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.

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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 

Is China Still Socialist?

NB. This is extracted (and updated) from a much longer article – Will the People’s Republic of China go the way of the USSR? – published on 31 May 2018.


So long as socialism does not collapse in China, it will always hold its ground in the world. (Deng Xiaoping)1

The first of October marks the China’s National Day, the 69th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. With China’s rise and its increasing importance to the global economy, China is a ‘hot topic’ in the world of politics and economics. And, after four decades of market-oriented economic reforms, many on the left are asking: to what extent can China reasonably be considered a socialist country?

After all, China today has nearly 500 billionaires and is the world’s top destination for foreign direct investment, attracting over $100 billion each year. There are branches of McDonalds and Starbucks in all major Chinese cities; and there is startling inequality between the coastal cities and the inland countryside, and between rich and poor more generally. There are stock exchanges in Shanghai and Shenzhen; there is finance capital; there is privately-owned capital. Is this really what Marx and Engels had in mind?

On the other hand, the People’s Republic of China has some interesting characteristics that make it rather different from the average capitalist country. Most importantly, although inequality has increased over the past 40 years, the standard of living for ordinary workers and peasants has risen dramatically along with it. Wealth under capitalism generally has its counterpart in poverty and exploitation (at home and/or abroad), but in China practically everyone enjoys a far better standard of life than they used to. Extreme poverty is on the cusp of being completely eliminated – an extraordinary achievement for a country of China’s size.

Secondly, China is run by a communist party that continues to adhere to Marxism-Leninism. While it no doubt suffers from corruption, and although its ideological purity has been diluted, its history and traditions mean that it derives its legitimacy and support from the masses of workers and peasants. As such, the Chinese state operates primarily in the interests of the working classes, unlike any capitalist state.

Thirdly, as much private capital as there is in China, the economy is still very much dominated and directed by the state.

So while China has introduced elements of capitalism in the 40 years since the start of ‘reform and opening up’, these do not constitute a negation of socialism, any more than they did in the New Democracy period in the 1950s, or under the New Economic Policy in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. The point of the reforms is to to lay the ground for a more advanced socialism: ”In order to realise communism, we have to accomplish the tasks set in the socialist stage. They are legion, but the fundamental one is to develop the productive forces so as to demonstrate the superiority of socialism over capitalism and provide the material basis for communism.”2

A workers’ state

The class nature of the state is one of the core themes of Marxism. Marx and Engels were the first to conclusively demonstrate that the state is not an impartial body sitting above society and operating for the common good; rather, its responsibility is to represent the interests of a given social class and the system of production relations that benefit it. In the case of capitalism, ”the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.3

In a socialist society, the state must serve the interests of the working class and its allies; it must protect working class power, defend it from the inevitable attacks from capital, and build a better life for people. Such a state can certainly incorporate market mechanisms, as long as these operate under the guidance of the state and introduce some benefit for working people, and as long as capital is not allowed to become politically dominant.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) conceptualises the capitalist elements of its economy as being at the service of socialist development. ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ leverages the market to stimulate production, attract investment, encourage technical development, support peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world, and thereby raise the living standards of the Chinese people and pave the road for a higher stage of socialism, built on advanced technology. Market socialism can reasonably be considered a pragmatic and entirely Marxist answer to the exceedingly difficult problem of building socialism in a large, underdeveloped country under constant threat from a hegemonic US imperialism.

The Chinese government is extraordinarily popular among the Chinese people4, the reason being that it focuses precisely on the wellbeing of the masses rather than the profits of billionaires. “Meeting people’s needs, ranging from those in education, employment, social security, medical services, housing, environment, to intellectual and cultural life, is the top priority of the government.”5 This is constantly stressed by the leadership.

A government’s priorities can provide a useful indicator as to its ideology and the social forces it represents. The top priorities of the Chinese government in the present era are very much consistent with the demands of the Chinese people, in particular: protecting China’s unity and territorial integrity; improving living standards; clamping down on corruption; protecting the environment; eradicating poverty; maintaining peace and stability; and re-establishing China’s national prestige, all but wiped out in the ‘century of humiliation’ preceding the establishment of the PRC in 1949. The average citizen of the US or Britain would surely be pleased if their government embraced an equivalent set of priorities, meeting the needs of the masses, and yet this doesn’t happen, because of the resistance of the (capitalist) ruling classes of those countries.

The question of environmental conservation is instructive. A capitalist state has very limited freedom of action on this issue, due to the short-termist needs of expanding capital (for example, oil companies wield significant influence within US policy circles). A comprehensive strategy of environmental protection requires a huge investment: a production of use values that may not have corresponding exchange values; that is, production for people, not profit. In China, the government has a clear mandate to lead just such a strategy (even though there is a tension between development and conservation, both of which are essential for the Chinese people).

Over the last few years, China has quickly become the global leader in environmental protection, planning to “spend at least $360 billion on clean energy projects and create 13 million new renewable energy jobs by 2020”.6 At the same time as investing heavily in alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower, it is divesting from coal, cancelling the construction of 104 new coal plants last year.7 The government has even set up an environmental police force to ensure compliance with green policy.8 China’s forest coverage has increased from around 18 percent in 2007 to 21.7 percent, with targets of 23 percent by 2020 and 26 percent by 2035.9 On clean energy, “the United States is actually playing catch-up to China… China has taken an undisputed leadership”.10 On pollution, “the results suggest that China’s fight against pollution has already laid the foundation for extraordinary gains in life expectancy.”11 These ambitious plans can be devised and carried out precisely because of the location of political power in the Chinese working class.

Public ownership still dominates, and the state is in charge of the economy

Although the number of employees of private enterprises has overtaken the number of employees of state- and collectively-owned companies, the basic economic agenda is set by the state. Private production is encouraged by the state only because it contributes to modernisation, technological development and employment. While some Marxists may insist that markets can have no place under socialism, it’s difficult to reconcile such a view with Marx’s own view of socialism as a transitional stage on the road to communism. China has proven in reality that it can use (heavily regulated) market mechanisms in order to more rapidly develop the productive forces and improve the living standards of its people.

It will come as a surprise to many readers to know that public ownership continues to dominate in China. There has been very little in the way of actual privatisation, in terms of transferring ownership of state enterprises into the hands of private capital; indeed, the state sector is several times bigger than it was in 1978, when the reforms were launched. Rather, private enterprise was allowed to develop alongside the state sector, and has grown at an even faster rate than the state sector (bear in mind that it started from a very low base).

The state maintains tight control over the most important parts of the economy, often referred to as the ‘commanding heights’: heavy industry, energy, finance, transport, communications, and foreign trade.12 Finance – which has a key influence over the entire economy – is dominated by the ‘big four’ state-owned banks.13 These banks’ primary responsibility is to the Chinese people, not private shareholders. China’s land was never privatised, although collectivisation was mainly rolled back. It remains owned and managed at the village level.

Tran Dac Loi, of the Communist Party of Vietnam, gives a very clear explanation of the relationship between state and market in a market socialist economy (note that Vietnam follows a very similar economic model to China): ”The market is managed and regulated by the socialist state in order to utilise the positive sides, minimise the negative ones, and direct market activities into implementation of given comprehensive development goals… The state economic sector should play the dominating role in key areas essential to macro economy such as energy, finance, telecommunications, aviation, railways, maritime, public transportation, etc… The land and natural resources remain within all-people ownership under the state management.”14

Tran continues: “We are aware that in the market economy in particular and in the transition period in general, it is impossible to avoid the gap between the rich and the poor; but the state and the whole society should focus on upholding the poor, supporting the disadvantaged, reducing poverty, increasing access to education, healthcare, social welfare as well as the improving and enhancing living standard of the people accordingly on every step of economic development… These are persistent and obligatory targets to be achieved in the development process towards socialism.”

Such an arrangement is fundamentally different to the organisation of production in a capitalist society.

Opening up has led to development

China’s opening up to foreign investment and its integration into global markets – particularly its 2001 accession to the World Trade Organisation – is often presented by leftists as prima facie evidence of its having become a capitalist country. British academic Jenny Clegg explains that WTO membership had nothing to do with capitalist restoration, and everything to do with developing China’s productive forces, strengthening its geopolitical position, and thereby building a better life for its people. China joined the WTO in order to able to “insert itself into the global production chains linking East Asia to the US and other markets, thus making itself indispensable as a production base for the world economy. This would make it far more difficult for the United States to impose a new Cold War isolation.” Further, China’s integration in the world economy has allowed it to be a part of “the unprecedented global technological revolution, offering a short cut for the country to accelerate its industrial transformation and upgrade its economic structure.”15

The opportunity to rapidly learn from the advanced capitalist countries’ developments in science and technology was the principal reason for ‘opening up’. Blockaded by the western countries after the revolution, and then cut off from Soviet support as a result of the Sino-Soviet split, China in 1978 was still relatively backward from a technological point of view, in spite of having made some great advances and having developed a standard of living for its people that was far ahead of other countries at a similar level of development. Deals with foreign investors were drawn up such that foreign companies trying to expand their capital in China were compelled to share skills and technology, and operate under Chinese regulation.16

Much as foreign investors might like to keep their technological secrets, they’ve had limited choice. Martin Jacques notes that, “as China has grown more powerful, the demand for technology transfer has become ever more insistent, with foreign companies, complain though they may, generally conceding.”17 The result is that China is now one of the world’s leading innovators in science and technology.

Commitment to Marxism

Only socialism can save China, and only Chinese socialism can lead our country to development – a fact that has been fully proved through the long-term practice of the Party and the state. (Xi Jinping)18

Through four decades of reform and opening up, the CPC has retained its commitment to Marxism. Deng Xiaoping was clear from the very beginning of the reform process that China “must keep to the socialist road. Some people are now openly saying that socialism in inferior to capitalism. We must demolish this contention… Deviate from socialism and China will inevitably revert to semi-feudalism and semi-colonialism. The overwhelming majority of the Chinese people will never allow such a reverse.”19

This is echoed today by the current leadership. As Xi Jinping puts it, “socialism with Chinese characteristics is socialism and nothing else. The basic principles of scientific socialism must not be abandoned; otherwise it is not socialism.”20

In no country in the world is Marxism studied as widely as it is in China. President Xi Jinping has a doctorate in Marxist philosophy. Marxism is part of the core curriculum at every level of the education system. Ninety million members of the Communist Party of China are required to engage in Marxist study. ”The whole party should remember: what we are building is socialism with Chinese characteristics, not some other ism”, says Xi.21 Indeed, the Communist Party of China considers itself “a loyal inheritor of the spirit of The Communist Manifesto”.22 Marx is considered “the greatest thinker of modern times”.23

It’s difficult to understand why China’s political leadership would go to such lengths to promote Marxism if they are intent on doing away with it. A far more likely explanation is that they’re genuine in their devotion to socialism and their resolve to strengthen it. Naysayers and purists will highlight flaws and inconsistencies, but this is nothing new or interesting. “Actually existing socialism will always fall short of the socialist ideal because it is precisely that ideal implemented within the confines of reality.”24

The evidence indicates that China continues to be a socialist country.

If the first century of human experience building socialism teaches us anything, it’s that the road from capitalism to socialism is a long and complicated one, and that ‘actually existing socialism’ varies enormously according to time, place and circumstances. China is building a form of socialism that suits its conditions, using the means it has at its disposal, in the extraordinarily challenging circumstances of global imperialist hegemony. No socialist experiment thus far – be it the Paris Commune, the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Mozambique, or indeed Bolivarian Venezuela – can claim to have discovered a magic wand that can be waved such that peace, prosperity, equality and comprehensive human development are achieved overnight. China is forging its own path, and this is worthy of study and support.

In assessing the political nature of China, perhaps it’s best to give the final word to Fidel Castro:

If you want to talk about socialism, let us not forget what socialism achieved in China. At one time it was the land of hunger, poverty, disasters. Today there is none of that. Today China can feed, dress, educate, and care for the health of 1.2 billion people. I think China is a socialist country, and Vietnam is a socialist nation as well. And they insist that they have introduced all the necessary reforms in order to motivate national development and to continue seeking the objectives of socialism. There are no fully pure regimes or systems. In Cuba, for instance, we have many forms of private property… Practically all Cubans own their own home and, what is more, we welcome foreign investment. But that does not mean that Cuba has stopped being socialist.25

Happy birthday to the People’s Republic of China. Long may it continue along the road of socialism and internationalism.


  1. Deng Xiaoping,We must adhere to socialism and prevent peaceful evolution towards capitalism – conversation with Julius Nyerere, 1989 

  2. Deng Xiaoping, cited in John Ross: Deng Xiaoping and John Maynard Keynes, 2012 

  3. Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (chapter 1), 1848 

  4. See for example The World’s Most Popular Leader: China’s President Xi, December 2014 

  5. Xinhua: Socialism with Chinese characteristics: 10 ideas to share with world, 2017 

  6. Business Insider: China’s latest energy megaproject shows that coal really is on the way out, 2018 

  7. ibid 

  8. Bloomberg: China’s War on Pollution Will Change the World, 2018 

  9. Telegraph: China to plant forest the size of Ireland in bid to become world leader in conservation, 2018 

  10. The Guardian: US ‘playing catch-up to China’ in clean energy efforts, UN climate chief says, 2015 

  11. New York Times: Four Years After Declaring War on Pollution, China Is Winning, 2018 

  12. For a fuller discussion, see China: Capitalist or Socialist?, The Guardian (Communist Party of Australia), 2010 

  13. The ‘big four’ banks are: the Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the Agricultural Bank of China. 

  14. Tran Dac Loi, Contribution at the International Forum of Left Forces, 2017 

  15. Jenny Clegg, China’s Global Strategy: Toward a Multipolar World, Pluto Press, 2009 

  16. Technology transfer is discussed in some detail in John Ross’s article Lessons of the Chinese economic reform, part 2, 1996 

  17. Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World, Penguin, 2012 

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

  19. Deng Xiaoping, Uphold the Four Cardinal Principles, 1979 

  20. The Governance of China, op cit 

  21. Financial Times: Xi Jinping pledges return to Marxist roots for China’s Communists (paywall), 2016 

  22. Xinhua: Xi stresses importance of The Communist Manifesto, 2018 

  23. Xinhua: Marx’s theory still shines with truth, 2018 

  24. Return to the Source: Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam, 2013  

  25. Fidel Castro, Interview in La Stampa, 1994 

Book Review: Jude Woodward – The US vs China: Asia’s new Cold War?

This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 23 October 2017.


Manchester University Press RRP £22.50

China’s rise is the most significant development in modern history since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For most readers of this newspaper, it is a profoundly positive advance: hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty, and China has been transformed from a technologically backward and underdeveloped country into a global powerhouse. Increasingly it is a world leader in environmental preservation and in the pursuit of a new type of globalisation based on cooperation and shared prosperity.

Not everyone is pleased with this rebalancing of the global balance of forces, however. For the political leadership of the western imperialist countries, China’s rise is a source of intense concern, threatening as it does the US-led status quo in international relations. Jude Woodward, author of the recently-released The US vs China: Asia’s new Cold War? points out that the US in particular “remains unreconciled to China’s rise” and has therefore made ‘China containment’ – slowing down or reversing China’s growing influence and economic strength – the cornerstone of its foreign policy.

Limiting China’s rise will not be easy; likely it will prove to not be possible. China will very soon replace US as the world’s largest economy. Furthermore, its growth is not only benefitting the rich but is contributing to a rapid increase in wages, social welfare and quality of life for the working class and peasantry. This means that the Chinese government and ruling Chinese Communist Party enjoy broad popular legitimacy; consequently it’s difficult to destabilise China from within – unlike in the USSR, where a sluggish economy contributed to a certain ambivalence in relation to defending socialism.

Meanwhile, China has also become a hugely important investment and trading partner to dozens of countries around the world. As well as providing an alternative source of investment for poorer countries, Chinese investment and markets have served to make China’s growth a pivotal factor in the global economy. Therefore even among the US’ traditional allies there is some reluctance to join in with a strategy of China containment.

In steps Donald J Trump. If there is anything consistent in Trump’s foreign policy, it is hostility to China and an urge to preserve US supremacy at all costs. During his election campaign, he talked constantly about China stealing American jobs, engaging in state-sponsored hacking, and generally “using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China.” Steve Bannon, up until August this year the most influential member of Trump’s inner circle, confidently predicted in March 2016 that “we’re going to war in the South China Sea in 5 to 10 years – there’s no doubt about that.” Only a few weeks ago, Bannon told the New York Times: “A hundred years from now, this is what they’ll remember — what we did to confront China on its rise to world domination”.

With limited room for manoeuvre in economic terms, the US is majorly ramping up its physical presence in the Pacific in order to pressure China and ensure US domination of international waters. Meanwhile, it’s turning up its rhetoric against North Korea in the most dangerously irresponsible way, in order to justify its increased naval presence and to strengthen hawkish elements in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – and to undermine popular opposition to its THAAD anti-ballistic missile defence system, which in reality targets China. As Woodward points out, this aggressive policy is “analogous to the tactics the US pursued against the USSR over the course of the twentieth-century Cold War… The endgame is a pro-US military, economic and diplomatic noose around China that can be tightened to veto, punish, pressure or threaten China and narrow its options on a range of issues.”

The US vs China: Asia’s new Cold War? provides a timely, thorough and accessible path to understanding the US-China confrontation, which is surely the most significant dynamic in global politics today. In just 260 pages, the author is able to give a surprisingly detailed account of China’s rise, the different threads of US opposition to that rise, and the multitude of devices being employed by the US in its bid to see off the Asian challenge and secure a ‘new American century’. Woodward counsels that it would be far better for the US to change its anti-China stance, promote peace and accept a role in a new, multipolar world order. Excellent advice. But “whom the gods would destroy they first make mad”.

From the Chinese Marxist viewpoint: an interview with Professor Deng Chundong

This interview with Professor Deng Chundong, President of the Institute of Marxism, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was conducted by Jenny Clegg in London on 5 December 2016. A slightly condensed version appeared first in the Morning Star.

Over three decades ago, Deng Xiaoping famously likened China’s reform path to a process of ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’. On this journey, China has not been unaided: Marxism has been its fundamental guide. As China continues to undergo momentous changes as reform deepens, its president, Xi Jinping has put much emphasis on the country’s ideological orientation. In a nationally televised speech last July on the 95th anniversary of the CPC, he warned that “Turning our backs or abandoning Marxism means that our party would lose its soul and direction”. And he went on: “…what we are building is socialism with Chinese characteristics, not some other -ism.”

The Institute of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is one of China’s premier institutions, serving at the highest level as a research centre, a government think-tank and one of the foremost academic institutions. Its scholars and researchers not only absorb the Marxist classics but also apply Marxist theory to contemporary conditions, using Marxism to develop the concepts and practices of the socialist market economy, whilst critiquing capitalism to understand and learn from the mistakes of the West.

I was able to learn more about the Chinese Marxist viewpoint when I met up with Professor Deng Chundong, the Institute’s President, who was on a visit to London with a small delegation of political economists. We started by discussing the October Revolution in China, given the upcoming centenary next year. Professor Deng explained:

“The 1917 October Revolution signified a new era of human history. It was a great inspiration to the Chinese people – its great success showed the way forward to establish a socialist system in our country with the proletariat holding state power.

“At that time, China was oppressed by the forces of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism. China was in big trouble. Many of our most advanced thinkers of the time – scholars, students, businessmen – had tried to tried to figure out how to save China from its predicament. The success of revolution in Russia brought some sunlight during that dark period – it meant a great deal.

“Now to commemorate the October Revolution, we must commit to pursuing communist ideology and follow strictly the route of achieving socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

I then asked about his views on Fidel Castro’s main achievements and contributions to the world struggle for socialism.

“Fidel Castro gave his whole life to fighting for his people in Cuba. From the Chinese viewpoint, there are two major contributions he made which were helpful for China in setting a model for achieving socialism.

“In the first place, Cuba is a very small country in Caribbean close to the most powerful country in the world, the biggest capitalist country, the US. That such a small county could continue to follow a socialist path under the severe blockade of the US demands our great respect.

“In the 1990s, the whole of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed, but Fidel Castro continued in his belief and continued to promote socialism in Cuba. All communists around the world should show our admiration and our gratitude to Fidel.

“The reasons that socialism in Cuba advanced so far despite such great pressure from the US were firstly, the firm determination of Fidel, and secondly, that Cuba sought to explore its own unique way forward. It followed its own path and did not copy the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe but – and this is the most important thing – adapted to the actual circumstances of the country and found its own practices to advance society, developing socialism with its own characteristics.

“Cuban socialism is very popular, it is a great attraction around the world. It has gained the confidence of the people and this is its advantage – its people are in favour of the Communist Party and this means Cuba will have a bright future”.

Although he had never visited Cuba, Professor Deng had had the opportunity for discussion with the Cuban ambassador to China on a number of occasions. Four years ago, he told me, China, Cuba and Vietnam had agreed to set up an annual forum for scholars to share the experiences of building socialism in the different countries and to exchange views and opinions.

We then moved on to the question of Marxist education in China. The rise of western thinking in university degree courses, alongside the waning of Marxist content, has become a particular concern among Marxist scholars in China. The westernisation of economics, it has been argued, was one of the reasons for the Soviet Union’s collapse. As Professor Deng pointed out, starting with China’s reform and opening up from the end of the 1970s, values and ideas from US and Europe have had a huge impact on China in terms of culture, education and economic thinking.

“The textbooks used in universities, the mindset, values and ideology of the teachers, the setting up of courses and curriculum design – all are influenced by Western values to a great extent.

“In the long term this will have a negative influence in undermining Marxist education and this is a situation which must be changed.”

To make the change, Professor Deng, identified three key measures.

“First it is necessary to educate the teachers in particular those teaching Marxism in schools and universities. Their mindset must not be influenced by Western values, they need to take Marxism as the core in terms of their stance, view and methods.”

The Ministry of Education has the responsibility here, organising workshops and seminars for university teachers. The Institute of Marxism has also held summer schools in Marxism for teachers from other provinces.

“The second thing that needs to be changed is the textbooks. Originally lots of textbooks used in universities to study economics, law, history, social sciences, journalism and media and so on, were all just copied from Western university textbooks. This situation has to change. Of course there is some content from Western learning that we should learn, but we need to select what is appropriate for China and not simply copy wholesale”.

Thirdly, Professor Deng pointed out that although Marxist education is compulsory in universities, in recent years the total curriculum hours devoted to this has been significantly reduced sometimes by up to a half or even two thirds.

“So it is necessary to adopt some measures to strengthen education in Marxist theory throughout the country.”

At the Institute, the study of Marxism centres on the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao Zedong but covers the whole body of Marxist debate, and not only the basic theory of Marxism but also as applied for example to Chinese political economy, law and regulation. Its journal, International Critical Thought, includes articles by both Chinese and Western Marxists on both contemporary and theoretical issues.

On the question of globalisation, Professor Deng pointed out that the important thing is who is in the dominant position and leading the process of internationalisation.

“Currently, of course the advanced Western countries are playing the dominant role – Chinese thinking here is that world affairs should not be determined by only one country, instead we should proactively promote pluralism and multi-polarisation. That is, all countries in the world should have the equal opportunity to get involved in decision-making; all countries should have equal involvement and engagement and should consult with each other and discuss with each other to try to resolve those important issues that affect the whole world and our human destiny.

“And as part of this process, China will gradually get more involved and contribute more to global governance, playing an active role by setting out our own plans and suggesting ways forward for world development.”

As a final point, I raised the issue of Donald Trump’s denial of global warming, to which Professor Deng commented:

“How the US chooses to deal with the issue and with the Paris Agreement, is their own affair, we won’t meddle in this. But for our part, China is committed to cooperating with the international community making our own contribution to tackling this serious problem.”

Monster or liberator? On the legacy of Mao Zedong

The following is a slightly expanded version of a speech given by Carlos Martinez at a recent event marking the 120th birthday of Mao Zedong.


Giving a short assessment of the life of someone like Mao Zedong is not an easy job. The man was politically active for over half a century; he lived through the Chinese Revolution of 1911 (which established the Republic of China); the formation of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921; the revolutionary civil war of 1925-27; the revolutionary civil war of 1927-36; the war of resistance against Japan; the war of liberation; the birth of New China (it was Mao who proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949); the construction of socialism; the Korean War; industrialisation of China; modernisation of China; the Sino-Soviet split and the breakup of the united world communist movement; the intense and at times deadly inner-party struggles within the CCP; and so on. It was an incredibly momentous period of history – a story of never-ending struggle – and he was a leading protagonist. Therefore I can’t possibly hope to do justice to his legacy in a half hour speech! For that reason I’m just going to focus on a couple of points that I think are worthy of discussion.

I’d like to start off by posing a question. And that is: what if there’d been no Mao? In what way would China – and indeed the world – have been different? How many people wouldn’t have lived long, meaningful lives? How many people wouldn’t have had enough to eat? How many people wouldn’t have learnt to read and write? How many people _wouldn’t _have made it past the age of 35? Would China have even broken the cycle of underdevelopment that it had been locked in for so many centuries? Would the ‘ century of humiliation‘ have become two centuries of humiliation? Would China even exist as a united country, or would it have been broken into pieces by the different colonial powers? Would China still be run by warlords, like Afghanistan is? Would China be the economic and scientific powerhouse that it is today? Would China have lifted fully hundreds of millions of people out of poverty? Would China – before the revolution one of the poorest, most economically backward countries in the world – have landed a rocket on the moon a few days ago, becoming only the third country to achieve such a feat? Would it be launching telecoms satellites on behalf of Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador? Would the socialist experiments in Latin America be receiving the financial support they need to build their social programmes? Would there be any meaningful threat to US global hegemony?

Western historians slander Mao

In the west, this question is usually approached in a very different way. There was this monster of a man, Mao Zedong, and he killed millions of people. According to some very well-paid historians, Mao is single-handedly responsible for what they say is the biggest famine in human history. There are maybe hundreds of western academics competing with each other to provide the biggest, the most shocking, the most appalling, the most awe-inspiring number in their favourite game: ‘How Many People Died Because Of Chairman Mao’.

For example, the popular book Mao’s Great Famine, by Professor Frank Dikotter, actually estimates that as many as 60 million people died during the four-year period of the Great Leap Forward – 1958-61. And that has suddenly become the accepted figure in western academia now. How is that even possible?! Was the Great Leap Forward devised as some kind of mass extermination programme, that it could wipe out 10% of China’s population? Of course, it’s no problem for people like Dikotter to get their books published, because their role is to attack socialism rather than to provide evidence and meaningful historical analysis, but at least make some attempt to be credible! For example, we’re supposed to ignore the fact that, in spite of this unprecedented loss, China’s total population didn’t go down during that time; in fact it increased from 650 million in 1958 to 680 million five years later!

The Great Leap Forward wasn’t a crazed population control scheme; it was an ambitious programme, led by Mao, to achieve rapid industrialisation and collectivisation, the idea being to make a much-needed final break with underdevelopment, backwardness and poverty. That’s a good cause! Were there excesses? Were there serious mistakes? Did many people suffer terribly, including to the extent of starvation? Yes. Mao himself admitted this. There were mistakes and there was also a disastrous series of droughts and floods. But one cannot go from that to calling it “the greatest crime ever committed against humanity”. For whatever the problems of the Great Leap Forward, it was not the Nazi holocaust; it was not the forced transportation of at least a hundred million African slaves; it was not the vengeful murder of 10 million Congolese by the armies of King Leopold; it was not the death of 35 million Chinese at the hands of Japan’s imperialist armies during 1937-45; nor was it the policy-driven famines created by the oh-so-civilised British administrations in India and Ireland.

I’m not here to go into detailed refutations of the nonsense that people like Dikotter come out with – there’s plenty of excellent material available on that topic, for people that are interested. But it is very important to refute the slander, to refute this idea of Mao as ‘monster’. The point of the whole ‘Mao was a monster’ narrative is specifically to denigrate the Chinese Revolution. What these academics are trying to do, what their job is, is to prove the superiority of capitalism over socialism; to prove the superiority of colonialism and imperialism over national sovereignty and self-determination. In effect, they’re saying: you people were better off when we were in charge! But when we investigate the actual facts (“seek truth from facts!”), we are able to prove the direct opposite: that is, the superiority of socialism over capitalism; the superiority of national sovereignty over colonialism and imperialism.

What capitalist country has achieved so much, in so short a time, compared with what’s been achieved in China, and what was achieved in the Soviet Union? And where the capitalist countries have achieved a high level of development, what has the cost been? What laid the basis for such development in Europe and North America? Slavery, colonialism and brutal class oppression. The deaths of millions upon millions. The perpetuation of a system of global apartheid which we’re still struggling to get rid of today. Does anyone imagine that British factory workers at the time of the industrial revolution had a nice life? Did they have ample food, spare time, access to education, healthcare and cultural facilities?! Hardly. And even they were massively privileged compared to the African slaves, transported in their tens of millions to the Americas; or the masses of India, Kenya, Ireland and elsewhere, whose lives were broken through British plunder and colonial policy. The progress of the socialist world is not rooted in slavery and colonialism but in the collective efforts of its people.

As an aside, I should mention that this Professor Dikotter has a slightly patchy record as a historian. A vehement anti-communist, he has argued for rehabilitating the legacy of Chiang Kai-shek (never mind the millions he killed!) and he used his Inaugural Lecture at SOAS to claim that Britain’s forcing opium onto the Chinese population in the mid-19th century really wasn’t that bad!

How many people lived because of Chairman Mao?

mao-zedong-1So really there’s a bit of a gap in the market when it comes to modern Chinese history. Instead of ‘How Many People Died Because Of Chairman Mao’, let’s ask: ‘How Many People Lived Because Of Chairman Mao’? If it’s reasonable to attribute all unnatural deaths in China since 1949 to this one man, then surely it’s also reasonable to attribute all life beyond the 1949 life expectancy to the same man!

Before the revolution, life expectancy in China was around 35 years. China was ravaged by famine, war, stagnation, feudalism and colonial brutality. By the time Mao died in 1976, life expectancy had almost doubled, to 67 years. Now it’s 76. The pre-revolution literacy rate in China was around 20%. By the time Mao died, it was around 93%. China’s population had remained stagnant between 400 and 500 million for a hundred years or so. By the time Mao died, it had reached 900 million – clearly, something changed for the better; clearly circumstances were generally favourable for human life! Women, ground down by millennia of feudal backwardness, were able to make unprecedented gains towards attaining social equality. A thriving culture of literature, music, theatre and art grew up and suddenly became accessible to the masses of the people – even to the endlessly ground-down Chinese peasantry, who had never had access to such things. Chinese land was irrigated. Universal healthcare was established. China – after a century of foreign domination – maintained its sovereignty, developed industry, developed the means to defend itself militarily, helped other nations – less than a year after the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China, China sent an enormous volunteer army, led by one of the great revolutionary heroes, Peng Dehuai, to fight with the Koreans against the US. 180,000 Chinese soldiers gave their lives in that war.

So the Mao era was not the nightmare it is sometimes painted as. Mao was not a monster; he was one of the truly great revolutionary leaders of the 20 th century, and it’s correct that we recognise him as such. To talk of Mao’s mistakes is fine; that’s important too. He was after all a human being, and by definition made mistakes. Being the leading figure in a revolution that covers a quarter of the world’s population, his mistakes had a little bit more impact than other people’s mistakes! I, for one, make mistakes all the time, but I have very little in the way of power or influence and therefore nobody really notices! But when it comes to Mao, the mistakes were those of a great revolutionary, an exceptional leader who, more than any other single person, is responsible for the liberation of China.

The Mao era and the post-Mao era

Slightly more sophisticated bourgeois analysts will tell you that, OK, China has made impressive progress, but this has only been since the introduction of market reforms and foreign investment. Well, it’s certainly true that incredible progress has been made in recent decades, but that progress is built on what came before it. Without the basic industrialisation that took place in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the policy of opening-up could have led to disaster; to China being returned to semi-colonial status, its economy totally controlled by the imperialist powers as it was before liberation. But that hasn’t been the case, precisely because it’s built on the base of what was achieved in the first three decades of People’s China. The 1981 document ‘Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China’ explains this succinctly:

“The establishment of the socialist system represents the greatest and most profound social change in Chinese history and constitutes the foundation for the country’s future progress and development.”

This crucial role of the first decades of socialist construction is still recognised in modern China: “The First Generation of Collective Leadership with Mao Zedong, the founder of both CPC and New China, at the core led the whole party and the people of all ethnicities for the fulfillment of the socialist transformation and the establishment of the basic socialist system after new China was founded in 1949, and laid a vital, crucial basis for the ensuing explorations.”

If you’ll pardon the expression, there’s no Chinese Wall between Mao’s China and post-Mao China. There are different tactics and policies, but the overall direction remains: building a strong, modern, prosperous, educated, cultured, socialist China, capable of defending itself, capable of providing a decent standard of living to all its people, and capable of contributing to a global project of making the world a better place.

The impact of the Chinese Revolution on the rest of the world

Africa is ripe for revolution - Chinese posterI wonder what sort of situation the rest of the world would be in now if it hadn’t been for Mao and the Chinese Revolution? I put it to you that the world would be a very different place, and a much less hopeful one for the masses of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Historically of course there is the support for liberation struggles in Zimbabwe, in Algeria, in Korea, in Tanzania and elsewhere. Also it’s important to note that China’s revolutionary model was particularly relevant and particularly inspirational to many countries that were, similarly to China, locked in colonial subjugation and underdevelopment. The ideas of people’s war, of revolutionary base areas, of building a peasant army: these concepts resonated across Africa, Asia and Latin America, and I think it’s fair to say that, more than anyone, it was Mao Zedong and the Chinese Revolution that helped to expand the scope of Marxism from the industrial working class of Europe to the oppressed masses worldwide.

Today, those countries of the Global South that are working hard to improve the lives of their populations are deeply appreciative of the support they get from China. Venezuela’s rise over the last 14 years would have been extremely difficult without Chinese support. Chinese support is also massively important to Cuba, South Africa, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua and lots of other places. There is a real opening now for the stranglehold of imperialism over the third world to be broken. It seems to me very unlikely that this would be happening had it not been for the Chinese revolution; had it not been for the incredible courage, brilliance and inventiveness of Mao Zedong and his comrades.

Non-traditional thinking – the fight against dogma

Another great revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, who as you know sadly died just two weeks ago, wrote in his autobiography about what had inspired him in the days when the ANC and the SACP were working out their strategy:

“I read works by and about Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro. In Edgar Snow’s brilliant Red Star Over China I saw that it was Mao’s determination and non-traditional thinking that had led him to victory.”

This idea of ‘non-traditional thinking’ is indeed a very important aspect of Mao’s legacy. Although many Maoists one comes across in the west these days are painfully dogmatic and seem to think that Mao’s works provide some sort of blueprint for revolution, Mao was totally against the idea of books as blueprints. He understood very well that there are no simple formulas for conducting a revolution. His writings and speeches constantly called for creative and serious analysis of specific problems, rather than the application of formulas. He was pretty harsh about it! In his pamphlet Oppose Book Worship, he says:

“Unless you have investigated a problem, you will be deprived of the right to speak on it. Isn’t that too harsh? Not in the least. When you have not probed into a problem, into the present facts and its past history, and know nothing of its essentials, whatever you say about it will undoubtedly be nonsense. Talking nonsense solves no problems, as everyone knows, so why is it unjust to deprive you of the right to speak? Quite a few comrades always keep their eyes shut and talk nonsense, and for a Communist that is disgraceful… Of course we should study Marxist books, but this study must be integrated with our country’s actual conditions. We need books, but we must overcome book worship.”

So today, to follow the example of Mao is not to do everything Mao did; is not to treat Mao’s strategy as the One Strategy to Rule Them All; is not to head to the hills and create revolutionary base areas; rather, it is to try and emulate Mao’s bravery, his creativity, his understanding, his total dedication to the people; and to celebrate his legacy; to celebrate his contribution to China and to the world.

Book review of “China’s Global Strategy – Towards a Multipolar World” by Jenny Clegg

Jenny Clegg’s book China’s Global Strategy, published by Pluto Press in 2009, is an extremely useful examination of China’s economic and political outlook. It focuses on the country’s overriding strategy of developing a ‘multipolar world’, where no one country dominates and where the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America – for centuries ground down by colonialism and neo-colonialism – have space to develop in peace.

China’s vision: survival and peaceful development in a hostile world

China’s strategy is derived from one simple overriding aim: the survival of People’s China. The need to maintain China’s sovereignty in the face of intense imperialist hostility gives rise to the main aspects of China’s economic and geopolitical strategy: integrating itself into the world economy; opposing US domination; promoting ‘balance’ – a larger (and increasing) number of influential powers; promoting South-South cooperation; utilising the rivalry between the different imperialist powers to push forward the development agenda; and promoting the general rise of the third world.

All these elements can be summed up as the drive towards a multipolar world; a world involving “a pattern of multiple centres of power, all with a certain capacity to influence world affairs, shaping a negotiated order“.

The theory of multipolarity is largely the product of the collapse of the USSR and the boost it gave to the hegemonic ambitions of the United States. Despite the long period of hostility between China and the USSR, the latter’s existence was a powerful force of balance in world politics. With the USSR gone, the US embarked with renewed energy on an orgy of neocolonial domination: extending the reach of NATO further and further eastwards; waging wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and Libya in the pursuit of natural resources and geopolitical advantage; imposing structural adjustment programmes on dozens of third-world countries; and deepening its military dominance through ‘missile defence’ and the like.

Clegg notes that “China … was left more exposed to US hegemonism by the collapse of the USSR and the eastern European communist states. The West had attempted to isolate China, imposing sanctions following the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 …” (pp54-55)

Capitalising on advantages in technical innovation, especially in hi-tech weaponry, as well as its cultural influence, the United States was re-establishing its power superiority. By reviving both NATO and its military alliance with Japan, the United States was able to reincorporate Europe and Japan as junior partners and rein in their growing assertiveness, and to contain Russia as well as China, so weakening the multipolar trend …

For Chinese analysts [the war against Yugoslavia] marked a new phase of US neo-imperialist interventionism and expansionism – a bid to create a new empire – which presaged new rounds of aggression and which would be seriously damaging for the sovereignty and developmental interests of many countries. The United States was stepping up its global strategic deployment, preparing to ‘contain, besiege and even launch pre-emptive military strikes against any country which dares to defy its world hegemony’.” (p59; citation from Wang Jincun, ‘”Democracy” veils hegemony’)

Clegg cites [former Chinese President] Hu Jintao at a meeting of senior Communist Party leaders in 2003: “They [the US] have extended outposts and placed pressure points on us from the east, south and west. This makes a great change in our geopolitical environment.” (p34)

In this dangerous environment, faced with the unrelenting hostility of the world’s only remaining superpower, China developed the clever – albeit dangerous – strategy of integrating itself into the world economy and, in so doing, making itself indispensable to the US. It is clear that this policy has, so far, been successful in its main objective; although the US is desperate to slow China’s economic growth and restrict its political influence, it finds itself unable to launch the type of diplomatic (or indeed military) attack it would like to, for fear of Chinese economic retaliation.

As Clegg puts it: “China is using globalisation to make itself indispensable to the functioning of the world economy, promoting an interdependence which means it becomes increasingly difficult for the United States to impose a strategy of ‘isolation and encirclement’.

Indeed, Clegg suggests that, “at its core, China’s is a Leninist strategy whose cautious implementation is infused with the principles of protracted people’s war: not overstepping the material limitations, but within those limits ‘striving for victory’; being prepared to relinquish ground when necessary and not making the holding of any one position the main objective, focusing instead on weakening the opposing force; advancing in a roundabout way; using ‘tit for tat’ and ‘engaging in no battle you are not sure of winning’ in order to ‘subdue the hostile elements without fighting’.” (p223)

Manoeuvring towards multipolarity

Twenty-one years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the conditions are certainly right for a multipolar world, and this is beginning to take shape.

That the various major countries no longer unquestioningly accept US dominance is demonstrated by the bitterness over the Iraq war, which was opposed by France, Germany, Russia and India. More recently, Russia and China have used their position on the UN Security Council to prevent a full-scale military assault on Syria. Meanwhile, a strong anti-imperialist trend has been emerging in Latin America, with Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua leading the move away from US dominance. Southern Africa – not so long ago dominated by vicious apartheid regimes in South Africa, South West Africa (Namibia) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and by Portuguese colonialism in Angola and Mozambique – is now largely composed of progressive states.

The major ‘non-aligned’ powers such as Brazil, Russia, South Africa, India and Iran are all forging closer relations with China and are starting to take a leading role in developing a new type of world – a ‘fair globalisation’, as the Chinese put it.

China has focused strongly on building international alliances at every level. It initiated the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which was constituted in 2001 in order to cooperate with regional allies on issues such as energy strategy, poverty alleviation and combating US-sponsored separatism. The SCO was built around the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, but includes a number of former Soviet republics in Central Asia as full members, while a number of key Asian powers, such as Iran, India and Pakistan, presently have observer status and may become full members in the future.

China is one of the driving forces behind BRICS – the international alliance of the five major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. BRICS is firmly focused on promoting South-South cooperation, and the BRICS development bank (which could be launched within two years) will be provide crucial investment for development projects in Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean.

China is also starting to lead east Asian economic cooperation, proposing and implementing the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA), under which the weaker east Asian economies are given priority access to China’s markets, while China also benefits from the technical and other advantages of the more developed economies of the region.

Far from cutting the ground beneath the export-oriented countries of East Asia, the development of manufacturing in China has been the engine of regional economic growth. After 2001, with the United States in recession and the Japanese economy still stagnating, China’s growth was key to reflating the regional economy still shaky after the 1997 crisis.” (p116)

Through its policies of regional security and economic cooperation, as well as its complex relationship with the various imperialist powers, China is frustrating US expansionism. “The US aim to encircle China though networking the hub-and-spokes pattern of its bilateral military alliances into an Asian NATO based on the conditions of its own absolute security, is therefore being thwarted as China, region by region, seeks to foster an alternative model of cooperative security.” (p121)

But hasn’t China capitulated to the US?

Clegg notes, and treats seriously, the left critique of China: that it is going down the path towards capitalism; that it is following the path of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.

She writes: “Across a wide spectrum of view among the western Left, China’s gradual path of economic reform since the later 1970s has been regarded as a ‘creeping privatisation’ undermining self-reliance bit by bit with foreign investment steadily encroaching on the country’s economic sovereignty. Its 2001 WTO accession is thus seen as the outcome of a gradual process of capitalist restoration – a final step in sweeping away the last obstacle in the way of China’s transition from socialism.

Clegg argues that, on the contrary, China’s “’embrace of globalisation’ is in fact a rather audacious move to strengthen its own national security … The goal is not to transform the entire system into a capitalist one but to improve and strengthen the socialist system and develop the Chinese economy as quickly as possible within the framework of socialism.” (p124)

This is the basis on which China joined the WTO – in order to able to “insert itself into the global production chains linking East Asia to the US and other markets, thus making itself indispensable as a production base for the world economy. This would make it far more difficult for the United States to impose a new Cold War isolation.

Further, China’s integration in the world economy has allowed it to be a part of “the unprecedented global technological revolution, offering a short cut for the country to accelerate its industrial transformation and upgrade its economic structure. By using new information technologies to propel industrialisation, incorporating IT into the restructuring of SOEs [state-owned enterprises], China would be able to make a leap in development, at the same time using new technologies to increase the state’s capacity to control the economy.” (pp128-9)

Clegg quotes Rong Ying’s explanation of the economic drivers behind China’s strategy: “Developing countries could make full use of international markets, technologies, capital and management experience of developed countries to cut the cost of learning and leap forward by transcending the limits of their domestic markets and primitive accumulation.” (p84; Rong Ying is a foreign affairs expert at the China Institute of International Studies)

In the author’s view, China is not abandoning Leninism by seeking to engage with the US; rather, it is following the creative and pragmatic spirit of Leninism, making difficult compromises in a novel and extremely tough situation. Moreover, in dealing with second-rate imperialist powers, such as France and Germany, for example, Chinese strategists have taken to heart Lenin’s advice to take “advantage of every, even the smallest, opportunity of gaining an … ally, even though this ally be temporary, vacillating, unreliable and conditional“. (Cited on p99)

Despite the apparent similarities between China’s ‘reform and opening up’ and the revisionist era in the Soviet Union, there are also some important differences.

First, of course, the prevailing economic and political circumstances: China in 1980 was significantly less developed than the USSR in 1960; the peasant population was (and is) still much larger than the working class; the average standard of living was far behind the major capitalist countries, as was the level of technical development.

Second, the imperialist countries had made huge advances in military technology, which China had to catch up with if it wanted security. Therefore, the Chinese invocation of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (the economic policy introduced in the Soviet Union in 1921 that introduced market elements in order to kick-start the economy after the war of intervention) has a lot more substance than Gorbachev’s.

Naturally, having seen what happened in the USSR, people get anxious when they see market reforms in China. However, if the “proof of the pudding is in the eating”, then it should be noted that, whereas the USSR stagnated through the 1980s, China has witnessed the most impressive programme of poverty alleviation in human history .

Whereas, in the last years of the USSR’s existence, the needs of its population were increasingly ignored, in China, the needs of the people are very much at the top of the agenda. Whereas, in the USSR, technical development fell way behind the imperialist countries in the 80s, in China, it is rising to the level of the imperialist countries. Indeed, the centre of gravity of the scientific world is slowly but surely shifting east. And China is playing a valuable role in sharing technology, for example by launching satellites for Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

Whereas, in the USSR, the ruling party (the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) started to lose a lot of its prestige, the Chinese Communist Party remains extremely popular and is by far the largest political party in the world, with over 85 million members. And the Chinese leadership have clearly studied and understood the process of degeneration in the USSR. The new President, Xi Jinping, has talked about this issue a number of times, and warned that the party must remain firm in its principles and its working class orientation. A recent article quotes Xi telling party insiders that “China must still heed the ‘deeply profound’ lessons of the former Soviet Union, where political rot, ideological heresy and military disloyalty brought down the governing party. ‘Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered’, Mr Xi said. ‘Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone'”.

So perhaps what we are seeing is an extremely complex, creative, dialectical and dynamic approach to developing the aims of Chinese socialism and global development. After all, to refuse to accept any compromise; to demand revolutionary ‘purity’ at the expense of the practical needs of the revolution; would be utterly un-Marxist.

Is China the latest imperialist country?

Another accusation that is often levelled against China (usually by liberal apologists of imperialism) is that it has become an imperialist country; that its investment in dozens of third world countries amounts to a policy of ‘export of capital’; that it has established an exploitative relationship with those countries with which it trades.

To be honest, it’s difficult to take these claims seriously. By and large, they are the jealous cries of British, US, Japanese, French and German finance capitalists, who have got enormously rich out of the structural adjustment programmes imposed on so many third world countries in the 1990s and whose profits are now threatened by China’s emergence as an alternative source of development capital in Asia, Africa and South America.

Those countries of the Global South that are working hard to improve the lives of their populations are deeply appreciative of the support they get in this regard. Venezuela’s rise over the last 14 years would have been extremely difficult without Chinese support, and the much-missed Hugo Chávez was a great friend of China. Chinese investment is also very important to Cuba, South Africa, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Jamaica and elsewhere. An important recent example is the 40-billion-dollar deal whereby China will build in Nicaragua an alternative to the Panama Canal – “a step that looks set to have profound geopolitical ramifications“. As Clegg writes: “China’s large-scale investment and trade deals are starting to break the stranglehold of international capital over the developing world.” (p212)

Since joining the WTO, “China’s lower tariffs and rising imports have helped boost trade with other developing countries, many of which are experiencing significant trade balances in their favour for the first time in decades … Thanks to increased demand from China, the value of exports by all developing countries rose by 25 percent, bringing their share in world trade to 31 percent in 2004, the highest since 1950.

Since 2004, China has also taken major steps in its commitment to cooperation through large-scale investment in the developing world. From Latin America to Africa, countries are increasingly looking to China as a source of investment and a future business partner, as China seeks synergies in South-South cooperation…

By funding infrastructure projects in other developing countries China is helping to boost trade so that they can lift themselves out of poverty. In addition, China has reduced or cancelled debts owed by 44 developing countries and has provided assistance to more than 110 countries for 2,000 projects.” (p210)

Further: “Over 30 African countries have benefited from China’s debt cancellations to the tune of $1.3bn … Investment credit is to be doubled to $3bn by 2009 [it is now more than double this figure]. Chinese companies offer technical assistance and build highways and bridges, sports stadiums, schools and hospitals to ensure projects deliver clear benefits to locals, for example in helping to restore Angola’s war-ravaged infrastructure.” (p211)

China is intent on assisting its brothers and sisters in the third world, and it feels that, by improving south-south cooperation, by sharing its technical know-how, and by helping to raise developing countries out of poverty, it is moving towards its overall strategy of multipolarisation.

Clegg sums up China’s international policy as attempting to create “a new international order based on non-intervention and peaceful coexistence without arms races, in which all countries have an equal voice in shaping a more balanced globalisation geared to the human needs of peace, development and sustainability“. (p226)

A dangerous game

China has followed a path of rapid growth, which has led to phenomenal results in terms of improving the lives of ordinary people. In the last 30 years, the proportion of Chinese people living below the poverty line has fallen from 85% to under 16%. Life expectancy is 74 (a rise of 28 in the last half-century!). Literacy is an impressive 93%, which compares extremely well with the pre-revolution level of 20% (and, for example, with India’s 74%).

Nonetheless, the economic reforms have undoubtedly brought serious problems – in particular: unemployment (albeit a reasonably manageable 4%), a massive increase in wealth disparity, regional disparities, an unsustainable imbalance between town and country, reliance on exports, the growth of unregulated cheap labour, and an unstable ‘floating population’ of rural migrants.

These are, of course, problems that face many other countries as well, including the wealthy imperialist ones. The difference is that in China there are both the political will and the economic resources to seriously address these issues. Huge campaigns are under way to reduce unemployment, to reduce the gap between town and country, to modernise the rural areas, to create employment, to wipe out corruption, to empower the grassroots, to improve workplace democracy, to improve access to education, to improve rural healthcare, and so on. Such are the issues on which the government’s attention is firmly focused.

The problems in the rural healthcare and education systems have been placed centre stage in the government’s ‘people first’ agenda. In 2006, a rural cooperative medicare system was started in low-income areas, with farmers, central and local government all making equal contributions. According to government estimates, the new scheme already covers 83 percent of the rural population, and the aim is for complete coverage of the whole population by 2010 … To improve the situation in rural education, the government is abolishing fees for all 150 million rural students in primary and secondary education, while increasing support for teacher training.” (p155)

China is also strongly focused on empowering its trade unions to represent the interests of the working class in its bid for better pay and conditions. Unlike in Britain, corporate no-union policies are illegal, and union officials have the right to enter the premises of non-union enterprises in order to recruit.

Clegg notes that “the rabidly anti-union Wal-Mart was compelled by law to recognise a trade union for the first time anywhere in the world in one of its outlets in Fujian province in 2006“. (p162)

Conclusion

There are a variety of opinions with regard to the political and economic path that China is following. Only time will tell if the Chinese vision will lead to the long-term strengthening of socialism and a more equitable world. As things stand, this seems to be what is happening, and that is one of the reasons that the outlook for the world is much more favourable than it was at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Progressive people worldwide should take courage in China’s achievements, its people-centred policy, its continued support for the developing world, and its leadership role within the progressive family of nations. The destruction of People’s China would be a tragedy for the people of China and the developing world, and would be a disastrous setback for the international socialist and anti-imperialist movement. For that reason, China should be defended and supported.

China’s Global Strategy gives a thorough overview of the current political and economic thinking in China, and is the first book in the English language to perform this task in such a succinct way. While Clegg is essentially supportive of China’s policy, she certainly does not attempt to sweep its problems under the carpet, and, indeed, deals with those issues at some length. Although the book is written in a relatively academic style, it is nonetheless perfectly readable even for those with little knowledge of Chinese politics, and is an invaluable resource for those wanting to understand the most significant force for progress and peace in the world today.