The following is an English translation of an article by Martin Jacques that appeared in People’s Daily, 9th January 2018

The 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress marked a new moment in China’s arrival on the global stage. Congresses of the Chinese Communist Party, even in the modern era, have invariably attracted little attention in the West. They have been regarded as neither particularly relevant nor important, rubber-stamp occasions that were difficult to understand or decipher and best left to the China experts. The 19th Congress broke the mould. It was widely reported and recognised in the West as an event of major global importance. Instead of treating the Congress as a somewhat bizarre tribal occasion, some of the coverage displayed a greater sense of seriousness and inquiry. It was widely acknowledged that this was one of the most important political events of 2017. The coverage was further evidence that China has moved to the centre of the global stage. 

To the vast majority of people in the West, the Chinese Communist Party, however, remains a closed book: what little they know about it largely belongs to cold war stereotypes. The latter are still very much predominant in the West, on the left and the right, notwithstanding China’s economic rise. But if the West is to understand China’s rise and the reasons for it, this mentality will have to make way for a more informed and thoughtful view based on reality rather than long-held prejudice. One can feel attitudes beginning to shift, albeit these are still baby steps on what will be a painfully long journey to enlightenment.  

The Congress demonstrated once more the dynamism, the capacity for change, the state of virtual perpetual motion, which imbues and informs the CPC. The contrast with the condition of the great majority of political parties in the West could not be greater. The standard argument in the West has long been that one of the great strengths of Western democracy is that a multi-party system prevents parties from ossifying and stagnating. In fact, the CPC has proved the opposite: the sole party has found the way to keep rejuvenating itself while political parties in the West are increasingly alienated from the people they seek to represent.  

In this context one is struck by the way the CPC constantly interrogates itself, living in a state of almost continuous self-criticism. Everything can be improved upon, reform is not a moment or even a stage but a constant process. Or take the issue of corruption. The West has chosen in its blinkered fashion to believe that the purpose of the anti-corruption campaign has mainly been the removal of some of Xi Jinping’s rivals. This is entirely to miss the point. The CPC leadership came to recognise that widespread and rising levels of corruption were leading to the decay of the party and were a very serious threat to its future. It resorted to strong action in order to deal with the virus that was undermining its relationship with the people. I cannot think immediately of any other country in the world that has had the courage and foresight to conduct such a public and ongoing campaign against corruption, including at the highest levels. The West faces chronic levels of corruption but very little has been done about it because it would involve confronting some of the most powerful and privileged vested interests. 

One of the striking characteristics of the Congress was the way in which the leadership saw itself as accountable to the membership. The general secretary’s report of work was an extremely detailed account of all aspects of the party’s work over the last five years, its strengths and its weaknesses. Likewise, it set out the tasks for the next five years. This is quite different from the way in which parties in the West function. Contrast the CPC Congress with the Republican and Democratic Conventions in the US, where the president is under no obligation to honour any of the policy decisions that may be taken at them. Furthermore, General Secretary Xi Jinping’s report outlined how the party saw not just the next five years but the period until 2035, and beyond that to 2050. This is a quite different conception of accountability to that practised by parties in the West. The CPC sees itself as the custodian of the nation and seeks to share its thinking and perspectives with both the party at large and the whole nation. Whereas in the West, great store is set by words and oratory, in China the currency of accountability is action, delivery and results: doing rather than saying. 

Unsurprisingly given China’s remarkable transformation, the leadership made two major changes in its position: the idea of a new era and a strong reassertion of the notion of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. 

The proposition that China has entered a new era is based on the success of the period ushered in by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 and which lasted until around 2012: China is now in a different place, strong rather than weak, no longer to be seen in narrowly economic terms but as a comprehensive power, its economy driven by innovation and quality rather than relatively cheap labour. China has, indeed, entered a new era with the new challenges and perspectives that this entails. We might add a further dimension to the notion of a new era. It is not only to be seen in terms of China’s own transformation but also the increasingly beleaguered state of the West, and in particular the United States. American decline, now finally recognised across the world, is an integral part of this new era, thereby accentuating China’s importance and its new role in the world. 

‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, first used at a CPC Congress by Deng Xiaoping in 1982, represented a major and novel shift in thinking away from centralised planning towards a socialist market economy. It has been the most important socialist experiment anywhere in the world since the 1970s, if not before indeed. But exactly where was the balance to be struck between socialism and the market: the last three decades have seen many experiments. In the West, it has long been held that China was moving in the direction of, in effect, ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’, with the widespread expectation – belied by events – that the state-owned enterprises would come to represent an increasingly small part of the economy.  

The strong reassertion of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ at the 19th Congress was a powerful statement that China would continue to be a country committed to socialism, that it saw itself in these terms, and that socialist values would inform the next stage of its development. China’s transformation has reinforced the leadership’s belief in this commitment and no doubt that has been further enhanced by the worst crisis of Western capitalism since the 1930s. Not surprisingly, capitalism is even going out of fashion in the West. Socialism with Chinese characteristics, on the other hand, has delivered the goods in spectacular fashion: nothing less than the greatest economic transformation in human history. Rather than a retreat from these principles, as long advocated in the West, we can look forward to further development of China’s socialist principles and new kinds of reforms along these same lines.  

Martin Jacques