The recently concluded (at the time of writing) 16th National People's Congress of China seems to have attracted much interest and attention worldwide. This is evident by the sudden increase in the volume of writing on China and its future course of development. The 'peaceful change of guard' from the third generation leadership (led by Jiang Zemin) to the fourth (represented by Hu Jintao), and more importantly, the reiteration of China's commitment to reforms and opening, seem to be the main factors behind the surge in speculation regarding the future of China as a Communist state.
Deng Xiaoping and the second generation of Communist Party leaders assumed power after the violent and chaotic Cultural Revolution. The decade-long 'revolution' led to much disillusionment among the Chinese towards the model of development followed under Mao Zedong. This surely contributed to the unchallenged change in the course of development under Deng Xiaoping, who is considered to be the architect of Chinese reforms. The justification for the change witnessed a transition from the simplistic 'black cat/white cat allegory1' to the ingenious theory of the primary stage of socialism. According to the theory, China was in the primary stage of socialism that involved development of production forces and wealth accumulation. These would be achieved through introduction of markets and opening to the outside world. As for the conclusion of this stage, the theory only suggests that this would be a long and enduring stage in the course of development. This was certainly the earliest hint of things to come.
As the Chinese state successfully negotiated itself through problems of unleashing new forces independent of the state (notably the 1989 Tiananmen incident) and as it arrived on the global stage as a major economic player, references to the primary stage of socialism by the state media of China were gradually dropped in favour of the new rhetoric - 'Integrating with the World'. During the 80th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, and the recently concluded 16th NPC, the world further witnessed a surprising invitation to Chinese capitalists and entrepreneurs to join the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This provides important clues regarding the future course of China that should not be ignored.
Specifically, China departed from being a conventional socialist state to a state following 'Socialism with Chinese Characteristics' as it entered the phase of reforms and opening. The ambiguous definition of this concept provides the CCP with sufficient space to change and adapt itself to changing circumstances at will. 'Chinese Characteristics' permit any change in the way the Party and state function regardless of what the conventional definition of Socialism might require of them. With the emergence of new forces independent of state, one expected to see the emergence of a civil society. However, by absorbing the potential threats to its power (here the new Capitalist class of China), the CCP seems to be trying to insulate itself against the same. As for irreconcilable tensions such as those between an atheist state and increasing mass interest in religion (the Falungong movement and state repression thereof should be a good example) and also possible external threats, China's growing military might acts as an effective deterrent.
In effect, China becomes a totalitarian state committed to economic growth that provides the most stable environment for investment that any capitalist can dream of. Through absorption of the capitalists, the CCP tactfully undermines any possibility of conflict of interest with the emergent class as it itself becomes representative of them. Communist ideals such as egalitarianism and empowering the masses seem to have been put on freeze at least for now; a second revolution for revival of such goals seems elusive. The Chinese society discarded as feudal its tradition and culture under Mao, and ridiculed Maoist collectivism as impractical under Deng. The vacuum of belief thus created seems to have been filled by the opportunity to become rich, opened up by the reforms. Collectivism in the society, on the other hand, has been replaced by an increasingly individualistic orientation.
The past two decades have seen the emergence of a strong middle class in China, with substantial purchasing power. At the same time the gap between poor and rich, coastal regions and hinterland continues to increase. Correspondingly, the CCP seems to derive its support base from the new middle class rather than the proletariat or peasant, as was the case earlier. This is evident from the absence of the 'proletarian rhetoric' that occupied the utterances of the leadership and media as under Mao.
In conclusion, given the social, economic and political situation as it exists in present day China, it would be useful to talk about the implications of 'Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics' rather than 'Socialism with Chinese Characteristics'. A single party state, committed to capitalism and backed up by a strong military force, seems to be another mammoth in the making.