Leading Article: The hidden dangers of China's capitalist road

Click to follow
The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously declared: "To get rich is glorious." Since then, millions of Chinese have taken him at his word. Rolls-Royces, luxurious villas, mobile phones. From the mega-rich to the merely affluent, China is full of signs that capitalism is not - to put it mildly - officially perceived as the incarnation of all evil that it used to be.

The entrepreneur is king in China today. Many years ago, Deng (an occasional master of the soundbite) declared in defence of quasi-capitalist practices: "It does not matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice." That is truer than ever in Peking today: as long as the economy is booming, don't ask any tricky questions about the how and why. Bizarrely, however, Chinese officialdom insists that the cat (black or white) should be classified as a dog.

What seems on the face of it to be a partly capitalist economy is claimed not to be capitalist at all. It is merely a socialist economy "with Chinese characteristics". This is one of a series of unusual classifications that Communists have indulged in over the years. "War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength." George Orwell imagined it. The Chinese Communist Party continues to make it real. In the Soviet Union in the Brezhnev era, all problems were due to the fact that Communism had not yet arrived. A version of "developed socialism" was all that the country had achieved so far. As our Peking correspondent notes on page 11, similar semantic games have repeatedly been played in China. If anything remains imperfect in China today, this is merely because China is still in the throes of "the primary stage of socialism" (which may last for another 100 years or so), rather than the utopian Communism that will come along in due course. If there seems to be a slight contradiction between the go-getting excitement about money-making, on the one hand, and the declared belief in Communism, on the other, this can quickly be resolved by reference to "socialism with Chinese characteristics".

But all the semantic curiosities fail to mask the very real difficulties that the Chinese regime still faces. Indeed, the use of such Orwellian phrases emphasises the contradictions and tensions that remain - between a partly liberal economy, on the one hand, and distinctly unliberal politics, on the other.

In many respects, China today is a freely entrepreneurial society. The Chinese are allowed, even encouraged, to go out and enrich themselves. Where the Soviet Union remained wary to the very last of successful business people, China has embraced both foreign and Chinese tycoons as potential saviours.

But the Communist Party remains a power in the land, alongside the entrepreneurs. Often, indeed, it controls them. It sometimes seems that this is a workable partnership. The experience of the years since the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989 shows that there need be no contradiction between political repression on the one hand, and economic boom on the other. China's economy has performed far better than many much more liberal regimes elsewhere in the world. Growth has affected not just the very rich, but has also raised the average standard of living for those at the bottom of the heap.

Given such success, and the apparent strength of the party itself, there seems to be no obvious reason why one-party rule should ever come to an end. After all, as we are seeing again this week, the Communist Party is perfectly able to reinvent itself, and its dogmas. The economy has already moved from Marxism-Leninism to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, and to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism-Dengism. It could become one of the great political congas of all time, with yet more names being added to the wriggling line every few years, and each name in the pantheon merely interpreting the same fundamental truths for their generation.

Communist Party leaders have made it clear that they see no reason why the political fundamentals of the system should change. They still want to be able to lock up anybody who says the wrong thing - whatever that happens to be on any given day. Quite apart from the strength of the economy, there are other reasons why this may seem unlikely to change. China has long lived with a lack of democracy. Even now, there is little obvious pressure for radical change. People in the cities and countryside alike are more interested in talking about how to make money than talking about politics - even behind closed doors. If the economy continues to grow, China may be eager to demonstrate its national political and military muscle on the regional stage, which would also help to ensure unity at home.

The pressures of Tiananmen Square are, however, not forgotten. Even officials say that if the subject were stirred up, it would still be explosive. More immediately relevant is that it seems impossible that all economic change - including the wide-ranging privatisation of industry that is being proposed at this week's Communist Party Congress - can take place without pain. Charmingly, the official line insists that this is not really privatisation at all (that would be "simple-minded"). But privatisation by any other name is just as painful. Job losses tend to be accompanied by dissatisfaction with the political masters who have imposed the pain. Such dissatisfaction is difficult for the authorities to ride out, if they do not have the political legitimacy that comes with electoral consent. Sporadic strikes in China could easily grow. All of which means that Communist power is not necessarily eternal. Unthinkable though it now seems, the conga may eventually end. And then, many things will be called by their real names.