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Westernisation and Socialism with 'Chinese Characteristics' - What the CCP can learn from Hong Kong

'Westernisation' is a commonplace, but a dreaded and hatred one. In recent decades most people have come to accept this notion as something natural, obvious, and somewhat inevitable. At the same time, however, Western influence has been often deemed dangerous, humiliating, and polluting.

Asian societies have shown both a desire to 'learn from the West', and a great degree of mistrust towards Westernisation. For example, in 1994 former Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong warned his fellow countrymen not to imitate too much the West. In order to make his warning effective, he cited some of the issues that according to him plague Western societies: "broken families, teenage mothers, illegitimate children, juvenile delinquency, vandalism and violent crime" (Asian Values, Western Dreams: Understanding the New Asia. Sheridan 1999, p. 72). This vision of a chaotic, unstable, individualistic West is often referred to by advocates of East Asian values. 

China is another example of an East Asian country that is very careful not to learn too much from the West for fear of spiritual pollution. 

Socialism With Chinese Characteristics

The ambiguous formula 'Socialism with Chinese Characteristics' is an interesting example of how China's leaders have tried to hide the truth behind a veil of rhetoric. After Mao's death, and again after 1989, the PRC experienced an ideological crisis so deep that it almost made the entire state crumble under the heavy burden of its never realised promise of a socialist Utopia. 

Almost hysterically party ideologues tried to save Communism, and at the same time to renew its principles. The heterogeneous nature of today's CCP ideology is demonstrated by the PRC Constitution. Its preamble states:

The basic task of the nation is to concentrate its effort on socialist modernization along the road of building socialism with Chinese characteristics. Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the Important Thought of the "Three Represents," the Chinese people of all ethnic groups will continue to adhere to the people's democratic dictatorship and the socialist road, persevere in reform and opening to the outside world, steadily improve socialist institutions, develop the socialist market economy, develop socialist democracy, improve the socialist legal system, work hard and self-reliantly to modernize the country's industry, agriculture, national defense and science and technology step by step, and promote a coordinated development of material, political and spiritual civilizations to turn China into a socialist country that is prosperous, powerful, democratic and culturally advanced.

As we can see, the Constitution is a patchwork of different, and even contradictory, ideas. Words like 'democratic', 'dictatorship', 'Marxism-Leninism' and 'market economy' stand side by side without any apparent logical connection. Similarly, Mao Zedong's beliefs are hardly compatible with Deng Xiaoping's restoration of market forces, and the "Three Represents" theory, formulated by Jiang Zemin, which allows entrepreneurs to join the ranks of the CCP.

During the Jiang Zemin era, the CCP increasingly employed new ideological tools to stabilise one-party rule, although it never embarked in a serious intellectual attempt to create a coherent political agenda. It simply used everything that could be used in order to strengthen the party and the state. Nationalism regained the central role that it had lost in 1949, when the Guomindang fled to Taiwan. It is no coincidence that the revised Contitution of 2004 mentions Nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen, and that in recent years the Guomindang has been somewhat rehabilitated. Confucianism, which the Maoist Communism had dubbed 'feudal' and had tried to eradicate, was reintroduced in the official discourse, too.

The word 'Chinese characteristics' is therefore nothing more than a rhetorical instrument that allows Chinese leaders to give a nationalist, local touch to diverse and heterogeneous concepts. It is an obvious thing that every country adapts ideas to its own situation. Democracy or market economy are not the same in all countries. For example, the German, American, Swedish, Japanese, or Singaporean forms of capitalism are different. However, people in these countries find it unnecessary to define their own version of capitalism as 'capitalism with German, American, Swedish, etc. characteristics'. The fact that the CCP insists so much in stressing the 'uniqueness' of China, is a proof of their insecurity, and of their desire to stir nationalist feelings.

In economic terms, China is certainly not a socialist or communist system. However, China is not a neoliberal economy, either. Perhaps, the confusion both in East and West derives from the fact that neoliberals believe they represent capitalism, and some Chinese have bought into this myth. 

Although Jiang introduced more market-driven forces into the economy, he was far away from a programme of liberalisation as envisioned by Western neoliberal thinkers.

"The goal of the reform of the economic structure is to build up a socialist market economy, not a capitalist economy," stated party chief Jiang Zemin. He added that in the course of reform, the state-owned economy could only be improved and strengthened, and must "absolutely not" be curtailed.

Jiang wanted a mixture of the market economy and centralised control. For the president and fellow neo-conservatives such as Zhu Rongji, the East Asian development model was the answer to the search for the "Golden Mean". In countries and areas such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, there was a co-existence of paternalistic, heavy-handed state control - or at least guidance - and a body of business practices according to "international norms" (The Era of Jiang Zemin. Lam 1999, pp. 60-61).

Jiang, who started his career in state-owned enterprises (SOEs), wanted to copy the experience of the Japanese zaibatsus and South Korean chaebols, which worked in close association with the government (ibid.).

Jiang seems to have instructed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Coopoeration to study South Korean development plans from the 1960s.

Jiang's wish to copy the conglomerates model is shown by his directives to local party cadres to form conglomerates. In rich areas, every city was instructed to have at least one such corporation.

Nevertheless, the East Asian-style economic model can by no means be called Communism or socialism.


The word Westernisation is often used as an ideological tool in order to reject certain ideas coming from the West. In fact, adoption or rejection of Western ideas seems to follow a selective ideological pattern.

For instance, many Chinese leaders and intellectuals seem oblivious to the fact that Marxism-Leninism, the modern state, nationalism, and of course Communism, are all Western ideas. The attempt to transplant the ideology of a German philosopher and the theories of a Russian revolutionary into China were at least as bold as an eventual attempt to try out democracy. 

I am not arguing that China should adopt Western-style democracy. I am simply pointing out that the argument that democracy is 'alien' to Chinese tradition doesn't have any meaning at all in a country whose society and economy have already been largely remodelled after Western political, social, and economic concepts.

The reason why Westernisation is more and more becoming a bad word is that nationalism plays a major role in shaping the identity and sensitivities of Chinese people. Nationalism has been a government-sponsored ideology ever since the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 and Guomindang rule in mainland China (1912-1949). But while the Guomindang saw the West and the USA as China's allies, Communist leaders see the West as a threat to both their ideology and the stability of their one-party rule. Western hubris, envy of China's economic success and fears of her rise give Chinese certainly foster anti-Western sentiment and give CCP leaders a powerful tool to spread simplistic notions of anti-Western Chineseness.

I am not arguing that China should copy the West or learn from the West. My argument is a different one. Spontaneous cultural exchange has always been a natural part of human history. Let's take a simple example. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Greek alphabet, and the Greek alphabet is derived from the Phoenician alphabet. Therefore, the alphabets that are in use in the whole Western world originally come from the Middle East. There are endless examples of exchanges of ideas, technologies, and values between different peoples. 

However, nationalist ideologies propagate the notion of an alleged 'true', 'pure' national culture. Yet such purity seldom exists. Nationalists refuse to accept the spontaneous development of society and the natural, constant exchange of ideas. They do not accept society as it is; they always try to change it according to ideological precepts. 

As I have explained in another post, Hong Kong is a good example of the spontaneous development of a peculiar identity based on the blend of different cultural traits. Hong Kong is a Chinese city, but its people have always been at ease with Western culture. Before 1997, there was no government in Hong Kong telling its citizens what they should believe in, what national identity they should have. Nationalism defines how a community should be, even when it contradicts the reality. 

The true problem of the attempt to 'sinicise' external influences is that they create ideological stiffness. 'Foreign ideas' not only have penetrated China deeply during the last two hundred years, but they are not a danger to China. China should learn from Hong Kong's ability to develop a spontaneous, natural identity, absorbing ideas and values from other countries, without losing its Chineseness.


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