The Transformation of Chinese Socialism

By Bernstein, Thomas P. | The China Journal, July 2007 | Go to article overview

The Transformation of Chinese Socialism


Bernstein, Thomas P., The China Journal


The Transformation of Chinese Socialism, by Lin Chun, Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. xii + 370 pp. US$84.95 (hardcover), US$23.95 (paperback).

This rich and complex book can be read on three levels: one, as a work based on wide reading in social and political theory, in which Lin Chun muses about the relationships between socialism and democracy, liberalism, equality, nationalism and development; second, as a work that attempts to rescue Maoist socialist ideals and practices as legitimate and valuable, even as she recognizes the disastrous costs and failures of the Mao era; and third, as a critique of the reform era, in which Lin argues for the continued relevance of socialism, even as China has become enmeshed within global capitalism. It is her analysis of Maoism that is most problematic.

Lin situates contemporary China within the context of the country's quest to modernize in the late 19th and 20th centuries. In her view, the establishment of the PRC represented the culmination of a collective search by the Chinese people for a road to modernity that would differ from global capitalism but also from Stalinist bureaucratic socialism. Mao's distinctive brand of socialism aimed at the creation of a participatory, communal, non-bureaucratic political and social system, inspired by practices of the Yan'an era. Mao's socialist project sought a society in which people could fulfill their potential rather than acting as the objects of bureaucratic control, one in which production served human needs.

Implementation of these ideals was undermined by the national imperatives of defending China's independence against foreign enemies and of developing the country's backward economy. These required a strong state and a high degree of centralization. China had to industrialize on its own, meaning that investments had to come from within by extracting resources from the countryside. Tight controls had therefore to be imposed on society so that state priorities could be implemented and people mobilized for state-initiated projects. This required the subordination of socialist ideals, including the Yan'an promises of liberty and democracy, which gave way to a "hierarchical, administrative bureaucracy" (p. 52).

Nonetheless, socialist ideals were to varying degrees put into practice even by the centralized state. An example is lifetime employment, a "magnificent achievement of humane socialism differing from the dehumanizing market economy" (p. 86). Also, under Mao, the human condition was greatly improved in the realms of public health, life expectancy and literacy. Lin claims that the Maoist system did not alienate people, that the state continued to enjoy revolutionary legitimacy and that it was "perceived as representative of the best public interests and the natural agent of development". China's unique ability to erase the distinction between state and society owed much to "societal consensus, a social contract furnished by the revolution and the party's long-term mobilization work at the grass roots" (p. 70). The Mao era was grounded more in support, consensus or conformity than in force. Chinese socialism was "one of the grandest projects of social emancipation" (p. 12).

At the same time Lin is far too good a scholar not to recognize the deep flaws of the Mao era. She writes of tbe "the rigid quasi-caste division in which the peasants were second-class citizens. The result was a 'dual society' of one country, two worlds ... This structural inequality was poison to the party's image and alienated the revolution's historical constituency; and in the long run it eroded the moral foundation of Chinese socialism" (p. 80). She condemns Mao's massively destructive campaign politics (p. 69). "Mao's 'philosophy of struggle' ended up devastating the Chinese project not so much by slowing down the economy as by splitting the citizenry and victimizing innocent individuals" (p. 78). She agrees that the Chinese experiment did not achieve a democratically attractive alternative model" (p.

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