If Rip Van Winkle had dozed off in the 1950s, he might not have felt completely out of place waking up at the annual meeting of China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), which wrapped up a week-long session on Tuesday. Here was Premier Wen Jiabao intoning the importance of "building a new socialist countryside." There were education officials unveiling a campaign to publish dozens of new Marxist university textbooks. NPC delegates, who had dutifully attended mandatory sessions to study speeches by Chairman Mao, even failed to pass a Western-style property rights law because, in part, Party leftists felt the proposed legislation might enshrine private propertya clear socialist no-no.
What does this Marxist love-fest mean for a nation that has embraced capitalist reforms so energetically over the past two decades that it has consistently boasted annual growth rates of nearly 10%? Certainly, the administration of President Hu Jintao hasn't turned its back on the marketplace. But with nearly 240 protests a day erupting nationwide in 2005over everything from seizures of farmland and rising health care costs to environmental degradation and unaffordable educationthe country's leaders are trying to replace a no-holds-barred form of capitalism with a kinder, gentler version that takes better care of the country's have-nots.
The urban-rural income divide is at its widest since the People's Republic was founded in 1949, with farmers earning just one-third of what city dwellers do. To try to quell rising dissent, Hu has unveiled a massive New Deal for farmers, promising billions of dollars in central-government aid for "building a new socialist countryside." The reference to rural socialism was pure marketing magic; many farmers miss the good old days when nearly everyone was poorbut at least the state provided a safety net, known in China as an "iron rice bowl."
But in a country whose combination of capitalist economy and communist government has been a delicate balancing act, Hu's harkening back to socialist values could backfire, giving new life to a long-hibernating political faction. For years, as previous rulers Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin championed the market economy, a core of old-guard leftists in the Communist Party seethed. As long as China's economy grew and citizens traded in bicycles for fancy cars, though, they couldn't complain too loudly.
The nation's rising social inequalities and Hu's own call for rural socialism has finally given the old guard its opportunity. Last summer, leading Marxist economist Liu Guoguang fired a warning shot: "We must make sure leaders at every level are really Marxists, instead of having a red [communist] surface and white [capitalist] core." Then, noted Peking University law professor Gong Xiantian assailed the property law draft for "copying capitalist civil law like a slave."
Such critiques might not matter if Hu & Co. really were turning back the clock to 1950. But Maoist China is hardly what the current leaders are striving to replicate. "The new leadership is keen to promote this socialist banner because it recalls an era when there was no challenge to the Communist Party," says Joseph Cheng, a China-watcher at City University in Hong Kong. "With unrest rising all over China, they want a justification for their monopoly on political power."
To that effect, Hu has presided over a recent crackdown on the media and political dissidents, a campaign that hasn't spared leftist thinkers either. Shortly before the NPC began, three leading leftist websites were shut down, including one dedicated to promoting Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought. Last month, Lang Xianping, a popular TV commentator who characterized the sale of Chinese state assets as plundering national treasure, had the plug pulled on his show.
Says Cheng: "Even if the criticism comes from the left, it's still criticism, and the leadership will try to stop it at all costs." So even if the country isn't really reverting to socialism, there's at least one trait that Comrade Van Winkle will find familiar in this crop of Chinese leaders: a continuing aversion to dissent.