Why did China embark on the Path of Socialism?

BEIJING, May 16, 2024 /PRNewswire/ —  A news report from China.org.cn on why did the Chinese accept scientific socialism?

In the Columbus Park of Manhattan Chinatown, the statue of Sun Yat-sen is covered with snow on January 16, 2024 local time. The pedestal of the statue reads “All under heaven belongs to the people”.

The Chinese always have dreamed to make their country a Utopia. In the Confucian classic The Book of Rites, we read, “When the Great Way prevails, the world belongs to all the people. People of virtue and competence are chosen to govern the country; honesty is valued, and people live in harmony”. Such a society, modeled on a primitive communal system, is called “Universal Harmony (Datong)”, an ideal status that world, state, society, and individual shall become.

This idea emphasizes the importance of higher moral standard for a better country in which “the aged have a place to live, the able-bodied have employment, the young have the means to grow up, the widowed, the lonely, the disabled and the sick have ways to support themselves, the men have their proper work, and the women have their homes”. So that, people can live a happy life, and the country is able to stay in peace and order.

At the same time, the notion of “Datong” advocates an idea that “a benevolent person loves others”, the faith that “the core of a state is the people, the state itself, and last the ruler”, and the political philosophy that “all people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions”. It advised all benevolent rulers shall be people-centered and hold up a high moral standard.

The idea of “Datong” has had a profound influence on Chinese political figures down the ages. For example, the modern thinker Kang Youwei (1858-1927), in The Book of Datong, maintains that human society will constantly evolve until “Datong” is achieved in China and the rest of the world. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), proposed his democratic revolutionary platform of “Three Principles of the People” (nationalism, civil rights, and people’s livelihood) to save the Chinese nation from peril. This proposal, based on traditional Chinese culture and drawing on modern Western democracy, aimed to realize the ideal of “Datong”, where the world belongs to all, the state is wealthy, and the people are robust. “Datong” can be said to represent the highest social ideal of the Chinese nation.

Founded in Europe in 1840s, Marxism decisively takes the side of the people, seeking human freedom and emancipation. Marx and Engels firmly believed that in a future society “we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. It is precisely because the pursuit of “Datong” is so entrenched in their cultural genes that Chinese people were willing and able to accept the scientific socialism proposed by Marx and Engels when it was introduced to China.

For example, if we study the history of the introduction and spread of Marxism in China, we find that the earliest people to introduce Marxism included Liang Qichao (1873-1929), then a student studying abroad, and Zhu Zhixin (1885-1920) and Song Jiaoren (1882-1913), the core members of the Chinese Allied League (a political party led and organized by Sun Yat-sen). Although these people had different beliefs and political stances, they could all accept Marxism because they were all intellectuals nurtured by traditional Chinese culture and were pursuing the “Datong” ideal that “the world belongs to all the people”.

The choice of the members of the Communist Party of China (CPC), as inheritors of Chinese cultural traditions, to follow the path of socialism is linked to the pursuit of this “Datong” ideal that “the world belongs to all the people”. In this sense, it is fair to say that the idea of socialism is deeply rooted in the soil of Chinese culture, created by its cultural genes and crystallizing its historical pursuits.

What and why is socialism with Chinese characteristics?

To better understand China’s realities, the CPC carefully researches China’s economic and social facts as well as its traditional culture. This becomes the foundation of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

For example, China’s political and cultural traditions are very different from those of the West. In the late primitive society of China, political affairs, including the handing over of power, were dealt with in a consultative democratic system, unlike the electoral democracy of ancient Greece. It is recorded in the Book of Documents, an ancient Chinese classic, that decisions on major issues were made by councils of chiefs, where tribal leaders such as Yao and Shun consulted the councils to make decisions. This can be called consultative democracy rather than electoral (voting) democracy. It was closely related to the pre-Qin Confucian model of virtue-based governance by sage kings, a model emphasizing that the sages were best suited to govern society, as they were able to manage family affairs, govern the state, and bring peace to all under Heaven due to their self-perfection. The best governors of society, then, are those who through ceaseless self-cultivation have succeeded in governing themselves.

The verb “xuan” (somewhat semantically similar to “elect” in English) is also found in ancient Chinese classics and idioms. However, rather than meaning “electing”, “xuan” is equivalent to “selecting and recommending”. For example, Shun was selected and recommended as the tribal leader by Yao after consultation with the chiefs. This mechanism was called “Shan Rang” (system for handing over power). Therefore, “xuan” in China has different meanings in different situations, with its semantic features corresponding to “election” and “selection” respectively. Election is implemented by voting, while selection is by consultation. Both are forms of democracy, but they are not the same.

Because of the system mentioned above, Chinese people are more accustomed to harmonious consultative democracy than to competitive democracy. There is also a long-held philosophy of “Harmony without uniformity”. Therefore, consultative democracy in China not only aligns well with the realities of society but also has deep cultural roots.

Since it was proposed about 40 years ago, socialism with Chinese characteristics has made a series of significant achievements. At the same time, many urgent problems have arisen in the process of its development, such as the problem of maintaining fairness in a socialist market economy, the issue of environmental pollution in the process of industrialization and modernization, and the problems of increasingly complex international relations associated with China’s growth. Outstanding tenets of traditional Chinese culture, in particular, the ideas that “the world belongs to all the people”, “man is an integral part of nature” and “all coexist in harmony” are all valuable wisdoms.

The author is Li Junru, former Vice-President of the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China