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Graphic by Shabbir Lakha

Graphic by Shabbir Lakha

Dragan Plavšić considers what China’s modern history tells us about the nature of the Chinese state today

In a speech last month, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State, forcefully ‘reject[ed] the notion’ that we live in ‘an age of inevitability’ where China‘s ‘supremacy is the future’ and then issued a no less forceful appeal to the ‘free world’ to rally - under US leadership, of course - to the struggle against Beijing.[1]

Pompeo’s speech was in effect a call to arms for yet another phase of intense economic, political and military competition between two key global powers. The last such phase, the Cold War between the US and Russia, brought us to the brink of nuclear self-annihilation; the preceding one between Britain and Germany led to two cataclysmic world wars; while the impending one between the US and China threatens tragedies too incalculable to contemplate.

These phases are too consistent a feature of modern history to be mere accidents or errors of state policy. On the contrary, their very recurrence points to a deep source in the ruthless logic of competition that determines relations between states under capitalism.

Competition between local states finds expression in local antagonisms and wars. Competition between states most able to wield their powers on a global scale - the so-called imperialist states - threatens to engulf us all in catastrophe as they struggle to become dominant enough to shape the world order in their own self-interest and to the detriment of their chief competitors.

Thus, today, we face the fearsome prospect of ever-degenerating Sino-US relations, as an aging but still dominant power seeks to disable the global wings of an emergent one before it takes full flight. There are flashpoints aplenty here: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, not to mention an increasingly pro-US India, another nuclear power, whose long-standing border dispute with China has led to deadly clashes this year, the worst in nearly 50 years.

The US as the driving force behind these current tensions is clear. But what of the object of all this antagonistic attention, China?

China has been transformed in the seven decades since the Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1949. It is now the second largest economy in the world and on current projections looks set become the largest, perhaps by 2035. However, the key question for the left is the social nature of this transformation; in particular, whether its underlying logic is qualitatively different from the competitive one driving the world economy or merely an historically specific expression of it. To answer this question, therefore, we need to turn to history.

The early CCP: from workers to peasants

The CCP is the key political force in China today, if only because it is the only permitted one. In essence, it is the political representative of the state bureaucracy that emerged after 1949 and the new rich who emerged after the market reforms of the late 1970s. In other words, there is no meaningful sense in which the CCP represents Chinese workers today. This was not always so, which means the CCP has itself undergone a social transformation during its history that is key to understanding the China it has forged.

In the wake of the Russian Revolution, the CCP was formed by a small group of radical intellectuals whose aim was to embed the Party in the urban working class on the model of Lenin’s Bolsheviks. As the working class grew increasingly militant, this aim began to bear fruit as CCP membership rose to some 60,000 by the mid-1920s.

Indeed, 1925 witnessed the beginnings of a revolutionary situation that would last two years. At the time, China was not in any meaningful sense a united country as it was dominated by semi-feudal warlords who rendered central government weak and relatively powerless. At the same time, foreign capital dominated the economy, owning almost half of its cotton mills, a third of its railways, and half the shipping in Chinese waters, while carving out country-wide spheres of influence in alliance with the warlords. All this ensured that China remained weak, disunited and prey to foreign capital that drained its wealth.

In response, the CCP joined forces with the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang forces, led first by Sun Yat-Sen and then after his death by Chiang Kai-Shek, whose goal was to unify China in order to recapture its national market and resources for domestic capital. In 1925, the revolutionary wave was sparked by strikes and protests at Japanese-owned cotton mills in Shanghai, when British police shot dead twelve Chinese (Britain ran part of the city under a concession obtained in 1845). It spread to Canton, where British and French troops shot dead another 52, as well as to Hong Kong and other cities. In 1927, after two more years of revolutionary ferment, the Guomindang, fearful of losing control of the movement, decided to crush its ally, turning its weapons on the CCP and the trade unions. Almost 40,000 militants were slaughtered in China’s cities, especially Shanghai, with almost as many imprisoned. CCP membership plummeted to 10,000.[2]

The disaster was a decisive turning-point. Although in the next decade the CCP was to emerge numerically stronger, it also emerged socially transformed, a transformation closely associated with Mao Zedong, who had already indicated its direction when he declared that ‘The peasant problem is the central problem of national revolution.’[3]

His strategy was simple, to embed the CCP in a different social class, not the working class of the cities, but the peasants of the countryside who were to be militarised for a revolutionary, guerrilla war. This abandonment of the working class sounded the death knell of the original CCP. As one astute observer noted as early as 1932:

'It is one thing when a Communist party, firmly resting on the flower of the urban proletariat, strives through the workers to lead a peasant war. It is an altogether different thing when a few thousand or even tens of thousands of revolutionists, who are truly Communists or only take the name, assume the leadership of a peasant war without having serious support from the proletariat. This is precisely the situation in China.'[4]

From this point on, it was no longer possible to speak of the CCP as a working-class party. Although it retained the outward trappings of the original CCP, including the use of Marxist terminology, an inner, ideological transformation accompanied the turn to the peasantry. In place of internationalism, nationalism became the CCP’s guiding spirit, and in place of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, Stalin’s Russia became the model to be emulated.

The early CCP: from internationalism to nationalism

Nationalism has a double-edged quality, one which has a special intensity in countries struggling against the odds to secure their national independence. On the one hand, its progressive appeal stems from the democratic principle that the people of a given territory should be sovereign in a state they call their own, a principle that makes liberation from foreign rule a political necessity. But on the other hand, this progressive appeal has a reactionary heart, one that beats ever more intensely, in particular after liberation, as competition with other nation-states becomes the priority over solidarity with their workers.

The progressive, anti-imperialist side to nationalism was a crucial part of the CCP’s appeal. Japan invaded China in 1931 and then again in 1937 leading to brutal occupations, while Britain and France among others had long held concessions in Chinese cities giving them special economic and other rights and thus undue influence. Indeed, the CCP would probably never have won power in 1949 were it not for the brutally dislocating impact, in particular, of Japan’s invasions.

The Imperial Japanese Navy in Shanghai, 1937. Photo: Brent Jones / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Also integral to the CCP’s appeal was its related promise to sweep away not only the narrowly self-interested warlords who obstructed economic development, but also the bourgeoisie which was too weak to undertake it. In this way, it was argued, the backwardness that made China prey to foreign powers and mired the Chinese in poverty would be swept away in one revolutionary swoop.

But this progressive, anti-imperialist appeal was inseparable from its reactionary alter ego - precisely because the CCP’s social moorings to the working class had been cut. As a result, the CCP came to view China’s statehood as an end in itself rather than a means to international social liberation, and China’s economic development as the necessary precondition of a strong state rather than a means to social equality. It was no accident therefore that the developmental model the CCP in power adopted, at least to begin with, was Russia’s breakneck state-led industrialisation of the 1930s and Stalin’s deeply repressive control of workers and peasants.

Mao’s China

The Chinese state established in 1949 by Mao and the CCP was not therefore a socialist one. After all, it had emerged from wars against Japan and the Guomindang in which the peasantry had been the key social and military force, not the working class which, though sympathetic, played no role in winning it. Tellingly, China’s cities were captured by the CCP from the outside, not the inside, with workers instructed to await liberation.

Although under Mao the state took control of the means of production, this was not the state of a country in which the working class was the ruling class (the basic criterion for defining a socialist state). Nor was it the state of a country in which the peasantry, the force that brought the CCP to power, held power. Instead, the CCP forged a bureaucracy on the basis of its control of the state apparatus and the means of production, and this state bureaucracy became the key social force that would henceforth determine the country’s economic and political course. It thus constituted China’s new ruling class and the CCP was its political embodiment.

Colourised photo of Mao proclaiming a People's Republic of China, 1949. Photo: Orihara1 /  CC BY-SA 4.0

Wedded to the nationalist dream of a strong China, this ruling class was from the very start obsessed with the goal of catching up with the advanced industrialised states, an obsession that ensured as much as necessitated China’s submission to the logic of competition that is the driving force of the world economy under capitalism. It is this very combination of the state ownership of the means of production with the competitive goal of catching up with the West that justifies characterising China at this time as a form of ‘state capitalism’.[5]

Consequently, for Mao, the ‘most important question’ was ‘the rapid development of production’ to the levels of the leading world economies. The first five-year plan made steel production the priority, with Mao noting, ‘Our country is poor, very poor. This year, steel production amounts to only 4.5 million tons ... Japan’s production is seven million tons.’ In 1955, he was looking further ahead, estimating it would take 50 to 70 years ‘to catch up with or overtake the United States’. Later, his target was Britain, ‘With eleven million tons of steel next year, and seventeen million the year after, the world will be shaken. If we can reach forty million tons in five years, we may possibly catch up with Great Britain in seven years.’[6]

But at what cost to Chinese workers and peasants? This was the decisive issue, because there could be no question here of pursuing a developmental model democratically determined by the producers themselves and undertaken by them at a pace of their own choosing. The very opposite was the case.

Indeed, given the predetermined priority of the ‘rapid development’ of heavy industry in a poor, largely peasant country, the rigorous subordination of consumption to production was inevitable. Light industry essential for raising living standards was choked while agriculture was squeezed for all it was worth. Although many poor peasants received land when the CCP came to power, they were heavily taxed to provide accumulation funds, while workers were subjected to the harshest labour discipline with no unions of their own to defend them. In this context the Mao suit became the ubiquitous dress uniform of the Chinese, not just for its symbolic equality but for its more subliminal message that consumption was a treacherous self-indulgence when set against the great national goal of heavy industrial production.[7]

Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution

By the late 1950s, however, Mao had decided that the pace of China’s development was too slow. In due course, the CCP embarked upon the so-called Great Leap Forward, the slogan of which was to surpass Britain and catch up the United States within 15 years. Its key policy was the collectivisation of peasant farms, again on Stalin’s model of the 1930s, in order to exploit peasant labour more intensely for the purpose of industrial accumulation.

However, the results were catastrophic, causing a slump in agricultural production followed by widespread rural famine and a general economic downturn. While in Russia 4-6 million died, some 30 million or more perished in China amid reports of cannibalism. This was a horror made by human hands, the sum product of a profoundly undemocratic model of economic development in a poor peasant country driven by the nationalist and thus competitive logic of catching up with the West at all costs.

The catastrophe weakened Mao politically in the CCP and the ruling class, so much so that he stepped down as official head of state (though retaining chairmanship of the CCP). At a key conference in 1962, he was uncharacteristically obliged to assume a degree of personal responsibility for the disaster, engaging reluctantly in self-criticism and declaring himself in favour of a slower pace of industrialisation.

Although his opponents were as wedded to the goal of catching up with the West as Mao, they could also see that his recklessly competitive ambition had been counterproductive to achieving it, leading them to investigate other models for a way out of the crisis. As a result, the option of loosening state controls and introducing market mechanisms, as pioneered for example by Tito’s Yugoslavia, was not lost on ruling circles. Indeed, the response of Mao’s critics to the disaster of the Great Leap Forward was a new policy that proceeded to ‘establish more farming plots for private use, more free markets, more enterprises with sole responsibility for their own profits or losses…’[8]

For Mao, however, this loosening of the statist model was anathema, one he was determined to resist even if this entailed taking the dispute beyond the confines of the CCP to the country at large. In fact, he had no alternative politically, as his position in the CCP had been so weakened by the Great Famine that he could not call on a decisive body of supporters to follow his lead. Exploiting the absurd cult of personality that had been constructed around him in the 1950s, and which his opponents had left intact for wider political reasons, Mao launched the so-called Cultural Revolution, unleashing a generation of young Chinese organised into Red Guards against his political opponents.

So steely was Mao’s crudely Stalinist identification of socialism with state nationalisation of the means of production – he ignored the glaring fact that the working class did not control and direct the state because it was not the ruling class – that opponents who proposed even modest liberalising measures were condemned as ‘capitalist roaders’ against whom the ‘class struggle’ had to be mercilessly waged. Liu Shaoqi, the leading exponent of market reform in the wake of the Great Famine, who had in fact succeeded Mao as official head of state, was declared a traitor, personally vilified, publicly beaten, and died in detention. In the chaotically hysterical atmosphere that followed, the least suspicion of anti-Maoist ‘revisionism’ was cause for public humiliation and attack, many losing their lives as a result. Estimates of the final death toll vary widely from hundreds of thousands to several millions.

The Cultural Revolution was not therefore the revolution or radical ‘event’ some even on the western left at the time, particularly in France, claimed it to be (and like the French philosopher Alain Badiou, still claim it was). In reality, by successfully mobilising popular support, the weaker Maoist wing of the Chinese ruling class led a brutal onslaught on its stronger CCP opponents. This was not class struggle, but a class struggling with itself.

Mao and the Red Guards. Photo: 人民画报 / Public Domain

Although Mao succeeded in re-affirming his personal political power, he never truly re-established his standing in the ruling class itself, where market reformers remained the firm if necessarily silent majority, as events after his death in 1976 proved. Within a month, his ultra-loyalists, the so-called Gang of Four including Mao’s wife, were briskly purged. That the purge was achieved with ease and speed by marshalling forces within the CCP and the state apparatus pointed to a ruling class determined to move on from Maoism.

Deng’s China and the Tiananmen Square protests

Capitalist ruling classes the world over have given priority to one of two basic ways of running their economies: the free market or the state. Generally speaking, the free market model has been favoured by economies strong enough to take competitive advantage of others, while the state model has been favoured by developing economies eager to protect themselves from powerful, established competitors. In practice, however, most national economies have been hybrids in which either the free market takes the driving seat (and the state the back seat) or the state takes the driving seat (and the free market the back seat), within the broader context of the world market and its competitive pressures.

The transition from Mao to his eventual successor, Deng Xiaoping, one of Liu Shaoqi’s closest associates and himself a victim of the Cultural Revolution, was therefore a transition from a statist model to a hybrid one in which market forces were to play an increasing role. It was a transition entirely in keeping with the competitive, nationalist logic of the CCP, the Chinese state and the ruling class. Because if the building of a strong state has indeed become your overriding goal, then it follows that the means you choose to secure it, whether state-based or market-driven, become potentially open to the pragmatic assessment of what appears to bring your goal closer. This was precisely the meaning of Deng’s famous quip that, ‘it doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.’

It was thus no accident that one of the first heads of state to visit China after Mao’s death was Tito of Yugoslavia, whose market-statist model had been routinely reviled by the Maoists. Deng’s reforms were inspired by the Yugoslav example and constructed on the much-extended basis of the reforms undertaken after the Great Famine by Liu Shaoqi (now officially rehabilitated).

There were two basic aspects to them. The first was state decentralisation giving regional and local actors more and more decision-making powers, the inevitable consequence of which was to institute the beginnings of a national market. The second was to ease China into the world economy in order to acclimatise businesses and the workforce to its ruthlessly disciplinarian logic, to reap the benefits of foreign technology and eventually to open doors to Chinese investments abroad.

Just as under Mao, though, there was no question here of following a model democratically determined and undertaken by the producers themselves. On the contrary, just as workers and peasants had been subjected to the discipline of state control under Mao for the purpose of catching up with the West, they were now subjected to the discipline of market forces for the very same purpose.

Although Deng’s reforms were to prove very successful– an average growth rate of 10% during the 1980s – the lack of any democratic control over both the economy and the body politic was a cause of steadily accumulating frustration. As the economy grew, some enriched themselves while others languished in relative impoverishment, the rich using their new-found wealth in the usual way to bend the ear of politicians. But as inequality, inflation and corruption also grew, the sharpening social tensions they generated found their most immediate target in the political monopoly of the CCP, which China’s students were famously to take the lead in challenging by occupying Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989.

The Tiananmen Square protests were doubly significant because they not only heralded the first properly independent political protests since 1949 but also the first reappearance of independent working-class organisation since the crushing of the original CCP and the trade unions in 1927. Western reports predictably focused on the students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square - in other words on the political leadership of the movement demanding democracy -and thus neglected what was going on elsewhere, in particular the establishment of the first independent trade union since 1949, the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation (BWAF), which attracted some 20,000 members in the short period of its existence between April and early June.[9]

BWAF’s leaders ‘were almost uniformly ordinary young workers with little education and virtually no movement experience’.[10] Nevertheless, they were quick to make connections between political democracy and workplace democracy, as one of their activists explained:

'Why do a lot of workers agree with democracy and freedom? ... (I)n the workshop, does what the workers say count, or what the leader says? We later talked about it. In the factory the director is a dictator, what one man says goes. If you view the state through the factory, it's about the same: one-man.'[11]

Han Dongfang, founder of the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation. Photo: La Serviette / CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

It was also Beijing’s workers who surrounded tanks and troops and built the barricades that forced the army to call off its first attempted advance on Tiananmen in mid-May. This is why, when the murderous carnage finally came on 4 June, many army units surreptitiously infiltrated the city in plain clothes and unmarked buses.

The successful quelling of the Tiananmen Square protests showed again the ruthless character of the Chinese ruling class, one it of course shares with capitalist ruling classes the world over, especially when vital interests are at stake.

But it also reflected the failure of the democracy movement to overcome disabling political barriers between students and workers. Unlike the workers who were openly scornful of Deng’s reforms, the students were more supportive, hoping in fact to curry favour with the reform wing of the ruling class. As a result, they were anxious to keep workers at arm’s length by restricting them to the fringes of Tiananmen Square and rejecting the BWAF’s calls for a general strike. Only as the situation turned ominous in late May did they belatedly begin making frantic calls for strike action. However, as one BWAF activist recalled:

'The students wouldn't allow us workers to strike. At the very end it was too late; to call out workers to strike at the end, nobody would go along with it. They would feel hurt, like the students were treating us like playthings.'[12]

China from Deng to Xi

China after Deng has gone from strength to strength. Since the reforms of the late 1970s, annual GDP growth has averaged 9.5%, a rate described by the World Bank as the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history. As a result, China has been able to double its GDP every eight years or so. But what is the deep source of this growth?

Western neoliberals will tell you it is attributable to the wonders of the free market as China proceeds to integrate itself directly into the world economy. Others, typically Keynesians, will very correctly point to the continuing role of the state in directing growth, by pointing out that China has a much higher proportion of public investment to GDP than the West or that privatisations are silently ‘statist’ with the state often retaining a controlling interest. However, neither explanation is in itself satisfactory.

Instead, the deep source of this growth lies in China’s countryside. Even as late as 1978, 80% of China’s population were peasants working the land; by 2020, this had shrunk by half to 40%. In just over forty years, then, a massive shift of cheap labour to the cities has taken place (even as 600 million Chinese remain on the land). Working long hours for low wages and subject to strict labour discipline with no independent trade union representation to speak of, it is this migrant labour that has been the true source of China’s rise to economic power.

This is not at all a new phenomenon, merely the most intense example of the migration of peasant low-wage labour to the cities that has repeatedly characterised industrialisation and fuelled feverish growth across the world over the last two hundred years. China’s case is distinctive, however, not only because this process has been condensed in time and the numbers migrating have been in their hundreds of millions, but also because it coincided with the neoliberal globalisation of the 1980s spearheaded by Reagan and Thatcher, as part of which China has eased foreign capital controls and sought investment opportunities abroad.

As a result, inward foreign direct investment (FDI) seeking to take advantage of China’s low-wage labour has grown, with many household names outsourcing production there so that ‘made’ or ‘assembled’ in China has become a familiar label. At the same time, Chinese capital has increasingly gone global, multiplying outward FDI and trade in all continents. Indeed, from 2015-17, China was the second largest receiver of inward FDI as well as the second largest source of outward FDI. In 2009, China also became the world’s largest exporter of goods and in 2013 the largest trading nation in goods. Since 2010, the number of Chinese firms operating globally has been increasing at an average annual rate of 16% from 10,167 to 37,164.[13]

Of special concern to the US has been China’s soaring expenditure on research and development. In 2000, it spent $9 billion on R&D; in 2018, this had risen to $293 billion, a phenomenal increase of 3250% in 18 years. However, China’s core weakness in this sector has been its dependence on foreign imports of semiconductors, which underpin all advanced technologies.[14] Thus, in addition to the trade tariffs on Chinese goods to the US (with China retaliating in kind), and his 2019 ban on Huawei, pressuring the UK to follow suit, Trump took the decision this year to require companies around the world who use US software and technology in the manufacture of their semiconductors to obtain licensed permission from the US before they sell to Chinese firms.

Again, though, the trend in China’s global expansion is not at all a new phenomenon, merely the latest example of a road well-travelled by other major economies such as Britain, Germany and the US, as they too expanded beyond their national limits in order to take competitive advantage of global trade and investment opportunities. The competitive logic that motivated them is not qualitatively different from the one motivating China today.

Chongqing Central Business District. Photo: Author Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 Unported

Significantly, in those cases too, economic expansion by competitive means was accompanied (where it was not preceded) by the exercise of political power and, if necessary, by military force. There is no compelling reason to think that China will be different. From the outset, as we have seen, the driving logic of CCP rule has been competitive, as it sought to build a strong nation-state. It has now become a global competitor and as such will seek to pursue its interests abroad as ruthlessly as it has at home. After all, the old dictum that foreign policy is the continuation of domestic politics applies to China too.

In this context, it is worth remembering that although the US spends three times as much on its military, China’s budget is now the second highest in the world, spending four times more than third-placed India.[15] It has been a nuclear power since the 1960s, and has the largest standing army in the world (with over 2 million active military personnel)[16] which it has employed several times since 1949, in the invasion and annexation of Tibet in 1950 (nationally oppressing Tibetans ever since), the Korean war of 1950-1953, the war with India in 1962, the clashes with the Soviet Union in 1969, and the invasion of Vietnam in 1979.


China is an emerging imperialist power that is seeking to assert itself in a world dominated by the established imperialist power of the US, still the most powerful economic, political and military force in the world today. The escalating tensions between the US and China make the dangers of another Cold War palpable, with the Trump administration in particular determined to shift the traditional focus of US and Western foreign policy from Russia to China. When questioned recently about the poisoning of the Russian oppositionist, Alex Navalny, Trump said, "It is interesting that everybody's always mentioning Russia and I don't mind you mentioning Russia but I think probably China at this point is a nation that you should be talking about much more so”.[17] Hence the aggressive approach of the US to China that has been one of the hallmarks of the Trump administration (and is unlikely to change in any significant way even if Biden were to become President).

In this impending conflict, the left in the UK, the closest ally of the US, has a crucial role to play. First and foremost, it must be guided by the principle laid out in the First World War by the German socialist, Karl Liebknecht, that our main enemy is at home, not least given the eminently pragmatic fact that this is the enemy within reaching distance of our protests.[18]

But in following this principle, for all the reasons argued here, it would be a mistake to see China as somehow on our side, even if only on the misleading basis that our enemy’s enemy is our friend. This temptation should certainly be resisted, not least because we ought not to forget the corresponding principle of international solidarity with genuine struggles against oppression in other countries. We need to give expression to both principles as and when the need arises.

The crisis in Hong Kong is a case in point. The left should certainly support the movement for the defence of democratic rights there, but in ways that encourage its political independence from the US and the West. In particular, this means opposing those who would raise the demand for Hong Kong’s independence, as this is a demand whose logic would drag the movement into increasingly submissive dependence on Washington and London.

It therefore follows that our ally in China is not the CCP-run state but the working class. Although exact figures are not easy to come by, the available evidence certainly points in recent years to the potential for explosive labour unrest. What China calls “mass incidents” (protests of all kinds including strikes) have increased from 9,000 in 1994 and 87,000 in 2005 to 127,000 in 2008 prior to the 2010 wave of strikes at a host of largely foreign-owned companies.[19] In 2014, some 40,000 workers struck at seven Taiwanese-owned Yue Yuen shoe factories producing brands such as Adidas and Reebok.[20] In 2016, strikes broke out at Walmart stores in four cities, with 20,000 workers organising via the mobile messaging platform WeChat.[21] The most recent trend has been multiple strikes in smaller enterprises. The Hong Kong based China Labour Bulletin reports that in the first half of 2019, 80% of disputes were in domestic private firms, 15% in state-owned enterprises and 2% in foreign or Hong Kong ones, with 42% of all disputes taking place in the construction sector.[22]

The enormous potential power of this workforce could scarcely be clearer. As one commentator has put it, ‘More than thirty years into the Communist Party’s project of market reform, China is undeniably the epicentre of global labour unrest. While there are no official statistics, it is certain that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of strikes take place each year. All of them are wildcat strikes — there is no such thing as a legal strike in China.’[23]

In the speech with which this article began, Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, sought to justify US and Western aggression against China by arguing that changing China ‘cannot be the mission of the Chinese people alone’.[24] In all our protests against the aggressions of the US and the UK against China in coming years, it is therefore essential that we argue the very opposite, that the mission of changing China is exclusively one for the Chinese people to undertake.



[1]Mike Pompeo, ‘Communist China and the Free World’s Future’ (July 23, 2020)

[2]See Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (Haymarket 2009), a classic work first published in 1938.

[3] Mao Zedong, ‘National Revolution and the Peasant Movement’ (September 21,1926) in Collected Works of Mao Tse-Tung (Joint Publications Research Service 1978) p.100

[4] Leon Trotsky, ‘Peasant War in China and the Proletariat’ (September 22, 1932)

[5] I use this term in the sense given it by Tony Cliff in State Capitalism in Russia (Bookmarks1988), originally written in 1948, and as used by Ygael Gluckstein in his Mao’s China (George Allen & Unwin 1957). The Chinese trotskyist, Zheng Chaolin, also published a pamphlet titled On State Capitalism in Hong Kong in 1950, though the details of his argument are unknown to me as it has yet to appear in translation.

[6]Mao Tse-Tung, Miscellany of Mao Tse-tung Thought, 1949-68, VolsI and II, Joint Publications Research Service, Arlington Virginia, n.d.,pp. 280 (Vol II), 38 (Vol I), 25 (Vol I) and 122 (Vol I) respectively, all quoted in Nigel Harris, The Mandate of Heaven: Marx and Mao in Modern China (Quartet Books 1978)

[7] The Mao suit had not in fact been originated by Mao but inherited from the original Guomindang leader, Sun Yat-Sen, and was thus also worn by Mao’s opponent, Chiang Kai-Shek.

[8] Henry Yuhuai He, Dictionary of the Political Thought of the People’s Republic of China (M.E. Sharpe 2001), p.376

[9]Andrew G. Walder and Gong Xiaoxia, ‘Workers in the Tiananmen Protests: The Politics of the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation’, The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 29 (Jan., 1993), p.9

[10]Ibid p.15

[11] Ibid p.18

[12] Ibid p.25

[13] Multiple authors, China and the world: inside the dynamics of a changing relationship (McKinsey Global Institute, July 2019) pp.2-3

[14] Ibid p.3

[15]Nan Tian, Aude Fleurant, Alexandra Kuimova, Pieter D. Wezeman, Siemon T. Wezeman, ‘Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2019’, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (April 2020)

[18] Karl Liebknecht, ‘The Main Enemy is at Home’ (Leaflet, May 1915)

[19]Elfstrom, Manfred and Kuruvilla, Sarosh, ‘The changing nature of labor unrest in China’ Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 67 (2) (2014),p.453

[20]South China Morning Post, ‘Yue Yuen shoe factory workers' strike at Dongguan plants continues’ (16 April 2014)

[21] Financial Times, ‘Walmart workers launch wildcat strikes across China’ (7 July 2016). As for the role of the state trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions [AFCTU], this comment from an activist speaks volumes, ‘The [AFCTU] are basically unreceptive to workers’ opinions. They are window-dressing for Walmart.’

[23] Eli Friedman, ‘China in Revolt’, Jacobin (1 August 2012)

[24]See note 1 above

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Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).


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