China Suffers From an Incurable Case of Leninism

From a Washington Post column by George F. Will headlined “Economically ailing China suffers from an incurable case of Leninism”:

Vladimir Lenin, who died 100 years ago as of next Jan. 21, was having a good 21st century because the Chinese Communist Party emulated him. For four decades, the CCP’s primacy was compatible with China’s economic advance. Now, however, China has ailments partially caused by, and made incurable by, Leninism.

In Russia, then in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany and elsewhere, including modern China, Leninism provided a new model of government: the party-state. Except China cannot be both modern and Leninist. Modernity requires social openness, and a nimble response to information and innovations that move faster than bureaucracies can or want to move.

Karl Marx’s only relevance to the CCP is in Lenin’s reaction against Marx. The party-state was Lenin’s obstinate rejoinder to Marx, who believed that Russia, a peasant society, lacked the material preconditions — principally, an industrial proletariat — for a revolutionary consciousness.

Lenin insisted that a “vanguard” party, tiny but enormously ruthless, and possessing revolutionary consciousness, could pound the masses into material for transitioning to communism. Hence Lenin’s party-state.

Such a state has, however, two incurable defects: All policies are subordinate to the primary objective of maintaining the party’s dominance. And the party incubates society’s elites, who insinuate themselves everywhere into allocating wealth and opportunity. Absent market signals, this produces cascading inefficiencies in the allocation of society’s human and material resources.

With Leninist ham-handedness, Beijing recently highlighted its economic disarray by suppressing data confirming it. Having reported a youth unemployment rate of 21.3 percent in June — or misreported what might have been above 30 percent — Beijing released no data about youth unemployment in July, thereby fueling speculation about how much worse it now is.

China is misleadingly said to have a “hybrid” economy of government planning leavened and disciplined by market forces. This suggests more orderliness than actually exists. Market forces are casually disregarded by the CCP’s innumerable tentacles. China’s “industrial policy” — pervasive government entanglement with private-sector enterprises — is a road to private-sector serfdom.

Under the Leninist brutality of dictator Xi Jinping’s “zero-covid” policy, a single covid-19 case could cause the lockdown of a city of millions, with devastating economic consequences. But most devastating is Leninist economic normality in a party-state. The Economist:

“If spending is weak because households and entrepreneurs fear the party’s intrusive policymaking, their spirits will not revive until Mr. Xi commits to self-restraint — a commitment that he cannot credibly make. … The party lacks the power to limit its own power.”

In a recent three-year period, the Economist reports, China produced enough cement to turn Britain into a parking lot. But analyst Edward Luttwak, citing “at least 100 grossly under-utilized airports and the many highways that are mostly empty of traffic even in crowded China,” says supposedly “semi-private” joint ventures are essentially CCP ventures. They are financed by “loans of the local branches of state banks, whose managers could not just say no to local party bosses, who could choose to invite them to sumptuous dinners in pretty company or to lock them up for corruption investigations as they saw fit.”

Hence today’s Everest of domestic debt, (China’s developers’ debts equal about 16 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product) and stagnation. The Economist says “short-term growth is no longer” the CCP’s priority. National “greatness” is. But Leninism precludes this as Xi values loyalty over competence: “China used to tolerate debate about its economy, but today cajoles analysts into fake optimism. … The fact that China’s problems start at the top means they will persist.”

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Ian Johnson of the Council on Foreign Relations says Beijing’s “strategy of accelerating government intervention in Chinese life” — an “obsession with control” — means “political ossification and ideological hardening” in a society devoid of “self-critical reflection.” These are fruits of Leninism.

Also in Foreign Affairs, Adam S. Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, notes that “the autocrat’s Achilles’ heel is an inherent lack of credible self-restraint.” In Xi’s China, there is “widespread fear not seen since the days of Mao — fear of losing one’s property or livelihood, whether temporarily or forever, without warning and without appeal.” This is a recipe for social paralysis.

The Leninist CCP is the nation’s neurological system, and is making China sclerotic. In his 1964 biography of Lenin, Louis Fischer, an American foreign correspondent, recalled that a participant in Lenin’s autopsy said that blood vessels in his brain were so calcified that “when struck with a tweezer they sounded like stone.” China’s regime has a Leninist brain like that.

George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977. His latest book, “American Happiness and Discontents,” was released in September 2021.

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