China seeks to become a "socialist country" by 2050

China seeks to become a "socialist country" by 2050

“We are building a window on (our) civilisation to increase our friendship with the five continents.” This propaganda slogan, reproducing the calligraphy of the former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, was put on display during the 1990s at the Shanghai International Airport Company (eastern China). It was during that time that Jiang brought Wang Huning, his advisor and theoretician, into the political realm. The academic is the theorist behind China’s current project to become a ‘socialist country’ by 2050.

(José Á. Díaz)

China is reaching a crucial moment in its long development. The world’s most populated country, now the second largest economy on the planet, with an urban population enjoying living standards of the kind never seen by their ancestors, is also burdened with huge social and environmental problems, and inequalities so wide that they could end up undermining the very legitimacy of the CPC, which has been ruling the People’s Republic since 1949 and relies on economic progress to justify remaining in power.

Conscious that it needs to tackle these deep-seated problems if it wants the country’s development to be balanced and sustainable, Beijing has set a date, 2050, and has established a work programme to become the "socialist society" that the party promised when it was founded in 1921.

In October 2017, the CPC celebrated its 19th Congress, a quinquennial meeting at which the national policy for the next five-year period is generally set out. On this occasion, the Congress took on even greater than usual significance, with the announcement of the start of a "new era", and the steps needed to make it possible by 2050.

As the Chinese president Xi Jinping explained at the Congress, by 2022, coinciding with the first centenary of the founding of the CPC, China will have to have lifted out of extreme poverty the almost 40 million people still trapped in this situation, after which the country will be able to consider itself a "moderately prosperous society".

Meeting this objective will be the starting point of the "new era", which is divided into two phases: between 2020 and 2035, the country will have to undergo "socialist modernisation", based on a series of reforms – still to be shaped. Subsequently, between 2035 and 2050, China will have to be turned into "a great, modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful [reasonably pollution free]", explained Xi.

Xi Jinping, the guide for the 21st century

The difficulties of this task would seem to explain Xi’s efforts to ensure the continuity of his policy over the coming decades. The last Congress has, in fact, seen power consolidated in the hands of Xi, who has been leading the country since 2013, but has only just now managed to shield himself from potential internal resistance, with the inclusion of his political philosophy in the Party’s constitution. Xi has also come out of it exalted, with his theory appearing alongside his name, an honour only previously bestowed on Mao Zedong (recognised in the Constitution as the guide of the CPC since 1945) and Deng Xiaoping (since 1997), who led China’s opening up.

This exceptional measure, combined with the lack of a clear successor for 2023, is feeding speculation that Xi may be seeking to extend his mandate, perhaps until the 21st Congress in 2027, or even beyond that. This would break the unwritten rule of mandates being limited to 10 years, divided into two-five year terms, and the successors to the leadership being selected during the second term, through their inclusion in the Politburo Standing Committee, the CPC’s most powerful body.

Whether Xi Jinping formally remains as president or not after 2022 is not that important, Mario Esteban, chief researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute of International and Strategic Studies, told Equal Times, because "the remodelling he has done within the CPC has mapped out his policy for the decades to come. So there may be external elements that distort it, but this Congress clearly marks a before and after."

Xi has established a work programme, influence by the theory of "neo-authoritarianism" already expounded in the 1980s by political theoretician Wang Huning, recently appointed as one of the seven members of the new Standing Committee. According to Wang, in a huge and initially poor country like China, benevolent yet firm authoritarianism is first required, as this is the only way to lay the socioeconomic foundations on which real development and greater opening can be built.

Wang was lifted from the academic world into politics in 1995, by then leader Jiang Zemin, and has since been providing the Party with theoretical contributions to guide the government’s long-term action, having maintained this role with the previous leader, Hu Jintao, and now, with Xi. His ideas, in fact, would seem to be the basis for the agenda presented by the current president and leader of the CPC for 2050.

New challenges for a new era

"In addition to proclaiming a ’new era’ starting now, Xi also defined a new ’principal contradiction’. This principal contradiction has historically been used to determine or justify the work focus of the CPC. Therefore, with the redefinition, the party has officially shifted the focus of its work towards [a] more balanced development instead of a primary focus on economic growth", sinologist Mareike Ohlberg, research associate at the Mercator Institute of Chinese Studies (MERICS), the largest European study centre currently devoted to China, told Equal Times.

According to Xi, 14 points will be implemented, the most relevant being "addressing the ’principal contradiction’ between inadequate and imbalanced development and the people’s ever-growing need for a better life", in other words, to combat inequalities and to shift the economy towards a more efficient and more ecological model that allows its citizens to live a "prosperous" life, and the CPC to preserve its legitimacy.

Meeting the 2050 development agenda rests on future improvement measures in the social, labour and environmental fields, which will be shaped over the coming years.

"With this redefinition, the party has officially changed its focus towards more balanced development, rather than prioritising economic growth," says Ohlberg, pointing out, however, that Beijing had already initiated several "programmes to combat the ever-growing inequalities, with varying degrees of success."

"We already, in fact, had a glimpse of this with Hu Jintao" (president between 2003 and 2013), Esteban confirms. "I think that Xi is going to concentrate on the transition that we could already see coming, shifting from a model centred on the amount of growth to one more focused on the quality of that growth."

Both researchers expect to see successive improvements take shape over the coming years. Esteban nonetheless points out: "There is no doubt that they are serious about this, it is not mere rhetoric: there is a political will and they are working on it, but this does not mean that it’s going to be easy or that it’s going to be achieved overnight, because there are many difficulties and many things they want to change very gradually," so as not to risk damaging the CPC’s image with the potential short-term side effects of some of the reforms.

"If we look at the Thirteenth Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), and compare its objectives with those of the previous plans, we can see that the focus on the social dimension and environmental protection is much more present than before," he explains. And "environmental objectives have emerged that were not previously included", he adds.

Esteban believes that we can expect, as of now, to see greater emphasis on the redistributive role of the state, with progressive improvements in the quality and the scope of social services, as well as more rights-based reforms aimed at improving working conditions and creating quality jobs.

He also, however, warns that, "There are also taboos within these reforms, which place serious obstacles in the way of the objectives sought, as until freedom of association and collective bargaining are allowed, employers will continue to carry much more weight than the workers."

Ohlberg also expects to see "a greater focus on qualitative indicators of development, establishing a functional social security system, alleviating the effects of a rapidly ageing society, combating regional inequality, and working towards closing the urban-rural gap, etc. All that said, how this new focus will manifest in practice and whether it will be able to undo the massive challenges China is faced in all these areas is a different story."

Neither of the researchers, however, expect to see greater gender equality, as unlike in other areas, the CPC and the government "don’t admit they have a problem in this area", Ohlberg points out. Whilst it is true that China is one of the most advanced countries in this regard, said Esteban, gender inequality remains ubiquitous and is so deep-seated within society that the women’s rights activists who are starting to emerge in the country are seen by Beijing as a "group outside of its control whose influence needs to be curtailed", said Ohlberg.

The 19th Congress also reflected Xi’s ambition for China to take on a greater role on the international stage and to fulfil the dream of "national rejuvenation", which means, according to Ohlberg, that "China is likely to become more proactive in promoting its own political system and development model as alternatives to the Western political and economic order".

Since the 2008 global crisis "the CPC has invested in think tanks and research projects to provide a theoretical basis for the Chinese model, or the Chinese path, as it likes to call it". These think tanks and research projects help to sell the model to its own population, in the main, but "gaining international support for the Chinese way of doing things is increasingly important for the CPC", concludes the researcher.

This article has been translated from Spanish.