The Role of Communist Ideology in Contemporary China

Namgya C. Khampa




    The most striking feature of the development of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been the rapid and uneven pace of change. This transformative process has gained new impetus and new dimensions in the last twenty years, largely owing to the dramatic nature of economic reforms initiated in 1978, the fast-fading legacy of Mao and China’s growing integration with the international system. Today, China is in a state of flux characterized by its struggle to reconcile and contain the contradictions and cleavages that are intrinsic to a transitional society.

    One of the most challenging conundrums lies in the realm of ideology. For some time now, Marxist ideology in China has been in need of a new raison d’être. Some cynics even contend that such ideology is merely a cynical sham and already dead, and trace this decay to the 3rd Plenum of the 11th Central Committee convened in 1978. Deng’s economic reforms launched in this year and expressed in the goal of "socialist modernisation" constituted a major departure from Maoist policies and, therefore, a rupture with the past.

    This paper attempts to take a closer look at this erosion of ideological rigidity. Such an examination reveals an untenable status quo marked by a constant conflict of different ideologies associated with the profound transformations within Chinese society since 1978. To put it succinctly, China today is faced with a central dilemma – it seeks to modernise without having to westernize in an increasingly homogeneous world. This contradictory and rather arduous task has tremendous implications for the institutional structure and the very fabric of China’s incipient civil society reflected in the nature of Chinese politics. In studying the role of ideology in contemporary China, we are also addressing ourselves to the crux of its developmental dilemma, and the kind of conflicting dynamics that such a contradiction unleashes. An appropriate starting point for such an analysis is to define the term "ideology".

    While there is no single and all-inclusive definition of ideology, one can find various definitions that serve as important starting points. It is alternately referred to as "ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power", "the link between theory and action", and "sets of ideas by which men posit, explain and justify ends and means of organized action". In the context of China, the following is suggested as a working definition of ideology: "It is essentially a set of ideas with a discursive framework which guides and justifies policies and actions, derived from certain values and doctrinal assumptions about the nature and dynamics of history."

    Communist ideology is frequently classified by political scientists in two ideal types: Seliger’s ‘fundamental’ and ‘operative’ ideology, Moore’s ‘ideology of ends’ and ‘ideology of means’, and Schumann’s ‘pure’ and ‘practical’ ideology.1 While at a fundamental level it refers to the body of theories considered as universal truth, such as the end-goal of communism, class and class struggle, democratic centralism and the historical mission of the proletariat, at an operative level it designates sets of political ideas and values put forward by political elites to guide or justify their concrete policies and actions. This gap between fundamental and operative has widened greatly in China in recent years.

    Post-revolutionary Chinese society has been overwhelmingly conditioned by its ‘ideological’ political system in which all policies require an ideological discourse as justification. Such a system is ‘ideocratic’ in the sense that it relies on an explicit and codified system of political ideas derived from Marxism-Leninism which guides the actions of the political elite in the hegemonic communist party, justifies the party’s monopoly on power, and legitimises its proclaimed historical mission to ‘build socialism’. The political role of ideology reached high points of intensity during the Maoist Great Leap Forward in 1958-59 and the Cultural Revolution decade from 1966-76. Such movements were in consonance with Mao’s ideology and Mao Tse Tung thought which put forth the concept of ‘mass mobilisation’ and ‘continuous revolution’. In China, ideological orthodoxy, or "redness" is a particularly important attribute of the political elite. The Leninist logic of the ‘vanguard party’ presupposes that members of the party are more ideologically advanced than the general population and, therefore, politically qualified to rule.


    The central question that confronts us is – is ideology still relevant in post-Mao China? In other words, does Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse Tung thought still provide us wi6th a reliable framework to study China? In confronting the complex reality of today’s China, the answer can never be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. However, one generally agreed upon view is that there has been a steady decline in formal communist ideology as it no longer provides a compelling basis for legitimising the party-State nor offers a definite set of normative values for organising society. For the older generation who had made the revolution, ideology was a universal truth and a determinant of fundamental structural change. In this vision, the absolute good of Marxism was pitted against the absolute evil of capitalism.

    Such a vision is no longer applicable as the country rushes headlong towards modernisation and consumerism. The infallibility of ideological truth is today being challenged stimulating a reassessment of China’s value system. Signs of systemic disintegration are visible in the declining authority of a once all-powerful party, the collapse of faith in ideological orthodoxy, and a stagnating centrally planned economy. Thus, leadership based on the unchallenged organisational structure of an omnipotent communist party and legitimised by a sacrosanct ideology is no longer evident. While the old categories of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse Tung thought are still retained in official discourse, the real content of ruling ideology has, in fact, been shifting. Such a shift can be accounted for through the twin process of demaoisation and economic reforms. Both of these stem from the same source and are essentially two sides of the same coin, i.e., demaoisation necessarily involved a process of adopting a different path and that path was the commitment to "socialist modernisation" outlined by the reformist leadership under Deng Xiao Ping.2


    Demaoisation which took place in the aftermath of Mao’s death refers to a process of repudiating the perceived ideological distortions and dogmatic excesses of the previous period. In other words, Chinese communists shifted away from a blind worship of Mao Tse Tung and his thought to negating part of his deeds and theories. The emerging reform leadership under Deng Xio Ping pursued three main strands in their ideological critique of Maoism. First, they attempted to desanctify and secularise the reigning ideology, a kind of Marxist superstition, which had an infallible source, the supreme leader, and brooked neither opposition nor qualification. In this effort, the pragmatists led by Deng purged the "whateverists", i.e. Mao’s followers, including Hua Guofeng, Mao’s chosen successor. Leaders who thought and did whatever Mao thought or did were referred to as "whateverists".

    The second strand of ideological demolition was an attempt to limit the intrusion of the official ideology into the everyday lives of the population through a process of ‘demobilisation’. In practice, this meant less attention to organised political education; less emphasis on political criteria in recruiting people for specialized training or jobs; less political interference in economic decision-making and; to encourage greater intellectual and cultural freedom under the slogan of ‘let a hundred flowers contend.’ In other words, contrary to conventional wisdom, China’s Leninist political system has also undergone change in subtle but unprecedented ways.3 There is, however, sharp disagreement among the leadership on the extent of this retreat by the party-State, as a result of which political reforms have failed to keep pace with economic reforms.

    The third strand of criticism saw the post-Mao leadership revise certain tenets of Maoism which they felt had pushed China in the wrong direction. The centrality of class struggle and the notion of ‘continuous revolution’ through ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was abandoned as a distortion of Marxism. Instead, the central strategic task for the future was expressed as economic development, to be pursued through the "four modernisations" – scientific modernisation, building a modern economy, creating a modern culture, and upgrading administration. Further, the epistemological postulate of "seeking truth from facts" was put forth by Deng Xiao Ping.

    The political contradiction posed by this attempt at ideological demolition was evident in the problem of how to assess the role of Chairman Mao. After all, Mao was the acknowledged leader of the communist revolution in China, hailed for so long as the person who had converted the foreign ideologies of Marx and Lenin into a powerful political creed for the salvation of China. The 6th Plenary session of the 11th CCP Central Committee in June 1981 resolved this dilemma by passing a resolution criticising the later Mao from the GLF onwards. He was criticised for his arbitrary leadership style, his ideological errors, and, in particular, for his role in launching the cultural revolution. However, Mao Tse Tung thought was still hailed as "a valuable spiritual asset of the party’ and, to that extent, signalled a separation of Mao Tse Tung thought from the thought of Mao himself.4

    It was in this highly unconvincing form that Mao’s ideological heritage was confirmed as a central plank of the official ideology of the new era, i.e., Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse Tung thought. They could not completely reject the heritage of Mao since to do so would be to reject much of the political raison d’être of the Chinese revolution itself – its creation, the People’s Republic of China, and its supreme institution, the CCP. The ambiguity and compromise evident in the 6th Plenum document reflected the serious political dilemmas that faced the new leadership.


    In the realm of economic reforms, the Maoist conception of economic development as a highly politicised process of mass mobilisation was repudiated. The overcentralised, overextended, and stringent system of economic planning was regarded as untenable in ‘practice’. Mao’s radical antipathy to the market was also rejected along with his opposition to policies seen as ‘bourgeois’. Instead, the operation of the market was inducted as an acceptable supplement to the planned economy wherein differential pricing, variable interest rates, wage incentives and other mechanisms of the market were adopted to spur economic growth. Specialized expertise was given its full due as a central element in the modernization process, which meant political rehabilitation for the cultural, scientific and technical intelligentsia.

    Such extensive reforms involving decollectivisation of the agricultural sector, induction of the contract system, creation of a commodity economy, etc. entirely altered the country’s economic landscape. In the 1970s, almost 80% of communist China’s total industrial output was supplied by State firms. However, by the early 1990s they provided less than half the total output. Estimates are that the figure will be reduced to about 25% by the end of the century.5 It is not my intention to catalogue the reform measures. Instead, I want to draw your attention to the linkages between economic reforms and the dilution in ideology.

    The results of domestic reform and open-door policy were often unrecognizable as anything that could be described as Marxism-Leninism, let alone Mao Tse Tung thought. The rationalisation of the reform policy within the framework of Marxism-Leninism proved increasingly difficult. For instance, economic reformers wished to move towards a labour market which entailed reducing labour power to a commodity. This is ideologically in conflict with an avowedly socialist economy. Reformist leaders, like Zhao Ziyang and intellectuals like Su Shaozhi called for a creative adaptation of Marxism-Leninism to meet the requirements of contemporary China.6

    In other words, the purposeful introduction of the market mechanism by the Dengists, in order to divert the erstwhile disaster caused by the ineptitude of the State planner, has created wide discrepancies between practice, on the one hand, and what communist theories require, on the other. If practice is not to be altered to conform to theory, then theory must be made to justify practice. This seems to be exactly what is happening in the People’s Republic.7

    It also gives us an idea of the pervasive role of ideology in the process of reforming policy. The ideology is not inelastic, it contains potential for theoretical revision, and provides a common language for debate between different viewpoints. To the extent that ideology acts to restrict adaptation to new realities, it undermines its own credibility. Yet the reverse is also true. Ideology as afterthought or cosmetic rationalisation of implemented policies also loses force and credibility. Thus, whether ideology impedes or adjusts, it decays either way. In other words, the gap between the real world of policy and ideology is an ever-widening chasm in China. In fact, this is the crux of the paradox that confronts the leadership today.

    A second important factor for ideological erosion linked to economic reforms, was that in Mao’s era, the party-State remained the sole repository of almost all the material benefits available and therefore enjoyed recruitment success and the abiding loyalty of its members. The reforms have altered the record structure so that the non-State sectors of the economy offer more potential benefits resulting in a diminished appeal of party membership and loyalty.


    This process of a decline in ideological rigidity outlined above is neither uninterrupted nor uncontested. The debate on the question of ideology is reflected in the divisions between the conservatives and reformists; between the critical intellectuals and the party-State; between the students and the State etc. These divisions are fault lines that serve as potential locations of conflicts as was in evidence in 1989. The events leading up to the Tiananmen massacre were a more dramatic manifestation of the political demands being made upon the party-State. By not being willing to accommodate these demands, the reforming leadership, which had abandoned the Maoist strategy of political mobilisation for the party-State, was faced with a mobilisation against it escalating to a popular uprising. Similarly, the brutal and bloody repression that occurred was indicative of the party-State’s unwillingness to give up its entrenched and hegemonic role as the ‘vanguard of the proletariat".8

    Thus, political power continues to dominate society and is the ultimate arbiter of China’s fate. The party remains the supreme institutional structure and there are still no organised forces or effective institutions to check and balance its power from outside. Similarly, the political reforms and new departures in economic policies still take place within the general political and institutional framework established in 1949. Party ideologues continue to uphold what they believe to be the ideological framework supporting the regime and society.

    The leadership’s strategy for remodelling the official ideology reflected a contradiction at the heart of the reform strategy, namely the desire to bring about swinging changes in the economy while maintaining the political status quo. The political content of a post-Mao ideology is different but not new. Such an ideology rests on the four basic principles outlined by Deng Xiao Ping which identified the core elements of a socialist polity as Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse Tung thought, the socialist road, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the leadership of the CCP.

    Although Deng himself sanctioned certain political reforms, they could not go beyond the limits imposed by the four cardinal principles. To protect the position of the party, he refused to liberalise the political system. Apart from the fact that Deng, as a firm Leninist, was convinced of the necessity to maintain the party’s leadership, he also had to safeguard his delicate alliance with the veteran leaders who had supported his come back and his ousting of the "Gang of Four". These veteran leaders were willing to support Deng’s economic reforms to a certain extent, but they resolutely opposed any measures that would undermine the party’s monopoly of power. Once firmly on top, Deng lost no time in formulating the limits of his political tolerance. When more radical reformers within the CCP leadership showed signs of willing to go further, notably Hu Yaobang in 1986 and Zhao Ziyang in 1988-89, Deng and his conservative allies stepped in to bar the way.

    Periods of liberalisation and cultural thaw alternated with periods of repression and tightening of political control. Such a cyclical pattern of reform and entrenchment was neither an accidental occurrence nor purely a matter of political tactics. Instead, it was reflective of the changing equation between the reformists and conservatives in the intra-elite impasse.

    Political conservatives have recognized the threat of ideological decay and have linked it to decline in political and moral standards within the party-State, and the spread of ‘unhealthy tendencies’ and anti-socialist sentiments. They have been particularly sensitive to the ‘unhealthy’ efforts of the open-door policy, highlighting instances of ‘corrupt’ or ‘degenerate’ practices imported from the West, such as rock music, immodest clothing, pornographic books and the like. Their response has been to mount periodic campaigns – negatively against ‘bourgeois liberalisation’ and ‘spiritual pollution’, and positively to strengthen a ‘socialist spiritual civilization’. Though these campaigns recurred about every two years between 1980 and 1988, the largest conservative backlash came in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown of June 1989.9

    In today’s China, barring a few party elders motivated purely by ideology, much of the ideological resistance to reform masks an attempt to defend the party’s power and status, and even stems from sheer inertia. Chinese communists dare not take alternative roads as it would negate the legality of communist rule and undermine the party’s dominant position by depriving it of a real basis for legitimate rule. The reform process also poses a threat to the bureaucracy in their capacity as producers, planners, supervisors, enforcers and so on. It endangers the consumer privileges of the bureaucratic elite making them resistant and unyielding. Given the party-State’s obsession with ‘unity and stability’ and their belief that political liberalisation in Eastern Europe led to economic and political disintegration, the current leaders are unlikely to submit meekly to demands for total reform and restructuring.


    What does all the above imply for China’s future? Given the tremendous complexity of China’s reality, it is quite difficult to draw any definite conclusions. However, the one thing that emerges clearly is that, today, as we stand on the threshold of the next millenium, China is a radically different place from that of a decade earlier. The economic reforms not only challenged the old verities by introducing the new conceptual terrain of market economics, but also set into motion profound changes in social structure and values which is increasingly at odds with ideological orthodoxy. Ideology has lost its claim to be the sole basis of authority in society.

    The reforms succeeded in unleashing new social forces, discrediting old values and generating rising expectations. In other words, it put into motion a certain dynamic which the party-State has been hard put to direct or control. Twenty years of reform has paved the way for the emergence of a nascent civil society seen in the gradual and halting withdrawal of the State from society. Individuals, mass organizations, professional associations and small parties and groups are given a larger area of autonomy to manage their own affairs. Further, the immediate interests and spontaneous demands of such groups and individuals percolates upwards more freely than before.

    On a cautionary note, it is important to state that though the reforms initiated by Deng Xiao Ping dramatically weakened the State and rejuvenated society, it did not end the domination of the hegemonic party-State. For Deng and his followers, the trick is to reject the negative features of the Maoist era and promote ‘socialist modernisation’, while retaining the structural and ideological authority of the party-State. This has proved to be an extremely difficult, if not impossible, task with critics contending that instead of "socialism with Chinese characteristics", China has evolved "capitalism with Chinese characteristics."

    It is in this context of a wane in the vitality of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism along with China’s move to the market, and the worldwide decline of socialism, that a search for alternative ideologies and explanations has cropped up in China. Scholars claim that the ideology of China in the 1990s is remarkably similar to the authoritarian developmentalist model of the East Asian States like Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea etc. Thus, they regard China to be a neo-authoritarian State. However, there are some difficulties with this model. First, an ideology, which tries to legitimate authoritarian rule in terms of its superior capacity to promote economic progress will run into political trouble if the pace of economic growth falters. Moreover, even if economic success is maintained, the experience of other East Asian States suggests that resultant social changes create strong pressures for political liberalisation and eventual restructuring.

    At the other end of the spectrum is the incipient democratic impulse reflected in the needs of China’s increasingly pluralistic and restive society. Scholars like Merle Goldman contend that neither nationalism nor a renewed confucianism is likely to hold China’s diverse, decentralized regions together and, therefore, democratisation in China will evolve not out of choice, but because of necessity.10 Although, democracy is currently beyond China’s frame of reference, its emergence in some form in the first half of the next century is not unrealistic.

    The preceding analysis then raises a lot of sticky and complex questions. Can China negotiate the distance between authoritarianism and a new radical structure without self-destructing as some doomsday prophets have claimed? Can liberalisation and reform give strength to a civil society independent of the party-State? What will be the nature of the transformation occurring in China? Some possible suggestions to this question have already been made. With the passing of the old guard – the last representatives of communist China’s fabled "long march" – the political leadership will have to conform to the new requirements generated by the rapidly growing market-governed economy. Chinese leadership faces its litmus test in its ability to balance change and stability, a process that has been further complicated by the leadership’s unwillingness to reconcile itself to the inevitability of change.



  • See Stuart R. Shram, ‘Ideology and Policy in China since the Third

  • Plenum, 1987-1984, London, Research Notes and Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1984.

  • ‘Socialist modernisation’ was adopted as a goal of the State at the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee in 1978.



  • Political reforms led to greater institutionalization as NPC is no longer

  • merely a rubber stamp and there are more candidates entering local elements. Furthermore, there have been concerted efforts to separate party from government.

  • To quote leading intellectuals, Su Shaozhi, "I think Mao Tse Tung Thought must be distinguished from the thought of Mao himself. It is a theoretical system that is the crystallization of the contributions of our entire party, not only Mao himself …. Some of Mao’s own thought is correct and some in error, but the wrong part cannot be included in Mao Tse Tung Thought."



  • See Gregor, James A., Marxism, China and Development, p. 272

  • (Transaction Publishers, 1995).

  • In this context, an interesting and creative rationalisation was put forth by Zhao Zhiyang in 1987 at the 13th Party Congress. This theory of the initial stage of socialism contended that as China is in the initial stage of socialism, its sole priority should be to develop the productive forces and foster economic growth.



  • This attempt to justify practice through theory is expressed in the

  • oxymoron "market-socialism".

  • The brutal suppression of June 3rd and 4th wherein hundreds of innocent people perished, was condemned the world over as China was at the receiving end of all lands of international reserve including economic and military sanctions.



  • It was only in 1992 after Deng Xiao Ping’s visit to the SEZs of Shezhen and Zhunai and his call for bolder economic reforms that this period of tension and repression was eased.



  • See Goldman, M., "Is Democracy Possible?", Current History,
  • September 1995.
  • Benewick, Robert and Paul Wingrove (ed.), China in the 1990s,

  • MacMillan Press Ltd., 1995.

  • Chai-Wu, An, "Wither Mainland China: On the Theoretical Study

  • Campaign", in Yu Ming-Shaw, ed. Change and Continuity in Chinese Communism, vol. 1, 1988.

  • Ginsberg, Norton and Bemard A. Lalor (ed.), China: The 80s Era,
  • Westview Press, Inc. 1984.
    4. Goldman, Merle, "Is Democracy Possible?", Current History, September, 1995.
  • Gregor, James A., Marxism, China and Development: Reflections on

  • Theory and Development, Transaction Publishers, New Jersey, 1995.

  • Hsiung, James C., "Giving Marxism a Lease or Life in China", in Yu

  • Ming-Shaw, ed., Change and Continuity in Chinese Communism, vol. 1, 1988.

  • Rosenbaum, Arthur Lewis (ed.), State and Society in China: The Consequences of Reform, Westview Press, Inc. 1992.



  • Saich, Tony (ed.), Chinese People’s Movement.



  • Shaozhi, Su, Democratisation and Reform (1988).



  • Zemin, Jiang, "Accelerating Region and Opening Up", Report to the

  • 14th National Conference of the CCP, 12th October, 1992; Beijing Review, 26th October – 1st November, 1992.

  • Zhao, Bin, "Consumerism, Confucianism and Communist: Making Sense

  • of China Today", New Left Review, March-April 1997.

  • Zhong, Yang, "Withering Governmental Power in China?", Communist
  • and Post-Communist Studies, vol. 29, 1996.