National Sections of the L5I:

China’s move to the market

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Mark Booth reviews Living with Reform: China since 1989, Timothy Cheek.

The book gives an outline of some the tremendous economic reforms that have taken place in China over the past 20 years. Timothy Cheek is particularly focused on the post-1989 period of Chinese history - beginning with the pro-democracy movement and its brutal repression by the Chinese state in the Tiananmen Square massacre. But he is clear to point out that this is not as much a defining moment in China’s history as it is often portrayed in the West.

Rather, Cheek points to the “Southern Tour” of Deng Xiaoping in 1992 as having a much more definite effect on China’s recent history. Following the tour, the 14th Party Congress gave their total support to the introduction of market economics into China’s planned economy, while maintaining a commitment to political control through the instrument of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – euphemistically called “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

The process of market reform has been going on since Mao’s death and in the years following the Cultural Revolution, the CCP stabilised its rule and embarked on a process of economic reforms to revive the flagging bureaucratic plan. Cheek argues that 1992 was the point where this policy was cemented and made irreversible and marked a defeat for conservative elements in the state bureaucracy who wanted to continue with planning.

The central theme running through Cheek’s book is that the driving motivation behind the actions of the CCP and its leaders for the past 30 years has been the desire to avoid the recurrence of a terrible “chaos” (luan) caused by the Cultural Revolution. He argues it caused so much unrest and instability that the rule of the CCP became threatened. For Cheek, this explains the ruthless crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen in 1989 and the CCP’s continuing commitment to economic liberalisation while maintaining a tight hold on political power. The bureaucracy had witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and was desperate to avoid similar popular uprisings challenging their rule.
Cheek also describes how the Communist Party has a profound intolerance for any forces that challenge its right to “lead the Chinese nation” – even indirectly, as in the case of the Falun Gong religious sect. The Falun Gong’s large membership and activity was beginning to alarm local government officials who saw it developing as a centre of power outside their control and so initiated a crackdown on its practitioners. Before then, it had been an accepted part of the state-sponsored qigong associations that operate within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and includes sports clubs like t’ai chi and martial arts.

The major strength of Living with Reform is that it makes a critical analysis of the effects of the reforms on the masses, pointing to the growing inequality and class conflict they have spawned. This, accompanied by the continuing one-party dictatorship, is creating huge economic and political contradictions in China. This cuts against many popular bourgeois conceptions of the Chinese state that argue the market reforms will lead to long term stable economic growth and gradual political liberalisation.

Nevertheless, there are a number of problems with Cheek’s analysis. Put bluntly, Cheek is not a Marxist. An immediate consequence of this, is that he has wildly incorrect ideas as to what socialism and communism are. He frequently asserts that China is “socialist” and seems to define this as an appeal to socialist values, a one party state and a mass party membership. While this is a popular view among bourgeois theorists, Marx argued socialism was a stage in human development between capitalism and communism. In this stage, production was democratically planned on a world scale to move from “each according to his ability to each according to his needs”. Thus, both democracy and a world revolution were central pre-requisites for the socialist stage of human development.

This is important, because it opens up a critical Marxist inquiry of what kind of state pre-1992 China was. The CCP had come to power in a revolution, established a form of planning but with a bureaucratic dictatorship over the working class. This bureaucratic dictatorship controlled the planning process and extracted privileges from it. These Stalinist states like the USSR and its satellites, were degenerated workers states; with a bureaucratic dictatorship blocking the transition to socialism. They were therefore neither socialist or capitalist – but states where the transition to socialism was blocked. To talk, as Cheek does, of a “socialist government” and a “capitalist economy” is a contradiction in terms. It is only by seeing the actions of the CCP leadership in China, as those of a self-interested caste that the causes of the reform process can be elucidated.

Cheek frames the introduction of market economics as a rejection of Mao and the crises ridden period of the Cultural Revolution, he argues this led to reformers in the party rejecting Marxist orthodoxy and turning to the market. Cheek points to the examples of adventurism and gross inefficiencies in the Maoist planning process. However, these are posed simply as bad policy choices, rather than a systemic problem in the bureaucratic production process. The police state meant that lower and mid-level managers would lie about production levels to meet ambitious targets, which made planning impossible, and lead to crises of disproportionate production in the plan. Without democracy, the planning system was incapable of responding to actual development needs. In response to this crisis, the CCP leadership turned to market reforms to stimulate economic growth, which began a process that was to culminate with the managed restoration of capitalism in 1992. It was precisely because the bureaucracy was a self interested caste who did not express the aspirations of the masses, that they saw an opportunity to enrich themselves through capitalist restoration.

This analysis opens up a better understanding of the contradictions in Chinese society today than Cheek’s. For Cheek, the key source of instability is that the market reforms have massively increased inequality and class conflict, creating what he calls a “winners and losers” system. However, he does not see this as arising lawfully from the restoration of capitalism, as a system based on exploitation that systematically creates social disequilibrium and crisis. Like his analysis of pre-1992 China, this is for him simply a question of a certain set of policy choices, or what he calls forms of “governance”. Indeed, on the international terrain too, Cheek is focused on China’s political relations with the West and other Asian states, rather than how its integration into the world capitalist system has impacted on its domestic policies.

Moreover, in his political conclusion, Cheek argues the central question is stabilising the situation in China through encouraging policies that tackle social injustice and promote good governance. An important part of this, for him, is not to demonise the CCP, but engage with them and avoid “glorifying the market”. He actually, dodges the democratic question saying the Chinese Communist Party “…is neither the primary cause nor the ultimate solution to China’s troubles.” After spending a large part of the book laying out the undemocratic practices of the CCP and its abuses of power this is a shameful omission.

While, much of Living with Reform, demonstrates the contradictions and crisis of the market restoration process, Cheek believes social justice and better governance can resolve the problem. What this ignores is both the new capitalist class and the mass working class that has emerged, will both over the coming years struggle for democratic rights against the regime. The contradictions and instabilities of the capitalist system, with its tendencies to breakdown, will only deepen this crisis.

Cheek does not identify capitalism as the primary source of China’s problems, and does not call for any alternative, only calling for greater social justice to alleviate the poverty that Chinese workers and peasants increasingly live in, coupled with fair trade. The need for Chinese workers and peasants to struggle for greater democracy and link this with the struggle for socialist revolution to establish a real workers state is a burning necessity when faced with the immense suffering being inflicted upon the Chinese workers and peasants.

In the end, while Living with Reform is an interesting political introduction to Chinese politics and history, its analysis ultimately does not get to the root of the problem – a critical interrogation of the capitalist system.