Jiang Shigong on Xi Jinping and socialism with Chinese characteristics: an empty vessel

Jiang Shigong (强世功) is a distinguished professor at Peking University’s Faculty of Law and a smart guy. Over the last several years—some people date it from the time he spent at the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong from 2004 to 2008—he is known for having become markedly nationalistic (in a very pro-Party way) in his outlook.

Recently he published an analysis of Xi Jinping’s report to the 19th Party Congress. Thanks to the able efforts of David Ownby and Timothy Cheek, we have both a translation (by Ownby) and a commentary (by Ownby and Cheek).

The commentary by Ownby and Cheek is learned and sophisticated, but I want to add my own take, since there’s a feature of Jiang’s article that I think is very important but that they don’t comment on at all. That feature is the complete emptiness, in an article that purports to set forth ideological orthodoxy, of “socialism” or “communism” as a concept.

Ownby and Cheek state, “Jiang’s defense of the usefulness of Marxist ideology is likely the most robust we have seen since Zhang Chunqiao” and speak of “Jiang’s integration of traditional Chinese thought with Communist theory.” But one searches Jiang’s piece in vain for any indication of what the substance of Marxist ideology or Communist theory is—even on such basic subjects as ownership of property or distribution of wealth. This is pretty remarkable: some 24,000 characters purporting to discuss “socialism with Chinese characteristics” that fail to tell us anything about what that actually means. (Check out the link above if you don’t believe me.)

Here’s a key passage; the highlighting is mine:

What should be noted is that the concept first employed by Deng Xiaoping was “a socialism with Chinese characteristics” [有中国特色的社会主义], which was also the central topic of the report of the 13th Party Congress (1987).  The report of the Fourteenth Party Congress (1992) changed this to “Socialism, with Chinese Characteristics” [有中国特色社会主义].  Beginning from the report of the Sixteenth National Congress, this became “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” [中国特色社会主义]. On the face of it, this appears to be nothing but linguistic hair-splitting, but in fact, the changes reflect a profound political importance. The first two expressions take for granted that a fundamental “socialism” exists, the socialism defined by the works of Marx and Lenin and by the practice of the Soviet Union, and that we had only added a few “Chinese characteristics” to the basic socialist framework. But the idea of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” means that socialism does not really have a fundamental developmental model, and instead consists of a handful of basic principles and ideas. These principles and ideas must be continually explored and developed in practice following the advance of time. “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” is not adding Chinese characteristics to an already defined “socialist framework”. Rather, it uses China’s lived experience to explore and define what, in the final analysis, “socialism” is.  For this reason, “socialism” is not ossified dogma, but instead an open concept awaiting exploration and definition. China is not blindly following socialist ideas and institutions produced by the Western experience of socialism, but rather is charting the socialist developmental path on the basis of a greater self-confidence, taking the project of the modernisation of socialist construction to its third phase.

Let’s look more closely at the highlighted passages:

  1. “socialism does not really have a fundamental developmental model, and instead consists of a handful of basic principles and ideas”: But as for what even that handful of basic principles and ideas is, Jiang is silent. He won’t commit himself to anything.
  2. “it uses China’s lived experience to explore and define what, in the final analysis, ‘socialism’ is”: In other words, whatever China does is by definition socialist. China can’t be called non-socialist on the basis of a definition of socialism that is distinct from what China is actually doing.
  3. “’socialism’ is not ossified dogma, but instead an open concept awaiting exploration and definition”: Replace the word “socialism” with “jabberwocky”: has the meaning of the sentence become less clear? Jiang asserts that China is and must continue to be socialist, but he also asserts that “socialism” is a concept that is not yet defined. I don’t want to be harsh, but it is hard to think of a clearer example of literal non-sense.

So does “socialism” have any specific content, according to Jiang? Well, it turns out it does: “Party leadership is the most basic feature of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” This echoes Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 speech on the Four Basic Principles. In that speech, he set forth four basic principles of Chinese politics and governance: (1) we must uphold the socialist road; (2) we must uphold the proletarian dictatorship; (3) we must uphold the leadership of the Communist Party; and (4) we must uphold Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.” (第一,必须坚持社会主义道路;第二,必须坚持无产阶级专政;第三,必须坚持共产党的领导;第四,必须坚持马列主义、毛泽东思想) But when you get right down to it, “the core of upholding the Four Basic Principles is upholding the leadership of the Party.” (坚持四项基本原则的核心,是坚持共产党的领导)

Thus, I can’t agree with Ownby and Cheek that Jiang is a defender of Marxist ideology at all, let alone the most robust defender since Zhang Chunqiao, or that he’s integrating anything with Communist theory. To Jiang, both those terms are just meaningless strings of letters or characters; they are empty vessels, to be filled with whatever content happens to be China’s current governance structure.

Take a look, for example, at Zhang Chunqiao’s “On Exercising All-Around Dictatorship Over the Bourgeoisie”: it is full of quite specific ideas about what constitutes socialism and what does not. Jiang, however, resolutely refuses to commit himself on anything—except, as noted, Party leadership.

Surely this is significant. Jiang is one of the leading, and perhaps the leading, intellectual warrior for Xi’ism. And he has essentially announced that socialism, the concept that justifies the dictatorial rule of the Party, has no content whatsoever, other than the very dictatorship it is supposed to justify.

 

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