Opposite directions: The NEP and China’s Opening and Reform
Since the beginning of the “Opening and Reform” process in 1978, China has embarked upon a series of highly controversial reforms, causing debate in both bourgeois academic and Marxist circles. Proponents of current Chinese policy often justify their position by equating current reforms with Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP), taking it as a precedent. However, despite some similarities, the comparison between the two policies is tenuous and can lead to dangerous misunderstandings regarding the direction and effects of reform in China. Although the NEP and the Opening and Reform have some striking policy similarities, they were implemented under very different circumstances, with very different political understandings.
This article will identify the key differences between the NEP and Opening and Reform as well as the wildly different historical circumstances they emerged from. It will show that the NEP was envisaged as a transition stage with a view to developing state capitalism and finally socialism based on central planning in Russia, allowing the Soviet government to win over the peasantry and survive while encircled by hostile imperialist powers. Lenin himself considered the policy to be a retreat in order to later advance. In contrast Chinese officials don’t consider Opening and Reform to be a retreat but rather an improvement over the policy of Mao Zedong’s time and have no intention of returning to an economic model that eliminates exploitation, exploiting classes or re-introduces complete public ownership.
All of the nuances of Opening and Reform era policy cannot be adequately explained in a single article; neither can all of the resulting phenomena and changes to the lives of Chinese working people. This article will focus on the main policy trends that characterise Opening and Reform, in order to demonstrate similarities and differences from the NEP, and will also briefly introduce some of the more important consequences of these policies.
The period leading up to the New Economic Policy in Russia was one of war and devastation. The Bolsheviks came to power in a country ruined by the First World War and were never given the chance to consolidate their position. Within months of the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks were under siege from all directions, beset by armies from 14 different nations, including all of the great imperial powers. Years of brutal warfare cost the lives of 7 million Russians and caused $60 billion worth of damage (this is a 1950s figure, adjusted for inflation the figure would be much higher today). Soviet Russia was cut off from the rest of the world by a cordon sanitaire, its industry and agriculture utterly ruined, with a population mired in illiteracy, poverty and disease. During the war years, the Soviet government implemented “War Communism”, a policy that was in Lenin’s words: “…forced on us by extreme want, ruin and war …”. It involved complete nationalisation of industry and seizing surpluses, and occasionally necessities, from peasants to feed workers and soldiers. Lenin credited this policy with the victory over the class enemy during the war but clearly identified it as an emergency policy, stating: “It was not, and could not be, a policy that corresponded to the economic tasks of the proletariat”.
China in 1978 was in a completely different and much better situation. The Communist Party of China had already held state power for 29 years and successfully carried out the socialist transformation of the economy by 1956 after passing through its own NEP called “New Democracy”. When the Peoples’ Republic of China was founded in 1949, the Communist Party of China was in a very similar situation to that of the Bolsheviks in 1921. The CPC, had come to lead a massive, semi-feudal country ruined by decades of war. At the 2nd plenary session of the 7th Party Congress, Mao Zedong laid out the economic tasks of the Party following the seizure of state power, recognising that approximately 90% of the economy consisted of handicraft or individual peasant production while peasants lived much as they had since ancient times. Land reform, which had begun in the red base areas, was limited in the first years of the Peoples’ Republic in line with a united front policy. In 1950, Mao wrote: “… there should be a change in our policy towards the rich peasants, a change from the policy of requisitioning their surplus land and property to one of maintaining the rich peasant economy in order to facilitate the early rehabilitation of rural production”. The policy was also intended to isolate landlords and support middle peasants. 
The large industrial enterprises, transportation and banking sectors, which were predominately owned by bureaucrat-capitalists and imperialists, were nationalised, while the property of the national bourgeois was left in private hands. Mao made the Party’s position on private capital clear when he stated: “… there will be need, for a fairly long period after the victory of the revolution, to make use of the positive qualities of urban and rural private capitalism as far as possible, in the interest of developing the national economy”. However, he also made clear that capitalism would be restricted by some means and that the state sector would remain the leading sector. As early as 1948, Mao stated that the industrial and commercial enterprises run by landlords and rich peasants needed to be “protected”, even as their feudal exploitative practices were abolished. Ultimately, the policy of this period can be described by Mao’s call for a “… correct policy of developing production, promoting economic prosperity, giving consideration to both public and private interests and benefiting both labour and capital”. 
These policies marked the beginning of China’s transition phase from a semi-colonial, semi-feudal economy to a socialist one. By 1953 the cooperative movement was transforming relations of production in the countryside, while major investments lead to rapid growth in the state-owned sector. By the 8th Party Congress in 1956, the “socialist transformation” was effectively complete.
Contrary to commonly believed myths, the Chinese economy following 1956 was not a basket case. From 1952 onwards, Chinese industrial output grew at an annual rate of 11.2% and even managed to grow at over 10% during the Cultural Revolution years (roughly from 1966-1976). According to World Bank figures, the average GDP growth rate between 1963 and 1979 was 8%. Agricultural growth and incomes were much slower; however China still regularly outperformed comparable third world countries. As Sheldon explained: “In 1977 China grew 30 to 40 percent more food per capita [than India] on 14 percent less arable land and distributed it far more equitably to a population which is 50 percent larger”. Despite stagnant incomes, Chinese peasants received improved public housing, healthcare, education and social security and the extreme inequality that characterised pre-1949 society was eliminated. Prices were strictly controlled so that even if income growth was limited, it represented real gains. All property was state, collective or cooperative owned and urban workers enjoyed life tenure and workplace provided social security.
Russian policy essentials
While elements of the New Economic Policy dealt with industrial production and foreign relations, it was primarily an agricultural policy. The key elements of the policy were the replacement of grain requisitions with a tax in kind and allowing peasants to keep their surplus to sell on the market. Commodity exchange was officially recognised as the “principal lever” of the New Economic Policy, with Lenin himself calling commodity exchange the most important part of this policy. Laws were passed allowing private enterprises in small-scale production and commerce while small state-owned enterprises were denationalised, being sold or rented to cooperatives and capitalists. In fact, this law was merely recognition of the contemporary Russian economic system where agricultural and handicraft production distributed by petty bourgeois traders was dominant, rather than primarily a change from public to private ownership. While small factories were denationalised and sold or leased to cooperatives and capitalists, the “commanding heights” of the economy were maintained in public ownership. By 1923, the commanding heights included all heavy industry, transport, communal construction and industrial enterprises with over a certain number of workers.
The trends for industrial and agricultural output help to demonstrate this division of the economy into public and private spheres and their trends of development. State-owned enterprises increased their share of industrial output from 70% in 1923 to 77% in 1927, while the proportion from privately owned enterprises dropped from 25% to 14%, despite the total output of private enterprises rising from 842 million to 1,106 million roubles over the same period. The difference between the two figures is made up by collective enterprises. This ratio is reversed in agriculture, where 88% of all output was provided by private farms.
NEP reforms did not drastically alter already existing relations of production but rather repealed emergency measures taken during the civil war. It then established a system of state capitalism that cemented the worker-peasant alliance and neutralised the political influence of remaining capitalist elements. It provided a platform for industrialisation and the later implementation of the First Five Year plan. It was a direct step toward socialism. The Opening and Reform process in China was something altogether different.
Chinese policy essentials
Chinese Opening and Reform was a much more gradual process which involved a stage by stage replacement of central planning and public ownership with market forces and private ownership. Like the NEP, a major aspect of reform was agricultural. In 1980, the Chinese government ordered the de-collectivisation of agriculture and the replacement of communes with household based production. Land was still officially public property, however plots were given to individual households based on family size, to grow what they wanted. Agricultural output growth rates more than doubled compared with the annual average since 1952, however these gains disappeared by 1985 while rural infrastructure and social support systems decayed with the abolition of communes. Despite Chinese government claims that gains were achieved as a result of de-collectivised practices, the increased value of output can also be explained by higher state-set agricultural prices and re-balancing of investment in favour of the countryside.
By 1983, collective agriculture effectively ceased to exist. Many peasants couldn’t survive on the tiny plots they were given and became either hired labourers for rich peasants or, with the liberalisation of the Hukou system (a registration system that formerly tied Chinese citizens to one location), moved to cities to become workers. Effectively a process of proletarianisation, primitive accumulation and restoration of exploiter classes took place.
Urban reforms revolved around dual processes of marketisation (particularly of labour) and creation of a mixed economy (largely though promotion of different forms of ownership). Original reform measures included utilising market mechanisms with a view to improving efficiency, diversifying forms of ownership and solving structural imbalances in the economy while maintaining the dominance of public ownership. During the early phases of opening and reform, small businesses employing less than seven workers were made legal and changes were made to the internal governance of state owned enterprises to improve their performance. In 1987, the 13th Congress of the CPC reduced restrictions on the private sector, removing the seven employee limit and a year later the State Council allowed private managers to lease small state-owned enterprises.
It was only with the introduction of the term “Socialist Market Economy” by the 14th Congress in 1992 that forms of ownership became an issue. This marked a departure from the schema of the 12th Congress in 1982 which assigned planning a primary role and markets a secondary one, and the “planned commodity economy” of 1984. The number of privately owned enterprises exploded, especially as they were given preferential treatment over state-owned enterprises, paying less than half the enterprise tax rate and not being burdened by the need to provide social welfare to their employees as state-owned enterprises did.
In 1994, state-owned enterprises were forced to raise finances through bank loans instead of directly receiving funds from the State. They were also re-organised by company law into corporations expected to be “responsive to market conditions”. Conditions in the company law allowed these new corporations to restructure themselves and engage in sales of shares, which quickly became a vehicle for privatisation. A year later, the great flood of privatisation, which until then had only been a small trickle, began. In 1995, the Central Committee promulgated a policy which would come to be known as “Grasp the big, Release the small”. The policy entailed selling all small and medium sized national state owned enterprises while keeping only the largest 500 to 1,000. With the blessing of the Centre, provincial and local governments began a fire-sale of public assets, with major provinces such as Shandong and Guangdong selling 70% of their public enterprises. By 2006, local level state-owned enterprises practically ceased to exist. Despite the call to “grasp the big”, profitable large enterprises were sold too, with the number of “core enterprises” falling from 509 in 2003 to 191 in 2006. Overall, the number of state owned enterprises dropped by 90% from 1996 to 2004.
The mass privatisation that took place in the 1990s and 2000s is a tragedy, not merely because of the incredible loss of public property, but because of the loss of social welfare and mass unemployment that followed, as well as the creation of new exploiting classes in the form of capitalists and “cadre-capitalists”.
After the socialist transformation had taken place in China, social welfare was provided and guaranteed by one’s place of employment, whether a collective, a commune or a state-owned enterprise. Workers in urban enterprises enjoyed life tenure, housing, retirement benefits, free health and education services for themselves and their children. Labour market reforms, facilitating the availability of labour for exploitation by capital, stripped workers of their life tenure and forced them into the constant uncertainty of the market. Private capitalists who took over state-owned enterprises on the condition that they protect workers’ benefits often reneged on their commitments. Reforms of state-owned enterprises lead to mass unemployment, with lower estimates of 30 million public sector workers sacked from 1998 to 2005 and higher estimates of 50 million between 1997 and 2002. There was little social welfare independent of work units so workers in the private sector as well as workers sacked or forced into early retirement from state-owned enterprises were left with nothing. Since the mid-2000s, social welfare provision independent of work units has been improved; however it is still inferior to the guarantees of the pre-reform era.
Just as the NEP produced a new class of “NEP men”, so too did Opening and Reform produce new classes of rich exploiters. However, while the NEP merely allowed already existing exploiters to do well within certain bounds, Opening and Reform turned a portion of government and party cadres into capitalists who formed a common community of interests with private entrepreneurs. Alongside new exploiters, new exploited classes and underclasses came into being. The formerly homogenous urban working class became divided into remnant state-sector workers who, despite having lost life tenure and many conditions, still fared better than the sweat shop workers of the private sector, and an underclass of migrant workers, unemployed and retirees.
Workers are not merely divided by their employment in the public or private sector but perhaps, more importantly, are divided between formal and informal sectors. Formal sector workers include those employed by the state and those hired by “legal persons” in “regular labour relations”. Such legal persons include limited liability corporations and share-holding companies. The informal sector is everyone else but especially migrant peasant workers and workers hired under “task-based” relations such as in seasonal agricultural work and construction. Workers in the formal sector are officially protected by labour laws while those in the informal sector are outside of this system. The role of the informal economy is growing rapidly, accounting for 63% of total urban employment in 2010. Informal sector workers are not included in official government statistics on labour and therefore official data on wages and working conditions only represent the relatively privileged conditions of formal sector workers, while ignoring the conditions of the vast majority of the urban population.
The political character and transitional nature of the NEP
An important fact to keep in mind when evaluating the Chinese Opening and Reform, especially in comparison with NEP, is the completely different class consciousness of the processes presented by the respective communist parties. Lenin made it clear from the beginning that the NEP economy was not a socialist one but was instead an attempt to develop state capitalism in Russia as the foundation of a later socialist transformation. In describing the NEP, Lenin said: “… it means reverting to capitalism to a considerable extent”. He further stated: “Concessions to foreign capitalists … and leasing enterprises to private capitalists definitely mean restoring capitalism, and this is part and parcel of the New Economic Policy”.
Any description of the NEP will mention Lenin’s characterisation of the policy as a “retreat”. Lenin referred to the policy as a retreat because it was a step back to capitalism from the leap to socialist principles of production and distribution that was attempted during the War Communism years. He said, “By the spring of 1921 it became evident that we had suffered defeat in our attempt to introduce the socialist principles of production and distribution by ‘direct assault’ … The political situation in the spring of 1921 revealed to us that on a number of economic issues a retreat to the position of state capitalism, the substitution of ‘siege’ tactics for ‘direct assault’, was inevitable”. 
Lenin argued the desirability of state capitalism under Russian conditions in numerous articles and speeches, perhaps most famously in The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It in 1917 and The Tax in Kind in 1921. Lenin referred to state monopoly capitalism as the “… complete material preparation for socialism, the threshold of socialism, a rung on the ladder of history between which and the rung called socialism there are no intermediate rungs”. Russia’s conditions were so backward that state capitalism represented a leap in development. Lenin wrote: “I had also proved that state capitalism is a step forward compared with the small proprietor (both small-patriarchal and petty-bourgeois) element. Those who compare state capitalism only with socialism commit a host of mistakes, for in the present political and economic circumstances it is essential to compare state capitalism also with petty-bourgeois production.” Under Russian conditions, the NEP represented a step towards socialism, rather than away from it. Control of the commanding heights of the economy by public ownership did not mean that NEP Russia was socialist, it simply allowed for state capitalism to develop out of petty-bourgeois production and for the foundation of an actual socialist transformation to be built.
Lenin never mentioned exactly how long the NEP was intended to last, instead stating that the policy was a “long term one”. However in the same speech where he called the NEP long term, he chided another communist who suggested the NEP will last for 25 years as being too “pessimistic”. Lenin’s closest ally on the NEP question was Bukharin, who continued to defend the NEP after Lenin’s death. Despite being one of the most ardent supporters of the policy, he also considered it a phase that would result in a planned economy where private capital ceases to exist and firmly rejected the possibility of socialism and capitalism being able to co-exist permanently in an economy. 
In Lenin’s own words, the NEP was a retreat “to take a running start and make a bigger leap forward. It was on this condition alone that we retreated in pursuing our New Economic Policy”. The official Chinese position, while in some ways rhetorically similar, could not differ further from Lenin’s spirit and practice.
Permanency of Opening and Reform and its state capitalist character
By the time Opening and Reform policies were proposed, China already had a functioning socialist economy where exploiting classes and exploitation in general had been eliminated. Twenty-two years had passed since the socialist transformation of the economy was completed and, despite significant systemic problems that had yet to be resolved, it continued to grow. Despite calling for similar, albeit more extreme, policies than the Soviet NEP, official Chinese sources never characterise the resulting economy as state capitalist. The most these sources will concede is that China is in the “primary stage of socialism”. In 1985, Deng Xiaoping stated that “Socialism has two major requirements. First, its economy must be dominated by public ownership, and second, there must be no polarization”. At the time, Deng claimed that 90% of the total economy was publically owned, concluding that they had successfully kept to socialism thus far. Deng’s definition is problematic for modern Chinese claims that their economy is socialist rather than state capitalist as the red line of dominant public ownership was long ago passed, while massive polarization is one of the most easily identifiable features of modern Chinese society.
According to census data from 2008, approximately 30% of all assets in the secondary and tertiary industries belonged to state owned enterprises (either solely owned or where the state is the majority shareholder). The census also showed that State-owned enterprises accounted for only 3% of all enterprises in China. 2008 is an important year when considering the topic of state-ownership because the international crisis of that year was followed by strong Chinese government stimulus spending that strengthened the public sector. Financial controls during the crisis years favoured the public sector and, much to the distress of the bourgeois press, helped state owned companies to buy out and out-compete private competitors in many fields. Even with these favourable conditions, the number of firms, total output and proportion of assets held by state owned enterprises fell in almost every industrial field except the tobacco industry and electric power generation, between 1998 and 2011.
Although the publically owned portion of the economy is smaller than the privately owned economy by almost any conceivable measure, it can be argued that state-owned enterprises do in fact control the commanding heights of the economy as they are often monopolistic in their own sectors and are especially consolidated in strategic industries such as defence, petroleum, electricity generation and distribution, shipping, telecommunications and civil aviation. In 2011, state-owned enterprises were responsible for 92% of petroleum and natural gas extraction, 53% of coal mining and washing, 68% of fuel processing and 93% of electrical power and heating generation.
Over the course of the Opening and Reform process, China changed from being one of the most equal countries in the world, to on a par with other third world countries. China’s Gini coefficient grew from 0.28 in the early 1980s to 0.48 in 2007, which is beyond the international warning level of 0.4. By 2013, China’s Gini coefficient reached 0.53, roughly equal to Colombia. China also has the world’s worst inequality between rural and urban areas. The richest 1% of Chinese own more than one third of all household wealth, while the bottom 25% own less than 2%.
China watchers are often wowed by state-mandated increases to minimum wages, while supporters of reform point to increasing wages as a sign of greater prosperity due to Deng Xiaoping’s policies. Unfortunately, wage rises during the ‘80s and ‘90s followed bouts of massive inflation, with an average inflation rate of 14% between 1985 and 1994, excluding a brief period of strong credit control, and peak years over 20%. Although inflation rates have eased during the 2000s, prices occasionally spike, such as in 2008 where food prices increased 20%. Accommodation, something previously provided for free to all workers, is now becoming so expensive that even new “middle-class” Chinese are finding it hard to afford. House prices in 10 major cities rose by more than 20% in 2016 with certain extreme cases such as Nanjing where they rose by 42.9%. Inflation and rising prices of necessities such as food and accommodation disproportionately affect the poor, intensifying polarisation.
Opening and Reform – the new normal
While proponents of the NEP expected it to be a limited transition phase that would be superseded by central planning and non-exploitative relations of production, official Chinese sources do not define Opening and Reform in a similar manner. The current major goals set by the Communist Party of China under Xi Jinping are the “Two Centenary Goals”, set at the 18th Party Congress in 2012. The two goals are to: 1) establish a “moderately prosperous” society by 2021 (the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CPC) and 2) establish a “prosperous, democratic, civilised, harmonious, modernised socialist country” by 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China). Descriptions of this modernised socialist country in both official documentation and popular online commentary lack class analysis. There is no mention of the elimination of exploitation, increased public ownership, greater workers’ control over production or participation in governance. All of these Marxist-Leninist concepts of what socialism is about are absent, replaced with supra-class expressions of harmony, democracy and prosperity. One could be forgiven for thinking they were reading a social-democratic manifesto.
A reading of any official Chinese literature makes it clear that the current Chinese model of state capitalism will be implemented for the foreseeable future.
The NEP and Opening and Reform are two processes that shared much in common yet were applied under completely different circumstances with completely different political awareness. In Russia, state capitalism was promoted as a necessary rung on the ladder to socialism. The NEP recognised the dominant peasant and petty bourgeois economic forms of the time and endeavoured to develop them into state capitalism, using public ownership of the commanding heights to direct development towards socialism. This temporary phase laid the foundation for the later socialist transformation of the economy, the result of which was a system where exploitative relations of production ceased to exist and where the means of production were publically owned.
Opening and Reform in China took a planned socialist economy and dismantled it through de-facto primitive accumulation in the countryside, fire-sale of public property and the stripping of workers’ rights and conditions. What remains is an economy based on private ownership where the bare peaks of the commanding heights are publically owned, what Lenin in his time would have called state capitalism. Most importantly, unlike the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), the Communist Party of China continues to publically claim that they have a socialist system and have not publically announced plans to fundamentally alter the arrangements that exist today, especially in regard to the level of public ownership and the elimination of exploitation.
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