From Marx to Confucius: Changing Discourses on China’s Political Future

From Marx to Confucius: Changing Discourses on China’s Political Future

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IN THE UNITED STATES, the political future is constrained, for better or worse, by constitutional arrangements that have been in place for more than two centuries. Barring dramatic developments, such as nuclear war or major terrorist attacks, it is unlikely that the political system will change much over the next few decades. In China, by contrast, the political future is wide open. According to the formulation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the current system is the “primary stage of socialism,” meaning that it’s a transitional phase to a higher and superior form of socialism. The economic foundation, along with the legal and political superstructure, will change in the future. For independent intellectuals, the only remotely plausible justification for the current system of economic liberalization combined with tight political control is that it is a temporary necessity given the need to provide social order during the disruptive period of economic development (and many would reject this claim). Nobody argues that the current political system should remain in place once the economy is developed.

The question is, what comes after economic development? In China, the debates on this question are somewhat constrained due to political controls as well as the widely felt need to deal with China’s more immediate economic and social problems. There also seems to be an aversion to “utopian thinking,” which is an understandable reaction to Mao’s disastrous attempts to sweep away the past during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Still, few doubt that there’s a need for a different—and more inspiring—political model in the future. In private discussions, there is room for speculation, and I will report on some possibilities.

The End of (Marxist) Ideology

Officially, the philosophy of Karl Marx underpins the legitimacy of the ruling CCP and thus Marxism is the place to start for thinking about China’s political future. It’s true that the CCP no longer emphasizes class struggle, hatred of the rich, and opposition to private property. In fact, capitalists can now join the CCP, and the legal system is being reformed (slowly) so that it more closely approximates that of capitalist countries. But such developments may reflect a better understanding of Marxist theory than in Mao’s day. The CCP need not abandon the commitment to communism as the long-term goal so long as it recognizes that poor countries must go through capitalism on the way.

The capitalist mode of production treats workers as mere tools in the productive process and puts technology to us...