China in Transition

"Three Represents Theory" aims for "Peaceful Evolution"

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

Since the initiation of reform and open-door policies in the late 1970s, China has on the one hand maintained one-party rule by the Communist Party in politics, while treading the path to market economy in the economic sphere on the other. It has become an indisputable fact that the standard of living in China has sharply improved over the last two decades, but this has no doubt been the result of the abandonment, rather than the upholding, of socialism. Meanwhile, as the economy has developed, social values and interests have become more and more diverse, and formerly prevailing Communist ideology, championing the cause of class struggle, is now losing its centripetal force. In the midst of this new political, economic and social environment, the Communist Party has come to realize the need for a new form of legitimacy to perpetuate its one-party rule.

In the economic sphere, market economy has been widely introduced since President Deng Xiaoping's famous speech during his tour of Southern China in 1992. In 1993, the expressions "planned economy, state-run enterprises, communes" were deleted from the Constitution, and the Chinese economy entered a phase in which it could no longer be termed socialist. It was Deng's "Three Benefits Theory" that justified the introduction of such capitalist elements as the market economy. According to this theory, the criteria for judging whether something is capitalist or socialist should be whether it is beneficial to productivity development, enhancing the overall national strength, and improving the people's living standards. If something is beneficial in these senses, then it can be considered socialist. This is none other than a prime example of Deng's pragmatic approach, as characterized by the "White Cat, Black Cat Theory" - "It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice."

While the Three Benefits Theory has been widely applied in economic aspects, its application has yet to extend to political aspects. As China's market economy develops, capitalists has grown in number, and without the support of this burgeoning social force it has become difficult for the Communist Party to maintain its grip on power. It was in this context that President Jiang Zemin formally gave permission for party membership to be granted to capitalists in his address on the 80th anniversary of the formation of the Communist Party in July 2001. This was legitimized in a speech of key significance, known as the theory of the "Three Represents", which President Jiang delivered during his inspection tour of Guangdong Province in February 2000.

The Three Represents Theory emphasizes that it is the Communist Party that represents advanced productivity, advanced culture and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people of China. It represents a significant departure from the traditional Marxist dogma whereby the communist party is supposed to represent the proletariat only. If the Chinese Communist Party really were to become a party representative of all the people, by definition it would no longer be a communist party. Thus, rather than being a cosmetic reform, the Three Represents Theory may actually change the Communist Party fundamentally.

Until now, China has feared the "peaceful evolution" -- the overthrow of the socialist system in China by peaceful means -- initiated by the United States and other capitalist countries. In the same way as the peaceful evolution doctrine, the Three Represents Theory may attract criticism that it aims to change the nature of the Communist Party. However, China has reached a stage whereby economic reform can hardly proceed further without political reform. Thus taking Deng's Three Benefits Theory as the basis for judgment, it is fair to say that the Three Represents Theory is totally consistent with socialism, and the same logic probably also applies to the peaceful evolution doctrine.

August 23, 2002

August 23, 2002