Features | Politics | East Asia

China’s Fluid Ideology

The Communist Party has been constantly adjusting its ideology through revisions to the constitution. Expect this approach, not outside pressure, to produce change.

The 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1 provided an opportunity for the party to defend its record – and for others to take stock of the evolution of its ideology since it first assumed power in 1949.

A look at the party’s various constitutions through the six decades since the creation of the People’s Republic of China is instructive. A constitution by definition is meant to be a permanent document, and while amendments can be made, they’re not supposed to be able to be made too easily. Yet, the Communist Party has had more than half a dozen constitutions, each of which claimed to provide the definitive guide to action for the party.

Before the party came to power—and indeed for years afterward—congresses were held sporadically until, beginning in the 1980s, they began to be held every five years.

The first congress held after the party assumed power was in 1956, and the constitution issued at that time asserted: ‘The Communist Party of China takes Marxism-Leninism as its guide to action.’

‘Only Marxism-Leninism,’ it said, ‘correctly sets forth the laws of development of society and correctly charts the path leading to the achievement of socialism and communism.’

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The next party congress was held 13 years later, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, after head of state Liu Shaoqi and Communist Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping had both been overthrown. The new party constitution stated that: ‘The Communist Party of China takes Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought as the theoretical basis guiding its thinking. Mao Tsetung Thought is Marxism-Leninism of the era in which imperialism is heading for total collapse and socialism is advancing to worldwide victory.’

So, the party effectively redefined Marxism-Leninism as Mao Tsetung Thought—Marxism-Leninism for the current era.

Constitutions rarely include the names of the living, but this one did. In fact, it specified who the next leader of the Communist Party would be. Lin Biao, the constitution said, was Chairman Mao’s ‘closest comrade-in-arms and successor.’

Lin was killed in 1971 when his plane crashed while he was supposedly fleeing to the Soviet Union after a failed attempt to assassinate Mao. Naturally, then, the constitution naming him as the successor had to be changed. This was done in 1973, the year after the visit to Beijing by US President, Richard Nixon, when it became clear that China was traveling a new path.

But this constitution didn’t last long either. Mao died in 1976 and, the following year, while Hua Guofeng was chairman and premier, a new party congress adopted another new constitution. Here, Mao Thought was defined as ‘the guiding ideology and theoretical basis of the Communist Party of China.’

But eventually, Deng was able to outmaneuver Hua, removing him first as premier – a post given to Zhao Ziyang – and then divesting him of the party chairmanship. Hua was succeeded in that post by Hu Yaobang.

A new party congress had to be held to legitimize this new leadership and, of course, another new party constitution was unveiled. But even though by now Mao had been dead for six years, the 1982 constitution still stated that: ‘The Communist Party of China takes Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought as its guide to action.’

A party plenum held the previous year explained that Mao Zedong Thought wasn’t actually the chairman’s individual thinking, but the collective wisdom of the party. Hence, even though Mao was no longer alive, his thought would continue to develop.

Although ordinary people may not care much about ideology, from the party’s standpoint, it has to justify changes in policy ideologically. What the party did after Mao’s death was to abandon his policy of unending class struggle within the country and the support of revolution around the world.

Deng reversed Mao’s policies by focusing on economic development, and to do this he had to transform the party’s ideology. Actually, from 1978 on, Deng became China’s new strongman and his thinking came to replace Mao Thought. He also introduced the concept of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ noting that since national conditions are different in each country, the socialism being practiced would also need to be integrated into a country’s actual conditions.

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Another ideological innovation was the concept of China only being in ‘the primary stage of socialism,’ when capitalist remnants are to be expected.

Deng died in February 1997 and, seven months later, the party held another congress at which a notable addition to its ideology was unveiled: Deng Xiaoping Theory.

Jiang Zemin, the party leader, announced that ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’ would be placed in the party's constitution and would be the party's guiding ideology. This is ironic because Deng was known not for his theory, but rather for his pragmatism. Deng’s best known maxim, after all, was, ‘It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.’

What Deng did was to drop the restraints imposed by old communist concepts, such as a planned economy. Traditionally, it was believed that central planning marked a socialist system, while a capitalist society featured a free market economy. Deng maintained that central planning wasn’t unique to socialism and a market economy didn’t mean capitalism.

‘In present-day China,’ Jiang Zemin said in his report at the party congress, ‘Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory constitute a unified scientific system imbued with the same spirit.’

The evolution of the party’s ideology continued five years later when a new party congress learned the phrase ‘the important thought of Three Represents.’ This was Jiang’s contribution to the development of the party’s ideology and justified his inclusion in the pantheon of Chinese Communist figures.

Actually, the ‘three represents’ was a big step forward ideologically. According to this theory, the party represents the interests of advanced social productive forces, advanced culture and the majority of the Chinese people.

This was a huge difference from the Maoist era, when the party identified itself only with workers, peasants and soldiers. With the introduction of the ‘three represents,’ the party identifies itself with those working in high technology and with capitalists, who are welcome to join the Communist Party.

But the constitution now contained this rather unwieldy sentence: ‘The Communist Party of China takes Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of Three Represents as its guide to action.’

            The interesting question now is what will current President Hu Jintao’s contribution be?

In his 90-minute speech, without mentioning himself, Hu talked of his own stewardship of the party since 2002.

‘Since the Party’s 16th National Congress, the Party Central Committee has united with and led the entire Party and the people of all ethnic groups in following Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of Three Represents, fully implementing the Scientific Outlook on Development, energetically promoting scientific development and social harmony, and continuing to advance the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics by building a moderately prosperous society in all respects,’ Hu said.

He also clarified where Communist ideology stands today. Mao Zedong Thought, he said, was a great theoretical achievement in the historical process of adapting Marxism to China’s conditions.

The other great theoretical achievement, he said, is the system of theories of socialism with Chinese characteristics. ‘This,’ Hu said, ‘is a scientific theoretical system consisting of Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important thought of Three Represents, the Scientific Outlook on Development and other major strategic thoughts.’

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The scientific outlook on development and social harmony are Hu’s contribution, and it’s possible that they will be added to the party constitution at the congress next year. So, although the party has held up Marxism-Leninism from the 1950s to now as its guide to action, Marxism-Leninism has itself been defined and redefined.

In the long run, it’s likely that this is how the Communist Party—and China—will change: not as a result of outside pressure, but through the transformation and redefinition of its ideology, all the while insisting that it continues to be guided by Marxism-Leninism.

Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. Now based in Hong Kong, he writes a regular column on Chinese affairs. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, World Policy Journal, China Quarterly, Current History, the Washington Quarterly and other publications.Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1