Issue: 2007: Vol. 6, No. 2, Articles

Can Development Dissolve Spears and Shields? Hu’s ‘Harmonious Socialist Society’ betwixt Mao Thought and Deng Theory

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Stephen Herschler

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Dr. Stephen B. Herschler is a professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University, and an associate of the China Research Center. 
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October’s meeting of the 6th plenum of the 16th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) concluded by passing “The Resolution on Some Issues in Building a Harmonious Socialist Society.” This document presents not only the Party’s current goals for China’s development, but it also introduces Hu Jintao’s original contribution to Marxist ideology. Yet certain aspects of the Resolution’s wording are striking, specifically the prominent role it gives to ‘contradictions’ in contemporary China. Hu Jintao is generally considered to have been selected by Deng Xiaoping to succeed Jiang Zemin. ‘Contradiction,’ however, is very much the brainchild of Mao Zedong. Yet Deng could only pursue ‘reform and opening’ after superseding Mao Thought with his own. This raises the question: how can Deng’s political progeny utilize a core Maoist concept without subverting his political benefactor’s reform agenda?

The position of generational Party leader includes providing ideological leadership. Hence, the history of CPC leadership is not just one of leaders but, more important, of their ideologies: Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three Represents,’ and now Hu Jintao’s ‘Harmonious Socialist Society.’ Each leader’s ideology combines his own novel formulations with particular elements strategically selected from previous leaders’ guiding thoughts, thereby suggesting overarching ideological continuity between leaders as well as their own particular program’s being the logical consequence of that which had preceded it. These ideological frameworks generate the Party’s ‘line’ and ‘guiding thought’ for national policy in a particular era. As China is governed by the CPC, all these guiding thoughts necessarily adhere to some general Marxist conception of historical development. That is, they understand history as a linear process of development (or a path), traveling through sequential world historical stages, leading eventually to one ultimate destination: Communism. Thus, each leader’s ideology necessarily addresses two issues: where China currently is on the path and how China can best progress along the path. To better understand the challenge and opportunity Hu faces in melding elements of Mao Thought and Deng Theory with his own specific program to develop China, it helps to first review his predecessors’ distinctive conceptualizations of what generates progress.

Mao: Progress through ‘Contradictions’

Uniting elements from Daoist philosophy with a Marxist dialectical view of history, Mao emphasized that ‘contradictions’ not only constituted all things in the natural world as well as in society, it also was the generative force for development in all domains. A country’s progress was driven by contradictions between social groups, more specifically through class struggle. Mao’s ‘Sinicized’ Marxism helps to explain some of the distinctive features of Chinese political-economy under his rule. In terms of economics, the Great Leap Forward can be understood as reflecting Mao’s belief that the contradiction between a society’s desire for development and its poor economic base could be resolved by society unleashing a revolutionary effort to advance agriculture and industry. Of course, the Great Leap Forward proved to be one giant step back for China’s economic development. In terms of politics, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was rooted in Mao’s determining that not only had contradictions persisted after the Chinese Revolution but that these contradictions included antagonistic contradictions between groups upholding the Revolution and those opposing it. ‘Grasp class struggle as the key link’ was proclaimed to be the national priority, spawning a series of campaigns against prominent national Party leaders. Of those officials who survived being the target of such campaigns, many were restored to full power only after Mao’s death in 1976. One of them was Deng Xiaoping.

Deng: Progress through ‘Development’

Upon Mao’s death, Party elders who had recently suffered the vicissitudes of Maoist politics, with Deng Xiaoping as their de facto leader, moved quickly to revise the Party’s guiding thought. ‘Grasp class struggle as the key link’ was replaced by ‘economic construction as the focal point.’ Party leaders affirmed that with the Communist Revolution, China had entered into a new phase of history. Mao’s works applied mainly to an era of ‘war and revolution,’ a time in which class struggle was indeed the primary contradiction in society. After the Revolution, however, China had entered into an era of ‘peace and development.’ Accordingly, the main task facing the Party and the people, the core contradiction, had changed from ‘Liberating the productive forces’ to ‘Developing the productive forces.’ Mao’s glory lay in leading the ‘first’ political revolution, while Deng Xiaoping’s glory lay in spearheading China’s ‘second revolution,’ economic development.

If ‘contradiction’ was the lynchpin of Mao’s political-economy, for Deng it was ‘development.’ Deng coined the mantra of his era when he stated, “Only development is firm reason,” while undertaking his 1992 tour of Special Economic Zones. Deng’s words launched a national campaign to resume market reforms stalled in reaction to the political and social upheaval in the spring of 1989, a campaign that culminated in the CPC’s embracing of market economics in the 1993 “Party Resolution on Some Problems in Constructing a Socialist Market Economy.” Deng’s tour and its reformulation into Party guiding thought ignited in China a development frenzy which has yet to abate.

Deng’s focus on development informed both his conceptualization of China’s current historical stage as well as the means by which China could best progress on the path. While the international environment was a phase of ‘peace and development,’ China itself was in the ‘primary stage of socialism’-a very long phase indeed, one lasting perhaps 100 years. The goal for this phase was economic development. Deng’s understanding of what actually spurred development is connoted by a fundamental re-conceptualization of stages that occurred under his tenure. Dengist views of international political-economy measure a country’s position and its progress primarily according to certain development indicators, most importantly economic statistics. This view of development parses the countries of the world into three stages of development: advanced, developing and ‘falling back.’ These categories are relational, meaning that to categorize a country as ‘developing’ is to implicitly evoke the existence of other countries further ahead or behind on the path. Characterizing China as a ‘developing’ country clearly indicated China to be further behind on the path relative to other countries. As history is linear, China’s progression would require that it cover some of the same terrain as the world’s economic forerunners, the advanced industrial nations. Accordingly, Deng called for learning from more ‘advanced’ countries and adopting (with ‘appropriate revisions’) their advanced economic and management techniques. He warned that to not develop meant to ‘fall back,’ relatively speaking, which posed the risk of China once again being ‘beaten and humiliated’ by other, more developed countries.

Deng also differed from Mao in how he conceptualized the domestic impetus for development. First, China needed to ‘open to the outside world,’ that is, engage with international markets. Second, China’s development was to be spurred by local development. Accordingly, the reform era involved an incremental devolution of decision-making and fiscal autonomy to local entities. While Deng did say that China’s relatively ‘advanced’ localities could and should ‘pull along’ the country’s poorer regions, he emphasized that in China’s current stage of development nothing should be done that might dampen the vitality and rapid development of China’s local economic vanguard, including such measures as imposing high taxes or undertaking excessive redistribution of wealth.

Hu: Progress Through “Development ‘Dissolving’ Contradictions”

Contradiction, essential for understanding Mao Thought, is all but irrelevant for understanding Deng Theory. Thus, it is striking to read in the October 2006 Resolution, “No society can be without contradiction; society always develops and progresses through the movement of contradictions.” The Resolution concurrently affirms, “For society to be harmonious, first it must develop.” In other words, the Resolution gives weight to both Maoist and Dengist conceptions of development.

Closer examination of contradiction’s deployment in the Resolution, however, reveals that its framing is very much Dengist, with China’s place on the path, the characteristics of the international environment, and China’s location relative to other countries following formulations crafted during the Deng years. Building a ‘harmonious socialist society’ is presented as a natural consequence of the Party’s success in upholding ‘reform and opening’ as well as ‘modernization construction.’ Peace, development, and cooperation remain the major trends of this historical stage but China’s development also occurs in a context in which peaceful development is challenged by a number of factors, including an ever-intensifying competition between countries’ comprehensive strengths. While reform has helped China develop significantly, the Resolution underscores that China “will continue to face pressure due to advanced countries’ continued superiority in economics, technology and other areas for some time to come.” In other words, China remains ‘backward’ relative to more advanced countries. Thus, economic development remains vital for China’s progress, perhaps for its very survival, and China will continue to learn from more advanced countries.

Only after a meticulous framing of China’s stage of development does the Resolution finally introduce the concept of contradiction, using a formulation that comes directly from Dengist views: “the primary contradiction in our country’s society remains the contradiction between the people’s material & cultural needs and society’s backward production.” In other words, the central contradiction is between economics and society. This basic contradiction spawns a series of more specific contradictions which become the focus of the Resolution. They include: the legal system, economic disparities, the employment system, morality and culture, creativity and innovation, public administration, and environmental issues. The breadth of topics covered results from the Resolution’s function, namely, to set forth a guiding thought pertinent for almost every organizational component of the country’s immense governing apparatus.

The way in which these different components are analyzed suggests a divergence from the Dengist development model. The Resolution’s structure connotes that these constitute contradictions naturally produced by China’s current stage of development; indeed, they are necessary products of China’s previous development successes. While Deng had emphasized local initiative and experimentation, the Resolution’s wording indicates that the central government will become more involved in cultivating and regulating social and economic development within the country. This notion of governance comes forth in how contradictions are conceptualized in the Resolution. China’s current contradictions are not constituted by struggle. Rather, they are amenable to hua-jie, a word that evokes dissolving and clearing up. It is clear that the central government is to play a decisive role in dispelling contradictions through a range of national policy endeavors, including: transfers of fiscal receipts, educational reform, work on a social security system, societal and governmental morality campaigns, legal and administrative institutional reforms, etc. Indeed, within the body of the text, the word ‘contradictions’ all but vanishes, indicating that the focus is less on contradictions than on national governmental measures to dissipate them.

Can Development Dissolve “Swords and Shields”?

To briefly position Hu’s notion of development relative to Mao Thought and Deng Theory, Hu shares with Mao an understanding of contradiction as being an unavoidable phenomenon in a country’s development. However, he uses the term to describe potentially harmful social phenomena that naturally arise in the course of a country’s development. That is, unlike Mao, he suggests contradictions are the unfortunate product of development rather than as development’s generative force. He sides with Deng in affirming that China’s primary contradiction is between society and economics, and hence economic development remains China’s primary goal. Development’s primacy over contradictions is affirmed by development’s not only producing contradictions but also resolving – or rather, dissolving – them. He differs somewhat from Deng, however, in granting the central government a greater leadership role in comprehensively managing and directing development. Indeed, one is tempted to conclude that Hu’s China is taking a more socialist path.

The “Resolution on Some Issues in Building a Harmonious Socialist Society” sets forth Hu’s plans for China’s future through 2020 – a date that is likely to be well into his successor’s term. The Resolution has already had an impact on Party and public discussions of social reform, as evinced in numerous articles assiduously analyzing contradictions in essentially every social and economic domain and proposing means of ‘dissolving’ them. As all the current members of the standing committee are engineers by training, it comes as little surprise that they conceptualize Chinese society as a complex mechanism that Party policy can make run more smoothly, particularly if the policy adheres to a ‘scientific development view.’ While Hu’s coining of a ‘Harmonious Socialist Society’ seeks to define the national agenda for the next decade, he may have less control over how contradictions are used. Chinese renders the term by combining the character for spear with the character for shield, objects not easily dissolved. The Party has its work cut out for it in this stage of Chinese development, both in managing China’s current contradictions and in managing how people conceptualize and apply ‘contradiction’ to Chinese society.