The Struggle for Socialism in China: The Bo Xilai Saga and Beyond
by Yuezhi Zhao
If Mao Zedong Thought once served as the hegemonic ideology of China’s pursuit of socialism in the twentieth century, two of Deng Xiaoping’s slogans, “letting some people get rich first” and “development is ironclad truth,” have served as the most powerful ideological justifications for China’s post-Mao developmental path. Given that this path has transformed China from one of the most egalitarian societies in the world under Mao to one of the most unequal in the contemporary world, it is not surprising then that few have taken the CCP’s claim of building “socialism with Chinese characteristics” seriously. However, for many Chinese, the lived experiences of socialism—both positive and negative—are real, and so are the contemporary contradictions between rhetoric and reality. Despite Deng’s “no debate” decree—that is, there should be no debate about whether the post-Mao reforms are capitalistic or socialist—overt and covert struggles over the direction of China’s reform path, its internal contradictions, and variegated social conflicts have compelled the CCP leadership to continue to claim the mantra of socialism on the one hand, while attempting to readjust China’s developmental path on the other.
As early as 2003, the CCP had modified Deng’s development doctrine to promote the so-called “scientific concept of development”—that is, a more people-centric, and socially and ecologically sustainable developmental path. By October 2007, the CCP’s 17th National Congress had officially committed itself to “accelerate the transformation of the mode of economic development.” The global financial crisis that erupted in 2008 has not only injected new energy to calls for “socialist renewal” as the only viable alternative to further capitalistic reintegration, but also compelled the leadership to intensify its rhetoric about shifting Chinese development away from a GDP-driven and exported-oriented model. However, a powerful hegemonic bloc of transnational capital, domestic coastal export industries, and pro-capitalist state officials—as well as neoliberal media, intellectual leaders, and their middle class followers—continues to block any substantial efforts at reorienting the Chinese developmental path.
It is within this context that Chongqing, under Bo’s leadership, must be understood as a place that made substantial efforts to pursue a more socially sustainable developmental path. Previously a municipality of Sichuan province, Chongqing gained provincial jurisdiction status in 1997. With a huge rural population (70 percent of 32 million in 2010) and a rugged geography in China’s southwest interior, Chongqing is a microcosm of China. It not only faces some of the country’s most profound socioeconomic challenges but also manifests all the pitfalls of neoliberal capitalist reintegration, including a criminalized economy. In late 2007, Bo, who had gained local governance experience first in the city of Dalian and then in Liaoning province prior to becoming China’s Minister of Commerce in 2003, was sent to lead Chongqing as its party secretary.
Chongqing still prides itself as China’s wartime capital and a center of global anti-fascist struggles between 1937 and 1946. It was turned “red” by literally soaking in the blood of Communist martyrs in the fierce struggles between the Communists and the Nationalists around the time of the PRC’s founding in 1949. Later, Chongqing was built into one of China’s Cold War–era major inland military-industrial bases. This cultivated a strong working class, who had been on the forefront of anti-privatization struggles until the mid–2000s. As China’s newly established metropolis during the reform era, Chongqing shouldered some of the heaviest social dislocations burdening China’s post-Mao development and modernization, with not only the resettlements of Three Gorges Dam migrants but also the care of the elderly and the children left behind in depressed rural villages by migrant workers moving to the coastal regions. Partly because of this, since 1997 the central authorities have given Chongqing more leeway to experiment with integrating urban and rural development. Bo, an ambitious, charismatic, and strong-willed “red princeling” (he is the son of a revolutionary leader) who had a significant power base among China’s political and military elites, was trying to reclaim China’s revolutionary legacies to win popular support in a bid to return to Beijing for a higher political office. This particular configuration of socio-historical, geopolitical, as well as biographical forces gave rise to the Chongqing Model.4
The model’s cornerstones were an enlarged public sector and a focus on social welfare.5 As an August 8, 2012 Foreign Policy article put it, it was “a daring experiment in using state policy and state resources to advance the interests of ordinary people, while maintaining the role of the party and state.”6 Specifically, the local state significantly enlarged its role in the economy through the creation of eight major investment firms that operated as marketized entities but served the purpose of equitable development. Similarly, a state investment firm, rather than private capital, took control of the massive “poor assets” of more than 1,160 state-owned enterprises from the Mao era, restructured them, and developed them into viable businesses. As a result, Chongqing’s state-owned assets grew exponentially. Chongqing took aggressive steps in bridging the urban-rural gap, enabling as many as 3.22 million rural migrants to settle in the city with urban citizenship entitlements in employment, retirement pensions, public rental housing, children’s education, and health care. Beginning in 2009, under a program known as 10 Points on People’s Livelihood, Chongqing spent more than half of all government expenditures on improving public welfare, particularly the livelihoods of workers and farmers.
In these ways, Chongqing put into practice the CCP’s slogan of pursuing people-centered development. In fact, there was nothing radical in these policies—if they were measured against official rhetoric. The effort to strengthen the public sector, for example, remains consistent with China’s constitutional commitment to build a “socialist” system based on the primacy of public ownership. Rather than oppose capitalist reintegration, Chongqing aggressively courted global capital. For example, in a plan to build Chongqing into Asia’s largest manufacturing center for notebook computers, transnational corporations from HP to Acer were attracted to establish operations there. Bo’s leadership even lured the super-exploitative IT manufacturer Foxconn to relocate 200,000 of its 500,000 Shenzhen jobs to Chongqing.7 However, there was a key difference. In Shenzhen, Foxconn was allowed to disembed itself from society by forcing workers to live in factory-supplied, military-barrack-style dorms. In contrast, Chongqing provided cheap public rental housing to Foxconn workers. This allowed it to break away from the “global labor arbitrage” pattern and re-embed transnational capital in society.8 Meanwhile, in an effort to solve the employment problem, Chongqing implemented a massive microenterprise program to support rural migrants and university graduates to establish businesses in the urban areas. In short, as Philip Huang observed, the Chongqing Model attempted to find a way that allows the complementary growth of state, transnational, and domestic private sectors in a mixed economy.9
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