Global Review had the honor of interviewing Prof. Van Ess, sinologist and President of the Max Weber Foundation, about China, the CPC and their relationship to communism, Marxism-Leninism and and related question including ecology.
Global Review: Prof. van Ess, the CPC is celebrating its 100th anniversary, but how did Marxism come to China? Before the October Revolution in Russia, under the foreign Manchu-Qing government,have there been intellectual circles alongside the nationalists Sun Yatsen’s who had studied Marx, were in contact with the worldwide communist movement abroad, had their own masterminds or were followers, and to what extent was the Communist International constituting Chinese Marxism? Was Marxism more of an import in China or did it grow as a counter-reaction to the feudalist and monarchical-dynastic Qing rule and the social and political contradictions in the country? Who were the founding fathers of the CPC in Shanghai in 1921 and where did they come from and did they all have the same idea of Marxism and communism?
Professor van Ess: Karl Marx was received in China even before the founding of the Communist Party via Japanese translations. In Japan, after the Meiji reforms, which began in 1868, an intensive preoccupation with German philosophy began. Reception in China was delayed because reforms based on one’s own thinking were long relied on, but from the 1890s onwards, the Japanese translations of Western philosophy classics began to leave their mark on Chinese thought as well. This intensified after the failed 100-day reform of 1898, after numerous young intellectuals had to leave the country and fled to Japan. This movement was reinforced by the fact that in the period that followed, many students went to Japan to study abroad without persecution, but soon also to Europe or the USA: At the same time, there were a number of traditionally educated intellectuals who began to be interested in the European currents of thought and integrated these into traditional Chinese ideas. A good example of this is the intellectual Zhang Taiyan (also Zhang Binglin, 1869-1936), who studied Russian anarchists as early as at the turn of the century.
Important founding members of the Communist Party had experimented with various Western models of thought in the second decade of the twentieth century. The American model was also very important to them. The two most important names are arguably Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, who both published magazines between 1910 and 1920, whose roles were in no way limited to Marxism. What they had in common was the will to break new ground after the collapse of the Chinese Empire. They were platforms for literary, political and intellectual reflection that had in common that they wanted to get away from the Chinese tradition (there were of course more conservative magazines, but they were not as important). First there were many ways available.
The October Revolution and then above all the Fourth May demonstrations of 1919, which were sparked by the fact that the victorious powers of Versailles did not return the German colony in Shandong to China, but handed it over to the Japanese, played an important role in the fact that parts of the modernization movement were radicalized and wanted to join a communist world revolution. At this point in time, however, their ideological views still diverged considerably. The orientation towards the Communist International and Russia, however, meant that Mao Zedong did not play the main role in the Communist Party for a longer period of time, because he initially seems to have rejected the alliance with Russia before he later became a supporter of Stalin.
Global Review: Initially, Mao, who was later the unquestioned leader and great helmsman, had little support from the CCP or from Stalin. How did it come about that the CCP developed more and more into a Mao party after the Shanghai massacre in 1927? What made Mao different from the other communists, Trotsky and Stalin? Was it the orientation towards the peasant class and the guerrilla war in contrast to the classic communist ideas of an urban workers‘ revolution?
Professor van Ess: China was an agricultural country (and remained so until the 1990s, with 80% of the population in rural areas). The only real industrial city that existed was Shanghai, which was basically built up by foreigners, maybe Tianjin and Wuhan, where representatives of colonial powers also sat. Intellectuals lived in Shanghai who saw the world differently from the rest of China. Mao Zedong was from Hunan. Under the Qing government, this was the most economically prosperous region alongside the lower Yangze Valley. However, it was remote and was slowly being left behind, which was certainly detrimental to the self-confidence of the local elite, which could also be proud of having produced numerous important personalities in the intellectual history of the later imperial era, and made them receptive to the ideas of someone who made promises to stop the loss of meaning. As a result, the CP in Hunan became one of the largest CP cells in China. Mao could rely on this. By the way, it was actually not that clear at first that it was a CP cell, because the small communist party had decided – also on the advice of the Comintern – to form a united front with the Guomindang, in which the idea of socialism only played a subordinate role.
Mao came from a big peasant family, but later always left out the “big” because he was proud of his connection to the common people. And in a certain way his thinking is actually related to the rural enviroment, even if of course he was a trained intellectual who initially worked as a librarian at the university. He had little to do with the urban workers‘ revolution. That would not have been possible in China either. It was actually important that he was able to assert himself against the intellectual urban elite in his party after Chiang Kai-shek had smashed the communist structures in Shanghai. He himself had only been there sporadically. After that, Hunan naturally gained weight for the CP.
Global Review: How many times did the CCP face a loss of power or failure? Shanghai massacre, the Long March as an attempt to break out and escape from Chiang Kai-shek’s strategy of encirclement, the invasion of the Japanese, internal power struggles and famines and chaos after the seizure of power, including the Great leap forward and the Cultural revolution -.why did the CCP survive and why did China not sink into civil war or did a regime change occur? In the official version of the CCP in the Global Times and the Xi speech, this is explained by the theory that the CCP has always had a tough leadership core that overcame and will overcome all crises. But it was not precisely this dogmatic core of leadership that caused such fatal mistakes to be made, which were only corrected after one to two decades of destruction and after Deng corrected this, now under Xi’s transformation of the collective party dictatorship into a potentially lifelong one-man dictatorship again to return to this iron leadership that is supposed to secure the expansion of China and the rise to a world power before the USA?
Professor van Ess: The factors mentioned, such as the Shanghai massacre or the Long March, were on the one hand a threat, but on the other hand they also helped because dissatisfied people had to rally behind Mao and competitors had to give up. The Guomindang had to flee from Shanghai to Chongqing, where there was also some industry, but were practically just as dependent on the hinterland as the CP. After the Long March, the Communist Party established itself in Northwest China, a hinterland region that was difficult to reach militarily. Traditionally, it has been said in China for two thousand years that the country can only be conquered from the Northwest, and Mao may have stuck to it. He knew the old histories very well. Handwritten marginal notes in the texts he read prove this. One important factor was the defeat of the Japanese, after which he made the race for the abandoned Japanese weapons in Manchuria. Otherwise things might have turned out very differently. It is also always said that the Guomindang regime was so corrupt that the CCP won the hearts of the people. However, this may be post-liberation propaganda. It is not so easy to verify from the available sources, even if his collaboration with triad bosses in Shanghai is legendary.
The leadership core only became really important after the victory of the Communist Party in 1949. And of course the leadership was by no means always in agreement. After the death of Stalin, Mao threw the Soviet helpers out of the country because he could not do anything with the Khrushchev „goulash communism“. The USSR had already undergone a huge industrialization spurt and was then considered an aspiring industrial power, just as North Korea was still superior to the South in the 1970s. We suppressed all of that. Mao wanted to have his industrialization allowed too, and that is why there was a Great leap forward. It is not easy to determine what the balance of power in the CP was at that time, but in any case Mao was forced out of all important state positions after the great famine – but not from his most important party position, in which he defended his power. The core leadership around Liu Shaoqi tried to bring China back to a more rational course in Khrushchev-style. The Cultural Revolution was a mean by which Mao put his way back to power against the other leaders, which of course led to massive upheavals within the party, which occupied the country into the new millennium. Deng Xiaoping’s rule began, as is well known, with a purge against the leaders of the Cultural Revolution, and quite early he called on intellectuals to criticize the Cultural Revolution – although one should of course not criticize the CP as such. The literature of the 1980s is full of criticism of the Cultural Revolution. The topic was only made more taboo again after the Tian’an men massacre.
I also explain the success of the Xi policy from the fact that the wounds of the Cultural Revolution are no longer as open as they were twenty years ago and therefore it is easier to play with the leader and, above all, the cult of unity than before. To what extent this is a lifelong one-man dictatorship, I don’t dare to judge. First of all, the party gave Xi the possibility of a third term, which he wanted primarily so that the internal party enemies he has made cannot stop his course and cannot eliminate him.
Global Review: To what extent would you see Xi-China as a neototalitarian system? Is it what a systemic struggle between the CCP and the West? Kai Strittmatter write in his book „The Rediscovery of Dictatorship“ that China under Xi was a kind of mixture between Orwell’s 1984 because of the massive surveillance and suppression as a result of the social credit system and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in terms of consumerism. In other words, a modernized neo-totalitarianism that does not go back to Mao’s barracks communism, but also uses elements of social internalization, also unlike North Korea, which is more of a classic totalitarianism. How do interpret that, especially since most sinologists don’t even dare to speak of China as a dictatorship, but prefer to belittle it as an authoritarian system?
Professor van Ess: Of course China is a dictatorship! The dictatorship of the proletariat is already in the preamble of the Chinese constitution. One cannot doubt that, otherwise one would doubt the foundations of the Chinese state. I believe that the CCP under Xi Jinping has tightened the reins massively and that this, in addition to the self-description of the PRC, leads to a number of phenomena that go beyond what Western political scientists so delicately call authoritarian governance – but that is academic subtlety. Instructions not to deal with certain topics in university doctoral theses are, for me, dictatorial; And that really exists in China, also that people who are unpopular are sent to prison. Every dictatorship needs this means, including that of the proletariat, otherwise it would question its own goals. But I would like to distinguish North Korea from China. After everything I saw there – a long time ago – that is a completely different dimension of isolation from outside influences, and that is what matters when we talk about dictatorship. People should believe what is said at home, not what others say outside.
The Xi policy is clearly a reaction to the dissatisfaction in large parts of the Chinese population with the social drifting apart of Chinese society under Hu Jintao (2002-2012). I observe with some astonishment how these Hu Jintao years are repeatedly glorified by Western journalists and other observers as a kind of “golden age”. This totally fails to recognize that a population, of which large parts had previously been brought up to the ideals of socialist equality (which never meant that all are completely equal), suddenly realized during this time that the ideal of equality in China was nothing. As foreigners, we mostly see the good side, a China in which many have become richer and therefore support the regime. But anyone who has even rudimentarily studied the official party announcements of the first decade of the millennium had to notice that there was growing uneasiness in the CP with developments in their own country. The rampant prostitution that, if I see it correctly, Xi has cleaned up on a large scale, is just one example. The Chinese acceptance of what you call “neototalitarianism” is not so much different than in countries of the former European Eastern bloc, where the great enthusiasm for many manifestations of the more recent development of Western democracy also seems to have waned (this Skepticism probably works even as far as Belarus, even if of course nobody in Germany wants to admit that). The reactions to the rapid introduction of more and more changes in an old system of social coexistence are different in detail, but on the whole similar.
Of course, we also have the “consumer idiocy” in the West. We – or rather the USA – are actually the role models for the brave new world. But we are also bringing a whole bunch of other innovations to life for other societies, which are explosive in more traditional societies (and the Chinese one is one), even in modern ones like the French. “Political correctness” and the underlying ideological premises are of course a huge gap that cannot be easily propagated there. They strengthen those in power in other systems because they can make use of the common sense argument. The Chinese system of social credit points is basically similar to the German Schufa. It has primarily something to do with finances and only secondly with what is haunted by the press.
I still remember the massive resistance that Schufa encountered in my student circles (including myself, of course) in the 80s. Citizens are screened, they have to take off their clothes financially in front of the landlords, etc. That then vanished relatively quickly. In China there is no Schufa so far. And the system has met with some acceptance (at least so far) because many Chinese have become acquainted with the fact that such gaps in a modern society not only create a homely feeling, but are sometimes extremely annoying, because offenses can often not be punished because there is a lack of legal basis and transparency. The social credit point system is initially seen by many as positive because it promises more security – and that is an extremely important argument in China. The fact that a lot of monitoring mechanisms are introduced at the same time is unaffected.
I don’t want to trivialize anything (and of course I’m not at all enthusiastic when everything I do is filmed or every financial transaction is visible, although we in the West have of course far too often illusions about these issues at home), and I confess that after two years of abstinence from China I also lack the competence to see how this system is really affecting the everyday life of individuals in China at the moment. It is very difficult to judge something like that from the outside because you hardly have any unfiltered information about China from Germany. There are Chinese who see a new Cultural Revolution approaching and feel uncomfortable in their country, and there are others who believe that all of these measures contribute to further strengthening and are necessary for the country to compete with the United States.
I cannot say how the forces are distributed. In fact, I think that the whole situation and ideological policy of Xi Jinping must remain incomprehensible without this competition between China and the US. It came about because in the USA – already under Obama and beyond Trump, but strongly spurred on by him – there was a rethinking of China. It has long been thought in the West, but especially in America, that China would eventually adapt and take over the European-American political system and become a normal partner who somehow integrates (in an honorable second place, of course). Now they wake up and find that this is not the case. That is why the US changed its strategy.
The first time that China lost massive amounts of money in the US (like the German savers) was in the financial crisis of 2008/09, when companies were suddenly nationalized and canceled, with Chinese companies and, in some cases, the Chinese as well State were the main debtors. That was a warning shot that we must not forget. In Europe, too, the financial crisis has massively shaken confidence in the USA as a leading power, but at the same time heightened euroscepticism. The US is trying to regain its role at the moment and is fighting hard for it. This has created a feeling of threat in the Communist Party, which in the eyes of its leadership justifies many means.
Indeed, I have heard many Chinese who have said very clearly that Western democracy does not paint a particularly good picture and that one should therefore ask oneself whether the Chinese model is not better. Our own model has gotten a number of scratches since the beginning of the millennium. In the end, I believe that many Chinese intellectuals would still rather live in the USA than in China if they were offered good conditions there (which is not always the case), but as clearly as Sigmar Gabriel recently claimed for the Atlantic Bridge , this is not the case, especially when you remember that the world is not all pale faces with round eyes.
Global Review: To what extent does the CCP, in its turn to neototalitarianism, also take ideological borrowings from historical materialism, according to which the development of history will automatically bring the CCP’s victory? Similar to this on the Western side through Fukuyama with his eschatological writing „The End of History“ based on a historical materialism of a globalizing global middle class, which is cosmopolitan and democratic, will bring the final victory of liberal democracy and capitalism, which also did not come true. And to what extent could one see the current historiography of the CPC under Xi as a reaction to such Western salvation teachings of neoliberalism, liberalism and its alleged final victory in world history, especially since the CPC probably also had the developments in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia on its radar ?
Professor van Ess: Of course, historical materialism is still a basic requirement for political legitimation in China, because under socialism it is considered a scientifically proven doctrine. You don’t need a Fukuyama for that. Of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the economic reforms of which the CP had long oriented and with which it had a close friendship, welded the CP leadership together. The reference to the fate of the Soviet Union, which Harvard professors believed and then had to go through ten bitter years in the nineties, has of course also contributed to the fact that the PRC, unlike the European Eastern Bloc, did not collapse. The failure of this liberalization model was just too obvious. But of course nobody can benefit from it forever. You have to come up with something new.
Chinese historiography for the past seventy years has always been teleological. An ideal of progress pervades everything that comes onto the market in the form of overarching historical literature. Interestingly, of course, this is also the case with us. The thought that there is no real progress, but that with a social progress one almost always has a disadvantage on the other side, can hardly be expressed here either. For us it is always about “what we have already achieved” and where we still want to go a lot further. In this respect, Marx and Fukuyama are only two sides of the same coin. The official narrative in Germany today is quite socialist, even if the social reality may not correspond to it. But it’s not about us, it’s about China. Below the narrative of progress, there was in the past, in detail, more freedom of interpretation twenty years ago than is the case at the moment. However, this was also due to the fact that history was taken less seriously than it is today – at least as long as it wasn’t the history of the party. That was always important and under massive control.
Global Review: Where do you see the further development of the CCP since Deng, i.e. under Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and now Xi? What are the innovations and further developments and what do the official slogans from 3 representations or harmonious society to Xi’s Chinese dream, 五位 一体 ”the Five-sphere Integrated Plan and 四个 全面” Four All mean? What are the Xi Jinping thoughts in particular?
Professor van Ess: The ideological goal of the CP has always been to work towards the introduction of a communist society at some point in the future, the practical catching up of China to the leading industrial nations and, in the end, the achievement of a leadership position that corresponds to the size of the country and its historical claim . The official slogans that were proclaimed correspond to the individual stages on the way there. Deng Xiaoping spoke of the four modernizations, a rather modest claim, which actually stated that industrial, agricultural, military and scientific-technological were massively behind. At the same time, Deng – using an old Chinese formula – proclaimed the goal of „small prosperity“, which meant that every single citizen should be able to lead a comfortable life in modest circumstances. This happened against the background of the fact that poverty was a pressing problem for large parts of the population after the cultural revolution and the population explosion.
His successor Jiang Zemin spoke of the three representations of the Communist Party, which meant that the party had to ensure that progressive productive forces were established at the same time; The cultural sector must adapt to world developments without losing sight of the interests of socialism, and that the CP must represent the fundamental interests of the people, i.e. not neglect the big picture because of the interests of individuals. All of this was already a reaction to the rapid development of China under the sign of globalization. The background to this was also joining the World Trade Organization, in the context of which one had to accept new rules of the game.
Hu Jintao began to speak of the Confucian-inspired Harmonious society because, in the course of the economic boom, cracks in the social cement became noticeable and because they wanted to close these with an appeal to the common great tradition. The unity of five different goals goes back to old party doctrines in which, in the eighties, one still thought, in a rather socialist style, of a unity of the triad of economic construction, the realization of democracy (socialist type) and cultural development. Under Hu Jintao, it became four goals. Social cohesion was added because it was viewed as particularly endangered after the economic upturn.
In 2012 and when Xi Jinping took office, “building an ecological civilization” was added as a fifth goal. The fact that this goal was laid down was what was really new about the Xi Jinping thoughts, which are otherwise more traditionally inspired by socialism and which also brought the retraditionalization that was seen coming under Hu Jintao to a halt for the time being.
Global Review: Some experts say that Xi only introduced ecology as a novelty? But does that adequately encompass the Xi Jinping thoughts, since he has introduced a personality cult, a neototalitarian one-man dictatorship, including a social bonus system? And what does the CCP understand by ecology and climate protection? To what extent does it actually represent ecological ideas such as the Club of Rome, Friday for Future, Biden’s Green New Deal or the EU’s Green New Deal and decarbonization? What does the CCP understand by ecology and what does it have in common and different with the West?
Professor van Ess: “One-man dictatorship” or “social bonus system” are means to the end of achieving goals, but not ideological constructs. With the idea of ecology, that’s something completely different. First and foremost, like the gradual additions to the earlier ideological goals, it is a response to needs expressed by the Chinese people. The smog in large Chinese cities had increased so much in the first years of the millennium that the urban population in particular – but not only them – began to have very legitimate concerns about their health. While the fear of fine dust outside of some metropolitan areas and major access roads is more abstract
in Germany you can no longer imagine how it used to be as it was in China (as well as in India, Mexico, Brazil and many other countries) in many places you could grap the smog almost literally with your hands. The Communist Party really got scared of the displeasure caused by this effect of industrialization and decided to take action. In fact, several very radical measures in large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have improved particulate matter pollution within a very short period of time. This is the only way to understand the promotion of electric mobility technology in China, which is of course just as unpopular with buyers there as it is here, but at the same time offers the opportunity to strengthen your own industries and weaken others (the German automotive industry will have to stretch for the ceiling ). Fine dust is the main driving force behind the Chinese idea of ecology.
When it comes to CO2, I guess you can still watch how things develop. The CCP takes that seriously, but at the moment the topic is subordinate because they don’t yet know exactly how great the threat potential really is. Leading international climate scientists, some of whom are also members of the IPCC, work at the Academy of Sciences in Beijing. They have created diagrams of the historical climate development in China over a period of several millennia, which allow a wide range of interpretations of the current climate situation. I don’t think there are very many Chinese scientists out there who would question a rise in temperature and a change in climate over the past 50 years. The linearity of the curves, the connection between climate change and CO2 emissions and the uniqueness of modern climate change are, however, controversial. In this respect, I do not believe that the Chinese leadership will push the topic in the same way as the European one – to abolish everything that consists of CO2.
When it comes to this topic, one must of course also bear in mind that the German CO2 balance benefits massively from the outsourcing of CO2-intensive production to China. Without China, the German CO2 targets would be wasted, and it is therefore a bit hypocritical if the whole world now points a finger at the country as the greatest climate offender, after having previously shipped their CO2-intensive industries there.
The Xi Jinping thoughts and formulas such as those mentioned above about the unity of five different goals are to be interpreted in such a way that one does not want to lose sight of the economic and thus the social feasibility of CO2 savings, because one does not want to lose sight of the global industry ( yet) do not want to drive them out of the country again and do not want to risk their own competitive disadvantages. With the compatibility of economy and ecology, an ecologically oriented party in Germany is now also campaigning. China will probably first observe decarbonization in Germany and then consider whether there will be parts that can be learned here or not. However, the experience with the German energy transition is not very optimistic, because, as is well known, no one in the world really wanted to learn from it, even after twenty years.
Presumably, as in so many other things, China will orient itself more towards the USA than towards Germany when it comes to ecology. Since fracking does not work so well in China, people will rely on a tried and tested mix of coal (if possible, reduce it gradually), atom (if you are confident enough to do so in a safe form; the proportion of atomic electricity has so far been astonishingly low), wind power and solar energy. These are being developed in parallel. There are now huge wind farms in China, especially in regions like Xinjiang, where there is a lot of empty land and the rotors don’t bother as much as in more densely populated areas where nobody wants them.
Global Review; How high do you estimate the likelihood that the CCP will achieve its goal of overtaking the United States by 2049?
Professor van Ess: Great Britain should be surpass at the turn of the millennium. It worked. In this respect, I believe that the 2049 target for China can also be achieved. But you should never forget that there are always two actors to surpass each other: the pursuer and the one to be overtaken. So the answer to the question is also very much influenced by whether the US can come up with something sensible to prevent being overtaken. At the moment they are mainly trying to achieve this by making the race more difficult for the pursuer. They are making life very difficult for Chinese technology companies and believe that they can secure their own market leaders Apple, Microsoft or Google the advantage by taking Huawei and others out of the race. In the long term, however, this strategy is likely to be dangerous, because you have to secure technical leadership in areas of the future and not those that are currently in vogue. And it can very well be that the technology-loving Chinese come up with things that the USA has to steal from them because they did not develop it due to a lack of competition. It is not certain that this will work. However, the KP is putting its own digital companies on the curb because they suspect that they are a gateway for American propaganda. That can slow China down at least as much. Of course, it is also possible that digitalization has reached a peak in both the USA and China, and the competition will shift to other areas anyway. Genetic engineering is a likely candidate that leadership may choose. Europe is far behind and the battle between China and the USA is anything but decided. A military conflict cannot be ruled out either, but it would be fraught with so many risks that I think that we will see even more diplomatic guerrilla warfare on the backs of individuals and larger companies than has been the case so far.