Seeking Truth from Facts: The Secret to the Success of China’s Policy-Making

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2013-02-19 10:51
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To understand a country as complicated as China, one must delve into China’s complex national conditions, history, and national policies, and seek to identify both the core elements affecting change in the country and the key forces influencing its long-term development. China’s huge social progress is the result of constant efforts to understand China, to draw plans for China, to develop China, and to transform China. It is the result of a perpetual process of practice, policy-making, appraisal, and adjustment which has played out since the beginning of efforts to establish socialism in what was an underdeveloped Oriental nation. The history of the People’s Republic of China tells us that no success is greater than the formulation of a good overall strategy, while no failure is greater than the formulation of a bad one. Any attempt to identify the “China road” or summarize the “China experience” must begin with an examination into the success of China’s policy-making.

Deng Xiaoping once said, “Just as in the past we achieved all the victories in our revolution by following this principle (of seeking truth from facts), so today we must rely on it in our effort to accomplish the four modernizations.” Representing a major achievement in the adaptation of Marxism to suit conditions in China, and being the quintessence and soul of Mao Zedong Thought, seeking truth from facts is the ideology, the organizational line, the core values, and the paramount principle that the CPC adheres to in its policy-making activities. 

In summarizing the experiences and lessons of China’s policy-making, Hu Jintao pointed out that above all else, the reason why we made mistakes at certain points in the past, and even encountered serious setbacks, was because the guiding principles we adhered to at those times were detached from the realities in China. In addition, he also pointed out that above all else, the reason why the Party, drawing on its own strength and that of the people, was able to correct its mistakes, overcome its setbacks, and forge ahead triumphantly, was because it reasserted its commitment to the principle of seeking truth from facts. Past experience clearly indicates that if we are able to uphold the principle of seeking truth from facts, the likelihood is that we will make the right policies; whereas if we are unable to uphold this principle, the likelihood is that we will make the wrong ones. Seeking truth from facts is the policy-making philosophy of the CPC, and the secret to the success of China’s policy-making.

The characters for “seeking truth from facts,” inscribed by Mao Zedong during the Yan’an rectification movement of 1942. / Xinhua

Seeking truth from facts is the unique policy-making philosophy of the CPC 

The Constitution of the CPC clearly states that the Party’s ideological line is to proceed from reality in handling all matters, to integrate theory with practice, to seek truth from facts, and to verify and develop the truth through practice. It says that all Party members are required to adhere to this ideological line, explore new approaches, boldly experiment with new methods, be enterprising and innovative, work creatively, constantly assess new developments, review new experiences, solve new problems, enrich and develop Marxism in practice, and advance the endeavor to adapt Marxism to Chinese conditions. 

There is no governing political party in the West that has been able to do what the CPC has done: to define a policy-making philosophy in the form of a supreme political document. Taking the recently held national conventions of the Republican Party and Democratic Party of the United States for example, we can see that these events revolved around one thing: “running for the presidency.” That is to say, the purpose of each party’s convention was to present an “election program” for the presidency, and to choose a presidential nominee and his running mate (candidates for the vice-president). The only measure of success for a party’s convention is to have its candidates “elected.” This is a typical feature of bourgeois politicians. There is a saying in the West: “A politician thinks about the next elections—the statesman thinks about the next generations.”

No governing party in the world except the CPC has the experience of combining the most enduring search for a policy-making philosophy with the policy-making practice of the largest scale. 

This dictates the uniqueness of seeking truth from facts as a policy-making philosophy. Being both unique and highly original, seeking truth from facts is a policy-making philosophy with distinctly Chinese characteristics. As a policy-making philosophy, it represents a meeting point between theory and practice, a vividly rendered epistemology and methodology, and an action guide for the CPC in policy-making. Moreover, seeking truth from facts is the theoretical sum of China’s experiences in policy-making, representing an original theoretical achievement. Western scholars are accustomed to interpreting China using Western conceptual models, with some even believing that seeking truth from facts is a localized form of Western pragmatism. This not only shows that they lack a clear understanding of themselves, but also demonstrates the bias with which they typically view China.  

The policy-making philosophy of seeking truth from facts can be attributed to three sources 

Mao Zedong classically defined seeking truth from facts as follows: “facts” refers to all things that exist objectively in the world; “truth” refers to the intrinsic links that exist between objective things, or in other words, objective laws; and “seeking” refers to the act of identifying these laws through the process of study. 

The policy-making philosophy of seeking truth from facts has three important sources: classical Chinese philosophy, Marxism, and Mao Zedong Thought. 

First, seeking truth from facts both draws from and transcends classical Chinese philosophy. In this sense, it is a historical concept. On one hand, seeking truth from facts has drawn from and remodeled the idea of “rule by the Tao” in classical Chinese philosophy. Advocating the grasping of objective laws during the process of development, seeking truth from facts has actively discarded the idealistic and metaphysical aspects of classical policy-making philosophies and clearly defined that the basis for “seeking truth” must be “facts.” In other words, decisions must be based on ample understanding and consideration of objective facts. This is an embodiment of the Marxist principle of proceeding from facts in everything, and it is able to avoid the randomness and misuse that are associated with “rule by the Tao.” On the other hand, seeking truth from facts has overhauled the explanatory philosophy of classical Chinese thought, which was attached to feudal politics, by freeing policy-making philosophy from the role of providing justification for feudal rule and safeguarding feudal authority, and turning it into an action philosophy and practice philosophy for contemporary China in its revolution, construction and reforms.

Second, seeking truth from facts has inherited and built on the principles of Marxism. In this sense, it is a scientific concept. Marxism is a science. Its historical materialism and materialist dialectics have laid down an epistemological and methodological foundation for seeking truth from facts. Marxism holds that the first nature of science is objectivity. Seeking truth from facts demands that policy makers respect objective national conditions, act according to local conditions, and do the right thing at the right time. In other words, it demands that policy makers adhere to the principle of scientific policy-making. In a certain sense, the process of adapting Marxism to suit Chinese conditions has revolved around the formation and development of the idea of seeking truth from facts. The very essence of adapting Marxism to suit Chinese conditions is to combine the universal truths of Marxism with China’s revolution, development, and reforms in an attempt to identify a scientific philosophy that can be used to guide China. 

Third, seeking truth from facts is the quintessence and soul of Mao Zedong Thought. In this sense, it is a developing concept. The two basic principles of Mao Zedong Thought are the dialectic unity of theory and practice and the dialectic unity of subjectivity and objectivity. On one hand, seeking truth from facts is a policy-making philosophy that emphasizes retrospection, believing that in making policy decisions one must continuously study new conditions, summarize new experiences, and solve new problems along with the development of practice and objective changes. On the other hand, seeking truth from facts believes in the evolution of policy-making, holding that correct policy decisions are not made in one go, but through a continuously repeating process. On this basis it advocates that one must properly balance the dialectic relations between relative truth and absolute truth, and between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. Viewing truth as a developing concept dictates that policy-making must be viewed as a developing process. Meanwhile, seeking truth from facts is also a people-oriented policy-making philosophy. Mao Zedong pointed out that the most important aspect of Marxist philosophy does not lie in understanding the laws of the objective world, and thus being able to explain it, but in applying the knowledge of these laws actively to change the world. One of the greatest contributions to Marxism made in the adaption of Marxist theories to suit China has been to further emancipate the factor of “people” by stressing the significance of subjective initiative during the policy-making process. This transcends the basic principle of proceeding from reality alone in all endeavors. In Deng Xiaoping’s words, this is what we refer to as the “emancipation of the mind.” In order to give play to subjective activity, a policy maker is required to adhere to the principle of emancipating the mind. Emancipating the mind is a prerequisite for seeking truth from facts, and seeking truth from facts is an inherent requirement for emancipating the mind. To make a decision in line with the principle of seeking truth from facts does not mean that one is taking measures without considering changes in circumstances, nor does it mean that we can rest on our laurels once that decision has been made. On the contrary, seeking truth from facts is a concept that pertains to constant development and constant renewal.  

How are policy decisions made according to the philosophy of seeking truth from facts? 

Seeking truth from facts is a historical concept, a scientific concept, and a developing concept. Therefore, only by adhering to a historical, scientific and developing approach to decision making, and ensuring that we proceed from China’s realities in everything, can we make policy decisions that accord to the philosophy of seeking truth from facts. Then, what is the methodology for this kind of policy-making? The answer does not come from a text book, but from experience in policy-making, from the experience of the people, and from local experience. On this basis, we can sum up this methodology in three aspects:

First, true knowledge comes from practice. This refers to the fact that knowledge and theory come from practice, and must also be applied in practice. Mao Zedong said, “Knowledge begins with practice, and theoretical knowledge is acquired through practice and must then return to practice. The active function of knowledge manifests itself not only in the active leap from perceptual to rational knowledge, but—and this is more important—it must manifest itself in the leap from rational knowledge to revolutionary practice.” Practice is both the criterion for verifying truth and correctness and the criterion for verifying falsehoods and mistakes. Therefore, in the course of policy-making, we need to attach great importance to the application of policies/trials in practice. The success of contemporary China can primarily be attributed to the importance that has been attached to practice. China has become the most active and creative practitioner of policies in the world.

Second, policies come from the people. This refers to the fact that policy decisions come from the people, and must return to the people again. This was the basic method of leadership advocated by Mao Zedong. The policies of the Party are guidelines under which the Party leads the people in taking action. A good policy should reflect the social situation, comply with the aspirations of the people, and conform to popular will. Therefore, we need to fully listen to the opinions of the people during the decision making process. This is what we refer to as “consulting the people.” At the same time, we need to adapt to the needs of the people to the greatest extent. This is what we refer to as “asking the people what they need.” In its policy-making activities, the CPC strives to gather as much information as possible, channel as much wisdom as possible, and represent as many opinions as possible, so as to turn the aspirations, demands, and interests of the people into a means of action that can be put into practice. Unlike in the West, where policy-making power is yielded, democratic participation in China involves the all-round participation of the people in the policy-making process. China has developed brand new experience with regard to achieving a dialectic unity between scientific policy-making and democratic policy-making. 

Third, decisions originate locally. This refers to the fact that policy decisions are made locally, and must be implemented locally. This was the methodology that Deng Xiaoping advocated for China’s reforms. Making policies in a country as large, as populous, and as developmentally unbalanced as China, one not only has to deal with the significant uncertainty, dissymmetry, and incompleteness of information and knowledge, but must also assume all manner of political, social, and economic risks. It is impossible to govern China with one kind of innovation, one model, one policy, or one standard. This dictates that local authorities, who have access to more information, are closer to the people, and who are more familiar with local conditions, should be given greater power and room to maneuver in policy-making. Local policy-making should become the “springhead” of policy-making by the central authorities, whose decisions should be made on the basis of having integrated local policies from around the country.

These three aspects constitute the methodology of seeking truth from facts. They are not only interlinking and interactive, but also embody an inherent logical relationship: a particular kind of social practice results in a particular kind of social theory; and a particular kind of social theory guides the development of a particular kind of social practice. All three of these aspects can be found throughout the process of historical, scientific, and developing policy-making, progressing constantly as the policy-making process goes on. Both theory and practice involve risks, and there is no such thing as automatic success. Under many circumstances failure is a common occurrence. This is very similar to the practice of repeated experimentation in natural science, in which new discoveries and new successes always come after many failures. Scientific policy-making is not about not making mistakes, but about making fewer mistakes, and learning from failures. In particular, it is about avoiding the repetition of past mistakes and blunders, and being good at achieving greater success from fewer failures.

A policy-making philosophy is a philosophy of making comprehensive policies. Seeking truth from facts is not an isolated policy-making philosophy, but a collection of ideas on policy-making. In order to be able to seek the truth from facts, we must perform a penetrating analysis of the ideological connotations of seeking truth from facts and strengthen the development of systems, mechanisms, and talent in policy-making. Then, how do we strengthen the development of systems and mechanisms in policy-making? And how do we guarantee successful policy-making whilst also ensuring that mistakes are able to be promptly corrected?

There are two foundations of seeking truth from facts: investigation and study; and democratic centralism. These are fine traditions that the Party has held to in its policy-making activities over a long period of time. They also constitute the basic method and the core mechanism of policy-making activities. Much like the policy-making philosophy of seeking truth from facts, they are also original approaches to policy-making that China has created, being the product of our long-term experiences in revolution, development, and reforms.

Firstly, investigation and study. Investigation and study embody the values of scientific policy-making. Deng Xiaoping said that one only has the right to speak after he has conducted investigation and study. We must proceed from objective realities in raising issues, summarizing experiences, and working out policies, regardless of whether we are in a meeting, making a proposal, or drafting a document. This is what seeking truth from facts is about. The CPC has always regarded investigation and study as the prerequisite for all policy-making efforts. In his essay “Oppose Book Worship,” Mao Zedong said, “Investigation may be likened to the long months of pregnancy, and solving a problem to the day of birth. To investigate a problem is, indeed, to solve it.” A correct strategy can only come from practical experience, and from investigation and study. Chen Yun said the hardest thing about making a decision is getting the facts straight first. Ninety percent of our time should be devoted to studying the situation, and ten percent to making a decision. Only then will a policy decision be well founded. 

There are two basic characteristics of investigation and study:

First, investigation and study emphasize the mass line. In order to do a good job of investigation and study, we need to be truly in touch with the people. The people play the principal role in creating history and engaging in social practice. Seeking truth from facts is a historically materialistic policy-making philosophy that is based around the people. Only by recognizing the experiences of the people and channeling their wisdom is it possible to point out the right way forward. Where the experiences and opinions of the people are discarded, not even the most talented of leaders will be able to lead well. The mass line is an effective means of preventing dogmatism and subjectivism. Getting into communities, ascertaining the situation among the people, and “from the masses, to the masses” constitute the basic methods for investigation and study.

Second, investigation and study emphasize a developing approach to policy-making. Given that facts are constantly changing, developing, and progressing, the search for the truth must also keep up with the pace of progress. Seeking truth from facts is a policy-making philosophy that takes changing national conditions as its object of study. This means that it is a dialectical, materialist policy-making philosophy. Mao Zedong said that our investigation will be a long-term one. He also said that we are the ones conducting investigations today, but in the future, it will be our sons and our grandsons, and only this way will we be able to constantly understand new things and obtain new knowledge.

Secondly, democratic centralism. Democratic centralism embodies the values of democratic policy-making. It is the fundamental organizational principle of the CPC, as well as the fundamental organizational principle of the Party for policy-making. By establishing centralized policy-making on the basis of the mass line, China has created a model for driving scientific policy-making through democratic policy-making.

On one hand, democratic centralism requires that we follow the mass line. To do this, we must provide widespread opportunities for the public to express their views, bring the opinions (scattered, unsystematic) of the public together (and turn them into centralized, systematic opinions after studying them), relay these opinions back to the public by means of publicity and turn them into the opinions of the public, ensure that the public can adhere to these opinions, put them into practice, and test whether or not these opinions are correct. After this, we must gather together public opinions again, and see to it that the public continue adhering to these opinions. This is an endless repeating process. Each time the decisions we make will become more correct, more vivid, and richer than before. This is the Marxist theory of knowledge and a basic method of leadership. It is an important mechanism for collecting information for policy-making, and a channel which allows us to gain a grasp of facts.

On the other hand, democratic centralism requires that we implement collective policy-making with democratic supervision, and establish a leadership which not only has a core, but which is also a collective, so as to guard against the dangers of personality cults and patriarchal styles of work. The basic principle of policy-making under democratic centralism is that the individual is subordinate to the organization, the minority is subordinate to the majority, and the lower level is subordinate to the higher level. All major issues must be collectively discussed and concluded by Party committees on an issue by issue basis in accordance with the principles of collective leadership, democratic centralism, deliberation case by case and decision by meetings. This is an important mechanism for preventing and controlling risks in policy-making. It is a safety catch to ensure that the truth is sought. 

Likewise, democratic centralism is also a repeating process that goes from democracy to centralism and then back again. This is conducive to both drawing on collective wisdom and reaching consensus, and conducive to both making the right policy decisions efficiently and correcting erroneous policy decisions promptly.

Seeking truth from facts is the secret to the success of China’s policy-making and the magic key to winning victories

Seeking truth from facts is the secret to the success of China’s policy-making. A country’s capacity and potential for policy-making are fundamentally determined by that country’s policy-making philosophy. The policy-making philosophy of seeking truth from facts has become China’s core soft power in national governance. We should fully uncover the theoretical connotations of seeking truth from facts, draw from historical experiences and lessons, continuously promote the improvement of China’s policy-making capacity, and enhance China’s ability to make strategic decisions as well as its ability to adjust and adapt. 

The eruption and spread of the international financial crisis, for example, has fully exposed the fact that the political parties and governments of the West are unable to promptly correct erroneous policies, that they are unable to agree on counter proposals despite repeated discussions, that they are unable to take action even after a decision has been made, and that they are powerless to do anything at all. The result is that they are still in the midst of crisis. This has smashed the blind faith that people have long had in the West. Rarely do we see a better or more relevant example of how the West is powerless to cope with the onset of crisis. 

In contrast, China’s performance in this global test has been the best. In 2007, before the international financial crisis erupted, the GDP of the United States was 4 times that of China. But by 2011, this gap had shrunk rapidly, with the GDP of the US being only 2.1 times that of China. In the same period, the number of employed people in the United States decreased from 146.1 million to 139.9 million, whereas the number of people employed in China’s urban areas increased from 309.5 million to 359.1 million. These figures reflect the uniqueness and superiority of China’s distinctive policy-making approach of seeking truth from facts.

In the past, China’s success depended on seeking truth from facts; in the future, China will continue to rely on seeking truth from facts to succeed. We must adhere to a historical, scientific, and developing approach to policy-making, proceed from reality in all endeavors, adhere only to the facts and refrain from blind faith in books, in higher authority, and in things foreign, continue to independently identify China’s experiences in scientific policy-making and democratic policy-making, and guide our great endeavors through our conscientious and confident application of theoretical achievements in adapting Marxism to suit Chinese conditions.

In a word, seeking truth from facts has always been the fundamental requirement of Chinese Communists in understanding and transforming the world, the basic method of thinking, working, and leadership adhered to by our Party, and the key that has allowed the Party to lead the people to constant victories in revolution, development, and reform.

(Originally appeared in Red Flag Manuscript, No.22, 2012)  
Note: The authors are from Tsinghua University.

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