Kuora: Technocratic, Confucian, authoritarian, capitalist — what is China?

Shanghai; photo by Hanny Naibaho

China is big, complex, contradictory. Kaiser, in an answer originally posted on March 19, 2017, tries to explain.

China is a socialist country with a capitalist economy led by, of all things, a communist party. Just what is China really?

I would describe China as a heavily technocratic Confucian-Leninist authoritarian state, ruling over a mixed economy with features of both capitalism and socialism.

But that’s really not very useful without breaking down what this means.

It’s technocratic in that most people in putative or actual positions of political authority are holders of degrees in the natural sciences or engineering, and because the political culture is still one that venerates expertise and is very solutions-driven.

It’s Confucian in the sense that the political culture still bears the imprint of the imperial civil service exam system and sees as right and natural a paternalistic bureaucracy of educated elites.

It is Leninist in the sense that it is still a single-party dictatorship with a disciplined cadre running things on the principle of “democratic centralism.” It is nominally communist, but has jettisoned most of what an “orthodox” Marxist would regard as actually communist and has retained really only Leninist political structures and a not-very-deeply-held belief in Marx’s dialectical materialism as a way for understanding history.

It is authoritarian for what I would hope are obvious enough reasons: The Party utterly dominates the state, retains control of coercive forces like the armed forces, paramilitary, and police, exercises considerable control over media, and suffers very little civil society to exist.

The economy is certainly mixed. Features of socialism persist, but I don’t think they compare favorably with the social democracies of Northern and Western Europe. State participation in industry is still quite substantial, even if the private sector is a larger and larger component of GDP, so it’s really premature to say that China is a fully capitalist economy. “State capitalism” is a phrase many have used, and I think it’s largely apt.

China’s leaders are pulled in multiple directions by different interests, confronting often contradictory exigencies. Some, and perhaps even most, aren’t driven by any particularly high-minded ideals and are chiefly interested in staying in power and enjoying the perquisites thereof, while others I have no doubt really do take to heart the long-term interests of the Chinese people and are motivated by an altruistic ideal of service to the country.

But mainly, China is pragmatic. Imagining for a moment that there’s a leadership that we can speak of as having some unified worldview and a shared set of priorities, that leadership is basically about the practical exercise of power toward creating a China that is increasingly wealthy and militarily powerful. It seeks to create a society with conditions that make economic development where dignity and some semblance of social justice can be had by most people. It looks for solutions that “work,” and not ones that simply conform to any particular ideology, and so it doesn’t particularly prize ideological consistency. It believes that “development is the final word” (发展是硬道理 fāzhǎn shì yìng dàolǐ) and that that which augments wealth and power is desirable. It has abandoned its once overly optimistic assessment of the mutability of humanity, and now acts in the belief that people don’t in fact change overnight. It will harness various forces to be found in society — nationalism, grasping materialism, religiosity, environmentalism — when those forces can be made to advance its agenda. But it has no compunction about smacking them down when they threaten the control of the Party-state.

Kuora is a weekly column.