Many have been commenting on the fraternal rhetoric China showered on the DPRK during the recent successful visit of Kim Jong-un to Beijing. During a meeting between the leaders of two countries whose Communist and Juche systems are related due to their shared Marxist foundations, there was great talk of shared socialist values and developmental systems as a sign of consistent friendship between the two states, in spite of an obvious distance in recent years between Pyongyang and Beijing that was only broken this week.
But while some have called the meeting a kind of return to the communism of the past, the reality could not be further from the truth. In Xinhua’s official report of the meeting it was said,
“The two parties and countries have supported each other and coordinated with each other during long-term practices, making great contributions to the development of the socialist cause”.
Crucially, when President Xi outlined four areas where the two countries can further enhance their relations, the third point offers a key insight into the modernising characteristics of both Xi and Kim,
“Thirdly, actively advance peaceful development. Socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, and the DPRK’s socialist construction has also ushered in a new historical period. We are ready to make joint efforts with the DPRK side, conform to the trend of the times, hold high the banner of peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit, continuously improve the wellbeing of the two peoples, and make positive contribution to regional peace, stability and development”.
Here, not only has Xi Jinping praised the vast economic reforms (woefully under-reported as they are) and infrastructural projects that have occurred in the DPRK under Kim Jong-un, but he has compared Kim’s reformist programme to his own official Thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era. As Xi Jinping thought is rightly considered a pioneering canon of ideas that serve as a tool for modern, progressive development in a socialist society, Xi’s statement about Kim’s reforms is totally antithetical to the narrative that much of western mainstream media spews, which seeks to paint the DPRK as an ‘throwback Stalinist’ society.
Of course, when the US invades a country in the name of regime change as Donald Trump threatened to do to North Korea as recently as September of 2017, the US tends to install neo-liberal regimes in place of those which were vanquished by American forces. China’s clear insurance of the DPRK’s safety in exchange for Pyongyang’s commitments to long-term peace are a guarantee that US led regime change will not occur in North Korea. Instead, what is likely to happen is intensified economic modernisation.
However, while in the US and European vernacular “economic modernisation” is still a euphemism for a turn towards neo-liberalism, in the rest of the world, it is neo-liberalism that is considered antiquated, no longer useful and ultimately a failed experiment.
While the economic reforms that Deng Xiaoping initiated in China beginning in 1978 modified traditional Maoist thought and in so doing increased the forces of private economic initiative in Chinese society, today’s China which has been built on both Deng and Mao’s ideas, in addition to more recent reforms by Xi, is anything but neo-liberal. China’s regulation of its markets, its monetary policy, restrictions (by western standards) on the inflow and outflow of capital and its market socialist system which retains a great deal of the profits of industry and re-invests them into society, is the antithesis to the corporate driven neo-liberalism of the ‘wild, wild, west’.
While many both on the left and right point to the fact that China’s economy is dramatically different from how it was during the Mao era, such critics are typically guilty of failing to point out that while China turned away from orthodox agrarian socialism, it did not become an American style capitalist system either.
Today, throughout the developing world and beyond, hybrid economic systems are increasingly favoured above the dogmas of a completely communistic or completely neo-liberal system. While many in the US have cheered what they see as the death of ‘traditional communist command economies’, their celebrations ought to be short-lived as the neo-liberal orthodoxy of the west is equally if not more out of fashion throughout much of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Those who want the DPRK or China to revert to the 1950s are going to be disappointed in what’s in store for Sino-Korean relations. More importantly, those who want North Korea to become a neo-liberal ‘paradise’ for western corporations are going to be even more disappointed. Pyongyang under Kim Jong-un has already embraced reforms which are best described as early stage market socialism with Juche characteristics. China’s seemingly inevitable course of intensifying relations with the DPRK combined with Russia’s overt willingness to engage in the tripartite economic cooperation scheme between Seoul, Pyongyang and Moscow that Russian President Putin proposed in 2017, will only further hammer home the reality that a 21st century DPRK will look and feel like the 21st century.
Many in the west will sooner or later have to admit that their system of neo-liberalism, like extreme communism are two systems which look and feel like relics from a recent 20th century past. China and the DPRK acknowledge this, it is only the US hanging on to what was rather than embracing what is.