China is a particular instance of East Asian capitalism. If in Western countries, notably the US, capitalism is linked to the rise of wealth and the widening of the middle class, in China capitalism is associated with a failed welfare system and the rise of a wealthy middle class in parallel with a pauperized lower class. As a response to the socio-economic malaise, a politicized movement, the New Left, emerged, claiming to oppose the current economic system; it calls for a reversion to socialism.
Nowadays, China is the immediate result of the reformist era, 1978-2003, pioneered by Deng Xiaoping, whereby the state has sought to catch up the economic gap that makes it lag behind other countries. China was behind even in comparison to former Eastern European countries. The notion of ‘catching up’ is important because it helps understand why China’s capitalism is different from its Western counterpart. Capitalism- although the term is rejected by China officials – is the ultimate result of China’s attempt to improve its economy and the policy of loosening state interference in it did not underpin a giving up of the socialist ideology as much as it aimed at improving the economy. China has sought ‘socialist modernization’ rather than capitalism per se.
The reforms had been carried out in stages and affected mainly the economy. The Central Committee of the CCP’s the main organ that had planned the reforms. The reforms had taken place over three decades. In the first decade (1979-1984), the initial stage was led by Deng Xiaoping and laid the foundations of reform. The reform agenda was set out by the Third Plenum which prioritized the modernization of the economy and allowing market forces to influence the economy. At the same time, the plan that was proposed by the previous CC’s chairmanship, namely Hua Guofeng’s, was discarded. Improvement was struck in the rural areas.
The following five years, as reform plans were going by five years, 1985-1991, was rather shaky. This period was under Zhao Ziyang. It witnessed a clash over the way reforms have been undertaking, notably on the part of a key figure of China reform- Chen Yun. Political reform was also suggested during this period epitomized by the Tiananmen upsurge of citizens in 1989. It had never materialized to real change and Tiananmen protests have been simply crushed. In the following period, the reforms stabilized under the presidency of Jiang Zemin so that by 1997 a staggering 8 percent growth was reached.
This period witnessed a tightening of US-China trade relations via the Permanent Normal Trading Rights for China in 2000. From 2001, the year of accession to WTO, China as the powerful trading pole has been asserting itself. In the end, the various stages show that the economic reform has lived ups and downs and that each CC leadership gave its mark. The most important periods are the first five years that marked departure from Maoism and 1991-1997 that saw a stabilization which propelled China to the ensuing nonstop economic growth. Above all, it shows that the economy more than any other sphere, political or social, has taken up all the energy of the leadership.
Nevertheless, if the economy has been somewhat a success, the same cannot be said about social welfare. Although reforms were meant to extend to the social sphere, the over-focus on the economy did not allow for the establishment of a viable social welfare system. The result has been a large-numbered working class that suffers from the absence of an effective welfare system on the part of the State, and a private sector that does not provide social security for its workers. In addition, the problem of unemployment is acute even in Beijing, China’s economic hub.
This creates a paradox, as throughout the reforms social harmony, as opposed to class struggle, which underlies the state reforms, especially, in the years 2000 and on as Hu Jintao takes on the leadership of the CCP in 2002. This is a crucial point because China, throughout its reforms, sought to distance itself from capitalism, normatively characterized by class struggle, and tried to ‘modernize’ socialism. A response to this failure has been the rise of the New left or Neo-leftists. They are intellectuals who express their dissatisfaction with the post-Maoist reforms and call for a turning back to Maoist socialism. In a way, they are the voice of the large numbers of humble citizens who see no virtues in China’s market economy.