Book review: Rebecca Karl – China’s Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretive History

A version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star.

Verso’s latest offering on China is a concise and thought-provoking overview of nearly two centuries of Chinese revolutionary movements, written by respected historian Rebecca Karl.

Starting with the Taiping Rebellion (from 1850), the book goes on to discuss the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the establishment of the Republic of China (1912), the May Fourth Movement (1919 onwards), the rises and falls of the United Front between the Communist Party and the Guomindang, the founding of the People’s Republic (1949), the Cultural Revolution, and the reform period (1978 onwards). Importantly, the author discusses the links between these processes, and explores their connection to contemporaneous events and changes in the rest of the world.

Karl provides a particularly interesting and nuanced analysis of some of the most controversial phases of modern Chinese history: the Hundred Flowers campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. Although she doesn’t shirk from describing the terrible excesses and mistakes associated with those periods, she manages to avoid the childish tropes usually found in Western historical accounts (Mao as crazed and vengeful dictator, etc). Instead, Karl describes the incredibly complex domestic and international political context, the deteriorating relationship between China and the Soviet Union, the resulting apparent need for China to be economically self-reliant; along with the heated ideological debates within the Communist Party about how to build socialism in a vast and underdeveloped country that had still yet to wipe out feudalism and undergo industrial revolution.

The turbulent history of the relationship between the Communist Party and the Guomindang is also told with skill and subtlety.

Turning to the post-1978 ‘reform and opening up’ era, Karl offers a disappointingly one-sided critique that takes its lead from the more extreme elements of the Chinese New Left. Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is portrayed as an unfortunate setback in which socialism has been undone and replaced with vicious neoliberalism and ruthless repression.

Karl’s criticism of the worrying inequality to be found in China today is of course valid and important, but it should be balanced with some discussion of how quality of life has improved for the vast majority of Chinese people. This rising baseline of human development certainly mitigates rising inequality, and helps to explain why the Chinese government retains its popularity and legitimacy.

Deng Xiaoping and his successors are criticised for a strategy in which the ‘ends’ (GDP growth and technical development) justify the ‘means’ (private capital, foreign investment, massive inequality). But this is a misrepresentation. GDP growth and technical development are not ends in themselves; they are a proxy for improving people’s lives and breaking out of backwardness. The reform period has achieved extraordinary successes in poverty alleviation, to a point where extreme poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and homelessness have been all but wiped out for the first time in China’s history. Is it so difficult to see something socialist in this?

Another complaint about the book its treatment of the Tiananmen Square incident and the situation in Xinjiang. In both cases, the author offers little more than a recapitulation of the standard Western narrative of authoritarian Han Chinese leaders riding roughshod over the will of the masses. Karl certainly doesn’t do her credibility any favours by citing the professional anti-communist and Christian fundamentalist Adrian Zenz in relation to the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Disagreements aside, ‘China’s Revolutions in the Modern World’ provides some valuable insight into modern Chinese history. An excellent book to read alongside this one is Han Suyin’s biography of Zhou Enlai, ‘Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China’, covering similar ground but from a different perspective.

Socialists should oppose the new cold war against China – a reply to Paul Mason

This article originally appeared in the Morning Star.


Living in the heartlands of imperialism, you learn to expect censure if you defend socialism and oppose war. To be attacked by the forces of the hard right is nothing unusual; as Sekou Toure observed, “if the enemy is not doing anything against you, you are not doing anything.” Hence getting trolled by Donald Trump Jr for example can comfortably be worn as a badge of honour.

To be attacked by a stalwart of the left, someone who had been a prominent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, is of course less welcome. In a recent piece for the New Statesman, Paul Mason singles out the Morning Star and Socialist Action as being “the two left-wing publications in the UK that appear committed to whitewashing China’s authoritarian form of capitalism”, highlighting articles by myself, the Morning Star editor and John Ross.

Uncritical parroting of Cold War propaganda

Mason’s key complaint against the anti-imperialist left is that it “parrots the Chinese state”, for example by labelling the Hong Kong protestors as a “violent fringe”. It’s ironic then that, in his critique, he prefers to parrot the China hawks in Washington – the likes of Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton and Peter Navarro.

Mason states for example that the Chinese state is “using forced labour, sexual violence, coercive ‘re-education’ and mass incarceration” to destroy Uyghur culture. The evidentiary basis for this narrative, which has now become hegemonic in the West, is laughably weak, on a par with the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, or that Muammar Gaddafi was using rape as a weapon of war.

These are perhaps sore points, since Mason supported the bombing of Libya and as recently as 2017 put forward the view that Iraq was ‘bluffing’ about having WMD, implying that the Iraq War was built on faulty intelligence – rather than being a knowing and callous act of imperialist domination.

The allegations regarding Chinese mistreatment of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population have been comprehensively debunked by Ajit Singh and Max Blumenthal, and there’s no need to recapitulate their work here. What’s worth noting however is the depressing familiarity of how the ‘Uyghur genocide’ story has become so widespread: separatist extremist group (in this case the World Uyghur Congress) forms an alliance with Washington-based NGO (in this case the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders), which uses US tax-payer money – via the National Endowment for Democracy – to create a slick PR campaign building mass support for a broad-based attack on an ‘enemy state’ (in this case China).

It was a very similar process that won significant support within the Western left for NATO’s wars in Yugoslavia, Libya and Syria. Interestingly, the two publications Mason cites in his recent attack – the Morning Star and Socialist Action – were among the honourable few that weren’t duped by this propaganda. Paul Mason on the other hand cannot make such a claim. Indeed his major criticism of the Western powers over Libya and Syria is the ‘powerlessness’ of their regime change operations.

By accusing others of “parroting the Chinese state”, Mason is simply trying to divert attention from his own record of parroting State Department talking points that serve specifically to build public support for wars (of both the hot and cold variety).

This isn’t taking a principled and consistent stance against injustice; it’s feeding into a dangerous propaganda campaign that’s combined with economic sanctions, naval patrols in the South China Sea, the construction of military bases, a strategy of ‘China encirclement’, diplomatic attacks, support for violent separatist movements, and an economic and political ‘delinking’ that threatens to demolish global cooperation around some of the crucial issues of our time, including climate change and pandemic containment.

Neither Washington nor Beijing?

Mason informs his readers that “the point of being a socialist is being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.” This isn’t an idea that I’ve come across in the writings of Marx, Engels or Lenin, but presumably it’s buried somewhere in the Grundrisse. Anyway, Mason’s point is that a good leftist can condemn both the US and China; that one should adopt a position of Neither Washington nor Beijing. This position – which appears to be gaining traction in parts of the left – was absurd in its original Neither Washington nor Moscow form, and it’s absurd now.

To put an equals sign between the US and China, to portray their relationship as a rivalry between imperialist blocs, is to completely misunderstand the most important question in global politics today.

The baseline foreign policy position of the US is to maintain its hegemony; to consolidate a system of international relations (economic, diplomatic, cultural and military) that benefits the US ruling class. This has its clearest expression in the wars, sanctions and destabilisation campaigns it wages, with devastating consequences, in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

China on the other hand strongly promotes peaceful cooperation and competition; it consistently opposes war; and it pushes a multipolar model of international relations – “a pattern of multiple centres of power, all with a certain capacity to influence world affairs, shaping a negotiated order” (Jenny Clegg, China’s Global Strategy).

In the words of Hugo Chávez: ”China is large but it’s not an empire. China doesn’t trample on anyone, it hasn’t invaded anyone, it doesn’t go around dropping bombs on anyone.” Equating the US and China means failing to stand up to a Cold War which is being waged specifically by the US and its allies. The target of this war is not just China but the whole concept of a democratic world order. As such, Neither Washington nor Beijing is better understood as Neither imperialism nor anti-imperialism.

The point of being a socialist

If there’s a “point to being a socialist”, it’s to work for the maximum extension of human rights to all people. Foremost among those rights are the right to life, to peace, to education, to healthcare, to freedom from poverty, to freedom from discrimination. A socialist surely believes that all people should be able to access a dignified, fulfilling, healthy and interesting life.

China has made rather impressive progress in that direction, having lifted over 800 million people out of poverty in the last few decades. At the time of the declaration of the People’s Republic in 1949, after a century of imperialist domination and civil war, China was one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average life expectancy of just over 30 and a pitifully low level of human development. Currently China’s life expectancy is 77 years and its literacy rate 100 percent. All Chinese have access to healthcare, education and modern energy. This is, without any exaggeration, the most remarkable campaign against poverty and for human rights in history.

The late Egyptian political theorist Samir Amin, who knew something of the conditions of life in the Third World, wrote of China’s successes in poverty alleviation: “No one in good faith who has travelled thousands of miles through the rich and poor regions of China, and visited many of its large cities, can fail to admit that he never encountered there anything as shaming as the unavoidable sights in the countryside and shantytowns of the third world.” (Beyond US Hegemony: Assessing the Prospects for a Multipolar World)

And yet, a prominent British leftist like Paul Mason can casually reduce the nature of the Chinese state to “China’s capitalist billionaire torturers” and “the brutal authoritarianism of the CCP.” Quite frankly, if you acknowledge China’s successes improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people but you think it’s “brutal vulture capitalism”, then perhaps you have to stop calling yourself a leftist and accept that brutal vulture capitalism is better than you thought!

Oppose imperialism and McCarthyism

The fundamental problem with Paul Mason is that, in the final analysis, he stands on the side of imperialism. Even his support for the Left Labour project – now quickly dropped in the era of Starmer – existed within a pro-imperialist framework, rejecting Corbyn’s anti-war internationalism and pushing support for NATO and Trident renewal.

Washington is currently leading the way towards a New Cold War that poses a potentially existential threat to humanity. This New Cold War is accompanied by a New McCarthyism which seeks to denigrate and isolate those people and movements that work for peace and multipolarity. In joining in with – and giving a left veneer to – this witch-hunt, Paul Mason provides proof once again that he doesn’t have any useful role to play in paving the long road to socialism.

Trolled by a Trump

This article was written for the Chinese website Guancha, and was published on 23 July 2020. The original English text appears below.


The extreme sensitivity of the US to any reporting of the real situation of China-US relations was revealed by the following event. On Tuesday 14 July, I tweeted the following:

China will soon be the world’s largest economy. It’ll be the first nation to reach that status whose rise isn’t built on colonialism, slavery & genocide, but rather on hard work, good economics & effective governance. This should earn China love, but it earns it hate in the West.

This statement was almost immediately met with a fierce attack on Twitter by the son of the US president, Donald Trump Jr!

Why this extreme sensitivity from a Trump family member about a statement of obvious truth? Of course, there’s only so much you can say in Twitter’s 280 characters, but I wanted to have some input into the discussion in the West about the so-called ‘China threat’. Although there has been increasing hostility to China’s rise over the course of the past decade – starting with the launch of the ‘Pivot to Asia’ by the Obama administration in 2011 – anti-China rhetoric in the West has reached new levels of hysteria this year.

Western government and media are both constantly attacking China on the following false lines:

  1. The National Security Law is an attack on the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and violates China’s legal obligations under the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984.
  2. The Uyghur people are being subjected to torture, mass incarceration and forced sterilisation.
  3. China caused the Covid-19 pandemic and didn’t do enough to stop it spreading.
  4. Chinese technology companies are working to provide their government with sensitive data about other countries.
  5. China uses “predatory economic practices” (in the words of Mike Pompeo) to give its companies an unfair advantage in global competition.

Since March this year, when the pandemic struck New York, this propaganda has become so loud as to be deafening, as the US administration desperately tries to find a way to deflect US attention away from its terrible failure to contain the virus. The US propaganda echoes across the Atlantic, as the British government – committed to a ‘Hard Brexit’ in which it withdraws from the EU Single Market and Customs Union – follows instructions from the US in the hope that this will lead to a good US-UK trade deal.

Because people in Britain, where I live, are exposed to anti-China propaganda on a daily basis, myself and others try to put forward another, more accurate, side to the story: to show people that China’s rise doesn’t need to be considered as a threat; that China deserves credit for its achievements in overcoming the Century of Humiliation, joining the ranks of the technologically-advanced countries, and lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. We hope to promote the idea that friendly win-win cooperation between the world’s great countries is both possible and desirable.

So that’s the context for sending the tweet mentioned above. This tweet quickly became popular, with several thousand ‘likes’. Somehow, after a few hours, it reached the feed of a certain Donald Trump Jr, son of the sitting US president. Trump Jr reposted the tweet, along with the comment:

Who’s gonna tell him? This is literally the most laughable thing on twitter today. The communists spreading their propaganda hard today.

For the next 48 hours, my Twitter notifications became completely unusable, as I was receiving many hundreds of messages an hour from Trump supporters in the US telling me I was an idiot, that China is a colonial power, that China has only become successful by copying American technology, and so on.

Somewhat ironically, a large number of these Trump supporters criticised me for not caring about the human rights of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, claiming they were being denied freedom of worship. Given that Trump introduced a Muslim travel ban in 2017; given that Mike Pompeo is well known for his horrible anti-Muslim rhetoric; and given the US record in bombing Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, it may seem surprising that American right-wingers are so concerned about the Uyghur people. The reality is of course that they’re not concerned about the Uyghur people at all – they’re simply looking for any opportunity to criticise and slander the People’s Republic of China.

Thankfully some prominent and intelligent people, not only in the West but in China, for example Zhao Lijian and Wang Wen, supported my message, and this online Twitter battle wasn’t too one-sided.

This social media fight between myself and Donald Trump Jr has a much broader significance, and is in fact a reflection of the key global political struggle of this era: between the forces of peaceful multipolarity and ‘win-win’ development on the one hand, and the forces of aggressive hegemonism on the other.

The reason that China’s rise, when translated into the language of US policymakers, is a ‘China threat’ is that China’s emergence as a major economic power means that the era of US unipolar dominance is coming to an end. It is simply not realistic to expect that the global economy and the framework of international relations will continue to operate primarily in the interests of the US (or more specifically, the US ruling class).

Working through the UN, the G20, the WTO, along with regional organisations such as the SCO, and developing the broadest possible economic cooperation via the Belt and Road initiative, China is helping to construct a more democratic, multipolar system of international relations. This is a “rising tide that lifts all boats” – a world in which multiple centres of power, in both competition and cooperation, create an equilibrium that promotes long-term peace and rising prosperity.

Unfortunately, elements of the US ruling class are struggling to adapt to this new reality, hoping instead that they can create a ‘New American Century’. In terms of global politics, this is the real meaning of ‘Make America Great Again’: Make America Hegemonic Again. Many of these forces have oriented to Donald Trump, because his idea of ‘greatness’ is the easy road, denying the need for any major strategic shift, denying the inevitable nature of a new global reality. Indeed as Kishore Mahbubani has written, Trump “has divided America on all his policies, except one: his trade and technological war against China.”

A clash of civilisations is neither necessary nor inevitable. If the fundamental national interest of both the US and China is to improve the wellbeing of their populations, it’s obvious that the two countries should cooperate towards that end and avoid major conflict. Humanity faces several very serious problems – climate change, war, hunger and pandemics among them – and they require global cooperation to solve.

The key political task for progressive and pro-peace forces worldwide is to unite to oppose a New Cold War. As Samir Amin put it, “the creation of a front against hegemonism is the number one priority today, as the creation of an anti-Nazi alliance was the number one priority yesterday”.

Towards this end, some activists have set up an international initiative called No to the New Cold War, which will have its first public meeting on Saturday 25 July (9pm CST). Speakers at this meeting include Wang Wen, Yang Hanyi, Martin Jacques, John Ross, US peace activist Medea Benjamin, Venezuelan minister Carlos Ron, and the Chinese-American group Qiao Collective.

More information can be found at www.nocoldwar.org

Labour should not be parroting Trump’s anti-China Cold War rhetoric

This article originally appeared in the Morning Star


There’s been a worrying upsurge in anti-China propaganda on both sides of the Atlantic. While imperialist hostility towards China’s rise has become an intrinsic characteristic of the current era – particularly since the launch of the ‘Pivot to Asia’ by the Obama administration in 2011 – the rhetoric has become increasingly hysterical and absurd over the last few months.

There are currently four main lines of attack being pushed on a daily basis by the US and British ruling classes:

  1. The newly-introduced National Security Law is an attack on the basic freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and violates China’s legal obligations under the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984.
  2. The Uyghur population of Xinjiang is being repressed in any number of indescribably brutal ways, including through mass incarceration in ‘re-education camps’ and forced sterilisation.
  3. China – as a result of its secrecy, incompetence, vindictiveness, or some combination thereof – didn’t give the world sufficient warning of the Covid-19 outbreak and must therefore bear responsibility for the havoc being wreaked by the pandemic.
  4. China’s technology companies are providing, or seek to provide, secret information to the Chinese state, and therefore their involvement in Western economies should be actively restricted.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the US government leading the charge. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accuses China of having “broken multiple international commitments including those to the WHO, the WTO, the United Nations and the people of Hong Kong”. He rails against China’s “predatory economic practices, such as trying to force nations to do business with Huawei, an arm of the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state.”

This is a bi-partisan position in the US, sadly. Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden is keen to prove he’s also every bit the China hawk, threatening sanctions and promoting a zany and totally unfounded smear about the forced sterilisation of Uyghur women. Even progressive congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have joined in with this mindless China-bashing.

In both the US and Britain, relations with China are at their lowest point for decades. It’s no surprise that the Boris Johnson government, instinctively Atlanticist and desperately pursuing a post-Brexit trade agreement with the US at almost any cost, is largely parroting Trump’s line.

Having agreed in January to Huawei having a role in the development of Britain’s 5G infrastructure, the government is now considering dropping Huawei so as not to be “vulnerable to a high-risk state vendor”. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has stated there’ll be “no return to business as usual” in Britain’s relations with China. Meanwhile, leading government officials have been vocal in their criticism of Hong Kong’s new National Security Law, going so far as to offer some three million Hong Kong residents the opportunity to settle in Britain and apply for citizenship.

Those of us who stand for peace and for mutually beneficial cooperation between Britain and China might hope that the Labour Party would provide some meaningful opposition to the government’s reckless behaviour. Unfortunately the indications thus far are that Labour is enthusiastically climbing aboard the New Cold War bandwagon.

Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy has been actively promoting anti-China propaganda and pushing the Tories to take a harder stance against China, for example urging that action be taken against British businesses that are “complicit in the repression” in Hong Kong (ie that don’t actively support the riots).

While Nandy’s words might bring disappointment to socialists, progressives and peace activists, they were at least welcome in certain quarters: notorious right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes celebrated the “welcome change in Labour Party policy – standing up to, rather than cosying up to despotic regimes.”

Nandy’s position is however positively nuanced in comparison to that of Stephen Kinnock, Shadow Minister for Asia and the Pacific, who accuses China of promoting its “model of responsive authoritarian government” worldwide. Kinnock describes the ‘golden era’ of Sino-British relations, inaugurated during the Cameron government, as being an “abject failure” in which Britain had “rolled out the red carpet for China and got very very little in return”.

It therefore seems that the Labour leadership in its current incarnation is moving towards unambiguous support for the US-led New Cold War on China. It’s particularly demoralising that, with a few honourable exceptions, most notably Diane Abbott, the Labour left isn’t currently putting up any serious resistance to this dangerous trajectory.

While very few Labour MPs have spoken of the dangers of a New Cold War, John McDonnell has recorded a histrionic (and hopelessly one-sided) denunciation of the Chinese state’s alleged mistreatment of the Uyghur Muslims. Apsana Begum has repeated these tropes in parliament, claiming that when the Chinese government celebrates its successful suppression of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement’s murderous bombing campaign, its “definition of terrorism is troublingly vague”. The usually-excellent Claudia Webbe has called on the government to “oppose state-sanctioned violence” in Hong Kong, choosing to ignore the United States-sanctioned violence of separatist protestors.

This is all frankly disastrous and worrying. The US administration is leading a very serious escalation of the New Cold War, trying to isolate China, trying to demonise it, trying to undermine it and to prevent its economic rise. The propaganda ‘soft war’ with regard to Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Covid-19 is combined with moves towards economic ‘decoupling’ along with ‘hard war’ encirclement measures, including ramped up and provocative patrols in the South China Sea.

A New Cold War will bring no benefit whatsoever to ordinary British people. It will mean fewer jobs, reduced investment, reduced export markets and increased prices on imports. All this will be accompanied by rising anti-Asian racism and a renewed momentum along the ideological dead-end of empire nostalgia. Even the relatively more sane representatives of the ruling class such as Jeffrey Sachs recognise the danger of this wave of sinophobia “spiralling into greater controversy and greater danger”, resulting in a US-China Cold War that’s “a bigger global threat than the coronavirus.”

What British people need to do, in the interests of peace and progress, is to push for respectful, friendly and mutually beneficial relations with China. Opposing the New Cold War must become a key priority for the labour and anti-war movements.


Activists in Britain and the US are organising an international online meeting against the New Cold War, to take place on Saturday 25 July at 2pm BST. Speakers include Medea Benjamin, Vijay Prashad, Qiao Collective, Wang Wen, Jenny Clegg and Kate Hudson. More info at www.nocoldwar.org

Video: Jude Woodward – The US vs China: Asia’s New Cold War?

Invent the Future has launched a new Youtube channel, the first video from which features a summary of Jude Woodward’s crucially important 2017 book, ‘The US vs China: Asia’s New Cold War?’

At a time where the US is moving aggressively and dangerously towards a new cold war with China, this book could hardly be more relevant.

Karl Marx in Wuhan: how Chinese socialism is defeating COVID-19

The initial outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) took place in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, in early January 2020. The epidemic was limited almost entirely to China until a month later, when it flared up in Iran, South Korea, Japan and Italy. By 11 March, it was clear that sustained community-level transmission of the virus was occurring in multiple regions of the world, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it a pandemic. With the virus spreading throughout Europe and North America, there is now a serious possibility that COVID-19 will infect a large proportion of the global population and cause the early death of millions of people. It is a global health emergency of almost unprecedented proportions.

China’s successes containing the virus

In the absence of a vaccine or cure, the only way to defeat a viral epidemic is to drastically reduce contagion, and this is achieved through rigorous testing, contact tracing, isolation of patients, and social distancing for the wider population.

Once it understood the nature and scope of the crisis, the Chinese government took swift, uncompromising action. A total lockdown was imposed in Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak, on 23 January, at which point there were around 800 confirmed cases. Tens of millions of people were required to stay indoors. Schools and workplaces were closed, and sporting and cultural events were cancelled. In the words of Bruce Aylward, epidemiologist and senior advisor to the Director General of WHO, “old-fashioned public health tools” were deployed “with a rigour and innovation of approach on a scale that we’ve never seen in history.”

The report of the WHO-China Joint Mission, conducted in late February, concluded that “in the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” The report noted that up-to-date public health information was regularly and widely distributed through multiple channels; there was a coordinated nationwide effort to get sufficient medical supplies to Hubei; and local authorities worked to ensure a stable supply of basic goods and to prevent speculation and hoarding.

The government announced immediately that testing and treatment – including expensive and sophisticated techniques such as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation – would be free to all, and it immediately introduced various measures to mitigate the effect on people’s daily lives (for example pausing mortgage and credit card payments, and providing subsidies to ensure continued payment of wages). Food shopping moved completely online, and provincial authorities and Communist Party of China (CPC) local branches coordinated to ensure every home received food packages and that people on medication received their prescriptions.

More than 30,000 doctors and nurses were sent to Wuhan from across China. Forty-five hospitals were designated as COVID-19 treatment centres, 12 temporary hospitals were converted from exhibition centres and similar buildings, and two brand new hospitals (with a capacity of 1,000 and 1,300 beds) were constructed from the ground up in a matter of days. The health system prioritised keeping people alive, scaling up the production of ventilators and adding capacity across the range of treatment and detection options. Dr Aylward remarked: “the Chinese are really good at keeping people alive with this disease.”

Public health officials attempted to trace every single confirmed case, and then tested everyone that had come into contact with the infected person, in line with the WHO’s clear message to “test, test, test”.

China’s containment effort has been facilitated by the extensive use of advanced technology. Temperature checking stations have been set up throughout the country, and people have been asked to install a smartphone app that provides information, allows users to check and report symptoms, and enables the health authorities to monitor the spread of the disease.

Artificial intelligence is being widely deployed; for example a prediction model “is helping health care authorities in Chongqing and Shenzhen predict outbreaks ahead of time with accuracy rates of more than 90 per cent.” Meanwhile Chinese tech giants have made crucial services available for the fight against COVID-19. “Alibaba Cloud has offered AI computing capabilities to public research institutions for free to support virus gene sequencing, new drug R&D and protein screenings. Baidu has opened up LinearFold, its RNA prediction algorithm, to genetic testing agencies, epidemic prevention centres and research institutes around the world. Neusoft Medical donated high-end CT scanners, AI medical imaging, cloud platform and remote advanced post-processing software to hospitals in Wuhan.”

Robots have been put to use delivering meals to people under quarantine. Huawei and China Telecom worked together to set up a 5G-enabled remote video diagnostic centre, enabling medical staff to conduct remote online consultations.

In a clear sign of its commitment to international cooperation to contain the virus, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control sequenced the entire COVID-19 genome and published it within a few days of the virus being identified. By comparison, it took two months for the genome to be sequenced during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

China’s “incredibly difficult measures” were recognised by the WHO as having probably prevented hundreds of thousands of cases. The crisis reached its peak in early February, when new confirmed cases were increasing at a rate of around 3,000 per day. The curve started to flatten in mid-February, and was almost completely flat by the beginning of March: in the first three weeks of March, case numbers increased from 80,026 to 81,008, and at the time of writing (in late March), almost all new cases in China are imported rather than domestically transmitted.

Containment measures successfully prevented any really serious outbreak in China outside Hubei. The worst affected province after Hubei has been Guangdong, a vast province of 113 million people in Southern China, where by late March there had been around 1,400 confirmed cases and just eight deaths. At the time of writing, two of the provinces neighbouring Hubei, Hunan and Anhui, have zero active confirmed cases.

With the outbreak clearly under control in China, lockdown measures are being eased and people are starting to return to normal life, while remaining vigilant to the possibility of a resurgence of the virus. China’s extraordinary response to COVID-19, although it came at significant economic and human cost, has provided an indispensable lesson to the rest of the world in how to tackle this pandemic. An epidemiological analysis in The Lancet stated: “What has happened in China shows that quarantine, social distancing, and isolation of infected populations can contain the epidemic. This impact of the COVID-19 response in China is encouraging for the many countries where COVID-19 is beginning to spread.”

Continue reading Karl Marx in Wuhan: how Chinese socialism is defeating COVID-19

Building solidarity and friendship with China: notes on a trip to the People’s Republic

Between 27 December and 7 January, I joined a China Silk Road Tour led by former US congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and organised by Chinese-American activist Lee Siu Hin. There were various strands of political ideology to be found among the 20 delegates, but we were united in our opposition to the growing US-led Cold War, which is directed primarily at China and which seeks to prevent the emergence of a multipolar world.

We spent around three days each in Beijing, Xi’an (capital of Shaanxi province, and one of the oldest cities in China), Dunhuang (a small oasis city that served as an important stop on the ancient Silk Road) and Ürümqi (capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region). China is enormous, but this itinerary – stretching across the north of the country – allowed us to develop some understanding of its diversity.

Housing

Walking around in Beijing, Xi’an, Dunhuang and Ürümqi, one thing that immediately strikes you is how clean, modern, safe and well-organised Chinese cities are. The metro is cheap, extensive, efficient, and easy to navigate. There are public toilets everywhere. The streets are spotless. People come across as friendly and confident. Remarkably, you don’t see beggars or people sleeping on the street. Those in the delegation who live in London or New York all commented on the contrast.

In meetings with the Chinese Academy of Marxism and the Beijing People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, we were able to find out more about the housing situation in China. Around 90 percent of Chinese families own their own homes (and the majority of these homes are owned outright, without a mortgage). The remaining 10 percent live in heavily subsidised social housing, or in accommodation provided to migrant workers by their employers. The latter group – migrant workers from rural areas – also benefit from the fact that the Chinese Revolution wiped out feudalism and the landlord system in the countryside, so if work dries up in the city, migrant workers have the option of going back to their land. As a result, there are none of the urban slums that are so commonplace in a lot of Asian countries.

The housing situation is by no means perfect – significant inequality has opened up, particularly between urban residents (who were able to buy their apartments at very low cost during the first phase of housing reform) and villagers and migrants; however, the government is working hard to resolve various housing-related problems: preventing speculation, liberalising the hukuo (household registration) system, building millions of units of low-cost social housing, and investing heavily in the development of smaller inland cities so as to even out the imbalance between the big East Coast cities and the rest of the country.

To basically solve the problem of homelessness in an enormous Asian country of 1.3 billion people is a remarkable accomplishment. It’s extremely difficult for most other countries in Asia and Africa – those that didn’t have thoroughgoing land revolutions – to meaningfully tackle homelessness. Meanwhile in the developed capitalist countries, the resources exist to address the problem, but the political system is built around the needs of the rich and therefore homelessness is simply never a priority. In short, it’s one of the huge socio-economic problems that only socialism has solved.

Addressing inequality

Housing inequality is connected to the broader issue of inequality between urban and rural areas, between coastal and inland zones, and between city residents and migrant workers. The Chinese development model in the 1980s and 1990s was based on allowing the major trading cities on the south-eastern coast to develop first, attracting foreign capital and new technology by offering a huge pool of low-cost, well-educated and diligent workers. Many of these workers were migrants – typically people in their 20s – who would come from the countryside because they could earn more in low-paid factory work than they could from their land (with 20 percent of the world’s population but only 6 percent of its arable land, overpopulation of the countryside has been an intractable problem in China for many centuries).

The migrant worker system is particularly attractive for foreign capital, because it means companies can base their pay scales on the costs of a single worker rather than a whole family, and because it’s consistent with seasonal or casual work (since migrant workers simply go back to the village when labour supply exceeds demand).

The Chinese government recognises that this system has fomented inequality and that the millions of migrant workers have benefitted far less from China’s rapid growth than most of the rest of the population. However, in a situation where it had practically zero capital and desperately needed to attract investment to develop its technology and integrate into the global economy, China had little choice but to implement pro-capital policies. From the late 1990s, China has had the material base to deliver much improved living conditions for all workers.

In terms of protecting the rights of migrant workers in the big cities, the two major policy strands are to mandate higher pay and better conditions, and to gradually replace the hukuo system with a residency permit that will allow long-term migrant workers access to the full range of rights and services provided to city residents.

The government is also pursuing a broader rebalancing strategy, promoting the development of smaller cities in the west, north and centre of the country. Towards this aim, there has been incredible infrastructure development over the last decade. The whole country is connected via high-speed rail and road. Modern energy is available everywhere, and internet access is practically universal. Although Xinjiang has historically been the poorest region of the country, we found it to be almost as modern and developed as Beijing, with good quality roads, 4G internet, plentiful housing, and a newly-opened metro system.

In Dunhuang, a small city of around 180,000 people, we travelled on the local network of electric buses, which run regularly through the city. We also happened upon the Gansu Dunhuang Solar Park, one of the big new industries in the area. It’s utterly enormous, with an annual net energy output of around 80 GWh. China was responsible for 32 percent of global renewable energy investment last year, and is increasingly recognised as the world leader in preventing climate catastrophe. Its move to green development fits perfectly with its rebalancing strategy, and solar parks and other alternative energy plants are being set up throughout the country.

We took the high-speed train from Beijing to Xi’an, and from Liuyuan (Gansu) to Ürümqi. The Beijing-Xi’an journey was cheap, comfortable and fast, taking a little over four hours to cover a distance approximately equal to that between New York City and Chicago – which journey would take at least 19 hours by train and cost several times more. China’s state-owned high speed rail network is by far the largest in the world; in fact it accounts for two-thirds of global HSR capacity. CRRC, the state-owned train manufacturer, is currently working on magnetic levitation trains that will travel at 600km/h – approximately twice the speed of current HSR.

China’s vision for the coming 20-30 years focuses on continuing this process of rebalancing, spreading prosperity throughout the country, and moving to a model of development that’s highly innovative, technological, ecological, localised and networked.

Air pollution

Many people associate China with terrifying levels of pollution. Our experience was that the air pollution in Beijing is noticeable but not terrible. Residents all say it’s improved massively in recent years. We learned at the Beijing People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries that the current mayor of Beijing, Chen Jining, is an environmental engineer who got his PhD at Imperial College London and who was China’s environment minister from 2015 to 2017. He has been strongly focused on reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and establishing Beijing as a global innovator in the fight against environmental catastrophe. One recent innovation has been to ban the purchase of internal combustion-based cars – that is, if you buy a new car, it has to run on new energy.

Similar processes are taking place throughout China, as the government tries to simultaneously tackle air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Although China’s rapid economic growth has been based in no small part on its abundant supply of cheap coal, coal takes up an ever-decreasing share of its energy mix (down from 80 percent to 60 percent in the last decade), and China is by far the biggest investor and innovator in solar and wind energy.

Mistreatment of Muslims

Western media has built a powerful narrative of Chinese oppression of its Muslim minority. Most notably, we’re told of the existence of ‘concentration camps’ in Xinjiang, where millions of people are denied their religious and human rights. The US House of Representatives recently passed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, calling for sanctions to be imposed against China because of the alleged detention of millions of Uighur Muslims.

Urumqi skyline

Our delegation wasn’t a fact-finding mission; we didn’t have a specific aim to verify the truth of these various allegations. We did however walk freely around Ürümqi and the Muslim quarter in Xi’an, and failed to see any evidence of religious or ethnic oppression. In Ürümqi one sees mosques everywhere; indeed Xinjiang has one of the highest number of mosques per capita in the world. Walking well off the beaten track, we saw hundreds of Chinese Muslims, wearing their distinctive Uighur dress (including headscarves for many women) and going about their lives without any indication that they were living in fear of persecution. We ate in Uighur restaurants, in which halal food was served and alcohol wasn’t available.

What’s true is that the levels of security in Ürümqi are much higher than the other places we visited – you walk through metal detectors and have your bag x-rayed when going into any tourist spot, train station or major shopping area. This is a response to a wave of terrorist attacks conducted by al Qaeda-aligned groups since the 1990s. China has attempted to tackle terrorism through a holistic approach involving security, poverty alleviation and education. It is the latter part which has been most controversial within the western human rights community. Where China is attempting to tackle religious extremism with what it considers to be a fairly soft touch – requiring people to attend courses on religious tolerance (as opposed to, say, holding people captive for years on Guantanamo and subjecting them to vicious torture) – this has been portrayed as a system of arbitrary mass incarceration. Such far-fetched Cold War propaganda has been helpfully debunked by investigative journalists Ajit Singh and Max Blumenthal. The success of the anti-terrorism campaign is indicated by the fact that there hasn’t been a terror attack in Xinjiang for the last three years.

Dancing in the main square in Urumqi

Human rights

Soon after the end of our trip, the news came out that Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth had been denied entry to Hong Kong, where he was planning to release a report “spotlighting Beijing’s deepening assault on international efforts to uphold human rights”. This led to a chorus of protests in the media about Chinese abuse of human rights.

One thing that’s fairly obvious as you travel around China and talk to ordinary Chinese people is that the Chinese government is very much focused on human rights. First and foremost among these is the right to life: to eat, to work, to get an education, to receive good quality healthcare, to live in a secure home, to enjoy leisure time, to pursue one’s interests. In terms of these crucial rights, no state in history has made as powerful a contribution as that of the People’s Republic of China – no state in history has lifted so many out of poverty, or provided education and housing for so many, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion and income level. The enormous popularity of the Chinese government within China is down to its record in delivering on people’s needs. Meanwhile there’s very little demand for a western-style parliamentary system, because the particular configuration of political forces that prefigured the parliamentary system in the early days of European capitalism doesn’t prevail in China.

The activities of Human Rights Watch in relation to China must be considered in terms of the overall geopolitical situation. US capital is leading a ‘full-court press’ against China, with the aim of preventing (or at least decelerating) its rise. Ultimately the western capitalist countries would like to see the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party government and its replacement with a regime that’s willing to put the Chinese people and resources at the service of multinational capital. They want a neo-colonial relationship with China, which ultimately would constitute a disastrous blow of untold proportions for the human rights of the Chinese people. This is the context of the ‘Pivot to Asia’, of Trump’s trade war, of the media frenzy about Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and of the endless reports issued by the likes of Kenneth Roth.

Say no to the New Cold War

While our delegation was in Gansu, on 3 January, we received the news that Iranian general Qasem Soleimani had been murdered by US forces in Iraq. This reckless and illegal act marks a significant escalation against Iran. It’s almost certainly not a coincidence that, just a few days previously, Iran, China and Russia launched their first joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman. An alliance of China, Russia and Iran – working closely with progressive Latin America, South Africa, Vietnam, Syria, Iraq, Belarus and others – is a real threat to US attempts to reassert its global dominance. Trump’s murder of Soleimani should therefore be seen not only as an attack on the people of Iran but on the entire multipolar project, on the right of nations to determine their own development paths.

With the new Cold Warriors going all out to demonise and undermine China, it’s more important than ever to build solidarity and friendship with the People’s Republic.

China leads the way in tackling climate breakdown

We must strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. We will be more conscientious in promoting green, circular, and low-carbon development. We will never again seek economic growth at the cost of the environment. (Xi Jinping)1

The cost of development

Few events in human history have resonated throughout the world as profoundly as the Chinese revolution. Standing in Tiananmen Square on 1 October 1949, pronouncing the birth of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong said “the Chinese people have stood up”. In standing up, in building a modern socialist society and throwing off the shackles of feudalism, colonialism, backwardness, illiteracy and grinding poverty, China has blazed a trail for the entire Global South. Lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty has been described even by ardent capitalists as “the greatest leap to overcome poverty in history”.2

On all key indicators, China has made extraordinary progress since 1949, and its performance has far outstripped other developing countries. Life expectancy now exceeds 76,3 more than double what it was in 1949.4 Adult literacy stands at 97 percent (for 15-24 year olds it’s 100 percent).5 The UN’s World Food Programme website states: “By lifting millions out of hunger, the country met its Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015 and reduced the global hunger rate by two thirds.”6 China is on the cusp of having completely eradicated extreme poverty.7 One hundred percent of the population has access to electricity.8 The UN Development Programme (UNDP) describes China’s development as having generated “the most rapid decline in absolute poverty ever witnessed”.9 The scale of these achievements can perhaps be best understood by comparison with India – a neighbouring country with a similar population size and at an equivalent stage of development in 1949. India currently has a life expectancy of 69, a literacy rate of 74 percent, and an electricity access rate of 85 percent.

But in environmental terms, this progress has come at a cost. Just as economic development in Europe and the Americas was fuelled by the voracious burning of fossil fuels, China’s development has been built to a significant degree on ‘Old King Coal’, the most polluting and emissions-intensive of the fossil fuels. In 2010, coal made up around 80 percent of China’s energy mix. Environmental law expert Barbara Finamore notes that “coal, plentiful and cheap, was the energy source of choice, not just for power plants, but also for direct combustion by heavy industry and for heating and cooking in people’s homes.”10

The choice to use coal was not a simple case of ignorance or lack of responsibility; it was a matter of development by any means necessary. China has been able to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty whilst simultaneously establishing itself as a global leader in science and technology. This process required vast energy consumption at minimal expenditure. Schools, hospitals, roads, trains, factories and laboratories all need energy to build and operate. Chinese people now have energy in their homes, powering fridges, lights and washing machines – indispensable components of modern life.

Furthermore, China’s ability to attract foreign investment and learn from US, European and Japanese technology was in no small measure based on turning itself into a manufacturing hub to which the advanced capitalist countries exported their production processes. Martin Jacques observes that “40 per cent of China’s energy goes into producing exports for Western markets, in other words, the source [of China’s greenhouse gas emissions] is multinationals rather than Chinese firms. The West has, in effect, exported part of its own greenhouse emissions to China.”11 The developed countries have been able to “socialise and export the costs of environmental destruction”,12 reducing domestic pollution and emissions whilst maintaining unsustainable levels of consumption.

The choice facing China in the last decades of the 20th century was between economic development with environmental degradation, or underdevelopment with environmental conservation. Western environmentalists can’t reasonably complain about the Chinese people opting for the former. Development is recognised by the UN as a human right.13 Advanced countries fuelled their own industrial revolutions with coal and oil; they bear responsibility for the bulk of currently existing atmospheric greenhouse gases (the US and Europe have contributed to just over half the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions since 1850).14 It would be hypocritical in the extreme for these countries to tell poor countries that they don’t have the right to develop, to feed, clothe, house and educate people. If advanced countries want developing countries to leapfrog fossil fuel-based development, the primary responsibility is on them to provide the technology and the finance – which principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is recognised in the various international agreements on limiting climate change, but which has yet to manifest itself in reality.

Continue reading China leads the way in tackling climate breakdown

Is China the new imperialist force in Africa?

The recent high-profile summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), held in Beijing at the beginning of September, has inspired some familiar accusations in the North American and West European press: China is the new colonial power in Africa; China is attempting to dominate African land and resources; Africa is becoming entangled in a Beijing-devised debt trap; Chinese investment in Africa only benefits China; and so on.

This article addresses these accusations and concludes that they are based on shaky foundations; that China is by no means an imperialist power; that increasing Africa-China relations are of significant benefit to the people of Africa; that Chinese assistance and investment could well be the key factor in breaking the cycle of underdevelopment and poverty in Africa.

What is imperialism?

If we’re going to understand whether or not China is imperialist, it’s a good idea to agree what imperialism is, since the word suffers from fairly widespread misinterpretation. Based on the characteristics of imperialism outlined in Lenin’s classic study, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, many conclude that China is an imperialist country. After all, it has several enormous companies that could reasonably be described as monopolies; it has a handful of very large (state-owned) banks that have significant influence on investment; and it’s increasingly engaged in the ‘export of capital’, investing in business operations around the world.

However, it should be obvious enough that no definition of the word imperialism is useful if it doesn’t include the concept of domination. The word derives from the Latin imperium, meaning supreme authority, or empire. There is no imperialism without empire. Which is not to say that imperialism no longer exists now that the colonial era is (for the most part) finished; it’s perfectly possible to maintain a de facto empire, for example through participating in the domination of another country’s markets.

A reasonable, concise definition of imperialism is put forward by the political analyst Stephen Gowans: “imperialism is a process of domination guided by economic interests.”1 This process of domination can be characterised as “the activity, enterprise and methodology of building empires”. However, empires “can be declared and formal, or undeclared and informal, or both. Whatever form they take, empires are structures predicated on systems of domination, of one country or nation over another.” For example, the US has few actual colonies, but it unquestionably uses its enormous economic and political muscle to dominate other countries, with a view to creating conditions for its own capitalist class to more rapidly expand its capital.

The recently-deceased Egyptian economist Samir Amin describes how “the countries in the dominant capitalist centre” – by which he means the US, Europe and Japan – leverage “technological development, access to natural resources, the global financial system, dissemination of information, and weapons of mass destruction” in order to dominate the planet and prevent the emergence of any state or movement that could impede this domination. The vast accumulation of capital in the imperialist heartlands has its counterpart in a ‘lumpen-development’ in much of the rest of the world – “a dizzying growth of subsistence activities, called the informal sphere — otherwise called the pauperisation associated with the unilateral logic of accumulation of capital.”2

The US goes to considerable lengths to build a global economic order that suits its own interests, and in so doing it actively diminishes the sovereignty of other countries. The most extreme – but sadly not uncommon – example of this is imperialist war: using military means to secure economic and political outcomes, such as we have seen recently in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.

We can perhaps then condense the idea of imperialism down to a fundamentally unequal relationship between countries (or blocs of countries) at differing levels of development, with the more developed countries using their military and financial power to produce outcomes that favour themselves and harm the less developed countries.

If we can prove that China is involved in this type of activity – that it seeks to dominate foreign markets and resources, that it uses its growing economic strength to affect political decisions in poorer countries, that it engages in wars (overt or covert) to secure its own interests – it would then be reasonable to conclude that China is indeed an imperialist country and that its engagement with Africa is an example of imperialism.

What imperialism in Africa looks like

At this point we’ll take a brief look at what imperialism in Africa has looked like in the past. Perhaps, in so doing, we’ll stumble upon some characteristics that can also be found in China’s relationship with Africa today.

In his classic 1972 study How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the Guyanese activist-scholar Walter Rodney catalogues Europe’s relationship with Africa from the early days of the transatlantic slave trade through to the post-colonial era. The story that emerges is one of systematic plunder and an active underdevelopment that helped to furnish European development.

Rodney notes that, in the 16th century, several areas of Africa were on a path of technical progress similar to, albeit slightly behind, Western Europe: “Several historians of Africa have pointed out that after surveying the developed areas of the continent in the 15th century and those within Europe at the same date, the difference between the two was in no way to Africa’s discredit. Indeed, the first Europeans to reach West and East Africa by sea were the ones who indicated that in most respects African development was comparable to that which they knew.”3

However, the European powers were able to use certain advances – most notably in the areas of shipbuilding and weapons manufacture – to establish a profoundly unequal trade relationship with Africa. This, along with the need to find a capable labour force for the new American colonies, laid the ground for the transatlantic slave trade, which is estimated to have denuded the African continent of up to half its population. Rodney poses the question: “What would have been Britain’s level of development had millions of its people been put to work as slaves outside of their homeland over a period of four centuries?”

The conversion of Africa into a resource pool for European capital was a powerful engine of European capitalist growth in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. As Marx famously wrote, “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”4

The colonial occupation of Africa, which lasted from the 1880s until the wave of liberation in the second half of the 20th century, served to significantly deepen the economic subjugation of the continent. Enforced by a fascistic military repression – most notoriously in the Belgian colony of Congo, where natives’ failure to meet the rubber collection quota was punishable by death – European colonialism allowed for the most extravagant exploitation of African labour and natural resources, whilst offering practically nothing in terms of economic progress for the local population.

Empire apologists in Britain, France and Portugal occasionally insinuate a ‘good side’ onto their erstwhile empires – after all, were railways and schools not built? Yet the sum total of these things (which anyway were built specifically to meet the needs of the colonial masters) is vanishingly small – so much so that, “the figures at the end of the first decade of African independence in spheres such as health, housing and education are often several times higher than the figures inherited by the newly independent governments”. As Rodney observes, “it would be an act of the most brazen fraud to weigh the paltry social amenities provided during the colonial epoch against the exploitation, and to arrive at the conclusion that the good outweighed the bad.”

European colonialism contributed nothing to the technological or institutional development of Africa, because this would have created competition for European capitalism and impeded the far more important task of draining maximum possible wealth from the continent.

But imperialism in Africa is not just a thing of the past; it didn’t end with the independence of the former colonies. As Samir Amin writes: “The dominant capitalist centres do not seek to extend their political power through imperial conquest because they can, in fact, exercise their domination through economic means.”5 Since the 1980s, the principal mechanism of imperialist domination in Africa has been economic blackmail: international credit agencies obliging governments to sign up to harmful economic strategies. The most notorious (and typical) example of this is the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP); SAPs are loans from the IMF and World Bank, typically taken out in a crisis situation (in response to a drought, for example), and disbursed on the condition that the recipient country implement a packet of ‘neoliberal’ reforms – privatising key industries and resources, opening up markets to international competition, and liberalising prices.

The SAPs have been a disaster for Africa. Scarce resources such as water have been taken out of the public domain and placed in the hands of globalised privateers. Nascent industries, previously protected by governments trying to develop home-grown manufacturing, have been decimated, dreams of development dashed, and vast regions returned to a prostrate position in the global economy, supplying unimproved raw materials to a market they have no meaningful influence over.

This is imperialism, by any reasonable definition. Advanced western countries, often ganging up in order to achieve their aims vis-a-vis the poorer countries, force nominally independent states to undertake economic measures that are specifically designed to benefit those same advanced western countries. In the modern era, this is precisely what the underdeveloping of Africa looks like. And the results speak for themselves: “after nearly thirty years of using ‘better’ (that is, free-market) policies, Africa’s per capita income is basically at the same level as it was in 1980.”6

Mozambican independence leader Samora Machel, president from 1975 until his death (almost certainly at the hands of the apartheid South African security services) in 1986, spoke bitterly about the imperialist countries’ visions for post-colonial Africa: “They need Africa to have no industry, so that it will continue to provide raw materials. Not to have a steel industry. Since this would be a luxury for the African. They need Africa not to have dams, bridges, textile mills for clothing. A factory for shoes? No, the African doesn’t deserve it. No, that’s not for the Africans.”7

Various well-paid academics assert that western imperialism is a thing of the past, that Europe and North America have changed their ways, and that Africa is now treated as an equal. While it is palpably false that western imperialism is a thing of the past (is it not imperialism when Nato launches a war on Libya, plunging it into a state of chaos and desperate poverty, in order to remove a government that had consistently refused to adhere to the economic and political ‘rules’?), it’s true that Europe and North America are less reliant on the exploitation of Africa than they once were. This demonstrates only that imperialism can’t be separated from its historical context. Western Europe, North America and Japan have reached a level of productivity and technological advance such that outright plunder of other nations constitutes only a relatively small part of their economic activity; however, they reached this point to a significant degree owing to their ruthless oppression of less developed countries. Thus the designation of a given country as ‘imperialist’ necessarily includes a historical component.

Regardless of these subtleties, Euro-American imperialism maintains an active foothold in Africa today, via a combination of economic blackmail, political manoeuvring, military intervention, and military mobilisation.

A brief timeline of China’s engagement with Africa

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese leadership moved quickly to create bonds of solidarity between China and the African liberation movements. China was a leading supporter of the Algerian war of liberation and an early supporter of the South African struggle against white minority rule. Nelson Mandela recounts in Long Walk to Freedom that he encouraged Walter Sisulu, then secretary-general of the African National Congress, to visit China in 1953 in order to “discuss with the Chinese the possibility of supplying us with weapons for the armed struggle.”8 The links made during this trip laid the ground for the establishment in the early 1960s of a Chinese military training programme for the newly-founded uMkhonto we Sizwe – the ANC’s armed wing. (An interesting aside: two currently serving African heads of state received military training in China in the 1960s: Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki, and Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa.)

Chinese premier Zhou Enlai conducted a landmark tour of ten African nations between December 1963 and January 1964, during which he consolidated China’s anti-imperialist connection with some of the leading post-colonial African states. A few years later, China provided the financing and knowhow for the construction of the Tanzam Railway, which runs 1,860km from Dar es Salaam, the then Tanzanian capital and seaport, to central Zambia. Built with the primary purposes of fomenting economic development and helping Zambia to break its economic dependence on the apartheid states of Rhodesia and South Africa, the Tanzam has been described as “the first infrastructure project conceived on a pan-African scale”.9 It remains an enduring symbol of China’s friendship with independent Africa.

Well into the 1980s, dozens of large state farms were built in Africa as part of the Chinese aid programme – in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mali, Congo Brazzaville, Guinea and elsewhere. The US scholar Deborah Brautigam notes that, however, “during the 1970s and 1980s, the Chinese aid program shifted to emphasise much smaller demonstration farms, working with local farmers to teach rice farming and vegetable cultivation.”10

In the 1980s and 90s, partly reflecting shifting political priorities in China and partly in response to data indicating that many of the aid-constructed projects were no longer working very well (if at all), China started to put its engagement with Africa on a more commercial footing, focusing on mutually beneficial deals and joint ventures. China has since become Africa’s largest trading partner, with a total trade volume of $170 billion in 201711, well ahead of the US-Africa figure of $55 billion.12

In addition to trade, China also provides vast low-cost loans for infrastructure projects, with nearly $100 billion loaned to African states by Chinese state-owned banks between 2000 and 2015. A recent article in the Guardian notes that “some 40% of the Chinese loans paid for power projects, and another 30% went on modernising transport infrastructure. The loans were at comparatively low interest rates and with long repayment periods.” The article continues: “Chinese infrastructure projects stretch all the way to Angola and Nigeria, with ports planned along the coast from Dakar to Libreville and Lagos. Beijing has also signalled its support for the African Union’s proposal of a pan-African high-speed rail network.”13

Development, not underdevelopment

“We should jointly support Africa’s pursuit of stronger growth, accelerated integration and industrialisation, and help Africa become a new growth pole in the world economy.” (Xi Jinping)14

The most important point regarding China’s engagement with Africa is that it stimulates development rather than underdevelopment. In that crucial sense, it is profoundly different from the relationship that the US and the major European powers have had with Africa. China’s aid and investment packages promote host countries’ modernisation, technical knowhow and infrastructure. As it stands, manufacturing constitutes only 10 percent of value added in Africa. “Ghana sends cocoa beans to Switzerland, for instance, then imports chocolates. Angola exports crude oil and imports nearly 80 percent of its refined fuel.”15 This is an unsustainable situation that keeps Africa in a subservient position. Industrialisation is the indispensable next step, and this relies on infrastructure, technology and knowledge transfer.

As an aside: even if China’s ambitions were essentially predatory, its presence as an alternative source of investment is beneficial for African economies. Ha-joon Chang notes that, in the 1990s, China became a “major lender and investor in some African countries, giving the latter some leverage in negotiating with the Bretton Woods institutions and the traditional aid donors, such as the US and the European countries”.16

Beyond that, Chinese investment has made possible a fast-expanding infrastructure network that will underpin African economic development for generations to come. This includes railways, schools, hospitals, roads, ports, factories and airports, along with “new tarmac roads linking major regional hubs, including the various townships with proper connection to large cities”.17 By contrast, precious little US/British investment in Africa goes towards infrastructure.

In 2017, China funded over 6,200km of railway and over 5,000km of roads in Africa.18 Thanks in no small part to Chinese finance and expertise, Ethiopia last year celebrated the opening of the first metro train system in sub-Saharan Africa,19 along with Africa’s first fully electrified cross-border railway line, the Ethiopia-Djibouti electric railway.20

Lack of electrification is a major problem for most African countries. According to Deborah Brautigam, “the Latin American supply of electricity is 50 times higher, per rural worker, than sub-Saharan Africa’s”.21 Over 600 million people across the continent have no reliable access to electricity. Many of the biggest Chinese investment projects in Africa are focused on power generation – indeed, 40% of all Chinese loans to Africa last year went towards power generation and transmission.22 The bulk of this energy investment is in hydropower and other renewal technologies.23 For example, China’s Eximbank is providing 85% of the financing for Nigeria’s Mambila hydroelectric power project,24 which will constitute the country’s largest power plant, helping to get electricity to the approximately 40 percent of Nigerians that don’t currently have access.25 It was announced a few months ago that China Eximbank would also provide the bulk of the $1.5 billion funding for Zimbabwe’s largest ever power development project.26

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister from 2003 to 2006 and from 2011 to 2015, notes that “China worked with us to get a balanced package of assistance that has helped build the light rail system in Abuja and four new airport terminals in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano and Abuja, among other projects.”27 She reflects on the possibilities for extensive cooperation between Africa and China in the realm of sustainable development: “Together, China and Africa make up one third of the world’s population. Increasing ties between the two could have a vast positive impact for the world’s economy and climate. China’s experiences and expertise should go a long way in helping African countries develop their renewable resources.“

Do Chinese state banks make these investments for purely altruistic reasons? They do not. “China is poor in natural resources, the notable exception being rare minerals, and as a consequence has no choice but to look abroad. Africa, on the other hand, is extremely richly endowed with raw materials, and recent discoveries of oil and natural gas have only added to this.”28 Deals are negotiated on a case-by-case basis with the two sides as equal partners. The whole arrangement has nothing in common with the west’s historic relationship with Africa. As the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo writes, “the motivation for the host countries is not complicated: they need infrastructure, and they need to finance projects that can unlock economic growth… This is the genius of the China strategy: every country gets what it wants… China, of course, gains access to commodities, but host countries get the loans to finance infrastructure developmental programs in their economies, they get to trade (creating incomes for their domestic citizenry), and they get investments that can support much-needed job creation.”29

Many African countries are already benefiting greatly from their relations with China. As Martin Jacques puts it: “China’s impact on Africa has so far been overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, it is worth asking the question as to where Africa would be without Chinese involvement… China’s involvement has had the effect of boosting the strategic importance of Africa in the world economy.”

China is ploughing resources into educational cooperation with African countries, recently surpassing the US and UK to become the number one destination for anglophone African students (and second most popular destination overall, after France) – a dramatic increase that is explained in large part by “the Chinese government’s targeted focus on African human resource and education development”.30 In his speech to the recent FOCAC summit, Xi Jinping said China will “provide Africa with 50,000 government scholarships and 50,000 training opportunities” in the next three years.31 Even for students without scholarships, China is a popular destination for African students, because its tertiary education system is more affordable than the west’s, and is increasingly of comparable quality and prestige.

China also provides substantial medical aid to Africa, spending an estimated $150 million annually on malaria treatment, crisis response, medicine provision, and support for building hospitals and pharmaceutical factories. In response to the Ebola crisis in 2014, “China dispatched more than 1,000 medical professionals to West Africa, providing 750 million RMB ($120 million) in aid.”32

Non-interference

China has received no shortage of criticism owing to its willingness to work with states such as Zimbabwe and Sudan, which are subjected to boycotts and sanctions by the US-led ‘international community’. Such criticisms are hypocritical and vacuous. China has a long-standing position of non-interference in the political affairs of other countries. As far back as 1955, then-Premier Zhou Enlai sketched the Chinese vision of peaceful and cooperative development at the historic Afro–Asian Conference in Bandung: “By following the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, the peaceful coexistence of countries with different social systems can be realised.”33

Such a position is quite obviously superior to the US/European system of active interference – ie imperialism. China doesn’t participate in or sponsor wars in Africa; it doesn’t engineer coups, subvert elections or finance political campaigns. China has committed no massacres in Africa, nor does it control any private armies. China has no record of assassinating African leaders, encouraging separatist movements, or creating political instability. It doesn’t maintain lobbyists or advisers whose job is to pressure African politicians. China has not demanded ‘structural adjustment’ in any of the countries it invests in; no privatisation, no deregulation, no demands for hollowing out government. China doesn’t use coercion or blackmail. It bids for contracts, and often wins them, mainly because its prices are fair, its costs low, and its quality of work high. In summary, “China appears wholly uninterested in assuming sovereign responsibility and particularly in shaping h social and political infrastructure of host nations”.34

At the recent FOCAC summit, Xi Jinping summed up the Chinese approach to engagement with Africa as follows: “The Chinese people respect Africa, love Africa and support Africa. We follow a ‘five-no’ approach in our relations with Africa: no interference in African countries’ pursuit of development paths that fit their national conditions; no interference in African countries’ internal affairs; no imposition of our will on African countries; no attachment of political strings to assistance to Africa; and no seeking of selfish political gains in investment and financing cooperation with Africa.”

The “five-no” approach is an explicit rejection of imperialist strategy. Rather than criticise China for its policy of non-intervention, it would be much better if other countries could follow its example.

Some common criticisms

Chinese companies only employ Chinese workers

An oft-repeated criticism of Chinese economic activity in Africa is that Chinese companies only employ Chinese workers. This is simply not true. In fact, China creates more jobs in Africa than any other investor.35 Deborah Brautigam, one of the few western China experts to base their work on actual data, writes that “surveys of employment on Chinese projects in Africa repeatedly find that three-quarters or more of the workers are, in fact, local.”36 This is consistent with the findings of Giles Mohan, whose team undertook extensive on-the-ground research in West Africa. “Contrary to the dominant assertion that Chinese companies operating in Africa tend to rely on labour imported from China, in most of the eighty-five Chinese enterprises we studied in Ghana and Nigeria, a substantial proportion, and often the majority, of the workforce was African.”37

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa recently spoke of South Africa’s experience with Chinese companies: “When China invests, it sends key managers, but the bulk of the people who do the work are South Africans.”38 Similarly, Namibian president Hage Geingob stated earlier this year that “no country in the world has added so much value to our products as China has. China has done a lot of technology transfer and job creation.”39

Early-stage projects, particularly in countries where China has little experience, tend to be staffed primarily by Chinese employees, but the clearly emerging pattern is for this ratio to be reversed over time.

China has caught Africa in a debt trap

A recent article by John Pomfret in the Washington Post describes Chinese investment strategy as “imperialism with Chinese characteristics”, and claims that “China’s debt traps around the world are a trademark of its imperialist ambitions.”40 Grant Harris, Barack Obama’s former adviser on Africa, writes that “Chinese debt has become the methamphetamines of infrastructure finance: highly addictive, readily available, and with long-term negative effects that far outweigh any temporary high.”41 Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state until his recent replacement by the even more hawkish Mike Pompeo, commented in March that “China’s approach has led to mounting debt and few, if any, jobs in most countries.”42

Such scare-mongering statements ignore the rather important detail that, “from 2000 to 2016, China’s loans only accounted for 1.8 percent of Africa’s foreign debts, and most of them were invested in infrastructure.”43

Investment generally entails some level of debt; the question is whether African countries are getting a good deal. Chinese investment is welcomed across the continent, since it is overwhelmingly directed towards essential projects: developing infrastructure, building schools, building hospitals, cleaning water, supplying electricity, building factories. As a result, the needs of ordinary Africans are being met, and the debts are typically repaid in a sustainable (and fairly negotiated) way using the host countries’ natural resources.

Chinese loans tend to be significantly lower interest than the equivalents from the Bretton Woods institutions and the major western banks; many are interest-free. Furthermore, there have been several rounds of debt relief, where the debts of the poorest African countries have been written off. The recent FOCAC summit promised $60 billion worth of new investment, including $15 billion of grants, interest-free loans and concessional loans, as well as $5 billion specifically to support the importing of African produce to China. Cyril Ramaphosa noted that “if some African countries can’t keep up with their debt payments, the debt will be forgiven”.44 By no reasonable definition is this a “debt trap”.

China is grabbing African land

In recent years, numerous headline-grabbing articles have claimed that China is in the process of sending millions of peasants to Africa in order to grow food for China.45 China is, apparently, a “land grabber”, a rising colonial power. And yet, “no one has yet identified a village full of Chinese farmers anywhere on the continent. A careful review of Chinese policy shifts shows steadily rising support for outward investment of all kinds but no pattern of sponsoring the migration of Chinese peasants, funding large-scale land acquisitions in Africa, or investing ‘immense sums’ in African agriculture. Finally, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade database, it is China that has been sending food to Africa. While this could (and should) change, so far, the only significant food exports from Africa to China have been sesame seeds and cocoa, produced by African farmers.”46

A mutually beneficial friendship

Accusations of Chinese imperialism in Africa, typically levelled by apologists for western imperialism,47 are not substantiated by facts. China’s development model isn’t based on, and has never been based on, colonial exploitation. On the contrary, China is keen to see Africa emerge as a key player in a multipolar world in which a relatively even balance of forces acts to preserve global peace and stability. This explains, for example, China’s enthusiastic support for the African Union and its commitment to the AU’s development agenda.48 That China’s engagement is a positive thing for Africa is evidenced by the near-universal enthusiasm for it among African governments (it’s telling to note that twice as many African heads of state attended the FOCAC summit than the recent meeting of the UN General Assembly).49

It’s hardly surprising that the concept of multipolarity is not universally esteemed within the imperialist heartlands. In particular the US ruling class is struggling to come to terms with the end of its uncontested hegemony; hence the desperate bid to ‘Make America Great Again’, which really means re-asserting US global dominance and taking the Chinese down a peg or two. The last thing the western ruling classes want to see is a thriving multipolarity based on mutually beneficial cooperation between independent states, bypassing and perhaps even ignoring the mandate of Washington, London and Paris. When people issue slanders about Chinese colonialism, they are feeding a narrative that seeks to maintain the imperialist status quo, even though they generally take the form of ‘concerned advice’. Such slanders should be resolutely exposed.


  1. Stephen Gowans, Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom, Baraka Books, 2018 

  2. Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, Monthly Review Press, 2013 

  3. Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Pambazuka Press, 2012 

  4. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1 

  5. Samir Amin: Global History: A View from the South, Pambazuka Press, 2010 

  6. Ha-joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism, Bloomsbury, 2010 

  7. Invent the Future: The Revolutionary Thought of Samora Machel, 2015 

  8. Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, Back Bay Books, 1995 

  9. The Guardian: China in Africa: win-win development, or a new colonialism?, 2018 

  10. Deborah Brautigam, Will Africa Feed China?, Oxford University Press, 2015 

  11. Ministry of Commerce, People’s Republic of China: Statistics on China-Africa Bilateral Trade in 2017 

  12. US Census Bureau: Trade in Goods with Africa 

  13. The Guardian, op cit 

  14. Xi Jinping, The Governance of China, Foreign Languages Press, 2014 

  15. Washington Post: Xi Jinping is visiting Africa this week. Here’s why China is such a popular development partner, 2018 

  16. Ha-joon Chang, Economics: The User’s Guide, Pelican, 2014 

  17. The Diplomat: China and Ethiopia, Part 1: The Light Railway System, 2018 

  18. SCMP: What to know about China’s ties with Africa, from aid to infrastructure, 2018 

  19. CNN: Ethiopia gets the first metro system in sub-Saharan Africa, 2015 

  20. BBC News: Ethiopia-Djibouti electric railway line opens, 2016 

  21. Brautigam, op cit 

  22. China Daily: Investment creates hope, not debt trap, 2018 

  23. China Africa Research Initiative: More Bad Data on Chinese Finance in Africa, 2018 

  24. CNN: Nigeria announces $5.8 billion deal for record-breaking power project, 2017 

  25. See World Bank Data: Access to electricity (as of 2016) 

  26. New Zimbabwe: Mnangagwa commissions $1.5bln power plant, project Chinese funded, 2018 

  27. FT: Africa needs China’s help to embrace a low-carbon future (paywall), 2018 

  28. Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, Penguin, 2012 

  29. Dambisa Moyo, Winner Take All: China’s Race For Resources and What It Means For Us, Penguin 2012 

  30. The Conversation: China tops US and UK as destination for anglophone African students, 2017 

  31. Xinhua: Full text of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at opening ceremony of 2018 FOCAC Beijing Summit 

  32. The Diplomat: China’s Medical Aid in Africa, 2018 

  33. Wilson Center Archive: Main Speech by Premier Zhou Enlai at the Plenary Session of the Asian-African Conference, 1955 

  34. Dambisa Moyo, op cit 

  35. Xinhua: China becomes top job creator in Africa, expert says, 2017 

  36. Washington Post: China in Africa is not ‘neocolonialism.’ Here are the numbers to prove it, 2018 

  37. Giles Mohan, Ben Lampert, Daphne Chang and May Tan-Mullins: Chinese Migrants and Africa’s Development: New Imperialists or Agents of Change?, Zed Books, 2014 

  38. IOL: Those who call China colonial are jealous: Ramaphosa, 2018 

  39. Reuters: Namibia president says China not colonizing Africa, 2018 

  40. Washington Post: China’s debt traps around the world are a trademark of its imperialist ambitions, 2018 

  41. Time: China Is Loaning Billions of Dollars to African Countries. Here’s Why the U.S. Should Be Worried, 2018 

  42. QZ: China is pushing Africa into debt, says America’s top diplomat, 2018 

  43. China Daily: Investment creates hope, not debt trap, 2018 

  44. Ramaphosa, op cit 

  45. See for example The Guardian, The food rush: Rising demand in China and west sparks African land grab, 2009 

  46. Brautigam, Will Africa Feed China, op cit 

  47. Hillary Clinton comes to mind, eg Reuters: Clinton warns against “new colonialism” in Africa, 2011 

  48. African Union: African Union and China renew commitment to advance multilateral cooperation, 2018 

  49. Quartz: Twice as many African presidents made it to China’s Africa summit than to the UN general assembly, 2018