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New Left Review I/222, March-April 1997


Bin Zhao

Consumerism, Confucianism, Communism: Making Sense of China Today

The dramatic social, economic and cultural changes that have been taking place in China over the past fifteen years have been attracting more and more attention from commentators in the West. [*] I am grateful to Graham Murdock, whose encouragement and support have made this piece possible. My thanks also go to Lin Chun for making valuable comments on previous drafts. The old order maintained by stringent state control over the economy and everyday life has been gradually but decisively broken up by the market forces which were introduced at the end of the 1970s as a remedy for the perceived failure of Mao’s egalitarian socialism. Interpretations of these events by those on the Left tend to be motivated by their concern for the fate of socialism in China. [1] This can be seen in Richard Smith’s ‘The Chinese Road to Capitalism’, nlr 199, May–June 1993, pp. 55-99, and also in Lin Chun’s ‘China Today: “Money Dissolves the Commune”’, nlr 201, September–October 1993, pp. 34-45. It can already be noted in earlier debates such as Jon Halliday, ‘Capitalism and Socialism in East Asia’, nlr 124, November–December 1980, pp. 3-24. This focus, however, tends to miss a crucial link between existing capitalism and socialism. Both are true heirs of the Enlightenment and its illegitimate child, instrumental reason. Both are devoted to the same end—material progress. This crucial link is often absent from the theoretical visions formed by the legacy of the Cold War which played with and thrived upon the apparent differences between the two armed camps. In today’s China, pragmatism has triumphed over other ideologies; the quintessence of this stance is captured in Deng Xiaoping’s ‘cat theory’—‘it does not matter whether the cat is white or black, as long as it catches the mice, it is a good cat.’ For most people, it no longer matters whether the cat is ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ or ‘capitalism with Confucian colours’. As long as it works for China’s development, it is regarded as a ‘good-ism’—hao zhuyi.

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