Ken Hammond is the author of one of 1804 Books’ latest releases, China’s Revolution and the Quest for a Socialist Future.
The Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded in July 1921 in Shanghai, at a meeting which came to be seen as the First Party Congress. Nineteen subsequent Party congresses have happened over the last decade. While most of the following decades saw congresses held roughly once every five years, beginning in the 1990s they have occurred regularly on a five-year schedule. The 20th congress, held in October 2022, was considered especially important because it marked the centennial of the party’s work, provided an occasion for reflection on the past, as well as planning for the future. The 20th congress also took place within a context of ongoing, intensifying hostility towards China on the part of the United States, which was directing campaigns of demonization and provocation aimed at derailing China’s progress on its path of socialist modernization.
The CPC is the preeminent political force in China. There are eight other small parties limited to playing an advisory role in the political process. They all meet under the auspices of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), formed in 1949 in conjunction with the establishment of the People’s Republic and as part of the creation of what the Chinese call their New Democracy. The CPPCC also meets on a five-year cycle, synchronous with CPC congresses.
By established practice, at the beginning of each CPC congress the leader of the Party—designated as the Chairman or the General Secretary at different periods—presents a report to the elected delegates. The Chairman typically covers not only the work carried out since the previous congress, but also an assessment of the challenges facing China in the coming years, as well as a proposed response.
In document form, the reports have been written in a specialized language addressed to Party members elected as delegates to the congress, as well as to the full membership of the CPC, which is currently about 98 million people. In general, the reports also assume a level of familiarity with both the long-established rhetoric of Chinese Marxist discourse and with contemporary issues, policies, and practices within the Party and in Chinese society. In some ways, it resembles a conversation among old friends, who understand each other by speaking the same language and sharing a lexicon of terms and concepts not familiar to others.
Most people outside of China, as such, do not have this level of understanding of or appreciation for the context and background associated with the points reported in official documentation. U.S. imperialist propaganda drives the tendency by non-specialist readers in the West to misunderstand the reports in a reactionary and dangerous direction. The purpose of this essay is, on one hand, to help provide some guidance for readers in the U.S., especially comrades who want the ability to discuss contemporary China and its efforts to build a modern socialist economy and society, and on another hand, to counter the dangerous response of U.S. imperialism to the CPC Congress’ most recent report, delivered by Chairman Xi Jinping. Challenging U.S. imperialist propaganda is a key aspect of countering the foreign policy establishment’s war mongering against China, building the anti-war movement, developing a greater understanding of the realities of socialist construction in China, and grasping the relevance of China’s experience for our own political work.
The work of the past five years and the “New Era’s” great changes
The opening section of Xi’s report provides an overview of developments since the last congress in 2017 and a longer analysis of the period since the 18th party congress in 2012, which is referred to as the New Era (xin shiji 新世紀). This sets the stage for more specific and detailed discussions of a wide range of issues facing the country and the Party. Further, it provides a frame for developing and assessing what actions should be initiated in response. Here we want to take some time to consider the ways in which Xi presents the recent experiences of the country, the present circumstances of China, and the place of the CPC in the ongoing process of socialist construction. We examine a number of key bits of Chinese political language to clarify exactly what this lexicon means, providing guidance for our own discussions of China.
The concept of the New Era is a good place to begin.
This term expresses the idea that, throughout the last decade, China has entered a period when it achieved some of its basic goals in development and increased prosperity, enhanced its self-confidence, and better equipped to follow its own path in world affairs. This is in contrast to the preceding period when China often had to accommodate its actions to the interests of the U.S. and other capitalist powers to complete the initial phases of economic development through the acquisition of productive technologies and expanding trade relations with other countries. While China still pursues these objectives, it now feels—and is—more secure in its own accomplishments and, as a result, is less willing to subordinate itself to American dominance.
Xi refers here to some key concepts in the rhetoric of the CPC. Two of the most important are the “strategy of national rejuvenation” (guojia fixing zhanlue 國家復興戰略), and the “system of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi zhidu 中國特色社會主義制度). These are widely used phrases, which Xi refers to here to characterize the political environment of the reform era, and especially of the new era of the past 10 years.
National rejuvenation is the process by which the Chinese people are restoring the position of their country in global affairs and reviving the quality of life in their society. China suffered what is called the Century of Humiliation, between the 1840s and 1949, when Western industrialized powers invaded and dominated the country. The impact of modern products from England and other countries, as well as the opium trade which reaped huge profits for the British and American dealers, hollowed out what had been the most prosperous pre-industrial economy in the world, drastically depressing the incomes and quality of life for hundreds of millions of people. As China has developed its modern industrial economy over the decades since 1949 the livelihoods of its people have steadily improved. Life expectancy has risen from around 35 to 76, while infant mortality has dramatically declined. Education, health care, and other social services have been built up, and more than 800,000,000 people have been lifted out of absolute poverty. China has also gained increasing respect in the world, especially as it pursues new relationships of mutual benefit with other developing countries to move away from the global dominance of American-led capitalism. This is the dynamic articulated in the concept of national rejuvenation.
For many Chinese, the fundamental key to success in this process has been the creation of a socialist system, one which is still very much in the process of formation and development, but which has as its core value the priority of seeking the just and equitable distribution of the fruits of the labor of the working people. Various forms of state and collective ownership play a strong role in the economy, alongside private capital and foreign investment. Under the leadership of the CPC the guiding principle has been that, to rapidly develop the productive economy to improve the livelihoods of the people, market mechanisms would be used, but that the negative effects of marketization would be restrained and countered by the oversight of the government and the CPC.
The creative adaptation of socialist principles to the concrete realities of Chinese social and economic conditions is what is meant by Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. It is not the simple copying of some abstract theoretical model nor the blind emulation of the experience of the Soviet Union, but rather the effort to build the future for China which reflects both the fundamental insights of Marxist theory and the practical application of those general ideas to the varied and complex challenges along the path of modern development.
Xi cites several major accomplishments since the last Party congress. The terms used in referring to these are not always familiar to Western readers, so here are some which recur regularly in Chinese political discourse. China has sought to achieve a “moderately prosperous society”, in Chinese this is xiaokang shehui 小康社會, a term from classical political philosophy which simply means a society in which people have enough of the basic needs of life, such as food, clothing, housing, and access to things like education and health care, to be comfortable, though not quite rich. For a significant portion of its population this has indeed been achieved. In tandem with that has been the “critical battle against poverty” which has in the last year or so, achieved the remarkable feat of lifting several hundred million Chinese above the United Nations standard of absolute poverty. This has been a massive campaign carried out in villages and remote areas across the country, largely by volunteer workers in some ways similar to American initiatives like VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) or other “war on poverty” efforts since the 1960s, though with far more success.
Xi refers to what he calls “whole process democracy” (quan guocheng minzhu 全過程民主), which is one of the more difficult ideas for Westerners to understand. While China has elections, both for the legislative institutions of the government at the local, provincial, and national levels, and for the delegates to the Communist Party congresses, whole process democracy refers to a more comprehensive and inclusive form of political engagement. It encompasses a range of ways in which citizens can communicate their concerns and needs to officials, including petitioning; the use of hotlines and other forms of abuse-of-power reporting or problems of corruption; as well as the exercise of rights to express grievances and demands through public demonstrations or legal procedures.
Contrary to U.S. propaganda, China has a lively culture of political activism. While this can, on occasion, result in tensions or conflicts with authorities, it is nonetheless an important component of the political system, acknowledged at all levels of government. It should also be recalled that the CPC itself has almost 100,000,000 members, roughly one in every nine adults in the country, indicating a significant level of daily political engagement.
Responding directly to the concrete ways the party has made additional progress toward meeting the needs of this politically engaged people, Xi notes that China has made, “a big push to enhance ecological conservation” and is working to create an “ecological civilization” (shengtai wenming 生態文明). This rather modest statement refers to major accomplishments in dealing with problems ranging from pollution of the air, water, and soil to global warming and climate change. In embracing the use of market mechanisms to develop the economy the Chinese leadership had to accept that this would also generate certain contradictions, problems which would arise from the actual operations of the market, including increasing inequality, corruption, and perhaps most seriously in the long run, environmental damage.
The challenge for the CPC is to try to mitigate the corrosive and destructive effects of market forces while gaining the enhanced technological and organizational productivity which has allowed for the dramatic improvements in the livelihoods of the people. The environment has been a critical arena for action by the government and the CPC. China has succeeded in reducing air and water pollution and has become the world leader in the development and utilization of alternative energy, including wind, solar, and hydropower. For many people and governments around the world China, has become a model of climate and environmental activism. It is certainly making great ongoing investments in research and development to address the existential challenges of our times.
Xi rounds out the opening section of this part of the report with comments about some of the major challenges specific to the past five years, including the Covid pandemic, but also some political issues which have become the focus of a lot of attention by media and politicians in the West, such as the “turbulent developments in Hong Kong” and the “separatist activities aimed at ‘Taiwan independence.’” These are all topics on which American imperialist propaganda has had a lot to say, presenting China as using the pandemic as a way of further oppressing its people, of suppressing democracy in Hong Kong, and of escalating tensions over the question of Taiwan and threatening to invade the island. The truth in each case is entirely different.
China’s handling of the Covid pandemic has gone through several stages, each of which was based on the fundamental principle of preserving the lives of the people, even if this caused difficulties in the economy. This is in stark contrast to the American response to the pandemic, which put profits first and led to the death of more than 1.1 million people. In China the government began with efforts to understand the virus and to establish protocols and procedures for coping with its spread. China mobilized both official resources and private activism by citizens in the first months of the crisis. Information on the structure and functioning of the virus was developed and shared with the WHO and other governments. China pursued a campaign of research and development to produce vaccines, which it then shared as public goods with other countries, without seeking to generate profits for pharmaceutical corporations, which seemed to be the priority in the West.
A second phase of Covid policy was put in place by the summer of 2020, which came to be known as Zero Covid, which aimed to totally contain and control the virus. This involved lockdowns in areas where the virus began to spread, ranging from particular neighborhoods to whole cities. These sometimes resulted in hardships for the residents of lockdown areas, but their needs and concerns were addressed as quickly and effectively as possible within the constraints of actual conditions in the economy and the state of medical services.
At the time of the 20th Party Congress this phase of Covid policy was still in place, though in the wake of the Congress the new policies of managing Covid as an endemic disease have been put in place. China’s Covid policies have saved millions of lives, and the present state of affairs suggests that in China as in other parts of the world the pandemic is winding down and a new era is getting underway.
Hong Kong and Taiwan: Internal affairs of China
The situations in Hong Kong and Taiwan have received extensive attention in Western media. Corporate news and American politicians have relentlessly promoted narratives which portray China as acting against popular “democratic” forces which want to change the political status of both territories. In both cases, though, it has actually been the U.S. which has sought to subvert the existing order, promoting campaigns of disruption and violence in Hong Kong, and carrying out endless provocations towards China by supplying ever greater shipments of weapons to Taiwan, stationing American military “advisors” there, and sending a stream of high government officials to meet with the local authorities on the island. The situations are complex, but each location has one fundamental feature in common: both Hong Kong and Taiwan are internationally recognized as part of China as a body politic, as a state. Even the U.S. government formally recognizes this as fact. They are part of the system of One Country, Two Systems (yige guojia, liangzhong zhidu 一個國家，兩種制度), which has been in place for several decades, and which recognizes the special circumstances of each territory.
Hong Kong was held as a colonial possession by Britain after it was seized from China during the Opium War between 1839 and 1842. Under the terms of treaties dating to the 19th century Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and Britain and the People’s Republic reached an agreement on the transfer, which took place in July of that year. Since then, Hong Kong has been administered under what is called the Basic Law, in effect a local constitution.
The Basic Law gave Hong Kong citizens the first democratic rights they had ever held, and envisioned a process of transition which will go on over 50 years, during which time Hong Kong will be a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, under the policy of One Country, Two Systems. There have been various stages of development in the legal and legislative system in Hong Kong, and the franchise has been expanded step by step. There has also been some contention and political agitation along the way. But Hong Kong is unquestionably a part of China, with a high degree of local autonomy.
China has been very sensitive to the interference of outside forces, especially both overt and covert actions by the United States, which has sought to disrupt local society and destabilize the administration. Violent protests in 2021 and 2022 gained much sympathetic media coverage in the West, but were in fact handled with great restraint by the Hong Kong police and government. The political turbulence there has subsided, and Hong Kong has returned to its normal state of affairs, still under the One Country, Two Systems policy, which is set to continue at least through 2047.
The matter of Taiwan is likewise an internal affair of the Chinese people on both sides of the Strait of Taiwan, which separates the island from the rest of the country on the mainland. The Taiwan situation is one which, as the Chinese say, has come down from history. It is the legacy of the outcome of the Civil War in China from 1945-1949, which culminated in the establishment of the People’s Republic in October 1949, while the remnants of the former regime led by the Guomindang under Chiang Kai-shek withdrew to the island of Taiwan.
Protected by the intervention of the U.S. Navy, the Guomindang set up a government on the island, first having violently repressed protests by the local population at the cost of thousands of lives, and declared martial law, which remained in effect for some forty years. Today Taiwan is administered by local authorities who continue to refer to their government as the Republic of China, and who claim to be the legitimate government of the entire country. Until 1971 the Taiwan authorities held China’s seat in the United Nations General Assembly and on the Security Council. The People’s Republic assumed that position upon the vote of the General Assembly in that year as the actual existing and legitimate government of China. The next year, after President Nixon’s visit to China, the U.S. and China signed the Shanghai Communiqué, in which the U.S. acknowledged that there was only one China, and that Taiwan was part of China.
The position of the CPC and the Chinese government has always been that the status of Taiwan is a question to be resolved by the Chinese people on both sides of the Strait in their own way and in their own time, without the interference of any outside forces. They decline to renounce the possible use of force in the event that anyone should attempt to separate Taiwan from China, but have remained clearly dedicated to seeking a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the situation. Xi Jinping made this crystal clear in the course of the 20th Party Congress.
Xi Jinping’s Report goes on to delve into many of the topics raised in this opening section in greater detail. The full report is widely available in English online. Understanding the modes of expression regularly used by China’s political leaders is important in the work of promoting a broader and deeper appreciation of China’s contemporary political and economic system, which is often willfully distorted by Western corporate media as part of the American-led effort to demonize China and drive a wedge between working people on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
Those working to oppose American imperialism and to promote peace and support China’s struggle to improve the lives of its people and to build a socialist future need to be able to help those we work and organize with to have a clearer comprehension of what is happening in China. Unpacking China’s political rhetoric can help to make China more familiar and accessible for Americans. This is critically important in our current era, with the United States carrying on a relentless campaign of demonization towards China, while also pursuing policies of military encirclement, provocations in the South China Sea, and the reckless escalation of tensions over Taiwan through the visits of American government leaders, the sale of ever greater volumes of weapons, and the stationing of military “advisors” on the island. American propaganda aims to make China seem alien and menacing, reviving the racist stereotypes of the “Yellow Peril” along with the political bogeyman of the “Red Menace” while simultaneously suppressing meaningful communication such as educational exchanges or collaborative research between American and Chinese scholars and students. We need to be able to “seek truth from facts” as the Chinese say, and clarifying the ways in which Xi Jinping and other leaders and activists in China present their thoughts is essential to that task.