By Jackson Venjohn
Studying and understanding how ancient China viewed consumerism and the pursuit of wealth through the lens of Confucian thought and traditions, and how they impacted modern Chinese society will help us develop a deeper understanding of modern China.
A recap of the previous article: Following the end of Deng Xiaoping’s leadership of the Communist Party of China in 1989, Jiang Zemin (1989-2002) and Hu Jintao (2002-2012) served as the paramount leaders of China. Jiang and Hu, by comparison with Deng and Mao Zedong, led China with relatively little economic and political change in terms of philosophy, ideology and structure. It wasn’t until Xi Jinping, current chairman of the Communist Party of China, assumed office in 2012 that China met its next crossroad in determining whether to move forward Deng-style further opening up to the global economy, a return to a traditional, Mao-style communist ideology, or a mix of both.
In 2017 at the 19th National Congress meeting for the Chinese Communist Party, Xi recognized the influences of his vision for China, saying: the party has been guided by Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory.1 Based on the words and deeds of Xi, Zhang Jucheng, an academic from Yunnan University in Kunming, Yunnan Province, reinforces Xi’s views saying Marx, Mao and Confucius have been Xi’s greatest influences.2 Zhang believes Xi stresses the need to strictly enforce the party’s discipline, safeguard the unity of the party and the authority of the Central Committee, and ensure the unity of thought and action of the whole Communist Party.
Perhaps even more bold than United States President Donald Trump’s so-called plan to “Make America Great Again,” upon assuming office in 2013, Xi popularized his own “China Dream” (中国梦, zhongguo meng). In comparison with the stereotypical “American Dream,” which usually focuses primarily on the prosperity and happiness of the individual, “China Dream” refers to Xi’s vision for achieving rejuvenation of the Chinese nation as a whole. Xi’s” dream” includes sustainable development, economic and political reform, encouraging entrepreneurial spirit and the pursuit of individuals dreams, but done with Chinese characteristics and rooted in traditional Confucian beliefs.
The Chinese Communist Party held a committee meeting in 2014 to discuss how to govern and develop socialism with Chinese characteristics going forward. Xi was quoted:
“We must realize the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, deepen reform, improve and develop the socialist system with Chinese characteristics in an all-round way, and improve the party's ability and level of governance…. we must strengthen and improve the centralization of power, and have a unified, powerful Party Central Committee.”
In Xi’s 2014 speech, centralization of power and the unification of thought were main themes. However, these Maoist and traditional Chinese philosophies were amended with Xi’s Deng-like approach to the free-market. Included in his proposal was the broadening of personal property and basic human political rights as long as they do not infringe on the interests of the party.
Here we see a fusion of multiple philosophies in how Xi envisions the modernization of China can be most effectively executed while maintaining central power and a Chinese version of modern socialism. Where the U.S. political system may lack the ability to maintain political direction owing to shifts in the executive branch’s power (typically every 4-8 years), Xi and the Communist Party find strength in China’s unity and their long-term political vision and capabilities. This may continue to be a central theme in the persistent difficulty to come to mutually beneficial Sino-U.S. relations.
In January 2019, Xi introduced an app called Xuexi Qiangguo (学习强国, studying a great nation). With feelings of Mao-like nostalgia, Xi’s campaign to encourage the masses to study “Xi Jinping thought” on mobile devices was compared to Mao’s “Little Red Book” in unifying political and philosophical consensus in China.3
China’s economic growth and modernization
Since the reform and opening up of the Chinese economy and Xi’s rise to power over the past decade, China has explored several ways to boost growth through un-organic methods, including the use of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), manipulation of the global financial markets4, and injecting large amounts of debt into their economy to finance projects such as infrastructure, real estate, and other centrally organized investments. Considering the Chinese economy’s current non-financial sector debt is 254 percent of its’ GDP (U.S. ratio is roughly 1 to 1)5, the Chinese economy may be excessively searching for economic growth. Some macroeconomists believe China may be living beyond their means by financing investments like the “One Belt, One Road Initiative” and other infrastructure expansions with excessive amounts debt.6 As a result of these initiatives, people in China have more money in their pockets than ever before in history, which has led to unprecedented levels of consumption.7
These examples pose the question of whether or not Confucian fundamentals like the dao (the morally upright way) and traditional Chinese views towards the pursuit of profit are still relevant in a modern era, or if these values are being shelved for the time being, in pursuit of economic development, progress, and the pursuit of modernization.
Confucianism and the pursuit of wealth in a changing China: Final words
Although Confucianism, which is often considered the foundation of philosophical thought and development for China, there has always been disagreement on how these values should be implemented. We see in the Zhou and Han dynasties that Confucius is unclear on his views towards the individual’s pursuit of profits. Historians Sima Qian and Ban Gu try to clarify but do so in criticism of each other. In modern history, Mao, Deng, and Xi all agree that the unification of China and a strong central power is important to the leadership of China. However, there is disagreement on how the country should pursue economic and consumption growth. It is evident that these discussions are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago and are worth our efforts trying to understand.
Looking forward, based on the literature and individuals we have examined, Xi’s political and economic philosophies include characteristics from a wide range of sources, including Confucius, Deng and Mao. Although there is no doubt China’s leadership over the past century has used many traditional Chinese ideas in developing their modern ideology, the current economic policies pursued by the Communist Party of China are likely more in line with Sima Qian and Deng Xiaoping’s style of open markets and less similar to Ban Gu or Mao Zedong. In this way, from an economic perspective, China has gradually strayed away from a pure Confucian philosophy. However, the ideas of centralization of power and the unity of China still remain.
To conclude, a well-rounded perspective on the connection between Confucianism and the pursuit of wealth in a changing China helps one better analyze and understand recent developments in China. Furthermore, these understandings will give readers a more comprehensive perspective on recent developments such as China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the recent rise of stock market prices in China despite the lingering economic effects of Covid-19 and slowing economic growth, or even the security law imposed on Hong Kong, among other things. The truth as to what extent traditional Confucian virtues should be prioritized over the pursuit of economic growth and profit is unknown, but the answer will likely reside in the health of the Chinese economy and the longevity of the Chinese Communist Party in the coming years.
19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017
Zhang Jucheng, Xi Jinping and Chinese traditional culture, 2014
'Study Xi' mobile app takes Mao's little red book into the digital age. (2019, March 31).
Swanson, A. (2019, August 06). The U.S. Labeled China a Currency Manipulator. Here's What It Means.
“Tracking China’s Debt-to-Equity Swap Program: ‘Great Cry and Little Wool,’” 2019
Hayman Capital Management, 2019
Written by Youchi Kuo, P. (n.d.). 3, great forces changing China's consumer market.