Beckoning a New Era of Modernization with Chinese Characteristics

A key element of Deng Xiaoping’s approach to governance was to transform the Chinese communist system into a market-oriented model to achieve economic growth and modernization. Socialism with Chinese characteristics emphasized private sector coexistence with state-owned enterprises (SOEs). However, Xi Jinping has taken steps to reverse this trend by introducing regulations such as anti-monopoly restrictions, heightened censorship, and greater control of public life. These reforms emphasize China’s future focusing on the youth  culture, education, and integration of the internet. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Xi is redefining governance and making sure non-partisan movements do not arise. China is searching for a new era of modernization with Chinese characteristics by distancing itself from the “chaotic” expansion of capitalism. Although some voices have compared these policies to Mao’s, Xi maintains that “common prosperity” is key to the CCP’s approach to socialism and an important feature of modernization defined by an emphasis onnational security, equality, and stability over economic growth. Does this restructuring of socialism in China suggest a new Cultural Revolution?

Common Prosperity: Going after the Tech Giants

The reforms reflect Xi’s desire to control the expansion of capitalism and limit the power of the tech industry giants, such as Alibaba, Kuaishou Technology, Meituan and Tencent Holdings (TCEHY). The CCP is implementing a new post-Covid economic model in which private firms are dependent on the Party, inequalities are reduced, and the middle class is stimulated. As a result, the role of SOEs has increased while private companies face growing restrictions. With anti-trust and anti-monopoly guidelines, Xi is addressing issues faced by Chinese society, such as unfair competition and data protection. For instance, Alibaba and Tencent had long enjoyed an advantage over competitors by crowding out smaller platforms offering online payments. The CCP is reversing the once-preferred laissez-faire approach and encouraging fair competition, while also sending a message that firms must be subservient to the Party. To increase its presence in the private sector, the CCP has implemented structures under official supervision such as party committees overseeing key operational management functions. Xi is reinforcing the Party’s legitimacy by tackling social and economic issues such as corruption and inequality, while curbing the influence of leading entrepreneurs, like Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma, who have accumulated power and thus challenge the Party’s line.

But is Xi killing the goose that laid the golden egg? Reinforcing the Party’s stranglehold on the economy could restrain high-tech innovations by curbing the Chinese entrepreneurial spirit. While his predecessors like Jiang Zemin encouraged private companies and innovation. Xi is pushing for a top-down, state-centric model of innovation where risk-takers and innovators are shut down. Paradoxically, innovations are widely praised by Xi in the context of the “Made in China 2025” plan. For instance, the modernization of the PLA and the “civil-military fusion” plan require technological innovation, particularly in the artificial intelligence field. Moreover, the restructuring of the economy pledged by Xi could benefit the “red families” who still have secure careers with high incomes, purchase million-dollar properties abroad, and hoard their money in offshore bank accounts.

(Re)-introduction of Socialist Values

But the reforms to re-assert the primacy of “socialist values” are not limited to the tech industry, having also targeted the private tutoring industry, the content of school programs, video game platforms, and the entertainment industry. At the heart of this “rectification” campaign is the youth. The CCP is trying to instill socialist values in the young by controlling their education and their leisure activities. Indeed, the Chinese government has tightened the video game playing times of minors and issued guidelines for the entertainment industry. These reforms distance China from individualistic features of capitalist society and attempt to ensure that the youth will toe the Party line. This emphasis on education is not surprising considering the Hong Kong protests led by students in 2019, which Chinese media blamed on Hong Kong’s  “misleading” education system. Tung Cheehwa, vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and first chief executive after the handover in 1997, considered liberal studies a failure. The CCP has thus put forward patriotic education curriculums, introducing “Xi Jinping Thought” into primary schools and bringing back the “Three Passions”, that is: “passionate love for the Fatherland, for Socialism and for the Chinese Communist Party.”

Xi Jinping’s Crackdown: a new Revolution?

After decades of economic growth in China, Xi is now putting “socialist values”, —such as economic equality above capitalism —, centerstage in search of a “common prosperity” for China. This new era of modernization with Chinese characteristics sets the Party’s supremacy as the paramount rule.In this reformative climate, blogger Li Guangman has gained success among netizens. Li describes the return to China’s socialist roots as a transformation from a capital-centered to a people-centered society in which capitalists no longer thrive and Communist values prevail over Western culture. He claims that China is experiencing profound transformations and that a revolution is coming, echoing the discourse of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

The comparison between the current reforms and the Cultural Revolution, however, falls short, as does likening Xi to Mao. Xi’s approach to China’s youth may resemble Mao’s tactics but the logic behind his reforms differs greatly from the chaotic rhetoric of the 1960s. Xi has rarely mentioned the Cultural Revolution publicly, which is not surprising considering his family belonged to the abhorred urban elites targeted by the Red Guards. The context of the Cultural Revolution also differed from the present situation. Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, China was an impoverished and internationally isolated nation, which Mao sought to revolutionize and modernize. The iconoclastic revolution was part of a series of “cleansing” and rectification campaigns aiming to destroy the past to change the present, while securing Mao’s personal rule, even at the expense of China’s economy, culture, and institutions.

The latest reforms are part of a long-term vision for China’s development. The goal of the reforms is not to revolutionize but rather to regulate business, arts, and lifestyle trends, which distract the population from the Party’s values and could lead to anti-system movements such as the one in Hong Kong. Xi’s crackdown emanates from the realization that the Party’s authority has been declining, and the stranglehold on the private sector is thus a way to safeguard the rule of the CCP. If the CCP was truly repeating history, it would have been much simpler to predict recent events. Xi’s impactful reforms of Chinese politics and society were arguably not foreseen.