Why China is No Longer a Communist Country
I saw Chairman Mao one time in Beijing. Or at least I thought it was Chairman Mao. I was only able to glance at him for five short seconds before a somber faced security guard prodded myself and hundreds of other people out of the Chairman Mao Mausoleum and back onto Tiananmen Square. Yes, Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China still takes up residence in Beijing. Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world throw flowers at his casket every year; they crane their necks as I did to get a glimpse of China’s ‘great’ leader.
While Mao’s body has been amazingly preserved since his death in 1976, it seems that his spirit has not survived the test of time. He may lie in eternal peace inside his Mausoleum but the world around him has changed considerably; China is no longer the gray and drab country that it was during Mao’s time. It is now a place where people can dream and then go out and make that dream come true. It is not like the old days. People other than just high government officials can drive cars. Chinese people can do business and store up wealth for themselves. Peasants can go to the university now; finding food to eat is no longer such a grave concern. Just around the corner from where Chairman Mao lies in State, the American restaurant chain McDonald’s is full of Chinese people enjoying greasy food and a cool environment. Inside homes, people can watch Western movies on DVD and even occasionally on state owned television. The world is just a mouse click away for the millions of Chinese people who have access to the Internet. Friends and family are no longer afraid of discussing politics with each other. It is even acceptable to criticize the government behind closed doors. All this is happening as Chairman Mao sleeps peacefully at Tiananmen Square. If only he knew.
I recently asked my Chinese friends how they thought Chairman Mao would react if he was suddenly brought back to life in the 21st century. “Not happy” and “Disappointed” were the most common answers that I received; I was not surprised by such responses. After all, it is difficult to find very many reasons to label China as communist these days. The ruling party in China still calls itself communist. The international media still likes to refer to China as a communist giant. But where is communism still manifested in China today? Where are the basic Communist values of sharing and equality evident in Chinese society now? They cannot be found. Quite simply, China is no longer a communist country.
If we are looking for evidence of communism in China, the first and most important place to look is at the economy. The economy in China is now decidedly capitalistic in nature. Average Chinese citizens can start their own businesses and put their income into private bank accounts. Chinese citizens can buy stocks in companies and enjoy the revenues or suffer the losses. As of just a few years ago, private property rights have been greatly enhanced in China, and Chinese people can now be more secure that their land will not be taken away from them. Let us not forget about the heavy international investment that has been permitted in China which has played a major role in fueling this developing and booming economy. As a result, there are very rich people and very poor people in China as well as an emerging middle class. Chinese citizens, who always carried a good sense for business but were restricted from entrepreneurship in the past have now been more free to take risks and build successful companies. Thus capitalism has transformed the Chinese economy and changed people’s lives forever.
Does the Chinese government still maintain strict control of the economy in China? Absolutely. Is there a free market in China in the true sense of the word? Of course not. But where is there truly a free market in the world? Does one exist? Can someone show me a country where the government is not heavily invovled in its nation’s economy? The CCP’s control on China’s economy may be unusually tight but it has been weakening very slowly over the past 30 years.
People often ask me about human rights when we are discussing whether or not China is still communist. There is undoubtedly still a major problem with human rights in China. Citizens are still beaten by the police when they are arrested. Christians are still persecuted for worshipping in unregistered churches. Women are still being forced to have abortions if they are discovered to be pregnant with a second “illegal” child. But even the issue of human rights really has little to do with China’s status as a communist country. There are many other countries in the world, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, for example, that are also guilty of human right atrocities which we do not label as communist. What about Hitler and Mussolini? They murdered their own people but yet their systems of government were labeled differently. Human rights violations do not just belong to communism; they transcend all political parties and systems. They can happen anywhere.
If there is one place in China where we can still see some elements of the old communist system still at work, perhaps it is in the structure of the Chinese Communist Party itself which has not changed drastically since Mao’s time. But the CPC has changed greatly in terms of its ideology since Chairman Mao left the helm. Following the death of Chairman Mao, Deng Xiaoping sought to restructure the Communist Party and move towards what he called “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Since then, it appears that the CPC has more or less rejected the fierce Marxism that fueled early Chinese communism instead choosing to take a more socialistic approach to the obstacles that confront the country. While the Chinese people still have little say in what goes on in their government, the Chairman of China is no longer such a cult personality as before and these days the burden of policy making is being shared by more and more people in the government. There is still one party rule in China but the power is no longer so concentrated in one man’s hand.
If China is no longer communist, then how can it be labeled? “China is now a socialist country,” some Chinese students explained to me while we were discussing world political systems recently. They told me how these days, for a mere 15 (just over 2 USD) RMB per year, some form of limited health insurance is available to almost every Chinese citizen. Senior citizens who are unable to fully support themselves can apply for some financial help from the government. There are also a number of programs available to help underprivileged students go to the university. “Our government helps the poor much more now,” they tell me. “It is much easier to get help now.” Most of the Chinese people I talk with agree with this sentiment although many still prefer the communist label.
Two questions thus remain. First, if China is no longer a communist country, then why does the Communist Party still hold on to its name? Second, why does the world still insist on labeling China as a communist country if it has moved so far towards a quasi-socialist system with capitalist characteristics? It is easy to arrive at an answer for the first question. Marxism may have disappeared from the Party ideology in China, but nationalism is as strong as ever in China. The mere mention of the Communist Party and all the great deeds it has done for China invokes pride and adoration in the average Chinese person’s heart. In this way, Chairman Mao, while his ideals may have died with him, still lives on as an icon which can excite the Chinese people and remind them how far they have come and far they can still go. Maintaining the communist label can also benefit the Chinese government in that it can compare itself to North Korea and Cuba. When the world complains about ‘communist’ China and all of its problems, the Chinese government can simply point to the two other communist governments and remind the world how far China has come. In this way, China can always be the world’s ‘favorite Communist country.’ The second question is not so easy to answer. However, there is no question that the United States government, for example, can benefit from still labeling the Chinese government as communist. The U.S. does view China as a threat and any future confrontation with the PRC will most assuredly be waged under the banner of ‘fighting communism.’ Human rights organizations are also prone to label China as communist because it helps their cause. People in the West are and have always been afraid of communism and for good reason. Government and human rights organizations are more likely to garner support from the public if the name ‘communism’ is invoked in their rhetoric.
Thus, I must agree with my friends and students. Chairman Mao would most likely be very unhappy with the state of current affairs in China if he were brought back to life. Instead of a nation of destitute and poor peasants struggling to find food, China is now a country featuring rich and poor people as well as success and failure. It is a nation that has tasted of the fruits of capitalism and yearns for more. There is little equality here but at least there is now room for social mobility. Everyday, I hear of great success stories; I hear of people who worked hard and made a comfortable life for themselves and their family. And as the world witnessed in the aftermath of the Sichan earthquake, those in China who do have more are willing to give to help their fellow citizens. This is how communism works best; when it comes from the heart.