China and the Left

A socialist forum

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Preface - April 6, 2021

     A socialist forum on China and the Left, sponsored by the Qiao Collective, was held in New York City on September 18, 2021.  The Qiao Collective was formed in January 2020 by intellectuals and activists of the Chinese diaspora, with the intention of defending Chinese socialism against imperialist aggression. 

Opening Keynote Address by the Qiao Collective

      In the Opening Keynote address on the “The U.S. Hybrid War,” Michelle of the Qiao Collective maintained that Chinese trade has long stimulated imperialist aggression, which has included the colonial concession zones, the taking of Hong Kong, the backing of Chinese nationalists, and the support of Formosa.  Imperialist aggression against China is historic. 

     She maintained that it is the nature of imperialism to suppress socialism, which she characterized as a process that includes the development of the productive forces in order to provide for the basic needs of the people.  However, in spite of this natural antagonism between imperialism and socialism, China has uplifted the standard of living of the people, which Michelle confirmed with respect to her relatives in China.  Such accomplishments are dismissed in the world, even by the left.

     Michelle maintained that U.S. imperialism is now targeting China.  There is a unilateral U.S. military buildup, unprovoked by China, in the Pacific Ocean and in the South China Sea.  It is accompanied by a false narrative of a Chinese threat. 

      The Western left has supported anti-Chinese propaganda, such that there has a emerged a left-right consensus with respect to China.  Michelle declared shame on the “left” for joining in the propaganda against China, which is part of a broader contentious discourse with respect to China, Cuba, Venezuela, Korea, and Iran.  The left makes the error of expecting perfection of socialist countries, which is impossible, because as Mao said, imperialism and class differences still exist following the triumph of a socialist revolution, establishing constraints on the development of socialism in any particular nation.  The left in the core expects perfection of countries that have undertaken this difficult task of constructing socialism in a capitalist world, while the left itself has failed to stop imperialist aggression.  Our task as leftists in the core is not to analyze characteristics of socialism in the global South, but to brake core imperialism.

Is China an Imperialist Power?

     The first panel presentation was by Yan Hairong and Barry Sautman on “China, Colonialism, Neocolonialism, and Globalized Modes of Accumulation.”  Yan teaches at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University; Sautman is a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.  They spoke against claims that China is a colonialist power.  Such claims are based on a superficial look at China’s trading relations with the Third World, but upon closer examination, it can be seen that China’s patterns of trade with the Third World depart from the colonial relation.  China’s relations with the Third World are not based on historic colonial conquest, and they are not justified with racist ideologies. 

     Moreover, China does not economically exploit the Third World.  China’s profits from oversees trade constituted 1% of its GDP, in contrast to a corresponding figure of 4% for the USA.  Moreover, most of the profits from China’s overseas trade comes from its trade with the core zone; it is unclear if China profits at all from its trade with the Third World.  China’s investments are mostly in information and technology and are not tied to raw materials exportation, as in the colonial pattern.  Chinese investments often contribute to industrialization, which is contrary to the colonial relation, in which investment reinforces the peripheral role of the colony/neocolony in the world-economy.  There is, furthermore, no brain drain toward China, as is the norm with the colonial and neocolonial powers. 

      China has historically supported the anti-colonial struggles of the Third World, and it does not sanction Third World countries for seeking a road of autonomy from the capitalist world-economy.  Indeed, China needs the support of the developing countries in the international political arena.  It is not in a position to threaten regime change.

       By many statistical measures, such as wealth per capita and capital flows per capita, China is a semi-peripheral country.  Therefore, China can only aspire to being a leading state among semi-peripheral and peripheral countries.  Although the Western median employ a discourse of Chinese colonialism/neocolonialism, it is implausible to imagine China becoming a colonial power. 

Is China Socialist?

     Yan and Sautman observed that China had privatized 80% of its firms by 2000.  However, this constitutes what they call “semi-neoliberalism,” and it does not mean that China has abandoned socialism.  The state-owned firms remain among the largest; and they are required to comply with the economic objectives of the state.  Seventy percent of the private firms have a chapter of the Communist Party.  In China, there has not been wholesale privatization, the renunciation of state planning, or the withdrawal of the state from the market.

     Tings Chak is an internationalist activist and artist, based in Sao Paulo and Shanghai, who leads the Art Department of the Tricontinental Institute.  Her presentation described the Chinese project that has attained the alleviation of extreme poverty in China.  She noted that the question of poverty has been central since 1949, at which time China was the eleventh poorest country in the world, and illiteracy among women was 90%.  So the recent gains in the elimination of extreme poverty have to be seen in the historic context of the Chinese socialist project.

     Chak reported that the multidimensional project of 2013 to 2020 was based on a comprehensive study of the various causes of poverty, through which it was recognized that economic development alone cannot overcome poverty.  It is necessary to target the poverty population for high state investment, including the construction of rural roads, the renovation of homes, and the expansion of internet access.  With recognition that you have to go to the poor to learn of their conditions, the Party sent some three million cadres to the countryside to live for three or four years.  They organized village appraisal meetings, in which peasants discussed their reality in concrete terms, identifying poor persons and their needs. 

     The Chinese program against absolute poverty was a project in grassroots democracy involving party cadres, peasants, and women, in which peasants played a protagonist role.  The elimination of poverty was not seen as an end in itself, but as a stage in the struggle for socialism.  Chak maintains that the international left can learn from the strategies of the project.

      Some 850 million people have been lifted out of poverty in China.  They are assured food and clothing, and they are guaranteed medical services, free education, and housing.  Because of the victory over poverty and because of Chinese control of the pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party today enjoys a high level of popular support.

     Sit Tsui (Jade Margaret) is an associate professor at the Institute of Rural Reconstruction of China, Southwest University, China.  She maintains that China has maintained collective ownership of banking and production, and for this reason, it has become the target of the New Cold War.  She further maintained that its success in controlling the pandemic was based in its study of traditional Chinese medicines, and on its sending of students to work with peasant organizations, building upon the previous experience of Chinese socialism in sending, in three different waves, educated youth to the countryside.

     Elias Khalil Jabbour, a Lebanese-Brazilian who identifies himself as not a Western Marxist-Leninist, is associate professor of economics at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and the author of several books on Chinese socialism.  He maintains that Chinese market socialism constitutes a new stage in the development of socialism.  It is ridiculous to call the Chinese economy capitalist, inasmuch as the private companies do not generate high levels of capital, and it is the large state companies that have disrupted the capitalist world-economy with technological innovations, such as 5G, Big Data, and artificial intelligence, disruptions that have social consequences.  He observed that the market socialism of China is the way that socialism today presents itself to the world.

Previous Commentaries

China and the Second Contradiction of Capitalism

     Bikrum Gill, assistant professor of Political Science at Virginia Tech, maintained that the transformations in China during the last seventy years are of world-historical significance, and to understand them, we should follow Samir Amin, who saw imperialism as the foundation of capitalism.  Beyond the contradiction between capital and labor, we have to understand the second contradiction, the core-peripheral contradiction.  Essential to capitalism is not only the enclosure of the worker, but also the appropriation of national wealth.  Capitalism is a project that appropriates the national wealth of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, a seizing of the wealth of non-Western peoples, giving rise to a racialized distinction concerning who can be sovereign and who cannot. 

      Gill maintains that in the context of the global capitalist reality, the nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America were permitted sovereignty only if they accepted Western property and trade, which are central to the rules of imperialism.  When a nation violates the rules of imperialism, it is sanctioned.  It is compelled to accept them, which means that it must accept semi-sovereignty. 

      From 1949 to the present, Gill maintains, China has overturned the rules of imperialism.  It did so in the first place through agrarian reform, which was built on the basis of peasant collective ownership.  The peasant path was not abdicated in 1979 with the engagement of the market.  Rather, the post-1979 turn to the market was built upon the peasant way, with recognition that the peasant path limits productive capacity.  The need to increase productive capacity in order to improve conditions made necessary a restructuring of state enterprises, in accordance with national objectives.

      Gill maintains that U.S. capital accumulation was not based on the exploitation of U.S. labor but on the appropriation of the wealth of the states of the global South.  China has an entirely different structural foundation for its capital accumulation.  China is being attacked for violating the rules of imperialism.

The Importance of China for the World

     Chris Matlhako, the Second Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, spoke of the progressive ties between China and Africa.  He observed that relations between China and Africa began in the epoch of Mao, and today, with the Belt and Road Initiative, trade between China and Africa is increasing.  China’s policy of non-interference in relation to Africa, formulated in the context of important underlying values, stands in sharp contrast to European colonialism/neocolonialism in Africa.  The notion of an imperialist/colonialist China is a fiction.

     Max Ajl, a researcher at the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment, maintained that the Maoist development model focused on self-reliance and local development, and it was a statist development model with priority on the peasantry.  He maintained that the Western development model has failed in the Third World, because it is structured to promote the outflow of capital.  As a consequence, the Third World today suffers from land inequality and a food crisis, and most of the people today are semi-proletarians.  Therefore, the Chinese solutions of the period 1948 to 1979, on which later economic gains were based, remain vibrant today: attention to the agricultural question and sovereign industrialization.

     Pawel Wargan, an organizer based in Berlin, is the Coordinator of the International Secretariat of the Progressive International.  He observed that Western narratives about China do not permit nuance; a policy failure is taken to mean systemic failure.  The same applies to other anti-imperialist nations; imperfections are presented as signs of total failure.  This is a disempowering mode of thinking, which prevents us, for example, from celebrating China’s victory over poverty. 

      Wargan maintains that for the peoples of the South, Chinese gains in constructing a new system in the context of a global imperialist system is a sign of hope.  Similarly, the West can be inspired by China.  If we were to shift from confrontation to learning, we could learn much about our own struggles.  This is the obligation of leftists in the imperial core, to learn from socialist constructions in the world and to dismantle imperialist structures. 

China, the Western Left, and the structural crisis of capitalism

     Radhika Desai is Professor of Political Studies and Director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada.  She is playing a leading role in the International Manifesto Group, which I have discussed in previous commentaries.  She is an important intellectual in the current historic moment, defined by new forms of imperialist aggression and the increasing political maturation of anti-imperialist forces. 

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      Desai maintains that Western Marxists misunderstand Marxism because they do not understand the context of capitalism.  They make an artificial distinction between capitalism and imperialism, not seeing that alongside the class relations of capitalism, there are imperialist geopolitical forces at work among nations, creating uneven development. 

      Desai explains that when we understand capitalist development on a global scale, we see that anti-imperialist resistance has included nations opting for socialism, which has to develop the productive forces in spite of imperialist opposition.  This is what Russia tried and China accomplished.  In addition, anti-imperialist resistance has led to pluripolarity, which has established in practice the necessary path to socialism.

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     Anti-imperialist resistance, Desai maintains, has constrained imperialism, with the consequence that the options of capitalism and imperialism are limited.  Following the golden age of capitalism, neoliberalism was supposed to restore capitalism, but it could not.  Capitalism today can only turn to financial speculation; it no longer contributes to the productive forces. 

      In emphasizing the need for socialist revolutions to develop the productive forces, and in identifying the turn away from investment in productive forces in neoliberal capitalism, Desai is indicating that the fall of capitalism and the rise of socialism is an economic necessity for humanity, and that the beginning of the transition can be seen in objective conditions.  The transition to socialism is happening in reality; it is not based on the hopes of idealist dreamers.

      Socialist revolutions, Desai observes, have taken place only outside the core center.  The consequence of this is that the left, even Marxists, accept the premises of imperialism, making the left ethnocentric.  She therefore is critical of “Western leftists” who ignore Third World socialism.  Lacking consciousness of a Third World viewpoint, the Western left mistakes the gains of imperialism for the gains of capitalism; not placing things in political-economic context, it does not see that socialism actually is more productive.  The productive capacity of socialism and its potential for humanity is seen in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is beginning to create a better world.  Today, most countries are trading more with China than the USA.

Venezuela

     Laura Franco spoke as a special guest and as a representative of the Simon Bolívar Institute for Peace and Solidarity in Venezuela.  She sends greeting from the people of Venezuela, who are struggling against American imperialism, to the sister people of the United States.  She noted that Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro always have made clear that the struggle is against American imperialism and not against the people of the United States.  She explained that the Simon Bolivar Institute of Venezuela, created in 2020, is dedicated to the creating a necessary world of balance, without imperialism.

      Franco maintained that only the unity of the peoples can defeat the unequal world that imperialism claims is the only possible world order.  But we know that another world is possible.  The task of the left, she said, is to speak about the reality of Venezuela and the forms of socialism that we are creating; and to speak of the reality of the mutually beneficial relations between China and Venezuela, and between China and Latin America. 

      She maintained that China has progressively become the second world power and the most important agent of growth in the capitalist world-economy, playing an especially important role in the development of infrastructure in many nations.  Therefore, the Institute is opposed to the new Cold War against China.

      In Latin America, she declared, we do not desire a break with the United States.  Our goal is the diversifying of economic relations in order to attain sovereignty.  In this process, the strategic relation with China is vital.  China is the best ally for peripheral countries that seek to free themselves from the international framework represented by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.  There are substantial differences between the IMF/World Bank and China, in that the former imposed conditions of structural adjustments that violate the principle of self-determination, whereas China does not impose conditions. 

        For the nations of Latin America, relations with China have been central to their sovereignty.  Loans from China now surpass those of the IMF and World Bank, and Chinese direct investment has become significant.  Moreover, access to Chinese markets enables Latin American nations to diversify their exports, and Latin American has a favorable balance of trade with China.  During the last two decades, China and Venezuela have increasingly developed joint cooperative projects.  In the current pandemic, China has sent medicines and medical supplies. 

      Franco declared that in the face of the problems that humanity confronts, the re-initiation of the Cold War is irresponsible.  China envisions a different world, defined by multipolarity, civilizational dialogue, and win-win relations; a world without plundering.  China stands for a multipolar world characterized by peace and solidarity.  In accordance with this vision, China contributes to the development of the global South; while it wants to de-ideologize relations with the United States.

     Franco maintains that it is important for the left to study without prejudice the sources of Chinese development.  It is foolish to assert that capitalism has been reinstated in China, which has followed socialist principles with respect to the alleviation of poverty.  And it has recently developed a project in ecological compensation, generating jobs through ecological projects.  The unbraked accumulation of the 1990s, necessary for the development of the productive forces, had ecological consequences that the West has exaggerated.  The unbraked approach to production has ceased to exist, and China now attends to issues of poverty and ecology as integral dimensions of socialist production. 

      Franco asserted that the left needs to have a constructive dialogue with the Communist Party of China, which sees its socialism as continually evolving through stages.  First, the real socialism of the period of Mao, which was characterized by fundamental gains but also limitations, which were overcome through the opening of 1978 to 2002; which had negative consequences, now being addressed through the alleviation of poverty, the development of ecological projects, and the battle against the pandemic. 

Closing keynote address by Vijay Prishad

     Vijay Prishad is the author of two books that are important historic sources with respect to the Third World project: The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, published in 2007; and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, published in 2014.  I should note, however, that the first book describes the Third World project as having had died with the imposition of the neoliberal project.  Prashad apparently had not yet seen the renewal of the Third World project beginning in the late 1990s, a process that was especially strong in Latin America, where a new political reality had emerged at the beginning of the twenty-first century, led by Hugo Chávez.

     Prashad, who is Director of Tri-Continental: Institute for Social Research, delivered the keynote address with the style of a stand-up comic, who nonetheless arrived to important insights and a rousing conclusion.

     Prashad declared that the U.S. left has failed to build a movement or attain political power; it therefore does not have the right to criticize socialist nations.  In a similar vein, he declared that no self-respecting leftist force should allow itself to be weaponized against China. 

      Prashad stated that in China, there has been constant debating within the Party concerning the right course of action, debates that were unfolding in the context of a struggle to build socialism in a wretchedly poor country.  These reflections were based on careful observation of the consequences of the projects that were being tried.  There also has been in China an emphasis on public action as well as state action.  Public organizations are constantly being formed, and public action became a noble thing.  This process of public action lends to the creation of revolutionary persons, who are actively involved in the making of a better society.  The dynamic has been seen lately in the victory over poverty and in the battle against the pandemic. 

     In response to a question, Prashad affirmed the importance of maintaining revolutionary optimism.  The key is to feel good about being part of a process.  And we should believe in the values that we have been taught.  The values of the Left are not alien to humanity; they affirm that every human being has the right to nutrition and clothing.   

Conclusion

      The socialist forum on China and the Left reconfirmed several beliefs that I have concerning China and the world-system.  First, the ethnocentrism of the Western left, which analyzes capitalist and socialism from an experiential base in the West; it does not ground its analysis in the projects of socialist construction in Third World nations.  This is part of a more general Western ethnocentrism, which does not see the colonial foundations of the modern world-system, a bias that I refer to as the colonial denial.

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     Secondly, China continues on its socialist road, in accordance with the particular conditions of China.  China illustrates, along with Cuba and Vietnam, the evolution in practice to a pragmatic form of socialism.  In a previous commentary, I discussed this stage of market socialism in Cuba.  It is a third way, between capitalism and socialism, but a third way that does not fall into social democracy or reformist capitalism, because it is rooted in socialist principles, directed by states that are under the control of the people through structures of people’s democracy.  It is a form of socialism that recognizes that production can be improved by granting space to private enterprises in determined sectors, under the planning and direction of the state.  As Bikrum Gill expressed it in response to a question from the audience, it is a question of capitalist forms under socialist logic; this is not easy to imagine or construct, but necessary.  Moreover, the socialist third way constitutes a system of production that is more advanced than capitalism in its decadent neoliberal stage, for it is developing the forces of production, whereas capitalism today cannot, as Desei notes.

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      Thirdly, China, along with Cuba and Venezuela, is playing a leading role in forging non-imperialist, mutually-beneficial relations among nations.  China, Cuba, and Venezuela are vanguard nations, constructing in practice an alternative world-system based on cooperation, which has the potential to reduce imperialism to impotence.  The Western left, hampered by ethnocentric assumptions, has not yet fully understood these dynamics.  It must awaken, in order that it can play a role in leading the peoples of the North to the taking of political power in their particular nations, so that the foreign policies of the powerful nations can be redirected toward cooperation with the alternative world system being developed by China and the Third World, thus removing the world-system from its colonial foundations and its imperialist policies.  The left must accomplish this political transformation, because it is necessary for humanity.  In my view, many of the intellectuals of the International Manifest Group see this.

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