The Authoritarian Dream of Chinese Capitalism
This fantasy, thus, creates the seeds for bolstering the Party’s continued authoritarian rule as well as legitimizing its use of authoritarian practices to safeguard this capitalist “Chinese Dream.” In the space of three decades, the CCP had once again solidified its position as the protector of the Chinese revolution. Yet this time, it is being done in the name of capitalism and not communism.
The current regime has embraced a Maoist-like fantasy of Party-led progress. The new general secretary Xi Jinping has said continually that future prosperity depends on the correct leadership of the Party. In the evolution from its communist beginnings to its market-inspired present, the sole authority of the Party to rule has remained constant. In his first speech as leader in 2012, he made these priorities clear, maintaining “Our [the CCP’s] responsibility is to rally and lead the whole party and all of
China’s ethnic groups and continue to emancipate our way of thinking, insist on reform and opening up” (Xi Jinping, 2012).
Central, in this regard, is Xi Jinping's continued championing of the CCP's exclusive ability to interpret and implement marketization. In November 2013, Xi established the “National Security Commission” in order to “perfect the national security system and national security strategy and ensure national security” (see Campbell, 2015: 3). Its scope of activities ranged from traditional security spheres (e.g. policing) to cultural and economic protection, “indicating that the concept of security is now being thought about in a much broader sense” (Mulrooney, 2014: 1). Significantly, here the state is trumpeted as required for not only guiding capitalism to the population's advantage but also protecting these reforms against internal and external threats.
Key, in this respect, is construction of a new identification that is at once anti-Western hegemony and pro-capitalist. Namely, it involves investing in a dream of “Chinese” capitalism - one where the nation under the Party’s leadership rejects and protects itself from the dangers of corporate globalization (seen as just the most updated version of the story of Western interference and even older foreign invasion). To this end, Xi remains steadfast in his commitment to “opening up” and embracing a global market. In a May 2014 speech he publicly stated:
As a Chinese saying goes, “The ocean is vast for it admits hundreds of rivers.” China will open itself wider to the world, advance mutually beneficial cooperation with other countries, and promote the development of the economic belt along the Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century so that countries can create and share development opportunities together. (Xi Jinping 2014)
Yet he has also consistently, challenged any attempts by Western powers (notably the USA) to infringe on China’s national integrity, territorial or otherwise. Earlier that year in June 2014 he took what the newspaper the South Morning China Post saw as a direct “dig” at interventionist US foreign policy, contending that “sovereignty is the reliable safeguard and fundamental element of national interest. Sovereignty and territorial integrity should not be infringed upon. This is the hard principle that should not be cast aside at any time” (Ng, 2014).
Underpinning these criticisms is the right of the country to be free to control its own destiny, shaping marketization for the benefit of the Chinese people. This “Chinese Dream” provides the exact rationale for enhancing authoritarianism practically, not just state power in principle, as linked to marketization. Here the Party is imperative for rooting out all enemies who may imperil the future prosperity of a Chinese market. The nation must be constantly on guard against such opposition, whether they be foreign or domestic in character.
The CCP’s worsening human rights record under Xi reflects this growing authoritarian capitalism. A 2014 US report found that:
Human rights and rule of law conditions in China overall did not improve this past year, and declined in some of the areas covered by this report. The Chinese government and Communist Party continued to emphasize authoritarian control at the expense of human rights and the rule of law. (Congressional-Executive Commission on China, 2014).
Human Rights Watch echoed this assessment, noting that Xi’s regime had overall “struck a conservative tone, opposing constitutional rule, press freedom, and ‘western-style’ rule of law, and issuing harsher restrictions on dissent, including through two legal documents making it easier to bring criminal charges against activists and Internet critics” (Human Rights Watch, 2014a). Demonstrated is the continued and increasing willingness and “right” of the Party to impose its authority in the name of preserving the “dream” of a Chinese market.
Xi’s recent emphasis on corruption speaks to this authoritarian mindset. The CCP has the correct plan for realizing its vision of Chinese capitalism. Yet to do so, it must be vigilant against those within and without the Party who are guilty of corruption. Many commentators felt that this campaign was primarily a tool for Xi to eliminate Party rivals (Cohen, 2015) while others directly compared it to Mao’s previous use of corruption to root out internal dissent. According to Willy Lam, political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, “The question remains to be whether Xi is taking a page from Chairman Mao. Starting with Mao, corruption has been used to take down enemies of the more powerful faction” (Jiang, 2015).
Yet the campaign also represents the persistent and to some extent expanding authoritarian logic for implementing and safeguarding capitalism nationally. Here, deeper social problems associated with either economic marketization or political authoritarianism is shifted onto the malicious figure of the “corruptor” whose literal corruption figuratively corrupts and is threatening to the entire dream of Chinese progress. He promised, with “the people’s utmost support,” that the Party “will win the fierce and protracted war against corruption and build a clean Party and government” (Mu Xuequan, 2015). In this sense, the health of the Party is equated with its ability to put in place a healthy capitalism.
Present is a reinvigorated capitalist fantasy of authoritarian nationalism. It reveals the construction of a new capitalist self that is committed to fighting off enemies of both the nation and capitalism - which are increasingly viewed as one and the same. It also speaks to an affective need to recapture a feeling of lost agency attached to processes of global capitalism. The triumph of the state and its ability to “stand up” to international rivals and organizations resonates with the desire to not be controlled by marketization or globalization. Rather, the attractiveness of the CCP, in this context, is its appeal to values of self-determination and the possibilities of a market that serves the needs of the people rather than just elites, foreign or otherwise.