For outsiders, China has always been a mysterious and mystifying country, and present-day China is no exception. Much of today’s confusion, however, revolves around a specific question: is China a Communist country? Has it instead become a capitalist country? Or is it something else? The confusion is augmented by the fact that one can argue coherently for diametrically opposed answers.

For instance, one can reasonably claim that China is a communist country because it’s led by a Communist Party, while the Chinese political system retains distinctively Leninist elements: any substantial institution in the country will have a party secretary working on the inside who reports to a parallel and external party structure and who is more interested in identifying threats to the party than dealing with issues of quality, efficiency or profitability.

On the other hand, in 1992 the 14th National Congress of China’s Communist Party declared the goal of China’s economic reforms to be the establishment of a “socialist market economy.” That’s right: a socialist market economy. Then, in 2001, President Jiang Zemin decided to accept private business owners, i.e., capitalists, into the Party. In 2017 the Xinhua News Agency, China’s official state-run press agency, reported that the country’s private sector generates over 60 percent of China’s GDP and is responsible for more than 80 percent of its jobs. It thus comes as no surprise that Business Insider published an article titled, “How China went from Communist to Capitalist.”

So what is China? Communist or capitalist?

In the process of investigating this significant question, SIGNAL was granted interviews with scholars from the Academy of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) based in Beijing, one of the premier intellectual institutions in the country. In our sit-down interviews, the CASS scholars all began with an important distinction: China defines itself as a socialist country that is led by a Communist party. What’s more, the country doesn’t practice socialism, rather, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” While these definitions in some important ways obscure more than they reveal, the ambiguity performs an important function: creating space for present-day China to develop and participate on the global stage without having to kowtow to a strict ideological program, as was the case in Mao’s days.

That said, such semantic acrobatics generate another fundamental question: how can the ideological demands of communism be rendered non-obligatory without rendering communism completely meaningless?

In thinking about how China’s Communist Party tolerates ideological compromises while remaining committed to that same ideology, it’s helpful to consider communism not only as a political program but also as a secular form of messianism. This might sound strange at first hearing, yet it’s hardly original: A number of Western scholars have analyzed the messianic character of the secular, redemptive visions that animated 20th-century Communist movements. What’s relevant for present purposes, however, is that messianism comes in different forms, and a fundamental distinction can be made between messianism that aims to generate utopia in the here and now and messianism that believes in the realization of the redemptive vision in the indefinite future. China during Mao’s rule, and China after Mao’s rule, can be distinguished by the types of “political messianism” to which they subscribed.

Communist China under Mao instituted a command economy and aimed to realize communism’s redemptive vision in the here and now ̶ to realize the messianic utopia in the present. Under such conditions, there was no possibility for compromise. Ideology reigned supreme, determining not only policy but also the criteria for political appointments. Advancement within the system wasn’t based upon professional excellence but ideological commitment, especially during the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Moreover, ideological commitment also influenced China’s foreign relations. Note how Khrushchev’s policy of peaceful co-existence with the U.S. was criticized by Mao as a form of Marxist revisionism.

It is possible that in his waning years Mao began to realize just how disastrous his utopian politics were proving to be and in 1972 agreed to meet Richard Nixon. When Deng Xiaoping then assumed power in 1978, the realization of the communist vision was pushed off into the distant future as Deng instituted the economic reforms known as “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,” with the aim of opening up the Chinese economy. During SIGNAL’s sit-down with Prof. Jin Minqing, the deputy director of the Academy of Marxism at CASS, Prof. Jin patiently explained how the ultimate goal of communism is the full and free development of every human being, but that this is a process. Likewise, when asked how the “socialist” reality in present-day China remains consistent with the communist vision, Professor Chen Jianbo, also from CASS, explained that, “What China is living through today is socialism, one of the stages in the transition to communism. China is in the primary stage of socialism; everything China does is in order to achieve the goal. China can adapt market policies as a means for preparing conditions for communism.”

Communism, however, doesn’t only serve as the ultimate goal for China’s vanguard party. It performs two additional and important functions. First, communism constitutes the country’s foundation, insofar as the Communists led the way to China’s independence and unified the country after a century and a half of “national humiliation” and 27 years of chaotic civil war.

In addition, Marxism functions as a tool for criticizing Western liberal democracies. Take, for example, how a 2011 article from “The People’s Daily,” the premier CCP publication, criticized the United States under the Obama administration:

For a long time, U.S. politics have been firmly tied to the oligarchs of Wall Street. The Democrats and President Obama are maybe even more dependent than the Republicans on economic support from the financial oligarchy of Wall Street.

Even if China’s ruling party uses communist ideology in determining the country’s ultimate goal, celebrating the regime’s foundation, and in criticizing the West, one is still left to wonder how much of this is relevant for China’s intellectual culture. How many people still believe in communism as a system, or as a vision?

Daniel A. Bell is the dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University and author of The China Model, a superb examination of how China’s political system actually works. In his 2010 article, “From Communism to Confucianism: Changing Discourses on China’s Political Future,” the Canadian-born Bell begins by wondering about the overall absence of Marxism from Chinese intellectual discourse. Why, if communism is so central to China’s political system, “isn’t (Marxism) being discussed?” After exploring different possible answers, from “political constraints” to “the tendency to avoid utopian theorizing” to “the worry that talking about communism … reduces the likelihood of achieving it,” Bell concludes that “the main reason Chinese officials and scholars do not talk about communism is that hardly anybody really believes that Marxism should provide guidelines for thinking about China’s political future.”

Is Bell’s assertion correct? He buttresses his claim regarding the marginal status of communism by arguing that the deep principles of Chinese society remain what they have always been—namely, Confucian. For example, those parts of Marxism that took hold in Chinese society, such as, “The importance of material well-being and an aversion to otherworldly outlooks,” resonated with the country’s Confucian roots, while those parts of the CPP program that didn’t resonate in Chinese society, “Such as the attempt to replace family ties with ties to the state,” failed because they cut against the grain of Confucian values.

Interestingly, the founder and first Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew, advanced a similar claim about the irresistible force of traditional Chinese culture in his 2000 memoir, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story–1965-2000:

Mao wanted to remake China. Like the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shihuang, who had burnt all the books of the time to wipe out what had gone before, Mao wanted to erase the old China and paint a new one. But Mao was painting on an old Chinese picture imbedded in mosaic; the rains would come, Mao’s paint would be washed off, and the mosaic would reappear. Mao had only lifetime and did not have the time or power to erase over 4,000 years of Chinese history, tradition, culture and literature. Even if all the books were burnt, the proverbs and sayings would survive in the folk memory of the people. Mao was doomed to fail.

In light of Bell’s analysis and Lee’s insight, perhaps our original question needs to be reframed. In addition to wondering if China is capitalist or communist, we should also wonder if it’s still Confucian! And in fact, communist, capitalist, and Confucian currents can be identified in statements by China’s present-day leader, Xi Jinping, a telling indicator that these three different strands all contribute to animating Chinese society.

In Xi’s speeches, Marxist statements remain front and center. For instance, on Nov. 15, 2012, the day that Xi ascended to the position of the General Secretary of the Party, he addressed the historic role played by China’s Communist Party in unifying the country and creating the conditions for China’s subsequent growth, “Countless people with lofty ideas rose up for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, but each time they failed. After it was founded in 1921 the Communist Party of China rallied and led the Chinese people in making great sacrifices … and transforming poor and backward China into an increasingly prosperous and strong nation.” Then, two days later, addressing the first group study session of the Political Bureau of the 18th CPC Central Committee, Xi emphasized the same point, “We should not abandon Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought; otherwise, we would be deprived of our foundation.”

That said, while emphasizing the CCP’s role in the founding the modern state of China, Xi took pains during the same Nov. 17 address to push the realization of the communist vision into the indefinite future, thereby creating space for “reform and development,” i.e., capitalistic policies that still bear the name of socialism, “It is important to stress the basic foundation of China being in the primary stage of socialism. … We must always bear in mind and promote reform and development in all respects on the basis of this very reality. … Freeing and developing the productive forces is a fundamental task of Chinese socialism.”

While Xi Jinping roots Chinese government policy in Marxism combined with pragmatic economic openness, he also makes room for Confucianism. For instance, in a 2013 speech “to outstanding young representatives from all walks of life,” Xi followed an exhortation to China’s future leaders to “innovate and create,” by grounding the innovative impulse in … traditional Chinese culture! Said Xi, “Innovation is the soul driving the nation’s progress. It is also an essential part of the Chinese character. This is what Confucius meant when he said, ‘If you can in one day renovate yourself, do so from day to day. Yea, let there be daily renovation.’ ” What’s more, in the same year, in a speech to the Central Party School, Xi made a broad appeal to learn Chinese traditional culture, “Leading officials should also study … traditional Chinese culture, to develop wisdom and become more refined. Traditional Chinese culture is both extensive and profound.” Anodyne? For sure, yet coming from Xi, still very significant.

However, even after we accept that China is constituted by a combination of communist, capitalistic and Confucian elements, we are left to wonder: how do these elements cohere in contemporary Chinese society? From a Western perspective, they don’t. That’s not surprising, either. When viewed from a Chinese perspective, they meld with an overarching syncretic and dynamic Chinese aspiration to “harmony.” This traditional Chinese virtue emphasizes finding commonalities instead of highlighting distinctions, especially when to comes to politics. It’s not the Chinese way to order the political sphere with Cartesian precision. It proceeds, instead, like the meandering streams and rivers painted by the artists of China’s “Shan Shui” tradition: the pathway in the painting always leads to a clearly defined threshold, but the way to the threshold is never straight.

Ultimately, while SIGNAL’s inquiry failed to deliver a clear answer to our question regarding the communist or capitalist character of Chinese society, the investigation did remind us of the stark divide between Chinese and Western thinking. Whereas the latter tends to expect unequivocal answers, the former is very comfortable with irreconcilable contrasts. Seeing China as it sees itself and vice versa is the first step in recognizing our own mental framework.1 And that small slice of self-knowledge is no small accomplishment.

Aryeh Tepper is a SIGNAL Senior Research Fellow and Fellow at the Center for Israel Studies at Ben Gurion University, where he also teaches.