the official Marxist-Leninist line became "bankrupt" and "increasingly irrelevant to people's lives" after the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.

Then in 1978 Deng Xiaoping championed the market economy reforms that have led to China's modern economic growth, and diplomatic relations with the US were normalized. Since then, China has embraced institutional globalization and taken steps that include reorganizing its central bank on the model of the US Federal Reserve, adopting securities regulation from the world's major stock markets, and adopting international accounting standards and English as a second language. More significant, China adopted the ideal of the rule of law and accepted the idea that competition breeds efficiency.

Because of these changes to China's economy, even the word "socialist" does not accurately describe present-day Chinese society. In fact, the word "socialist" -- when it does occasionally come up -- is only used as "political cover" by the authorities so they may maintain an appearance of ideological consistency. "'Market economy' is the goal," writes the Harvard Kennedy School's William Overholt.

However, the system of rule in China is without a doubt top-down, and so the proper way to describe the Chinese government is to say that it is authoritarian.

Authoritarianism means the state technically has the power to unilaterally do anything it may like to do. However, the Chinese government understands well the need for a consistent business environment in which standards are predictable, and because of this, it sparingly exercises its absolute power, aware of the adverse affects of domestic and international backlashes.

First time visitors to China are generally surprised to see how "open" Chinese society is and the freedoms ordinary people have, which are increasing as public services and the availability of goods improve, and which are put within reach by their increasing incomes.

And while no excuses can be made for the shortcomings of an authoritarian system, Chinese leadership -- which has been studying Japanese and Taiwanese democratic models -- does expect far more political openness in the coming decades. In 2006 Premier Wen Jiabao offered positive -- albeit paternalistic -- words, saying, "We are confident that when the people are capable of running a village through direct election, they will later be able to run a township, then a county and a province."

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