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Deng Xiaoping’s Cat and Its Prey:

A Marxian Analysis of Authoritarian Capitalism and Class Struggle in Post-Maoist China


            Deng Xiaoping, the former leader of China whose pragmatism and utilitarian views helped establish the drastic reforms that for the last twenty years have changed the shape of China, said early on in his career that “it does not matter whether the cat is white or black; if it catches mice, it is a good cat” (Vohra 253).  This statement and the rapid reform movement he launched essentially meant that the economic tasks of the present must be carried out by whatever means that are most convenient or seen as most economically efficacious, not excluding capitalist means and methods (Cheng 31).  Thus, the Chinese Communist Party, specifically in the 1990’s, helped create what Marx called “a state ruled by capitalist and landlord” (Marx 348).  Using quotes and ideas from Marx’s Capital Volume One may be an effective way to cut through the rhetoric of the Party and take a close look at the effects of capitalism in China at the turn of the millennium.

            At the watershed Third Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) Eleventh Central Committee, which met in December 1978 and marked the accession to power of the Dengist leadership, a key change was the shift in the main orientation of state policy from political transformation to economic development (Blecher 193).  Mao was dead, the Gang of Four had been tried and convicted of causing the isolationist catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution, and the reformers had come ready to create a new ideology, stated by Deng himself: “To get rich is glorious” (Vohra 255).  By 1992, the reform process was embedded in the slow-moving Chinese system, and fully engaged in economic activity that rivaled even the most materially successful Chinese neighbors, such as Singapore and Taiwan (Misra 208).

          The social tendencies that have resulted from the post-Maoist deradicalization of Chinese economic, social, and political life-otherwise known as ‘reforms’-are simply incongruous with any conception of socialism (Cheng 28).  The CCP’s leaders have sought to justify this by claiming that China could not take the socialist road without going through the stage of fully developed capitalism (Misra 113).  This idea of a sequential progression through societal and economic frameworks does indeed apply to Marx’s Capital Volume One, in which there can be no transcendence of capitalism prior to its arrival, and its arrival is dependent on a certain level of production: “Unless labor has attained a certain level of productivity, there can be no surplus labor, hence no capitalists” (Marx 647).  Chinese Marxists as well, like Chairman Mao’s friend Li Dazhao, employed the same logic during the building of the reform movement, claiming that “capitalism is an unavoidable process, one essential for the creation of the consciousness of the working class” (Knight 72).

However, what remained of Marxism into the 90’s in mainland China was the hegemonic rule of the CCP, which found its inspiration in Stalinism rather than Marxism, and became the vehicle for privilege and corruption (Gregor 259).  This corruption is perceived by most Chinese as a means by which the old authorities are attempting to obtain a share of the new wealth being produced by the reforms, those in power making use of their positions to monopolize the redistribution of wealth (Levy 8).  Many if not most of the people who are getting ahead are doing so not by working hard, by acquiring and using new skills, and by being innovative, but by manipulating personal ties, using power to personal advantage, and by engaging in graft and questionable business practices (Cheng 50). 

With the emphatic growth of social and economic differences, the fiction that the Communist party can speak unambiguously for everyone in the People’s Republic can no longer be maintained with any credibility (Gregor 274).  In this particular example of state capitalism, the Chinese Communist Party holds the key to accumulation of profit, fulfilling the stage in which “the capitalist regime has directly subordinated to itself the whole of the nation’s production” (Marx 931).

The official CCP line is apologetic and enabling in its tone, with a clear defensiveness in regard to utilizing capitalist practices and structures (Levy 5).  This palpable state of denial is an aspect of capitalism that Marx described eloquently: “Under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him” (Marx 381).  This rationality on the part of the Chinese government is due to Chinese policymakers and theorists who have repeatedly asserted a basic distinction between a commodity or market economy and capitalism, a distinction most Western analysts find forced and hollow (Brook and Blue 242).

An influencing factor of the faith that modern China puts in capitalism can be found in the early years of the Chinese Republic, with the idealized notions of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, whom the Chinese still refer to as “the father of modern China” (Gregor 266).  Sun was fully convinced that “increases in production in market-governed circumstances would increase the wealth of the capitalists and make it possible for the workingmen to receive higher salaries.  Thus, the capitalists improve the living conditions of the workingmen and increase their productivity at the same time” (ibid.).  However, these idealized notions neither apply to the face of China today nor to Marx’s primary assertions about the nature of class struggle: “The product (of the labour-process) is the property of the capitalist and not that of the worker, its immediate producer” (Marx 292); in this way, “The worker produces not for himself, but for capital” (Marx 644).  It is inherently foolish to assume that the capitalist will inevitably improve anything besides his chances of accumulating more and more capital.  To assume that a given culture has a framework of ethics that render it free of these influences is unrealistic.

During the establishment of the reforms, profits that before were completely hoarded by the state were left alone for individual economic units to use, officially to increase the salaries of the efficient workers and management (Vohra 271).  This system of rewards, however, was limited to the regions of China who had the most contact with international capitalist and foreign investment, namely the eastern coastal provinces, while the central government has no intention of promoting interior development at the expense of coastal interests (Yang 116).  For even these “fortunate” workers, surveys have shown that having to work at a more hectic pace in a less secure job in a more impersonal setting was disliked (Cheng 47), so it is very hard to tell if any of the working class at all are truly benefiting from these reforms.  In fact, this sort of social discontent helped give rise to the events of 1989 in Tiananmen square, whose democracy activists represented not only their own interests as intellectuals but also forces larger than themselves- namely sectors of the working class which had an interest in challenging the regime but were unable and/or unwilling to overtly articulate their own positions and interests (Levy 9).

          China seeks to realize national goals for development, which is natural and understandable.  But the capitalist world order into which China seeks admission demands as the price of admission the reshaping of Chinese society in its own image. According to Marx, trade on a worldwide scale was nothing new, but actually started during the sixteenth century (Marx 247).  China’s isolationism and inwardness postponed its collision with the European world-system until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a sudden shift from the sparse contact with foreigners in earlier centuries (Brook and Blue 245).  Thus, in the context of China’s view of world capitalism, it has always been perceived as an alien force, demanding a response (Cheng 13).  This response changed over the decades from the reactionary, isolationist social engineering enforced by Mao to a feeling of urgency to modernize through connection with a globally linked market economy (Brook and Blue 156).  While China’s growth rate for rural enterprises, for example, was up to 30 percent in the 90’s, it was almost completely sustained by foreign capital (Gregor 270).  Marx’s prophetic declaration of “a new and international division of labor” that is “suited to the requirements of the main industrial countries” seems to be in action in this case (Marx 579-580).

            If China has become capitalist, and the CCP has become a classic example of state capitalism, both due in part to the “open door” reforms that welcomed the world capitalist system, what was going on in China before?  Marx himself held many widely varying views on the whole of Asian society throughout the span of his writings (Brugger and Kelly 22). Yet, his concept of the Asiatic mode of production became awkward and marginalized in part because Marx never properly defined it; in part because Soviet Marxism in the early 1930’s banned it from their model of historical development; and in part because its relationship with capitalism was ambiguous (Brook and Blue 144).  In the writings of Capital Volume One, however, interesting correlations arise without specific or intentional reference to China or any Asian country in particular.

            The first correlation found is a reference to, perhaps even a gentle criticism of, Aristotle.  Marx presents the concept of the universal nature of the labour theory of value:  “The secret of the expression of value, namely the equality and equivalence of all kinds of labour because and in so far as they are human labour in general, could not be deciphered until the concept of human equality had already acquired the permanence of a fixed popular opinion” (Marx 151-152).  This is said in reference to Aristotle’s identity as a member of an ancient culture that “had as its natural basis the inequality of men and of their labour-powers” (ibid.).  The legacy of strict and absolute social divisions in Chinese culture between ruler and ruled suggests a highly hierarchical set of divisions that emphatically stress human inequality, as opposed to equality (Misra 113).  One haunting prediction lends more meaning to this analogy, as a senior scholar in the early 90’s predicted with confidence that a time would come for China in which “modernization has reached such a stage that all distinctions are eliminated and all people are perfectly equal in status” (Brook and Blue 157).

            A second interesting analogy found in Capital Volume One has to do with the labour system in the Danubian Principalities, in which “their original mode of production was based on communal property, but not communal property in its Slav or Indian form.  Part of the land was cultivated independently as free private property by members of the commune, another part- the ager publicus-was cultivated by them in common” (Marx 346-347).  This is a direct reflection of the rural reforms set into place in the 80’s and 90’s in China, known as the household contract system, in which “a peasant is given the use of land to produce whatever he wishes to as long as he meets a contractual obligation to the state” by participating in the cultivation and harvesting of communal crops that the state took and redistributed (Vohra 270). 

            By the mid-90’s, however, a rural transformation had taken place that supplies evidence of the application of capitalist means of production.  The public lands became  “leased out to private bidders” which resulted in “land concentration in subgroups of powerful farmers” (Cheng 39).  But for this private income to become capital, labour-power must also be commoditized.  This is now said to be possible as a consequence of the reforms- namely peasants with neither land nor the resources to start their own enterprises, whose labour is in turn exploited for profit by a conglomeration of foreign interests, powerful state officials, and even former neighbors (Levy 19).  Ironically, even enrollment in the CCP itself became seen as a way to “exploit membership in order to further their nonstate economic interests,” thereby incorporating and exacerbating the problems of both state capitalism and class struggle (Gregor 272).

            Various aspects of class struggle reveal themselves in the China of the 90’s, such as intra-provincial rates of economic disparity, which almost doubled between 1985 and 1990 (Yang 158).  More evidence is given by the latest changes in the Chinese constitution, which included the removal of a clause that previously guaranteed the right of workers to openly criticize their superiors (Mosher 102).  With the inspiration of powerful labour unions in Hong Kong, massive strikes, demonstrations, and confrontations involving thousands of workers in the mainland, the Chinese miners in particular, occurred in the 90’s (Gregor 271).  The ascent of the CCP as a separate economic class of capitalists is illustrated in an ironic joke offered up by a Chinese farm worker, reflecting the empty rhetoric of the capitalist regime: “For well-connected [Communist] cadres, modernization provides a modern TV set, a modern tape recorder, a modern wristwatch, and a modern hand calculator.  For the masses, modernization means hearing about modernization, talking about modernization, thinking about modernization, and gazing at modernization from afar” (Mosher 103).  This reflects Marx’s warning: “With the extension of commodity circulation there is an increase in the power of money, that absolutely social form of wealth which is always ready to be used”  (Marx 229).

            Perhaps one of the most fitting and descriptive words to describe what is happening in China is one that Marx spoke a lot about, “alienation” (Marx 203).  At a pace that exceeds the rapid change that occurred in socialist states of Eastern and Central Europe, the Chinese regime has become deeply alienated from any mass base, its ideals exhausted by materialist goals (Brugger and Kelly 174-175).  This societal alienation occurs not only at the material level of commodities, in which “money is the absolutely alienable commodity, because it is all other commodities divested of their shape, the product of their universal alienation” (Marx 205).  This tendency also extends to the people themselves that deal in the commodities: “Their own relations of production therefore assume a material shape which is independent of their control and their conscious individual action” (Marx 187).

            This process has practically led to an amoral, materialistic free-for-all in modern China, leading to a general impression among the Chinese that by the 90’s “the fabric of morality had been rent, and human society appeared to many to have degenerated into life ‘among werewolves’” (Brugger and Kelly 3).  Many Chinese blame the presence of foreign capital, which began to rapidly intensify in the early 90’s.  By then, Communist Chinese economists had already begun to recommend that private ownership of state enterprises be made available through the sale, purchase, and transfer of equity shares (Gregor 269).  This in turn echoes another of Marx’s warnings: “This power of Asiatic… kings has in modern society been transferred to the capitalist, whether he appears as an isolated individual or, as in the case of joint-stock companies, in combination with others” (Marx 452).

             The general disaffection of the Chinese working class with rising levels of inequality, declining social mores, dislocation, and accompanying socioeconomic tensions has been magnified in recent years by the scale and intensity of corruption and speculation rife within the CCP (Misra 210).  Thus the uniqueness of one of the world’s longest continuous cultures is not immune to “…the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and, with this, the growth of the international character of the capitalist regime” (Marx 929).  As an ongoing but alienated relationship between state and world capitalism in China grows, this “character of the capitalist regime” will further establish itself as a fact of Chinese existence.

            With the recent and ongoing material (albeit profoundly unequal) advancements made in China, the capitalist state has expressed strong notions of nationalism and a sense that the ti (essence) of “socialist” China can be preserved despite the yong (application) of capitalist means of production (Levy 22).  This empty rhetoric, however, does not address the rumors that the mausoleum in which Mao’s body is preserved is closed so frequently because the old man’s remains keep flipping over and breaking the glass (Cheng 37).  This will no doubt continue as Deng’s cat (capitalism) continues to efficiently devour its prey (the emergent working class).

            Marx’s Capital Volume One can be used as a very effective tool in identifying the idiosyncrasies, characteristics, and ironies of capitalism.  His descriptions of state capitalism, alienation, and class struggle, not to mention his description of a worldwide capitalist regime, are all actualized in the socioeconomic tempest of 90’s China.  Even now, the Walker College of Business at ASU is pushing for the establishment of a foreign language course entitled “Business Chinese,” a blatant example of how capitalism alienates and abstracts human relationships and interaction with distant cultures in terms of profit accumulation, simultaneously on opposite sides of the globe.

Works Cited

Blecher, Marc.  China Politics, Economics and Society: Iconoclasm and Innovation in a           Revolutionary Socialist CountryBoulder: Lynne Rienner Pubs., 1986.

Brook, Timothy and Gregory Blue, eds.  China and Historical Capitalism: Genealogies of           Sinological Knowledge.  New York: Cambridge U P, 1999.

Brugger, Bill and David Kelly.  Chinese Marxism in the Post-Mao Era.  Stanford: Stanford            U P, 1990.

Cheng, Peter P.  Marxism and Capitalism in the People’s Republic of China.  New York: U P of           America, 1989.

Gregor, A. James.  Marxism, China, & Development: Reflections on Theory and Reality.  New           Brunswick: Transaction Pubs., 1995.

Knight, Nick.  Li Da and Marxist Philosophy in China.  Boulder: Westview P, 1996.

Levy, Richard. “Corruption, Economic Crime and Social Transformation Since the Reforms:           The Debate in China.”  The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs  0:33 (1995): 1-25.

Marx, Karl.  Capital Volume One.  Ben Fowkes, Trans.  New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

Misra, Kalpana.  From Post-Maoism to Post-Marxism: The Erosion of Official Ideology in           Deng’s China.  New York: Routledge, 1998.

Mosher, Steven W.  Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese.  New York: The Free Press, 1983.

Vohra, Ranbir.  China’s Path to Modernization: A Historical Review From 1800 to the Present.            Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1987.

Yang, Dali L.  Beyond Beijing: Liberalization and the Regions in China.  New York:           Routledge, 1997.



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