Is China actually a communist country?
It’s a difficult question to answer.
The Communist Party of China is currently undertaking its 19th annual congress, helping set decisions that will guide the country over at least the next five years.
China’s economic growth this millennium has propelled the country to the stage where President Xi Jinping said it is ready to “take centre stage in the world”.
But with the Communist Party still being the only party that’s ruled over China since the formation of the People’s Republic in 1949, is it still a communist country?
Communism is defined by workers owning the means of production and, as such has traditionally stood in opposition to capitalist systems where industry is controlled by private owners for profit.
Going by what communism – as defined by Karl Marx – has meant traditionally, Professor Shaun Breslin from the University of Warwick would struggle to label modern day China as communist, mostly because the country’s objectives have little to do with class.
“The Communist Party is there to deliver what they deem to be national goals and priorities and objectives, so there’s no class-based analysis at the heart of this,” he said.
“A lot of traditional Marxists would say once you start and finish with the nation, it’s something else. It’s a form of, I don’t want to call it national socialism because of the connotations with different nations and eras, but it is about… these people’s perceptions of the national good, rather than the class good.”
“That’s why I don’t think you can consider it to be anything that traditional communists would necessarily recognise, although that doesn’t mean it can’t be a form of socialism,” he added.
The Communist Party describes its economic model as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, which in practice means the government owns the country’s biggest companies – what Lenin referred to as the “commanding heights of the economy” – the banks, energy and transport sectors.
The private sector in China, which contributes a greater percentage of GDP than the state sector, is still very receptive to the state – and China isn’t classed as a market economy by the World Trade Organisation, in part because of how much the state intervenes.
But that doesn’t mean the country is purely socialist, with the economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping following the death of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong transforming China completely.
Xiaoping was influenced by Singapore, French socialism, and the “power and wealth” of America, according to author, professor and CEO Ann Lee.
“That basically informed his thinking, which culminated in various slogans that people now repeat attributing to Xiaoping such as ‘it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice’.”
Lee argues that rather than socialist, China is more capitalist than some western countries.
“I would say it’s in many ways much more capitalist than other self proclaimed countries like the US, because if you look at the percentage spent on say, federal government, the US spends a larger percentage of its GDP on federal government than China does,” she said.
“The problem is that nobody practises pure capitalism, even the US has a terrible mix of private and public. If you look at who are the investors of… high tech companies you’ve got the CIA in it, you’ve got the state department involved.”
Things look a little more socialist when you consider that the Chinese government owns all land in China, although Lee suggested that’s not too different from America.
“If you own property in China you are buying sort of like a land lease for a century or whatever it is, and essentially you own the property but they remain the right of eminent domain – which frankly is true even in the US,” she said.
For Thomas Hale, a professor in public policy at Oxford University, the distinction between western capitalist countries and China again comes from how closely the state works with private companies.
“There are a few big differences from more market oriented economies,” he said.
Because while the biggest companies in China are state owned, “the private ones are closely aligned with the government in ways that is different than western capitalist economies. For example there’s a Communist Party cell in all companies in China, including foreign ones.
“The Apple factory has a Communist Party committee, so that the employees/members, some of them are members of the Communist Party,” he said.
“The Chinese communist project has always been very closely tied to not just socialism as Marx would understand it, but to nationalist rejuvenation – to ‘make China great again’, to use a well known phrase.
“Keeping a firm hand on the economy is pretty essential for the regime to make sure it’s getting the results it needs to stay popular.”
With too much state intervention for some academics to deem China completely capitalist, and enough private enterprise for it not to be entirely socialist, China’s definition of its economy seems pretty accurate.
So why is there such desire in some quarters for China to be deemed “communist”? Professor Lee believes it has to do with politics.
“You have people that would create China as an enemy because maybe they have great giant defence contracts with defence contractors, and they would make a lot of money to build up the military.
“The only way you can do that is by creating enemies of the state,” she said.
In the end, she feels the labels are pointless.
“It’s just silly labels that people make up in order to make things easier when, in fact, the world is not black and white that way.”