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China's flag. Photo: Public Domain

China's flag. Photo: Public Domain

Dragan Plavšić replies to criticisms of his recent article ‘China: a socialist force for good or an imperial superpower in the making? An historical evaluation

In a recent article, I argued that China was an emergent imperialist power that was as dedicated to the brutally competitive logic of capitalism as the West. For this reason, our ally cannot be the Chinese state but the working class it oppresses.

The argument provoked criticisms, the general tenor of which was that China was a progressive if not socialist force operating to a different logic from the capitalist and imperialist West. As a result, we should be supportive of the Chinese state.

It might therefore be useful to reply to some of these criticisms and other related issues, so here goes.

Criticism 1: China deserves our support because it is an obstacle to US imperialism

That China is already - and will increasingly become - an obstacle to US imperialism is certainly true, but it does not then follow that the Chinese state deserves our support. This argument is in fact the reverse mirror image of the one now commonly heard in the West, which is just as false, that the US and UK deserve our support because they are obstacles to Chinese imperialism.

Imperialisms are by their very nature obstacles to one another as they clash in their competitive pursuit of global dominance. But as history has amply demonstrated, their mutual determination to overcome these obstacles has led us into two world wars, forty years of terrifying Cold War brinkmanship, and now the threat of unimaginable horrors as the US seeks to contain if not disable China’s emergent power.

The key question is not whether China is an obstacle to the US but whether it is an alternative to it and the answer to that question must be a resounding no. Some of my critics wondered tongue-in-cheek when China had undertaken attacks like those of the US on Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq to justify calling Beijing ‘imperialist’, but they forget that China is an emergent imperialism and not an established one that rules the roost like the US.

As such, China’s most immediate concern has been to secure its regional hegemony, provoking increasing tensions over its claims to much of the South China Sea as a springboard for wider goals in the Pacific. Just as under the Monroe Doctrine the US once sought regional hegemony in the Americas as the Spanish Empire fell apart in the nineteenth century, China seeks the same, but with two explosive differences: China is already a world economic power and is facing a much more formidable foe in the shape of the US and its regional allies than rickety imperial Spain. In this context, it’s no accident that China’s navy has become larger than the US’s. As a recent US Department of Defense report noted, China ‘has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.’[1]

This is clearly shaping up to be a classic confrontation along imperialist lines. And it means that we on the left have to look elsewhere for an alternative. In China, as in the West, this alternative is a working class everywhere compelled by its life conditions to resist the destructive logic of competition that is the driving force of capitalism. Its vantage-point enables us to grasp reality with the objectivity needed to change it; by contrast, siding with the Chinese state means siding with the very reality we need to change.

Criticism 2: China’s Belt & Road Initiative shows it is a force for good in the world

Launched in 2013 by Xi Jinping, China portrays its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) as a benevolent investment programme designed to advance the greater cause of human ‘connectivity’ by providing the capital, labour and technology for much-needed infrastructure projects around the world. As such, BRI forms part of Xi’s much-hyped vision of ‘a community of shared future for mankind’ and ‘a new type of international relations oriented to win-win cooperation’.[2] This sterile grandiosity recalls Edward Said’s observation that every empire ‘in its official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy’.[3] BRI is China’s updated version of the ‘civilising mission’.

Like the US and the UK in their day, China’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market for its products’ has led it to ‘nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere’, all of which has gone hand in hand with the nationalist goal of a strong state or what Xi calls the ‘Chinese dream of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’.[4] BRI is an integral feature of this feverish global expansionism.

Initially focused on central and south-east Asia, its scope has grown steadily, so that by September 2019 China had signed up 40 out of 55 African states and 19 Latin American and Caribbean ones in Washington’s very own ‘backyard’.[5] In all, over 125 countries have now reached BRI agreements for China to undertake infrastructure projects. The sum result of all this is certain to be a degree of economic dependence on Beijing, and not only for the immediate completion of the infrastructure projects themselves. It would be naïve to think that other economic pressures will not follow, as well as collateral political and military ones.

The case of Sri Lanka is instructive. Struggling to repay Beijing’s loans for the development of the international port of Hambantota, Sri Lanka decided to lease it for 99 years to a Chinese state-controlled company, China Merchants Port Holdings. The political and military significance of the lease of this strategic foothold just south of pro-US India, China’s key regional adversary, was not lost on commentators. As the Financial Times noted,

‘some have accused Beijing of using projects such as this to increase its regional political power, noting the length of the lease agreed by Sri Lanka is the same as that which gave Britain control over Hong Kong in the 19th century’.[6]

This parallel may be overdone for effect, but the underlying logic at work here isn’t; it recognises that economic power goes hand in hand with political and military power. Xi’s self-serving gloss aside, this is a crucial part of the real story of BRI.

Criticism 3: China has made giant strides in eradicating poverty

Capitalism has a contradictory relationship with poverty. By transforming peasants into workers, it has tended to displace one form of poverty (absolute rural poverty) with another form of it (relative urban poverty), at the same time giving rise to increasing income inequality. This is the historical experience of the established capitalist economies of the West.[7]

China is no exception to this trend. Over the last four decades, like the West before it, it has witnessed the historic shift of peasants to the cities and their transformation there into workers. As a result, absolute rural poverty has indeed fallen sharply, only to give increasing sway to relative urban poverty, as China’s cities have become populated by low paid migrant wage labour working long hours and living in inadequate housing with limited welfare support.[8]

At the same time, income inequality is becoming as pronounced as in the West. Thomas Piketty and two other economists noted last year,

‘…the level[s] of inequality in China in the late 1970s used to be less than the European average…but they are now approaching a level that is almost comparable with the USA. In 2015 the bottom 50 per cent in China earn approximately 15 per cent of total national income versus 12 per cent in the USA and 22 per cent in France; while the top 1 per cent earns about 14 per cent of national income, versus 20 per cent in the USA and 10 per cent in France.’[9]

Criticism 4: The Uyghur question is anti-China propaganda

That the Uyghur question is indeed a prominent feature of western anti-China propaganda is of course true, but this should not divert us from the reality of the national oppression of the Uyghurs by the Chinese state.

The Uyghurs are Turkic Muslims who number 11 million and inhabit a homeland in north-west China. In terms of culture, language and history, they are more like the peoples of central Asia than the majority Han Chinese (who are 92% of China’s population). For years their homeland was ruled as a frontier colony by Beijing, but with national consciousness emerging and China racked by war, the Uyghurs gained two fleeting periods of quasi-independence, one in the 1930s and the other more significantly in the 1940s.

Despite the establishment of a Uyghur autonomous region and education with Uyghur-language instruction under Mao in the 1950s, Sino-Soviet tensions after Stalin’s death led to policy change in a region with a long border with Russia. To enhance security, Beijing began settling the area with Han Chinese. Between 1953 and 1967, their number rose from 300,000 to almost 1.8 million. By 1982, it was almost 5.3 million or roughly equal to the Uyghur population.[10] This was a policy of settler colonialism (also practised in occupied Tibet).

The last twenty years have seen the Uyghurs ever more intensively targeted by Beijing as an enemy within, an anti-state force whose sporadic resistance to assimilation and Han Chinese settlement is now routinely dismissed as Islamic terrorism. It is a savage irony, then, that Beijing has assiduously exploited the US global war on terror for its own repressive purposes.

As Sean R. Roberts, a leading authority on the Uyghur question and an astute critic of the US war on terror, has recently argued, Beijing’s ‘decision shortly after 11 September 2001 (9/11) to characterize the ongoing resistance of Uyghurs to Chinese rule as an international “terrorist threat”’ has enabled a policy of ‘cultural genocide’ whose ‘goal is to strip this region of its Uyghur characteristics so that it can be developed as part of a larger and unified concept of Chinese society.’[11]

The mass internment camps for Uyghurs, the surveillance, the indoctrination, the whole state paraphernalia of repression, are thus concerted means for ‘dismantling any aspects of Uyghur cultural practices the state deems threatening.’[12] This is what the nationalist goal of a strong state means for national minorities in China.

The oppression of the Uyghurs is a brutal example of practices familiar in other parts of the world. It is also intertwined with an Islamophobia only too familiar in the West. China is no alternative to these practices because it practises them itself.

Criticism 5: Mao’s collectivisation was not like Stalin’s because it was voluntary

Although Chinese law initially decreed that collectivisation was to be voluntary, including a right to withdraw from collectives, reality was altogether more complicated. In fact, for much of the 1950s, persistent political pressure was exerted on private landholding peasants to collectivise. As a result, by the time of the Great Leap Forward of 1958, most had joined collectives, but collectives in which - despite the formal abolition of private property rights - production continued to be organised, in practice, around quasi-private household plots.[13]

For Mao, this meant that peasants retained an obstructive degree of autonomy which had to be erased for the state to subordinate agricultural production fully and exclusively to the competitive goals of forced industrialisation. Thus, during the infamous Great Leap Forward, peasants were herded into giant communes, membership of which became compulsory, with the right to withdraw extinguished. Crucially, household-based farming was jettisoned in favour of a mandatory system of group or team farming, precipitating a slump in the production of staple crops and the catastrophic famine in which millions died.

Mao’s collectivisation was based on Stalin’s model even if it was arguably more extreme as he sought an irrevocable break with the household plot. But most significantly of all, China undertook collectivisation for the same core reason as Russia, to extract every last drop of surplus from its peasants with which to accelerate forced industrialisation and catch up with the major western economies.

Of course, this had nothing in common with the classical Marxist view, which had always maintained that collectivisation would be a long-drawn out process voluntarily undertaken by farmers when the material conditions – an advanced economy democratically run by workers supplying the countryside with the means for transcending private agriculture – had been established.[14] In the brutal hands of Mao and Stalin, collectivisation was turned into its polar opposite, into a state-enforced act of super-exploitation instead of a voluntary process of self-emancipation.

Conclusion

China is no alternative to the US because in its essentials it offers more of the same, albeit from the other side of the world. This is why the classical categories we habitually apply to the West – class struggle, national oppression, the competitive logic of capitalism and imperialism – are no less applicable to China (assuming a sufficient degree of sensitivity to the specific course of its history). But most importantly of all, it’s also why in China the working class is as much the key social force of liberation as in the West.

 


[2] Wang Yi (China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs), ‘Build a New Type of International Relations Featuring Win-Win Cooperation’ (20 June 2016)

[3] Edward Said, Orientalism (Penguin Books 2003) p.xvi

[4] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848); Xi Jinping, The Chinese Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation (Foreign Languages Press 2014)

[7] This is not of course to say that western capitalism has eliminated absolute poverty, merely that the tendency is for relative poverty to become the dominant form.

[8] This is now being studied. See Björn Gustaffson and Ding Sai, ‘Growing into Relative Income Poverty: Urban China, 1988–2013’ Social Indicators Research (2020) 147:73–94. The authors conclude that ‘Living standards in urban China are approaching those of rich countries; countries in which poverty is now typically assessed against a relative poverty line.’

[9] Thomas Piketty, Li Yang and Gabriel Zucman, ‘Income inequality is growing fast in China and making it look more like the US’ (1 April 2019)

[10] Sean R. Roberts, The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority (Princeton University Press 2020) p.49

[11] Ibid p.10 and pp.236-7

[12] Ibid p.237

[13] First argued by Frederick W. Crook in his ‘Chinese Communist Agricultural Incentive Systems and the Labor Productive Contracts to Households: 1956-1965’, Asian Survey, Vol. 13, No. 5 (May 1973) pp. 470-481. This household plot system offers the most plausible explanation for both the relative success of ‘collectivisation’ before the Great Leap Forward and the collapse in agricultural production and the subsequent famine with the turn to mandatory team farming during the Great Leap Forward.

[14] See Tony Cliff, ‘Marxism and the collectivisation of agriculture’ (1964-5) for more on this classical Marxist view.

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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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