What China’s Communist Party Congress, which just finished in Beijing, showed was that China has managed an impossible project. While the Russians pioneered a Communist revolution a hundred years ago this week, they failed to build a successful Communist society. Instead, they managed to associate the name of Marxism and communism with cruelty, concentration camps and a collapsed economy. It could be that being the pioneer created its own problems. The Russians fought endless ideological battles as to whether you can have socialism in one country, whether Lenin or Trotsky or Stalin was correct. They built an industrial economy at an enormous cost, especially with collectivisation of farms. The USSR was militarily powerful. It defeated Hitler and defied the US for 45 years of Cold War. But its people had a miserable life. The entire experiment ended in failure when the USSR vanished.
China had a very different experience of communism. The Communist Party achieved the impossible by staging a successful revolution in a country which was not just an underdeveloped economy as Russia was in 1917. It was a peasant economy. This was not a proletarian revolution but a peasant one. Marx or Lenin or Trotsky never thought that could happen. When the Bolsheviks won in 1917, they had no experience of practical politics of any kind, not even at a municipal level. The Chinese communists had been on the Long March and established their regime in Yenan. They had to win the trust of the peasantry. They fought the Japanese successfully, thanks to that trust.
When they won in 1949, they had a lot of experience of governing. But then Mao fell into the trap of achieving socialism in one generation. He wanted China to surpass Western capitalist countries in terms of industrial production. It was a disaster. Millions died in the famine this experiment entailed. China was left backward and poor (whatever the propaganda told us). Its politics was made needlessly volatile due to Mao’s cultural revolution. By the time he died, Mao had left China in no better position than he had inherited. The Chinese Communist Party seemed to have forgotten all it had learnt and practised during its rule in Yenan. Mao was worse than Stalin.
This is what makes the last 40 years of Chinese history so unique. Deng Xiao Ping understood a basic truth which Marx had taken almost for granted. Socialism can come only after capitalism. Only when capitalism has exhausted the possibility of its technological potential that socialism can come. The Russian communists thought they had defied the laws of history. Their people paid a huge price for that. But Deng did more than reverse the course of Chinese economy. He invited foreign capital and pioneered Special Economic Zones. He made China an export-oriented economy to an extent seldom tried before, especially by a large continental country. Singapore or Taiwan may succeed at such a strategy.
For China to use export as a growth engine was unusual. India took export pessimism as axiomatic. China achieved the longest run—two decades and more—of sustained high growth rates; high single-digit or low double-digits. Even Japan and South Korea did not manage this. China went from a poor, backward country to one of the richest within a generation. Deng realised Mao’s dream, but by avoiding Mao’s methods. There is a sort of elementary political economy which says as a country gets rich, the middle-class grows and demands political freedom. If a system cannot meet that demand, there will be a rupture in economic performance.
Many people have predicted that China will have to transit to a liberal democracy. What the events at the Party Congress showed that this need not be so. China may have just broken the laws of that simple theory of political economy. Political monopoly of one Party can be combined with a prosperous mixed, but largely capitalist, economy. The Chinese Communist Party is thus the only successful Communist Party in history. It has welded together capitalism and Communist Party rule. Of course, one should never look too far in to the future. Xi may yet falter, and the Party machine may malfunction. But it is much more likely that the Chinese method of choosing the ruling elite is an effective one.
Everyone at the top has had experience of running a province or an industry on their way to the top. Obviously, there are people at senior levels evaluating and grading the performance of young party officials before they are promoted. There are ‘princelings’, but they do not monopolise power. The succession since Deng has been regular. It has not involved any assassinations or coups. Except for the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, the Party has not had to resort to excessive force. As Communist dictatorships go, this is only moderately repressive. The Chinese case deserves deep study. It is unique in terms of all that we know about political and economic development.