Chinese society is moving forward while West has lost perspective of future
Published: Nov 13, 2022 03:22 PM
Photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

Editor's Note: 

China has had an epic decade since 2012. Particularly in the last five years, which have been momentous and extraordinary, the country has successfully dealt with major challenges including turbulent developments in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the COVID-19 epidemic. The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) has laid out plans for the strategic missions and major measures in the next five years, getting the efforts to build a modern socialist country in all respects off to a good start.

In an interview with Global Times (GT) reporter Xia Wenxin, Jan Turowski (Turowski), the Director of the Beijing office of the German political foundation the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, later referred to as RLS), shared his views on the CPC's role in China's development and contributions to the world.

GT: Could you please tell us about your organization? What is its mission in China? What kind of cooperation does its Beijing office have with China?

Turowski: The RLS is a non-profit, legally and organizationally independent organization, yet associated with the German political party "DIE LINKE" (The Left). The party itself regards the RLS as its political think tank and education association. Based on the principles and values of socialism, the RLS is engaged in political-scientific research, acts as a communication hub for programmatic and strategic discussions about a modern socialism and as a think tank for developing ideas and policies of socialism and international solidarity. I would say that the RLS is one of the largest political research and education organizations with an explicit socialist and Marxist agenda worldwide today; well, outside China of course.

So, with this ideological orientation, in China, the RLS is naturally engaged in dialogue and research activities with respective Chinese partner organizations on exactly these issues. Our partner organisations include the Chinese government and Communist Party research and education institutions, universities and higher education institutions and together we organize national and international conferences, seminars, workshops and publishing publications concerning social, ecological, historical as well a general socio-economical and development questions. We want to extend the respective political discourses on socialism so that they are mutually stimulating and enriching, thus opening channels of dialogue and strategic exchange as well as testing out common fields of action.

GT: Karl Marx was German, and his philosophy Marxism is one of the fundamental doctrines of communism. Do the German people understand the CPC and the Chinese system better than other Western countries?

Turowski: Unfortunately, I'm afraid that in Germany Marxism as an epistemological philosophy, politically mobilizing critique of capitalism and analytical method hardly plays a greater role than in other Western countries. In this respect, I would say that knowledge and understanding of the Chinese development model, and in particular of the role that the CPC plays in it, is as underdeveloped in Germany as it is in the rest of Europe. The decline of the Soviet Union has massively discredited Marxism and communism in the eyes of Germans as well as all other Europeans, and in the course of this development a large number of intellectual sources have dried up and different lines of tradition even within the Western labor movement critical of capitalism have broken off. Such a political as well as discursive context makes it extremely difficult today to discuss productively - especially from the perspective of socialist visions and strategies - the difference between what has failed in the Soviet Union (and certainly not everything has failed) and the reform processes that China initiated extremely successfully, especially after 1978.

To put it somewhat exaggeratedly, I would say that there is a widespread perception in Europe - unfortunately also far into the left-wing milieu - of China as merely an economically successful variant of the Soviet model. First of all, this is completely wrong with regard to today's China, and it is not even true in a historical view of the development of both systems. But this perception also, secondly, blocks a sincere and productive discussion about what has made China so successful and, ultimately, obscures the West's view of the practical and ideological possibilities of socialism in the 21st century.

I would like to add, however, that the decline of Marxism in (West) Germany began, in my opinion, as early as the late 1960s - paradoxically, at the very time when we were experiencing a Marxist renaissance and socialist "radicalization" in the wake of the student movement and "New Left". However, in the absence of a mass communist party, Marxist research and debate shifted to the universities; the predominantly student reception of Marx at the time led to a gradual bourgeoisification and latent depoliticization of Marxism, produced a structural separation between socialist theory and political practice, and ultimately to a cultural alienation from the proletariat. At the end of this process, 50 years later, increasingly social-liberal rather than Marxist, i.e., system-critical and structural-analytical arguments dominate even broad segments of the left political discourse. In Germany, a liberal, at best social-liberal framing today also determines questions of international relations, the modes of operation of global capitalism and, unfortunately, ultimately also the China debate, putting the entire Western China discourse in an uneasy position.

Jan Turowski Photo: Courtesy of Turowski

Jan Turowski Photo: Courtesy of Turowski

GT: What aspects of China have impressed you more in the past 10 years?

Turowski: Well, there's the obvious first. The incredible speed and scale of China's economic and social development is historically unique and probably the most important and far-reaching event of the 21st century, the global impact of which we cannot yet fully grasp. What I have witnessed myself in the last 10 years - from infrastructure development to poverty alleviation and ecological restructuring to technology development - has been impressive.

But what really impressed me was what was happening behind this development, namely that society as a whole is definitely pulling in the same direction. In the course of its rapid modernization and urbanization in recent decades, Chinese society has naturally differentiated itself in terms of its lifestyles, interests, careers and values, and yet despite all the differences and necessary contradictions, there is a basic consensus regarding the strategic direction of development and substantive goals. There is a shared guiding goal or leitmotif in the Chinese political and social model that runs narratively through all debates, a collaborative effort to formulate common goals and, above all, a political idea of the future. The coming development may still be abstract in its respective formulations and must be found again and again, but the goal is clear.

The Communist Party is a constitutive, double interface to this process: on the one hand, it generates a basic consensus and at the same time takes it up from society, repeatedly condenses and articulates it anew and communicates it into the country; on the other hand, it translates this basic consensus into concrete policy goals and conveys it - as a transmission belt, so to speak - to the organizations, enterprises and state authorities that try to implement and realize it and at the same time again participate in the continuous renewal of this basic consensus.

The fact that Chinese society is really moving forward together on the basis of a shared understanding of basic principles and goals impresses me all the more because I have the feeling that in the West 40 years of neoliberalism have completely destroyed a comparable basic consensus of the kind, one that was developed in the postwar period in the face of the experiences of war and fascism. It seems to me that in the West the perspective of a political future has been lost; "future" as a political category has long ceased to be a mobilizing vision, but at best a technocratic corrective dimension to extend the current status quo as long as possible. Whether Donald Trump or Brexit: it is always about the invocation of a supposedly great past. The political-narrative "future" is the promise of restoring the past, because the changes brought by the real "future" is perceived as a threat to its old (Western, white) privileges. What a difference with China!

GT: From Hong Kong to COVID-19, China has gone through a lot during the five years since the 19th National Congress of the CPC. What do these five years mean for the CPC?

Turowski: When China switched to COVID19-mode at the beginning of 2020, two things became very clear to me: firstly, the Chinese state and the CPC are very effective institutions that can think strategically, act with great deliberation and mobilize the society, and secondly, society also expects the government to provide this kind of leadership in such crisis situations. In Hong Kong, too, the CPC has acted with restraint and at the same time very firmly, not reacting to the provocations so as not to escalate the situation, and yet making it clear that it is equally protecting Hong Kong's self-government and preventing any form of separatism.

I would say that in the last five years, the CPC's will to lead and shape the country has once again become clearer, and that the crises of the last few years also revealed a leadership wisdom and organizational strength that further strengthened the people's expectation of the CPC's leadership. Overall, the CPC has emerged from the crises stronger and more confident, and is fairly well equipped to deal with future crises. Nevertheless, the CPC must constantly expand its administrative competencies in the coming years, repeatedly prove its claim to leadership, continually process contradictions, strengthen the mechanism of permanent renewal and, above all, avoid becoming arrogant and over-confident, as the West did, so as not to become a victim of its own success at some point. On the last point, I do not see any danger in the current generation of CPC leaders, but the demand and ability to change and adapt must also be enshrined for the coming generations of leaders.

GT: What are the lessons and inspirations of the Chinese path for other developing countries?

Turowski: Of course, the Chinese development model is based on many specifically Chinese historical-cultural and institutional characteristics - not least the role of the CPC - that make it so difficult to simply transfer the Chinese model to other developing countries. Sun Yat-sen once said in the 1920s that the Chinese would not be truly free until they formed themselves from "scattered sand into a rock." This is about statehood, founded on a sense of belonging and defended as a national community. Democracy is impossible without a "people" whose citizens see themselves as a community and organize themselves as a community. The CPC has succeeded in establishing this unity, combining it with participation, and always orienting statehood toward the needs of the people. At the same time, "the rock" (to stay with this metaphor), as the last decades have impressively shown, is highly dynamic: producing community without destroying development potentials, emphasizing community responsibility and yet allowing innovation through self-interest.

It seems to me that this is particularly difficult for developing countries because of their colonial history, their subsequent dependence and imperialist exploitation: to "make a rock out of sand," in the sense of national communality, to live in well-governed stable countries whose borders are clearly defined and recognized, in whose internal affairs no foreign power interferes.

Nevertheless, I believe that China has a very special role to play for developing countries, and it is twofold.

First, as an inspiration and role model that a path of development other than that prescribed and demanded by the West is possible. The possibility of developing its own economic model, rooted in its own cultural tradition and ideologically oriented toward an alternative to capitalist exploitation, open to outside influences and ideas and capable of innovation. Whereas the Western formula of catch-up development in recent decades has always and exclusively focused on a market, the Chinese development path shows that a state capable of action is the central condition for managing development and development capacity, not only as a bureaucratic machine, but also as an embodiment of the common will and of a social cohesion as a requirement to manage reform, contradiction and change.

Second, China's rise creates new development opportunities in a new global multipolar economic order. I think for of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a prime example, that supplies the spaces and possibilities for an alternative globalization: on the one hand through new global institutions and structures, and on the other - and I think this is much more important - through a totally different style and a totally different manner of proceeding than those of the neoliberal globalization of the past decades.

Neoliberal globalization is primarily characterized by the idea that borders are made permeable, and markets are opened, held together by an at best abstract set of policies. The "invisible hand" of the market is supposed to take care of the rest. This neoliberal globalization opened markets, reduced regulations and hindered any form of intervention by the state. This was mostly to the benefit of transnational, hence Western corporations, whose almost unlimited power societies and states have barely been able to oppose, particularly those rather weak states of the global south were almost defenseless. Politics almost inevitably took a passive stance towards globalization.

In the model of globalization that manifests within the BRI, on the other hand, states cooperate directly, and in this way take on a specific responsibility for projects and their realization. It is these cooperation agreements that enable states to actively shape the ongoing processes that result from globalization, and to which corporations will have to subordinate themselves. This alternative globalization empowers developing states enormously.