Book Review

Ronald C. Keith China From the Inside Out:  Fitting the People's Republic into the World (London: Pluto Press, £11.99)  Reviewed by Francis E. Andrews


This is a fascinating account of the development of ideology by the Chinese ruling elite from the 19th Century to the present day. The sub-title, “from the inside out,” accurately describes the author’s approach in that he concentrates on explaining the Chinese point of view in a more or less uncritical way. This has the advantage of making the text flow continuously - the book is eminently readable and coherent - but it has the disadvantage of making the book unsuitable for readers without a good grasp of  modern Chinese history and political economy.

Keith emphasises the continuity of political ideas: from the 19th Century attempt to borrow technology from the West whilst safeguarding Chinese culture, to today’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The thread of Chinese nationalism binds together the ideas of  Sun Yatsen, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping,and the present day Hu Jintao. In fact,although Keith doesn’t actually say so, it is reasonable to infer that nationalism has been a more important influence on Chinese ideology than socialism.

Even more interesting is the author’s identification of the roots of the ideology in ancient Chinese philosophy, in particular Confucius and Daoism. Confucianism legitimised the Chinese emperors and takes the traditional family as the microcosm of political governance. The Emperor took the role of the father of the family and had a duty to reconcile conflicting interests in the attempt to achieve harmony. The Communist Party has taken over this role and it appears that Zhou Enlai was a Confucian scholar. Daoist philosophy is dialectical and is based on the unity of opposites, the yin and the yang, and Chinese ideology is suffused with dichotomies,the most significant being Chinese versus foreign..

It is beyond doubt that Zhou Enlai was a master of international relations and his policies of peaceful co-existence and the equality of nations did much to overcome the isolation of  China, from theBandung Conference in the 1950s onwards. Keith speaks at length of the misunderstanding, deliberate or otherwise, by western “Realist” idealogues of the Chinese position on international relations, which is based on a Confucian desire for “harmony” between equal nations and has remained substantially unchanged to this day.

The explanation of ideology directed at internal affairs is somewhat more problematic, though certainly thought-provoking. In fact it is the reason why I made the earlier judgement that this book is not suitable for those without a grounding in Chinese history and political economy. There is a brilliant chapter on 'socialism or   capitalism’, in which Deng Xiaoping’s “open door” and “social market” policies are thoroughly explored. Deng was determined to safeguard his experiment with a social market from any return to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and attempted to institutionalise “the rule of law”, “human rights”, and rights of private property, not as a slavish copying of liberal democracy but as checks and balances to Communist Party power and “the spirit of the leader” which, left unchecked, had led to the Cultural Revolution. These policies are so far removed from those of Mao Zedong that it is difficult to believe Keith’s assertion that there was ideological continuity between the two regimes. Indeed it made sense for Deng to pay lip service to “the great  helmsman” in order to consolidate his own power, but even a superficial study of the two regimes reveals a chasm of ideological differences. Deng was a “revisionist” of the Bernstein variety, he believed that progress to a socialist society was only possible through the development of a modern industrial state and he was successful in setting in motion the productive forces to achieve this. Moreover, he was consistently opposed to “the cult of the personality”, from his early days (in the 1950s he wrote a paper on the excesses of Stalin and how to avoid these) and he pursued policies to rein in the power of the Communist Party through the 1980s. In contrast Mao was an admirer of Stalin, and his “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s mirrored Stalin’s forced collectivisations of the 1930s, with equally disastrous results. Mao’s left wing adventurism in instigating the Cultural Revolution also contrasts starkly with Deng’s emphasis on property rights and the rule of law. Keith does mention these differences but gives too little weight to them.

Deng Xiaoping’s headlong rush to a “social market” almost inevitably gave strength to liberal democratic tendencies  which were crushed after the conflict at Tiananmen Square. The re-assertion of the power of the Communist Party did not deflect Deng’s successors from continuing and accelerating the social market “experiment”; in fact the private sector of the economy has grown exponentially over the past ten years. In view of this it is difficult for me to accept the official Chinese description of their society as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”; it is more appropriate to view it as capitalism with Chinese characteristics. What this book does well is decode the “Chinese characteristics” as a mixture of Communist Party power and Confucian philosophy. It remains to be seen whether the Daoist/Marxist dialectic which is being nourished by growing disparities in wealth and a nascent bourgeoisie will destabilise the project.

Francis E. Andrews is a retired welfare rights adviser and teacher with a long history of labour movement activism.