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Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Red Campaign’s Allure: China Chooses Its Course

In 2012, the Chinese Communist Party chooses a new Politburo. This once-in-a-decade event will set China’s course through 2025. The new Politburo must decide whether the Communist Party will continue as the dominant force in politics and society, or will China evolve towards some kind of pluralism.

China’s successes over the past three decades should give “liberals” a strong claim to a solid Politburo majority. Under a continuing “liberal” majority, private enterprise will outgrow state enterprise, China will deepen its integration into the world economy, the party will explore pluralism, at least at the local level, and Maoist philosophy will become a remnant of the past.

The “Red Campaign” offers a quite different path: The party reasserts its central role, rejects Western or universal values in favor of “red culture, enacts statist policies to replace free-wheeling capitalism, and crushes challenges with a powerful security apparatus. 

The pilgrimages of top party leaders to Chingqoing party boss Bo Xilai are much in the news. New Leftist Bo, a favorite to take one of the Politburo seats, proposes to apply his brand of patriotic TV programming, red singing shows, extra-judicial crackdowns on crime and dissent, and government spending on worker housing to all of China. Bo’s “Red Campaign” has clearly struck a responsive chord.

Why this nostalgia for the Mao era despite its horrors and China’s enormous economic successes? President Obama would have few 2012 election jitters with such an economic record. The New Leftists are, in effect, proposing dramatic changes to what the rest of the world views as a most successful policy.

Let me suggest possible explanations:

1). China’s communist party faces irrelevance under the current course. As the state enterprise share shrinks below one fifth, all pretense of China as a socialist market economy disappears. The private sector will be clearly exposed as the engine of growth, not the “wise leadership” of the Communist Party, as is currently claimed.

A market economy integrated into a global economy does not leave room for party domination. Markets replace plans and administrative allocation, and state influence is exercised through macro policy and regulation, as it is elsewhere.

To avoid redundancy in the economic sphere, the party must reestablish a statist economy based on party direction of a dominant state sector, as proposed by the Red Campaign.

2) China’s “New Left” believes that the Chinese people associate the market economy with the corruption of party officials and their Princeling offspring. They offer a  “pure” party and a statist economy as a cure.

China’s communist party finds itself in much the same position as Boris Yeltsin’s “democrats” in the 1990s.  The Soviet Communist Party was no longer around to take the fall for corruption and unpaid pensions, so democracy and capitalism got the blame.

In China, the party is still very much around to be blamed for theft, corruption, illegal land grabs, unemployment, and the Princeling Mercedes Benzes that run over workers on the streets

The Red Campaign offers a simple solution:  A return to the days of a pure party motivated not by money but by ideology. The party of Mao made disastrous mistakes, but al least it did not steal.  Although the mass starvation of 1958-1960 and the Cultural Revolution of 1965-1968 left dark shadows on millions of Chinese families, the New Left counts on such memories dimming.

Many Russians feel nostalgia for the “old days” when the party kept order, they had their jobs, and party theft was limited.  For Russians, the Stalin terror and famine lay almost a half century back. The Chinese New Left hopes to play on similar nostalgia, especially now that Mao’s excesses lie more than thirty years in the past.

China in 2012 confronts the same choice as Gorbachev in 1989, but under quite different circumstances. Gorbachev in 1989 was firefighting the crisis of the collapsing command economy. The Chinese Politburo in 2012 will face a non-crisis. Even with slowing growth, China will still be among the world’s fastest growing economies and an envy of the world.

Confronted with his crisis, Gorbachev chose to end party dominance of the economy and weaken the party’s central apparatus.  His Politburo hardliners timidly acceded at first.  Their amateurish coup, launched to save the party, came too late.

If China’s 2012 Politburo attempts to implement the Red Campaign, it will discover the genie of private enterprise cannot be put back in the bottle. They can restore the dominance of state companies only through extreme favoritism and even repression of the private sector. The New Left will find themselves like a King Canute trying to hold back the sea. They cannot mount enough political power to revert back to the economic statism of earlier years.

Gorbachev did not understand that the reforms he launched would inevitably end the Soviet economic and political system. Had he understood, he would have followed the course of his predecessors. The Chinese New Left apparently sees the handwriting on the wall. They see 2012 as their last chance to save the party as they want it to be.   

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