Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

A previous post explains the phrase “…with Chinese characteristics” this way:

“…with Chinese characteristics” is a phrase used when China takes something (like socialism) and changes it to better suit China. Or, when the changes are so drastic that the thing actually becomes something else, “…with Chinese characteristics” is used to refer to the blatant incongruities between what a thing is labeled and what it really is.

But here’s a humourous example of said explanation in action:

GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) – At the door of the Commune Mess Hall restaurant, a young woman in loose-fitting army fatigues and a cap, with a red “Serve the People” armband and braided pigtails, greets customers.

“Welcome, Comrade! How many?” she chirps.

Huge portraits of Engels, Marx, Mao, Lenin and Stalin adorn a back wall and Chinese propaganda posters hang on pillars and side walls, showing chipper workers, peasants and soldiers toiling.

Blocky, red characters painted on the rafters implore: “Be self-reliant, work arduously” and “Use your own two hands to have ample food and clothing.”

The eatery here in the capital of the booming southern province of Guangdong is a throwback to the Mao era, modeled on the communes that dotted the countryside from the 1950s to 70s.

Staff dressed like the Red Guards of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution serve peasant fare. Revolutionary songs play in the background.

Scores of similar restaurants have opened around the country, recalling a turbulent period in China’s modern history that many remember with bitterness but which also evokes feelings of nostalgia for what some say was a simpler time.
Cong Fang, who said she was sent to the countryside with her parents as a child, was feeling nostalgic and advised a young waiter how to dress more authentically.

“Everything’s pretty accurate in here,” she said of the decor. “Except the air-conditioners.”

But is there contradiction in using the Communist imagery of the past to promote a capitalist cause, a private restaurant?

Wu, the manager of the Guangzhou restaurant, paused for a minute and then offered a politically correct answer.

“You can’t really call it capitalism,” he said. “It’s socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

It’s sometimes really hard to keep from thinking that, in China, the outside of the cup matters way more than its contents. And the anecdote above is the least among many that would seem to be in agreement. But I’m trying desperately to make sure that the assertiveness of any judgments matches the depth of my understanding. And for now, a rant about a deeply-seeded emphasis on superficiality in Chinese culture that privileges inauthenticity would be premature. But that doesn’t mean some days you don’t just want to go off. ;)

(ps – it’s 具有中国特色的社会主义, for you fellow language students.)

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