“Emancipate the mind, seeking truth from fact, and unite as one to face the future.” Forty years ago, Deng Xiaoping is credited with unleashing one of the most astonishing transformations in modern history with these words, setting China on a path of unprecedented economic resurgence and great power status. China’s economic transformation is attributed to a number of factors. There were background factors, for example the prior investment in human capital that allowed its workforce to be competitive.
There was the long memory of the Cultural Revolution that, for all its human catastrophe, probably had two unintended historical effects: It sowed the fear of disorder, which allowed the Communist Party a long rope as the custodian of order, and flattened the social structure in ways that made reform easier. Then there is the deft mixing of form and function that has always characterised the Chinese economy: Markets without conventional property rights, efficient dispute settlement without traditional rule of law characteristics, opening without abject dependence, technology absorption but on its own terms and so on.
China has been a story of institutional improvisation. The success is also credited to Deng’s folksy pragmatism: It does not matter which colour the cat is, so long as it catches the mice; or the rehabilitation of the idea that getting rich is glorious and so on.
But pragmatism is too light a sensibility to capture what the Chinese experiment has been about. One can say that behind the “experimentation” lie at least three other objectives. The first is that, as Wang Hui, China’s leading intellectual historian, has pointed out, China’s path to development and what Chinese colleagues call “self-correction” has actually been through theoretical debate. The contrast here is not so much between an ideological or dogmatic China pre-1978 and a pragmatic China post- 1978. It is, more, that in the long arc of 20th century history, all of China’s programmes have been preceded by theoretical debates within the framework of Marxism-Leninism, on what the next move should be. Some have ended disastrously, like the Great Leap Forward, or the Cultural Revolution. Others, like Deng’s reforms, have been a spectacular success. But it is not insignificant that they are seen as part of a single continuum. It would be too flippant to boil it all down to pragmatism. A theory sets the objectives and context for pragmatism. Now China is struggling to articulate a new one.
The second precondition has been enormous state capacity. Again, if one were to look at the continuities rather than discontinuities of Chinese history, what stands out is not the improvisation. What stands out is the ability to move society through a mixture of coercion and ideological legitimacy. Of course, any complex society will have deep strains of resistance and disagreement. But the pragmatism makes sense only if you first have an instrument that can mobilise power in one direction or the other. The real mystery to be decoded is not China’s economic success. It is the creation of a state and party structure that have survived the vicissitudes of conflict and failures that might have broken other states.
China has had its share of elite conflict, violence, even mass protest, but it has not quite rocked the structure of power in decisive ways. The state may make mistakes, even big ones, but its power to direct and redirect social and economic energy remains impressive. You could argue that post-Deng, this legitimacy was founded on delivering economic growth, an artful power structure that was a unique combination of centralisation and decentralisation, merit and patronage. With economic growth slowing, and China entering a new era of centralisation, perhaps this legitimacy will be challenged. The need for enhanced surveillance and clamping down that we are seeing under Xi, the fear of greater dissent, might be seen as an emerging weakness of the Chinese state. But it is a state that is going to be more difficult to dethrone. Deng’s pragmatism worked against a backdrop of a resolve to never weaken the state, the fatal mistake of reform programmes elsewhere.
But the third precondition has been the preoccupation with sovereignty. Sovereignty, as Sulmaan Wasif Khan’s recent book ‘Haunted by Chaos’, again reminds us, is the single most important guiding thread in modern Chinese history. It is the bulwark against chaos, a precondition for maintaining independence from foreign meddling, and a signifier of national pride. For a while, China spoke deceptively of two antithesis of sovereignty: Globalisation and multiculturalism.
The latter, without full freedom of expression, was a form of window dressing, disguising the fact that China has always had difficulty with genuine cultural pluralism; sovereignty includes a kind of cultural sovereignty subordinating, when necessary, alternative ways of being to the purposes of the Chinese state. We see an example of this currently in Xinjiang, by all accounts an unconscionable forced assimilation; and Hong Kong is finding out that ‘one country many systems’ has its limits.
China’s globalisation was genuine. But it was selective: On critical instruments of state power, like technology for example, it charted its own strategy focussed solely on building its own capabilities, rather than taking the easy option of allowing everyone in. So globalisation was always clearly within a framework of national power, and followed its imperatives.
Forty years later, China now has the challenges of its success. It is at a crossroads: On theory: What is the next move China makes in its path to development under conditions of slower growth? On state capacity: There is little reason to doubt that the Chinese state is still powerful enough to ride through the contradictions of its development model. It has consistently surprised critics. In fact, it seems to use each crisis to strengthen state capacity, not weaken it, often against the freedom of its own citizens. But whether the current model of centralisation will rely on anything more than coercion and surveillance in the long run remains to be seen.
On sovereignty: China’s strategy worked on the large premise that the US would not fundamentally see its rise a threat. Now that this myth needs to be shattered, China will have to rethink not its goals, but the means to achieve them. But will pragmatism triumph here or that ultimate non-pragmatic dogma of nationalism? Deng’s transformation was, with all its faults, something that the world welcomed; Xi Jinping thought is something the world is a little more wary of. Which cat does he think will catch the mice?
The writer is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University