The actions taken by these governments seem to be more fascist than communist. The term communism is used to describe so many contradicting policies and it is very confusing.
As I explained in a previous post, pre-1980s China was socialist/lower-stage communist. Karl Marx believed that one method for true communism is socialism or the lower stage of communism to achieve the final stage of communism. In his work Critique of the Gotha Program, Karl Marx mentions the dictatorship of the proletariat, a form of the state where members of the working class take control of the state and nationalize the means of production in order to make everything publicly owned and improve the standing of the current community.
This lower stage of communism is what we saw in the USSR and Maoist China. This is also what people mean when these nations are referred to as 'communist'. They were experiments to achieve this lower stage of communism where a council of members of the proletariat and potentially a leader of the council take the means of production to achieve collective ownership using the state, a cooperative with control of all utilities, or some other organization. Personal property is given to members of the proletariat based on the principle of "each according to his contribution" (which in many socialist countries, meant the members of the state get the most personal property), but public property is only utilized by those who are part of the worker's council.
However, this all changed around the 1980s. China allowed for the ownership of private property in its new constitution where it became possible under Article 70 to own exclusive parts of an apartment building, allowing them to own homes and apartments, but not the land they are on. This was one of many reforms that turned China into the modern state capitalist nation it is today: a form of capitalism where the government controls some property, resources, money, etc., but businesses tend to retain their autonomy and a lot of power under a market economy.
It has a market economy, many companies and people with enough money can own private property, and the only ones who still refer to China as communist despite no longer following any form of socialism, Marxist or otherwise, (socialism is, by definition, "an economic theory or system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned by the community collectively, usually through the state.") are right-wing individuals in the United States who see any kind of government action as 'socialism' despite private property still being in effect and former Chinese Chairman Deng Xiaoping who called the current Chinese economy 'socialism with Chinese characteristics'. Even the official doctrine of the CCP considers private property to be non-socialist, so by their own admission, legalizing private ownership means China can no longer consider itself socialist/lower-stage communist.
For the record, the law allowed someone to own apartments and sell them for capital instead of simply owning it as personal property. This was the first of several reforms that allowed for the ownership of private property & by 2004, a law was passed in Article 13 of the constitution that made the ownership of private property that can be used to earn private capital a permanent part of China and allowed for the right to inherit private property which goes against plank 3 of the ten pillars Karl Marx established for lower-stage communism/socialism.
"The lawful private property of citizens shall be inviolable. The country shall protect in accordance with law citizens' private property rights and inheritance rights. The country may, as necessitated by public interest, expropriate or requisition citizens' private property and pay compensation therefor." -Article 13 of the Chinese Constitution in 2004
- Abolition of All Rights of Inheritance. - Third Plank of the 10 pillars of Communism mentioned in The Communist Manifesto
Who's the "we" that refers to China as Communist? As far as I can tell, there are basically two sorts of people that continued to refer to it as Communist after the reforms of Deng Xiaoping:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deng_Xiaoping
The ignorant. This includes certain US right-wing sorts who haven't abandoned the use of it as a bogeyman, and possibly some left-wing academics and outright Marxists who're engaging in wishful thinking.
The Chinese government, which keeps the name and some trappings as a way of saving face. If they abandoned the Communist label, they'd have to admit that Mao was a bloody tyrant, and his revolution an abject failure in human terms.
The rest of the world realizes that China today is anything but Communist. I'm not sure that Fascist is a good description, though, as it combines an authoritarian state with an economy that mixes state capitalism and the free market.
PS: Since the question has been heavily edited since I wrote the above, I will briefly address the new question. The fundamental problem is that it's based on a fallacy, which appears in the title: "If the goal of Communism is a stateless society...". But that's not the goal of Communism, except perhaps in the minds of a few idealists. (See above about wishful thinking.) The ACTUAL goal of real Communist states is to keep the people who run them in positions of power & privilege. See e.g. Orwell's "Animal Farm".
Why should we not? They call themselves that.
And, Communism, whatever its theoretical intents, has to date resulted in governments that behave exactly that way. At some point, something becomes defined by how it actually works, rather than how it says it works.
So, for better or worse, 100 years of Communist governments since the October Revolution has mostly resulted in totalitarian, oppressive, regimes that have suppressed dissent, jailed opponents and occasionally engaged in much worse, from the USSR to North Korea to China.
Very, very few of them have allowed the people to vote to change back to different, non-Communist governments.
Should we stop calling the historical Fascist states (Germany, Italy and Spain) Fascist because, presumably, they gained power by claiming good things would happen from Fascism, which later on turned out not to? No, Fascism has become associated with its downsides and actual outcomes, not its promises.
What about Islamic Republics (Iran)? Should that term not be used to describe this type of government, again because there was presumably at some point the intent to put forward a society built on the kinder and gentler bits of the Muslim religion?
Why should Communism not be associated in terminology with the practices of all the states that have adopted it?
Tell you what, if a significant minority of states that turn to Communism implemented significantly beneficial outcomes and started looking like theoretical rainbows and unicorn Communism, then I agree that the word should be reexamined with regards to its use by countries like China or historically, the USSR.
After all, no one really links Democracy to Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
I don't have a huge liking for Cuba, but I admit that in terms of education, health care and life expectancy, they have achieved some level of beneficial outcomes for their people while being comparatively only mildly repressive. If most of the states adopting Communism were Cuba-like, with all its warts, but also successes, then yes, we could agree to nitpick on the rest with Venezuela, DPRK or China outcomes. But so far, it has been more the other way around: modest as Cuba's successes have been, they have been outliers.
Update August 2023 - without changing the above paragraph I want to qualify it by 2 remarks. First, I've since learned that Cuba is one of the states that imprisons the highest proportions of people in the world. Not Gulags, no, but...
Second, I've had the above opinion about Cuba for decades which recently got me to thinking that whatever improvements Communist rule initially brought to the Cuban people (starting from a very low bar) they are a long time in the past and they really haven't improved anything much since. A competent non-Communist government would be far in advance of where they are at, without the need to be a one-party police state.
So even a best-case scenario is not great.
And whatever China's successes have been lately, they've been achieved by not being Communist on economics. The rest of what they do? Straight from the usual Lenin-Stalin playbook. Should capitalism, as in Chinese state capitalism, be associated with the Uighur concentration camps, even as those are exclusively a political, rather than economic, construct
For now, places that call themselves Communist pretty much define what we've learned to expect from experience.
* please, don't get started with "Uighur slave labor is needed for Capitalism". There's still plenty of cheap, ill-treated and ill-paid, labor to be had in China's hinterland without needing to sterilize women and force people to eat pork.
Basically, as user 'eps' nicely found, a decent description of China's government (as given by the CIA) is "Government type: communist party-led state". Note that "communist" here is an attribute of the party. For reasons that were e.g. discussed in this history SE Q&A, having to do with socialism (theoretically) being a milestone towards communism in the Marxist[-Leninist] doctrine, no country in the Soviet camp actually declared itself as having achieved communism (and thus not named itself communist as a country), but the ruling parties themselves nonetheless often called themselves communist, as that was their stated goal.
For (various) reasons that you could either call ignorant, intentional, or merely a convenient shorthand, communism is thus (reasonably enough) associated with any such country where following the Marxist-Leninist doctrine the "dictatorship of the proletariat" (itself a theoretical construct of Marxim) was instantiated as one-party rule, as envisaged in Marxism-Leninism. As Wikipedia puts it:
Marxism–Leninism is an interpretation of Marxism by Vladimir Lenin and his successors.It seeks to organise a vanguard party, which in concept Marx advocated for based on his writings on the proletariat dictatorship and on the phrase itself, and to thus lead a proletarian uprising to assume power of the state, the economy, the media, and social services (academia, health and so on), on behalf of the proletariat and to construct a single-party socialist state representing a dictatorship of the proletariat. [...]
Marxism–Leninism forms the official ideology of the ruling parties of China, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam and was the official ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from the late 1920s, and later of the other ruling parties making up the Eastern Bloc.
So it's not (horribly) inappropriate to call "communist" any country where the form of government is one-party rule instituted under the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism, even if the latter only prescribes/envisages that one-party dictatorship stage as temporary. E.g. Wikipedia quotes (in a footnote):
Busky, Donald F. (2000). Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey. Praeger. pp. 6–8. "In a modern sense of the word, communism refers to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. [...] All but communists, or more accurately, Marxist-Leninists, believe that modern-day communism is highly undemocratic and totalitarian in practice, and democratic socialists wish to emphasise by their name that they disagree strongly with the Marxist-Leninist brand of socialism."
I mean (sure) Marxist-Leninist or "authoritarian socialist" are more accurate terms (than "communism"), but also are more wordy.
But of course any single/simplifying label glosses over some aspects. The most obvious one for China in recent decades is the economic one. As discussed elsewhere there is some theoretical difficulty in reconciling China's economic policy even with the Marxist(-Leninist) vision of socialism as temporary, but even Lenin saw it as necessary at one point to institute his NEP (New Economic Policy) as a (well...) precursor/temporary stage to the temporary stage that socialism itself is supposed to be on the path to communism. Lenin himself had substantial doubts that a policy like NEP could be sustained for long periods without compromising the ultimate goal(s).
Archie Brown (who has written extensively about the topic) identified 5 major characteristics of communist (meaning Marxist-Leninist) systems
- One-party rule
The first of these defining characteristics was the monopoly of power of the Communist Party, for which the euphemism employed in Communist states, especially after the death of Stalin, was ‘the leading role of the party.’ (In Stalin’s time the term, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat,’ was used to signify this phenomenon. In a peculiar conflation of social categories, it was taken as axiomatic that in the Soviet Union the Communist Party embodied the will of the proletariat.) The supreme authority and unchallengeable hegemony of the Communist Party was a given of Communist systems [...]
- "Democratic centralism" [North Korea = DPRK is "democratic" in this [Orwellian] sense of the word]
The second defining characteristic of a Communist system was democratic centralism, a key concept embodied in the published rules of Communist Parties which, in practice, signified centralism to the virtual exclusion of democracy. Although often distinguished by Communist theorists from ’bureaucratic centralism’ (which meant officials acting in a high-handed way, without any consultation with those lower in the party hierarchy), democratic centralism, in political reality, stood for a highly centralized, strictly disciplined party with extremely narrowly interpreted rights of intra-party debate. The slightest criticism of the party leadership from below and any horizontal, as distinct from vertical, links between party organizations were stigmatized as deviations from democratic centralism and harshly punished.
- State-ownership of most means of production
State, or at any rate non-capitalist, ownership of the means of production constituted the third defining feature of Communism. [... but there were some exceptions/variations:] In Yugoslavia, a system of supposed self-management was developed which differed from the unadulterated state ownership of industry characteristic of the Soviet Union, most of Eastern Europe, and also of China until late in the twentieth century. Exceptions to state ownership were occasionally made in agriculture—Poland, for example, maintained an essentially private agriculture throughout most of its Communist period, in contrast with the collective and state farms to be found in the USSR and elsewhere—but not for industrial production.
- having the goal of building the classless society itself called communism (proper)
The fourth defining characteristic of Communism was the declared aim of building communism—a society in which the state would hae withered away—as the ultimate, legitimizing goal. This theoretical aspiration was not part of the operational code of a Communist system and in terms of everyday politics was far less important than the ‘leading role of the party’ or ‘democratic centralism.’ It was, nevertheless, of great ideological significance. In the early years of the Soviet Union, and among some Communist Party activists in the earliest stages of establishing a Communist system, the goal of building a classless society was of motivational and inspirational significance. Thus, if the first three defining characteristics of Communism are also the three key structural features of Communist systems, the goal of building communism was primarily of doctrinal importance. It had an important place in Leninist ideology and it was this goal-oriented vision which distinguished Communist systems, not least the Soviet one, from societies in which governments were formed by democratic socialist parties whose aspirations did not go beyond enhancing fairness and reducing social inequality. [... It is] because Communist theoreticians claimed that there was an appointed destination—that of communism—that they could justify the permanent exercise of the leading role of the Communist Party. It was, Lenin himself had argued, that party alone which possessed the theoretical insight and political experience to guide less advanced citizens to this harmonious, classless society.
- Belonging to an international communist movement.
Brown himself uses [big-C] Communism to refer to the system and small-c communism to refer to just #4 (the doctrinal goal), but of most other people/authors don't really follow that convention.
So, if you want to take communism as defined in this broader sense (1-5) as opposed to merely the goal (#4), China adequately qualifies still, despite the more substantial departure on #3 (economics) and even on #5 (as they haven't been trying to export their political model much themselves.) Regarding #2, the degree of centralism in China has waxed and waned; by 2012 some other authors were talking about China as an example of decentralized authoritarianism, but since then--under president Xi--there has been no doubt a stronger reassertion of central power in China.
N.B. I don't want to get into the fascism [comparison] angle here (as the body of the question does) as that has been [asked before] (Is the Chinese system becoming more Fascist than Capitalist?).
It's historical usage giving a present-day meaning. During the Cold War, countries taken over by or siding with the Soviet Bloc were "Communist". It's the same as how non-free dictatorships friendly to the US were part of the "Free World". China was on the USSR's side, so was "Communist".
But more than that, China's post-WWII revolution was similar to Russia's 1917 one -- Mao Zedong was sort of like Lenin, both were influenced by Marx, and the USSR even helped. If the USSR had a Communist government, then clearly China had one too, whatever that meant.
There was also a Chinese government-in-exile (led by Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan), Thus regular China was called "mainland China" or if you wanted to make a point "Communist China" was a solid term.
So for practical reasons, China was "communist". 70 years later the Chinese government has been continuous: no revolutions, no major changes like Russia had in the late 1980's. Sure, they've modernized, but it feels right to use the same term, "communist", for the same government.
And finally, "Communist" Russia was: no free speech, no voting, a top-down economic system, the government can step in anywhere; and a 1-party system without too much corruption which mostly gets the job done and anyone can advance in. That's still China today, more-or-less, as in: "Would a Chinese company add government malware to it's products? If they had to -- China is Communist, after all".
A true Communism State has never existed, all that has existed are states that claim to be communist in one manner or another, supposedly working towards eventually being a true communist state.
Since China says they are a communist state, we take them at their word. Also, it’s what they call themselves. It’s been said that the Holy Roman Empire wasn’t holy, wasn’t Roman and wasn’t an empire, but it is still referred to as the HRE.
Neither Communism nor Socialism cannot possibly be a stateless or even democratic society: because money is no longer an incentive to be productive dictatorial force is required to keep the population productive.
You see, since the dawn of History humanity had only two an a half methods to induce production:
1 The proverbial stick. "Keep working or we'll beat you up."
2 The proverbial carrot. "Keep working and we'll give you more goodies."
2.5 A con, which has only limited reach. "Keep working, and you'll get rewarded in Heaven (or keep working and your kids will enjoy Communist prosperity).
Since the ancient times the most prevalent method for inducement for 90% population was the proverbial stick. The slave and later the peasant were working for their masters mostly out of fear. Only nobility were fighting for the reward.
The greatest IMHO progress that capitalism has brought to humanity was the realization that nearly 100% can be productive for the reward rather than out of fear. Capitalism replaced the proverbial stick with the proverbial carrot. Life has became significantly better for the majority of population. You can quit your job and either find another one or start your own business because of capitalism.
Capitalism replaced the stick with the carrot and thus liberated millions, but in some countries, fooled by the Communist con, we saw a reversal of that. Socialist and communist revolution sprang in several countries with the explicit goal of getting rid of the proverbial carrot as the primary mean of inducement. And in each and every country we saw the inevitable: with the proverbial carrot no longer available and the con having only a limited reach the governments inevitably turned to the proverbial stick.
We saw that in each and every "communist" or "socialist" country, including Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, Cuba, Venezuela, etc, etc, etc:
a. A populist "let's rob the rich and distribute equally" movement wins with popular support.
b. Money is no longer relevant, and therefore nobody works.
c. Economy is in ruins and famine strikes.
d. The government turns arms against people, killing many and threatening to kill more lest they work; a most vicious tyranny ensues.
e. The very same people who bought into the communist con and brought the communist government to power become essentially that government's serf, and in some cases, such as Cambodia and 1930s Russia and modern North Korea, many become outright slaves.
Communism and socialism necessarily lead to tyranny because without the proverbial carrot the only available method of inducement is the proverbial stick. There has been no communist regime that weren't also authoritarian. The promise of the stateless society is just a part of the con.