Chinese Premier Li Keqiang may be among those pushing back against radical economic policies. Photo: AFP

If the headlines are to be believed, the discontent generated by China’s “dynamic zero-Covid policy” has the “core” of the leadership on the back foot. 

In the run-up to the 20th Party Congress, when Xi Jinping is widely expected to be confirmed as president for a third term, factional interests within the Communist Party of China (CPC) – led by “economic czar” Premier Li Keqiang – are apparently pushing back.

Even Xi’s signature campaign, “common prosperity,” has been put on the back burner. 

Hailed by some as a return to the party’s “original mission” and maligned by others for precisely the same reason, “common prosperity” unleashed a whirlwind of regulatory activity starting last summer. Diverse sectors were targeted, from private education and big tech to what would have been the biggest IPO (initial public offering) in history. 

But as the risk of an economic crisis mounts, the term has fallen off the map in recent months. 

At the end of May, Premier Li held a videoconference with 100,000 cadres, emphasizing the need to prioritize growth. Dozens of stimulus measures have been introduced favoring tax cuts over redistribution. Local governments are said to be siding with employers over labor. 

And in what would be a remarkable U-turn, Beijing is reportedly considering a revival of the Ant IPO, part of billionaire Jack Ma’s business empire – a sure sign that growth, not equity, is back in command. Or so we are told.

The reality may have more to do with how “common prosperity” was viewed in the first place. 

Back in September 2021, the British Broadcasting Corporation published an article framing “common prosperity” as Xi’s effort to return China to socialism. Other media outlets, from the South China Morning Post to The Wall Street Journal, also portrayed “common prosperity” as evidence of the CPC embracing its past

The idea also gained traction on the left. For some socialists, “common prosperity” is all the proof they need that China is indeed shifting toward more avowedly radical politics. Even David Harvey, one of the most well-known Marxist academics in the Western world and a critic of Beijing in the past, has asked if “common prosperity” points to a “fundamental transformation.”

What “common prosperity” eventually develops into will be decided by a complex set of factors, from the challenge of bureaucratic and factional interests to the struggles of ordinary Chinese. But as things currently stand, the idea it even nominally marks a return to the ethos of 20th-century state socialism speaks more to the imagination than anything else.

If this in any way surprises you, then frankly you haven’t been paying attention to what Chinese officials have themselves been saying. Xi may be portrayed as the second coming of Mao, but the Chinese leader is probably a lot more pragmatic than dominant media narratives tend to suggest. 

In a speech on common prosperity last August, Xi warned against “rigid egalitarianism.” Even in the future, when China reaches a higher level of development, he said the party must steer clear of the “trap” of “welfarism.” 

In recent months English-language media outlets have relished the prospect of a rift between President Xi and Premier Li. The latter is portrayed as the reasonable economic liberal, the former a raging dogmatist hell-bent on turning the clock back to the 1960s. “Common prosperity” and China’s zero-Covid strategy, they argue, are first and foremost driven by politics, not reason. And maybe, just maybe, Li is here to save the day? 

Or maybe not.

On an official trip to Sichuan last week, Xi stressed the need for economic and social stability, repeating the line pushed by Li in recent weeks. Zero-Covid is here to stay, he told cadres, but local governments also need to prioritize the economy and protect livelihoods. Hardly earth-shattering stuff, but the messaging of the two was strikingly in sync. 

A similar approach of balancing multiple, competing interests is clear in “common prosperity.” 

The goal, according to Xi, is to reduce inequality to “appropriate” levels. This will not be achieved overnight, but over the course of decades. 

Pressure will be put on big business to donate to charity, but a genuinely redistributive taxation system is not in the cards. Neither is a nationwide property tax, though trials will continue. 

State-owned firms are certainly going to prosper, with many of the benefits that brings. The “disorderly expansion” of capital still needs to be reined in. But the commodification of labor will continue into the horizon. And incomes need to be raised not as an end in itself, but to boost consumption. 

The goal is not to democratize the workplace and empower decision-making at the grass roots, where local authorities can be punitive without accountability, but to promote social stability and create an “olive-shaped” society – code for the middle class. 

If this hardly sounds like the stuff of 21st-century Maoism, that’s because it isn’t – not even close.

Instead, “common prosperity” is the latest incarnation of developments in China since the beginning of the century when the government of president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao was forced to introduce pro-welfare policies in response to growing social unrest triggered by the reforms. 

The difference now is that the stakes are much higher. China’s export-led growth model, which for decades relied on seemingly limitless pools of cheap, exploitable labor and strong demand from overseas markets, is no longer sustainable. 

As is widely accepted, the country is in a race against time to transition to an entirely different growth model. Failure to do so risks a future of dependent development, with the middle-income trap looming large. The continued accumulation of capital remains the primary objective, albeit with modest proposals of redistribution.

Paying careful attention to the acute challenges China faces, and how the government responds to them, is a more fruitful exercise than imposing well-established but ultimately cliched formulas on political developments that simply do not correspond to reality.

So why do we continue to do this?

There are no easy answers, but it speaks to a broader problem.

“Our ‘Chinese’ problem in the West is that China in the minds of people,” wrote the political scientists Flemming Christiansen and Shirin Rai back in the late 1990s, has “oscillated between utopia and the dungeons of hell.” 

China is derided as the “sick man of Asia” or a “repressive communist regime,” they added, or championed as a “great civilization” or “socialist alternative.” 

Binaries of this kind make for entertaining Hollywood films, but it is past time to demolish them. They say more about the West than anything taking place in China, both on the ground and within the party state.

Daniel Alan Bey is a postgraduate student based in Suzhou, China. Follow him on Twitter @dabcule.