Socialism 3.0 in China

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Socialism 3.0 in China

Bo Xilai has a reputation as a rising political rock star. But do his ‘Red Culture’ policies in Chongqing really offer a viable model for China?

As China’s 2012 power transition approaches, politicians and academics are racing to find the theme that will define the country’s direction for the next eight years. The inclinations of Xi Jinping, heir apparent to the presidency, are still unclear, but his recent visit to Chongqing suggests that he’s taking a particular interest in the ‘Red Culture’ policies of municipal Party Secretary Bo Xilai.

Bo is the highest-ranking Party member of the Chongqing Municipal area, an administrative zone four times the size of the US state size of New Jersey. It embraces acity of 10 million, as well as a vast rural hinterland that contains more than 1,200 towns and villages. Over the past few years, Bo has made himself the centre of media attention with eye-catching initiatives such as a ‘red song’ campaign and a ban on advertisements on local TV. 

But the significance of Chongqing runs much deeper than socialist gimmicks—Bo has tried to rewrite the social contract of Chongqing with an attack on economic inequality, an expansion of the state role in the economy, and political moves taken straight from Mao Zedong’s playbook. 

People often say that politics in China have stood still while the economy has raced ahead. But the placid surface of single-party rule conceals vigorous debate within the Communist Party over China’s future. Policy experimentation at the local level provides fodder for arguments that will determine the shape of Chinese socialism during the next administration and beyond. The approach of the 2012 handover has spurred risings stars like Bo, a Politburo member and likely candidate for promotion to the top-rung Politburo Standing Committee, to jockey for top leaders’ attention with striking new policies.

This conversation doesn’t always move in liberal directions. China’s ‘New Left’ has seized upon Bo’s ideas to argue for a radical shift away from the market-oriented policies of the Reform and Opening period, citing Chongqing as proof that China can combine growth with economic equality in a vision of socialism that looks to a more statist past.

New Left proponents argue that Chongqing’s experience is the beginning of a path for China that will break radically with capitalist reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping.They hope to restore the state as the centre of China’s economic system with a focus on poverty reduction and to revive Maoist political techniques. In doing so, they claim to have a blueprint for a new era in China’s history.

Socialism 3.0

In a political system where slogans matter, coining a new buzzword is a delicate business, and Bo has been careful to tie himself to the history of the Communist Party. ‘Some people say that “Red Culture” is a move to the left,’ Bo said at a 2009 municipal party meeting. ‘In fact, it’s just about serving the people. That’s why the Communist Party was founded.’

Yet leading members of China’s New Left are beginning to look beyond the theme that has defined Chinese politics for the last 30 years.

Wang Shaoguang, a mainland-born professor of political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has labelled this new period ‘Socialism 3.0’ in an unpublished article focusing on Chongqing, casting it as the successor Mao’s radical egalitarianism and Deng’s reform and opening.

Controversial Peking University political scientist Pan Wei, for his part, describes Chongqing as proof that China is moving into a ‘post-reform and opening era,’ returning to the traditional socialist focus on equality. Arguing that the growth-centred policies of recent decades have created an unacceptable gap between rich and poor, he says the time has come for a radical rethinking of Chinese politics—but he isn’t sure the time has come to say so publicly.

But while Bo’s Chongqing has become a capital for China’s New Left, it’s not the only model competing for the attention of China’s top leaders. Liberals and globally oriented modernizers have also drawn inspiration from local governments, especially reformist policies pursued by the governments of Shenzhen and Guangdong Province.

The city of Shenzhen, which has experimented with Western-style political reforms in a move toward the separation of powers, was the site of Premier Wen Jiabao’s controversial speech last August in which he forcefully argued for political change, while Wang Yang, the provincial leader of Guangdong and Bo’s rival for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee, has focussed on the catchy theme of ‘Happy Guangdong,‘ calling for measuring growth with a ‘Happiness Index.’

The Post-Reform Economy

So what exactly do New Left thinkers believe the next wave of Chinese socialism is going to look like?

For a start, they say, it’s going to be a lot less like capitalism. They call for a major re-entry of the state into the economy, and point to Chongqing as proof that a large public sector can co-exist with a dynamic market. Over the past few years, as Chongqing has become a popular destination for factories relocating from the more developed coastal provinces, where wages and costs are rising, its GDP has grown by about 14 percent a year—much faster than the national average–providing fodder for left-wing academics to cast it as a model for growth.

The political scientists of the New Left are using Chongqing, which has encouraged the expansion of state-owned enterprises, to respond to the economic argument shared by many market-oriented Chinese economists that state investment ‘crowds out’ private enterprise (guo jin min tui).

However, Cui Zhiyuan, a Qinghua University professor who has spent much of the last year conducting field research in Chongqing, argues that in Chongqing ‘It’s not the state crowding out private enterprise…In fact, the state and the market develop together (guo jin min ye jin).’

Wang agrees, citing the growth of private activity in the city, which has outpaced state investment.  In fact he dismisses the idea of crowding out, writing ‘This kind of idea not only has absolutely no theoretical foundation, but it’s been also been proved absurd by the practical experience of Chongqing…As the state’s absolute role in the Chongqing economy has increased, its proportion of the economy has decreased.’

In the Chongqing model, though, everything links back to the issues of poverty and inequality, and the government of Chongqing has turned the market profits of state-owned enterprises toward traditional socialist projects, using their revenue to fund the construction of affordable housing and transportation infrastructure. It’s perhaps not surprising then that Bo’s biggest policy hit is the affordable housing initiative for the city’s poorest. The massive construction programme aims to provide cheap apartments to a third of the municipality’s 30 million residents, a programme that has received national attention and clearly impressed the central government, which is rolling out a similar plan at a national level as part of the 12th Five-Year Plan.

Bo has tried to cast his programme as a step past the single-minded focus on GDP that has defined Chinese policy since Deng. ‘It’s not about how many tall buildings you have, it’s how happy people are,’ he argued in a 2009 speech to Chongqing Party members.

Such comments have echoes of the Happy Guangdong talk, but the statist raft of policies is a sharp contrast with rival proposals. The export-focussed province’s recent reforms have lookedoutwards, fitting closely with current debates among Western policymakers on improving urban quality of life.

But Bo’s remarks also allow him to set himself apart from the wealth-driven culture of major coastal cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, flagship cities of the reform and opening era that have accepted significant inequality as the cost of economic growth. 

Politics for the Masses

Although the Western media has tended to focus on Wen’s challenge to his colleagues to pursue political reform, proponents of the Chongqing model believe they have an answer that owes nothing to democratic models. Instead, they are drawing on the political thought of Mao.

The wealth of the reform and opening period, they argue, has led cadres to lose touch with the people, and Bo has taken on Party elitism by drawing on the Maoist concept of the ‘mass line’ (Mao’s theory says cadres should live among the people and that they should share the viewpoint of the masses).

With this in mind, Bo has commanded local party members to ‘reconnect’ with poor residents of their districts, including issuing regulations with specific instructions requiring village party secretaries to meet with residents at least once a week for at least half day. At these meetings, party workers are obliged to explain the work of the government, and listen patiently and attentively to their opinions. County leaders, meanwhile, must also visit rural areas at least once a month in order to open up channels for people’s petitions.

But such moral ‘revival’ isn’t only for cadres and bureaucrats. Bo’s Chongqing has also focused on the ‘spiritual health’ of the people, promoting red culture as an answer to problems ranging from corruption to gambling to social alienation. Chongqing has sought to bring everyone into this campaign with high-profile moves such as hosting a red song competition and sending text messages featuring Mao’s thoughts to each of the city’s 17 million cell phone users.

Indeed, socialist culture has gone hand-in-hand with promotion of Chinese tradition, despite Mao’s animosity toward ‘feudal customs.’ Residents have been encouraged to read Chinese classics and attend traditional storytelling events—but sharply discouraged from the traditional Sichuan pastime of gambling on mah-jong.

The Chongqing model has been hailed by New Left thinkers as a bona-fide example of home-grown political reform—proof that China can improve its government without copying foreign models. Yet Bo, the son of revolutionary elder Bo Yibo, is an unlikely Maoist. He spent much of the Cultural Revolution in prison when his father fell out of favour, and is noted for his own lavish lifestyle, sending his son Bo Guagua to England’s exclusive Harrow school and Oxford University.

With this in mind, Joseph Cheng Yu-Shek, a Chinese leadership specialist based at Hong Kong City University, argues that Bo fears being labelled the privileged son of a major Party leader. ‘Bo is a very typical princeling, and he now adopts rather popular and rather Maoist policies,’ he says.

Red the New Black?

Clearly, it’s impossible to know for sure how the top levels of the Chinese leadership view Bo’s campaign. But he’s clearly got their attention—Xi visited the city in December, praising Bo’s work in a speech as ‘virtuous policy,’ and saying that the red culture initiatives had ‘gone deeply into the hearts of the people.’

Bo has succeeded in igniting a passionate debate about the future of socialism in China. On the question of whether it has won him a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee, though, we’ll have to wait until next October for an answer.


Peter Martin works for a political consulting firm in Beijing. David Cohen is a freelance journalist. They blog at www.sinocentric.net and their writing has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian Online, the Global Times, the China Daily and the Lowy Interpreter among other publications.