Can socialist China change society’s value orientation and triumph over the ills of capitalism?

An overhaul in its social value orientation is needed if China is to tackle the pressures on employment and social structures that the digital economy, artificial intelligence and smart automation will bring. Essentially, it should root out casino capitalism and the related social ills of “winner takes all”, “get rich quick”, “lying flat” and envy that have seeped into society. The Chinese Communist Party is making an effort but it will not be easy to abandon a purely material approach and prize other values that will raise the quality of life and elevate a civilisation.

The new technological revolution is nudging human society towards post-capitalism. There are a range of proposals for post-capitalism but China, as a major nation developing with the greatest momentum, has chosen socialism.

A series of actions have been taken that reflect China’s choice, starting with the reform of the compensation of senior executives of state-owned enterprises several years ago. This was followed by subsequent crackdowns on tax fraud, tax evasion and indecorous conduct by big names in the entertainment industry; antitrust measures on the platform economy; as well as the current overhaul of the financial and real estate sectors. Consequently, since last year, “common prosperity” has become the new bellwether for developments.

However, the Chinese authorities appear to lack confidence in what they are doing with their vague slogans such as “to prevent the disorderly expansion of capital”.

Last year, an article by a little-known Chinese blogger Li Guangman, which was quickly republished by the online platforms of state media outlets, claimed that “everyone can feel that a profound revolution is taking place!”. Evidently, this was to convey the widely repressed sentiments of the people through the voice of a commoner. It attracted censure and doubt, both domestically and internationally, and caused panic among capitalists.

In order not to affect the economy, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) repeatedly made public statements that it would not rob the rich to help the poor, and that its top priority remains “making the pie larger” (做大蛋糕, growing the economy).

Clearly, after decades of capitalist growth in leaps and bounds, the return to socialism is confronted by the embarrassment of many practical problems and a lack of theoretical preparation.

Values and motivations must be aligned

For 500 years, various socialist experiments have been bedevilled by two challenges: value orientation and motivation. The two combine almost perfectly in capitalism, in which profit maximisation is both a value orientation and a constant motivator for individuals.

In fact, capitalism has developed a complex and comprehensive system with complementary cultural memes and behavioural patterns, resulting in a stable and reliable integration of value orientation and motivation. It has created a spontaneous, pervasive force in society, such that Maoist-style socialism had to be constantly on guard to nip in the bud any signs of sprouting capitalism. Nevertheless, the CCP’s great success in the past 40 years is due mainly to the re-introduction of capitalist mechanisms and not because “Marxism works” as it claims.

People pose for photographs in front of the giant portrait of late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, 2 November 2015. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo/Reuters)

 

After more than 300 years of capitalist conditioning, people generally regard the market economy as a matter of course. Small wonder that the CCP’s “socialist turn” raised eyebrows and incurred criticisms, and the party has responded timidly.

Yet the historical progress towards post-capitalism is inevitable as capitalism becomes increasingly incapable of dealing with the impacts that digital economy, artificial intelligence and ubiquitous smart automation are exerting on employment and social structures. Developments in the West have also shown that liberalism is ill-equipped to cope with today’s governability challenges.

For socialism to be successful, it has to come up with value orientation and motivation mechanisms that are superior to those of capitalism. This author will only discuss value orientation in this article and deal with motivation mechanisms separately.

The problems of capitalist value orientation

The characteristic of capitalist value orientation is the use of market price as the yardstick of all values. As Karl Marx described, the bourgeoisie “… has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties … and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’” and “…has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and … has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade (which has displaced all the achievements of human civilisation)”. Capitalism marginalises everything that cannot be priced in the market, including familial ties, friendship, love, faith, ethics, tradition, the natural environment and all that is time-honoured and sacrosanct.

Often quoted from Das Kapital (also known as Capital: A Critique of Political Economy) by Marx is “With adequate profit, capital is very bold. … 50 per cent (profit will result in) positive audacity; 100 per cent (profit) will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent (profit) and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged.” It is this adventurous spirit that is responsible for the great achievements of capitalism, but the seeds of evil it has sown have germinated and blossomed, and are now devouring capitalism.

A farmer tends to his rice field in the village of Yangchao in Liping County, Guizhou province, China, 11 June 2021. (Thomas Peter/File Photo/Reuters)

 

Chief among these evils is the polarisation between the rich and the poor. Fundamentally unsolvable within capitalism, it will inevitably cause social unrest, as we have witnessed all over the world in this century, especially in developed capitalist countries.

The wealth of the entire world is increasingly owned by the top 1% of the rich. In the US, where capitalism is the most advanced, many middle-class families have tumbled into the lower class in society. The US no longer boasts the olive-shaped social structure that is typical of developed countries.

As China’s capitalism has rapidly emerged from a socialist system, it lacks complementary and coexistent social morality and effective legal constraints. It often exhibits a cruelty common to capitalism at its stage of “primitive accumulation”, as well as an oligopolistic tendency born of the intermarriage between power and money. One can say that it entered the stage of casino capitalism and unregulated excesses very early on.

China needs to be wary of casino capitalism

In the 1920s, John Maynard Keynes had warned that unregulated capital and unrestrained greed in casino capitalism would bring about many social ills. Casino capitalism mainly expresses itself as a capitalist mentality that is the basest and most destructive. It currently manifests prominently in the so-called “celebrity economy” in which wealth is dominated by a few superstars in every sector, including superstar entrepreneurs, investors, CEOs, singers, actors, online celebrities as well as sports and political superstars. Celebrity branding has become a quick path to wealth and a mainstream business model, resulting in a “winner takes all” economy.

The rise of the platform economy has enabled capitalists to fleece their customers. New technologies are constantly undermining the autonomy and earning power of middle-class professionals, with many reduced to mass workers no different from deliverymen. The fundamental cause however is the ever-persistent performance indicators in companies’ annual, quarterly and monthly reports that reduce everything in the world to dollars and cents.

The second evil is moral degradation. As its name suggests, casino capitalism undercuts social morality and ethos. When the rich are seen to be making easy money by the millions, one’s own life of daily toil becomes hopeless and meaningless. Envy of the lifestyles of the rich and famous engenders the fantasy of winning the lottery, hitting the jackpot in the casino or making a fortune in the stock market or in real estate speculation. In the US, basic values for nation-building such as honesty, being God-fearing and law-abiding, hard work, self-reliance and rugged individualism, are being abandoned because they have become ineffective under casino capitalism.

A man wearing a face mask walks past a store of French luxury brand Louis Vuitton at a shopping mall in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, 25 February 2020. (Stringer/Reuters)

 

The third evil is inducing widespread corruption. The CCP has campaigned on a large scale against corruption for ten years, exposing corruption cases involving increasing amounts of money — tens of millions of RMB seem insignificant, as cases involving hundreds of millions of RMB become the norm.

The current broadcast of Zero Tolerance (《零容忍》), a five-episode TV documentary series on anti-corruption, reveals the mentality and motivation of corrupt officials. They measure the value of their lives in RMB numbers. They became unhinged upon seeing bosses of private enterprises living a life in luxury despite being far inferior in education, ability, attributes, power and social status. Corruption and accepting bribes address this psychological imbalance.

Wang Fuyu, former deputy party chief of Guizhou province and chairman of the provincial Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, did not know why he misappropriated 430 million RMB. He said, “My greed was insatiable but I do not know why I wanted the money.” Another corrupt official, Chen Gang, former executive secretary of the China Association for Science and Technology, also realised that his folly was really pointless. Yet corruption continues under the current social value orientation.

The fourth evil is the deterioration of the quality of life for many despite the abundance of material wealth created by capitalism. With ever intensifying competition, people’s lives are under immense pressure, they feel insecure and are overwhelmed by the “three mountains” of education, healthcare and housing.

The 996 work culture (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) has become routine for the employees and the expectation of the bosses. Despite toiling day and night, many people are unable to support their families, let alone pursue their dreams and plan for their future. With ”involution” everywhere, that is, incessant cut-throat competition that causes apathy, many simply “lie flat”.

Young adults are afraid of getting married and married people are unwilling to bear children. Hundreds of millions of people are living alone in China and mental disorders are on the rise. In view of the situation in Japan and the US, China in future is likely to be plagued by spikes of lonely deaths and homelessness if the current ways persist.

Can social value orientation be changed?

Today’s poverty and the struggle for survival are deliberately created by capitalism to preserve its mode of production. The existing productive capacity is more than adequate to meet all of society’s basic needs, but a sizeable chunk of it either lies idle or gets destroyed, because capitalist production targets market demand instead of social necessity.

Adam Smith, dubbed the father of economics, highlighted in The Wealth of Nations that “… the produce of the whole labour of the society is so great, that all are often abundantly supplied, and a workman, even of the lowest and poorest order, if he is frugal and industrious, may enjoy a greater share of the necessaries and conveniences of life …” That was 250 years ago, and yet with today’s productive capacity, 13% of the US population (43 million people) currently still goes hungry. How else can we explain that?

People walk on a street in Beijing, China, 14 January 2022. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

 

Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once said that “the wren nests only on one branch in the forest and the mole fills only its stomach when it drinks from the river” (鹪鹩巢林,不过一枝;偃鼠饮河,不过满腹), but the struggle for survival has intensified. This is because capitalism is a game of life, in which struggle for survival is the price we pay to play it— with no exit option. Chinese historian Sima Qian wrote that “the world hustles and bustles for benefit” (天下熙熙,皆为利来;天下攘攘,皆为利往) and this “benefit” is essentially the contest to be the winner in life. In a capitalist world, survival is at stake if one does not compete to win.

Sima Qian also wrote that “benevolence and righteousness are affiliated to affluence” (人富而仁义附焉), but we often observe the unscrupulousness of the rich, for “even the landlord’s family has no surplus grain” (地主家也没余粮, a line in a dialogue made famous by the 1997 Chinese comedy, The Dream Factory).

Without a sense of security, the wealthy worry all day long about becoming poorer if they do not get wealthier. Money is the timeless benchmark for winners and the gauge of life’s value. The greed of Wang Fuyu and Chen Gang, even though they did not know what to do with the wealth, is all about being a winner. But by constantly presenting everybody with the survival imperative, capitalism has replaced the higher-level needs in Maslow’s hierarchy with the lower-level needs, ultimately hindering the progress of human civilisation.

How, then, should we humanise society’s value orientation?

The CCP has already started working on changing society’s value orientation. A main purpose of the aforementioned measures taken against the rich and famous is to redirect the value orientation in society. The CCP is promoting “socialist core values” and opposing the flaunting of wealth, the manufacturing of popular idols, bizarre aesthetics, and the glamorising of the rich and powerful with annual lists of “high-net-worth individuals”.

Instead, it seeks to glorify the contributions of ordinary engineers and scientists, advocates the traditional virtue of thrift, and commends the late 19th-early 20th century Chinese businessman and philanthropist Zhang Jian, who epitomised the entrepreneurial tradition of “saving his country through aligning his business with the country’s prosperity and the people’s happiness” (实业救国).

Liberalism is an importation in China and has yet to take deeper root, and the CCP controls the machinery of public opinion. It is therefore in a better position than most other regimes to do something in this regard.

However, these address only the symptoms and not the root causes. The reorientation of values must first annul the monopoly of market price on valuation by incorporating other considerations such as social, scientific and moral factors. This will allow social, environmental, aesthetic and all other values that are important to the quality of life to be on par with or of higher value than the market price.

To do so inevitably involves fundamental institutional changes and changes to the motivation mechanisms of the entire society. It is akin to switching from traditional energy to clean and renewable energy sources for the economy and the society, which is a challenge on a global scale.

The lack of motivation is the Achilles heel of classic socialism (or communism). However, after more than 70 years of exploration and experimentation, China has the cumulative experience, the institutional capacity and now the material foundation to build a new socialism and achieve common prosperity. It is in a position to blaze a trail to post-capitalism for mankind.

Author: Lance Gore, Think China

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