(Pix from Reflection of Cuba’s Castro on Deng Xiaoping, Free More News, June 25, 2012)
Written by Ricardo Barrios.
The survival of the Cuban party-state has been a subject of interest to many Chinese observers. For decades, Chinese leaders and scholars alike have marveled at how the island—with its limited size and stunted economy—has managed to subsist at the doorstep of a hostile superpower, and even weather the collapse of its economic patron, the Soviet Union.
Motivated by the belief that there is wisdom to be gleaned from their Caribbean comrades, some Chinese observers have taken this fascination beyond casual interest and turned it into a pragmatic pursuit. Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Zhu Jiamu’s 2007 article, aptly titled “Why Has Cuba’s Socialist Regime Been Able to Endure?,” is illustrative of Chinese observers’ search for the reasons behind Cuban socialism’s continued survival, and its purported “lessons” for China.
China’s curiosity is present throughout its intellectual ecosystem, where it is visible in the work of academic institutions, establishment think tanks, and even some media outlets. The analysis produced by Chinese observers in these institutions consistently highlights the work of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) and the Cuban social welfare system as some key factors explaining the continued existence of the Cuban socialist system, and as possible learning opportunities for Chinese socialism. While causal links between Chinese observers’ analysis of Cuba and Chinese policy outcomes remain hard to establish, this analysis may still have an ideological function, as it allows China to measure itself according to a socialist standard that does not directly challenge the state’s socialist ideology.
Lessons from My Brother
Given its centrality in Chinese narratives regarding the resilience of Cuban socialism, the PCC is a natural subject of interest to Chinese observers, who have shown a keen interest in the Party’s ideological work. Within the context of a socialist party-state, a party’s ideological work is a joint effort comprised of both theory building and mass propagation. Both of these aspects are present in Chinese observers’ examinations of Cuban ideological work, which range from the theoretical (e.g., the national adaptation of Marxism) to the practical (e.g., applied theoretical pedagogy).
On the theoretical end, Chinese observers have noticeably been drawn to the PCC’s work on the adaptation of Marxist theory to the Cuban context. For example, in their state-funded analysis of Cuban theory work, Xia Xiaohua and Zhou Jianhua remark that this process of adaptation—the so-called “localization of Marxism”—is visible in Cuban socialism’s emphasis on elements such as anti-imperialism and national independence, as well as the formal addition of José Martí and Fidel Castro to Cuba’s socialist ideological pantheon. Xia and Zhou conclude that Cuba’s development of Marxist theory serves as a reminder that Marxism alone is insufficiently “lively” and must be adapted to the national and historical context.
Turning towards the applied component of Cuban thought work, observers have also paid attention to the PCC’s use of ideology to incorporate and mobilize broad swathes of Cuban society. In their analysis of Cuba’s “Battle of Ideas,” Dong Weihua and Ceng Changqiu comment favorably on the PCC’s application of political ideology in areas including social management and mass mobilization. Like Zhou and Xia, Dong and Ceng conclude that the experiences of Cuba (along with North Korea) illustrate the importance of politico-ideological work to socialist countries, as well as the need to localize ideology and diversify political thought work.
Besides the work of the Party, Chinese scholars have also spent significant time examining Cuba’s social welfare system in the hopes of learning from the island’s remarkable accomplishments in healthcare and education. In the area of healthcare, scholars often highlight the universal nature of Cuban healthcare, as well as the system’s ability to thrive under the U.S. embargo. Beijing Normal University’s Wang Nuo, for example, commends the “efficiency, effectiveness, and equity” of the Cuban healthcare model, which he contrasts to China’s own “difficult” and “expensive” system. Striking a similar tone on education, Le Xianlian and Wu Hangping praise Cuba’s “great, internationally recognized success” in the equitable development of schooling and suggest China follow Cuba’s socialist example in its pursuit of educational equity.In each case, the authors arrive at the same conclusion: China, for all its growing wealth and power, would do well to learn from its socialist brother.
For several reasons, it is hard to determine the extent to which Chinese observers’ analysis of Cuban socialism has affected Chinese state and party policy-making. On the one hand, there is no evidence that unequivocally demonstrates that China is applying these purported lessons from Cuba. On the other hand, there are many parallels to be drawn between the two countries’ (and two parties’) efforts in areas ranging from economic reform to ideology promotion. Looking at recent events, one cannot discard the possibility that China’s recent breakthrough with the Vatican was inspired at least partially by Cuba’s own experience in handling organized religion.
Even so, a lack of visible policy change need not necessarily diminish the exercise’s value to the Chinese state. Socialism with Chinese Characteristics may have proven a formula for economic success, but it has also resulted in gross inequalities that continuously call into question the country’s commitment to socialism. Indeed, this continual defiance of socialist orthodoxy and its redefinition of what it means to be a socialist state (by advocating for globalization, for instance) presents a recurring challenge to China’s ideological foundation.
Regardless of whether this analysis has led to concrete policy outcomes, some scholars have begun theorize that China’s use of Cuba as a socialist mirror is a way of coping with the tensions created by China’s changing economic and political circumstances. Utilizing the Chinese observers’ perspective, Yinghong Cheng has suggested that Chinese observers’ use of Cuba as a “socialist other” should be regarded as a means to discuss ideological issues (e.g., social equity) that are otherwise difficult to debate within a Chinese context. Meanwhile, adopting a more statist perspective, Nele Noesselt has argued that China’s close study of Cuba should be interpreted as the former’s search for “add-ons to increase the efficiency and legitimacy of its own ‘socialist’ system.”
Cheng and Noesselt both seem to agree that the juxtaposition of Cuba and China serves a distinct function within the Chinese state, because this sort of comparison permits observers to measure China’s performance according to a classical (state-friendly) Marxist standard. This not only creates opportunities for the improvement of state performance (in accordance to Marxist criteria), but also does it in a way that does not call into question, and may even reinforce, the dominant socialist ideology espoused by the state.
Under the Chinese political system, true power lies with the general secretary, but Xi Jinping could be aiming to shift the dynamicPUBLISHED : Monday, 26 February, 2018, 6:02amUPDATED : Monday, 26 February, 2018, 8:31pm
The decision to remove the constitutional restriction on China’s presidential term limits suggests Chinese President Xi Jinping may want to turn what is essentially a ceremonial position into a role carrying much greater political heft, an observer familiar with party ideology says.
The party’s Central Committee on Sunday announced a plan to remove language from the charter saying the president and vice-president “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms”. The move is the strongest indication yet Xi plans to stay in power beyond the end of his second term as general secretary in 2022.While most China experts have long expected he would find a way to remain in power, it is surprising the amendments have come so early in the second term.Theoretically, Xi does not need to rely on the title. In Chinese politics, the role of president is largely ceremonial, with real power resting in the hands of the general secretary and the chairman of the Central Military Commission. Xi holds all three positions.Deng Yuwen, former editor of the Study Times newspaper affiliated with the Central Party School, said the timing of the amendment suggested Xi planned to make the office more significant.“In the next five years, the president may be given more substantial power, and we are likely to see that in future constitutional amendments,” Deng said. “The president is still largely a nominal title now, so raising the term limit is not too significant unless new power is attached to the title.”The announcement came just as the South China Morning Post reported that Wang Qishan – Xi’s trusted ally and the party’s former anti-corruption chief – will be appointed as vice-president at the annual congress next month.
Experts said the amendment could also make the vice-presidency more powerful.The announcement could pave the way for the party to redefine both of those roles, giving Xi and Wang a more solid base to exercise power, although the released draft did not touch on that area.Deng said the move sent an obvious message about Xi’s intention.“This is a very clear sign that the president will remain in office beyond the existing term limit,” Deng said. “We don’t know if it could be life tenure at this stage, but two extra terms will be of no question.”The role of president carries only nominal power, such as signing laws and suggesting a premier to the National People Congress. The president has no say over the appointment of other members of the State Council or the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Nor does he have legal power to command the army, which answers to the chairman of the Central Military Commission.The country only reinstated the position of president in the early 1980s, and it was sometimes occupied by party elders who were not the paramount leader.But the title has grown in significance in the decades since, with the seat being held by the general secretary, the most powerful position in the party.In the past two decades, the supreme Politburo Standing Committee has seated a successor no later than the end of the incumbent president’s first term.But the question of Xi’s successor was left open at the 19th party congress in October – the first time the political elite failed to anoint an heir apparent during a leader’s second term.An editorial in the Global Times, affiliated with the state-run People’s Daily, said the constitutional amendment did not mean life tenure.“A broad consensus has formed in the party, and China has successfully solved the problem of orderly power transition of state and party leaders,” said the article, published soon after Xinhua’s announcement.Yet veteran China watchers were less certain about when Xi might step down.“He will stay at his pleasure, for as long as he wants to and feels that he needs to do so,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.