Is China entering Tito’s 1974 moment? A note on China and Yugoslavia

How could Yugoslav Marxist centers be relevant to understanding the development of today’s China? I’ve just noticed some surprising parallels between what’s going on in China and my own research on Yugoslavia, which I hope might help shed some new and unforeseen light on recent events. Namely, China’s recent rise to power had been accompanied by both state-interventions in curbing the accumulation of capital in sectors like IT (an episode likely to be remembered by young English teachers to Chinese students worldwide, who lost their markets and incomes) as well as inserting party cadres into SOE’s and private enterprises. This has been going on for several years now. For example, at a 2016 work conference, president Xi

called for establishing a “modern state-owned enterprise system with Chinese characteristics” and explained that what was meant by “Chinese characteristics” was “integrating the Party’s leadership into all aspects of corporate governance” and “clarifying” its legal status within the corporate governance structure. Around this time, hundreds of Chinese SOEs amended their corporate charters to codify a role for the Party in corporate governance—a requirement subsequently made binding on all SOEs under a January 2020 CCP regulation.

While, according to the same source, this year a similar thing was announced for the private sector, when,

On September 15, the General Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) issued the Opinion on Strengthening the United Front Work of the Private Economy in the New Era, calling on the nation’s United Front Work Departments (UFWDs) to increase CCP ideological work and influence in the private sector.

Hence, communist cells will be obligatory in both private and state enterprises, and they will be mostly tasked with decisions over cadre employment.

The latter goes hand in hand with inserting “Xi Jin Ping thought” into curriculae, as well as strengthening ideological education in party schools and the like. For example, the Central Committe has party schools for high-level cadres, government staff, SOE enterprise leaders, a school for international affairs and executive leadership. It administers about 4-5,000 cadre positions directly, while prefecture and prefecture-level cities manage their own. In addition to this, international conferences like the World Congress on Marxism have been taking place since late 2000’s in Beijing and were attended by international scholars like Samir Amin, Wolfgang Fritz Haug and the like, much like the once famous Yugoslav symposia at Cavtat, Croatia, in the eighties, now completely forgotten, where such figures like Samir and Haug have also met face to face in very, very different setting.

A similar thing happened in this part of the world, and it deserves some due attention. Namely, in Yugoslavia, 1974 was a pivotal year: the X congress just happened, bringing in a new constitution that gave higher powers to the republics as opposed to the federation; it instituted Vojvodina and Kosovo as autonomous provinces and gave them para-republican rights to their own police, finances and constitutions; while in the sphere of politics, Marxist centers were envisaged as a way to keep the ideological unity of the party, youth organizations and the working classes. But, more fundamentally, Tito had just finished his “confrontation with the liberals” — both rank-and-file as well as leading party cadres like Latinka Perović, Marko Nikezić, Mirko Čanadanović, Koča Popović, et al. — who were most often pro-Western oriented and pushed for liberalizing Yugoslavia’s markets. For some critiques, this had the added unintended consequence of destroying tech-savvy leading cadres within the Party, contributing to overall economic stagnation. But, on the political grounds, the new system of Marxist centers did contribute to educating the working classes, while warning of rising liberalism and making sure that the Party at least gets a message on ideological currents within Yugoslav society, which was part of the broad topics that these centers were tasked with researching. Whether the Party made actual any use of this or not, is another question, of course. But, be that as it may, in the eighties, the whole system (sometimes taking more % of GDP than contemporary scientific expenditure) entered into a crisis and became stagnant. The crisis of Marxist education follows an overall crisis of Yugoslav society, which followed an increase in the cost of credits after the Volcker shock, and the IMF’s subsequent involvement, etc. This is a complex story on its own, but one that nevertheless affected the forgotten system of Marxist education in Yugoslavia, that now failed to impact even the ruling party, which was basically a party of generals, policemen and directors at this point, as workers began to leave the party. Hence, unlike China today, membership of the Yugoslav communist party began to dwindle: members left the party in their thousands, mostly workers, and this happened in all provinces except for Kosovo where party membership was seen as a channel through which to combat the rise of Slobodan Milošević.

But, given that in Yugoslavia, the birth of the centers were marked by an internal crisis of the CPY, does it mean that in China this a symptom of its internal struggle and impeding doom? There may be many people who would like to see this happen, and who prophesize an early death for China’s communist party. But, here the answer should be a clear no, there is nothing of that Yugoslav experience in China here, and nothing of that sort should be expected, let alone celebrated. On the contrary. It is precisely in China that the world’s largest party, the Communist Party of China (around 96 million members) resides; and it still receives an annual sum of over 20 million applications for membership, which has even been increasing for a while. So, people are running into the arms of the party, and not away from it.
Moreover, according to Kjeld Erik Brødsgaard, there is less than 10% chance of anyone being admitted to the party, as criteria are made more strict. Moreover, China is run by millions of both party and non-party cadres or gànbù for civil-servants and administrative tasks, who are loyal to the party regardless of their official affiliation. Meaning that the education of both new recruits and non-party cadres is and will be of primary concern in the foreseeable future. However, they have a rank-grading system encompassing 27 ranks which are recognized nation-wide in China. This is a system that Yugoslavia never had, neither in the seventies nor before or after. Moreover, unlike China from Mao’s time, the sixties and seventies, according to Kjeld, they are younger and better education. Better education, of course, implies also Marxist education when it comes to these cadres, making a case in point that political education is being invested in, rather than stagnating, as in 1980’s Yugoslav society. Another line of demarcation is the international dimension of local Marxist education programs, that is, the presence or absence of their influence on the global playing stage. Namely, whereas Yugoslav Marxist centers were mostly aimed at internal worker’s and cadre/youth education and only has international influence through the Cavtat meetings of global Marxists in Croatia (or, to a lesser extent, Tito-s political school in Kumrovec where luminaries like Eric Hobsbawm used to lecture), China’s insertion of party cadres into enterprises can have a direct international effect, according to one opinion:

China’s efforts to formalize CCP control of its commercial sector will have significant ramifications for international trade, forcing more liberal market economies to decide how much state intervention they are willing to tolerate in their trading partners. It will also call into question many of the existing rules and assumptions underlying the multilateral trading order. The fact that China has released this opinion at a time of heightened U.S. scrutiny over the government’s links to Huawei and TikTok suggests that China feels confident enough in its system that it is now prepared to advance and defend it on the global stage.

So, an interesting parallel is that this occurred in both states, and it occurred in both states at a very specific moment as they liberalized and became integrated in the Western market-imperium — both were political reactions of a party threatened from too much liberalization in the economy and both had somewhat of an influence over the economy, albeit a more direct influence in China’s case, and a more globally relevant influence, too. On the other hand, China lack’s such a decentralized system of Marxist centers that Yugoslavia had. But, all differences aside, it could, in my view, still be said that a parallel movement occurred in both countries, but in a different form, suited to their own needs and aspirations. One could only speculate where it could lead to, but the Yugo-China perspective offers at least an interesting point of view with some interesting question.

So are we to understand this as a way for the CPC to hold on to power? Or is this a kind of necessary knee-jerk reaction in socialist societies of the past or the future, and how is this double dynamic to be understood? Leaving aside purely historical reminiscences, this offers many opportunities for comparison between China and Yugoslavia, where the party experienced essentially the same ideological reengagement with society after market liberalization in the 1960s and 1970s on the one hand, and in late 2000’s on the other. In both countries, the parties had a renewed push for Marxist education, and both did so after market liberalization. That was very interesting to me and got me thinking about some ways to compare. Will China be able to do what Yugoslavia failed to do in the 1980s and actually ensure that the system of Marxist education does not fail? Or, can it achieve anything beyond educating the masses in party dogma? Perhaps the biggest question here is whether it will actually lead to a more egalitarian and emancipatory potential for the masses of youth, cadres, and workers, while at least spreading some critical thinking. Or whether it will only help the party to manage the economy in a more decentralized but ideology-oriented way. Either way, the system of Marxist education, though ridiculed in both cases, can actually have an impact once it’s put on a mass scale, and in both cases it was intended to do so. We now know that in Yugoslavia it collapsed, or rather was destroyed, in the 1990s along with the rest of the country after a period of general stagnation. Where China’s case will lead remains to be seen, and there are indications, as noted above, that the course it takes may be very different from that of the Yugoslav experience.

Aleksandar Matković


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