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.

The C-word: comm**ism. What is it, and why is everybody so afraid of it?

Let’s talk about the C-word: Comm**ism. So much more shocking than the other C-word. What is it, and why is everybody so afraid of it?

You’d think it’d actually be pretty popular. I mean… it makes quite a lot of sense. What does it mean? It means a classless society, built on common ownership of the means of production, that by definition works to overcome the worst inheritance of human history: poverty, starvation, war, racism, sexism, national oppression, social alienation, inequality, exploitation. A collaborative, participatory society that seeks to elevate the oppressed to the highest levels of happiness, education and culture; that builds upon all advances in human understanding in order to create a qualitatively new way of being. This isn’t the place to dive into the theory, but let’s face it, it sounds great.

And yet, in the collective mind, ‘communism’ is a dirty word. When we think of communism, we don’t think of progress, literacy, economic uplift, culture, national reconciliation, peace, creativity, diversity. Rather we think of secret services, prisons, indoctrination, brainwashing, stale uniformity, dictatorship, militarism, bread queues, ration books. We think of the world described by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. We think pretty much exactly what senator Joseph McCarthy wanted us to think about communism: that it is the enemy of freedom.

This image is of course unfair, and represents a massive propaganda victory for the real enemy of peace and freedom: the imperialists. Ever since the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 – almost a century ago – the media and education systems in the ‘free world’ have made anti-communist propaganda one of their most central tasks. The wretched of the earth rising up and expropriating the oppressors? That’s the sort of contagious idea that has to be nipped in the bud. Hence the endless and intense slander campaign against any socialist country that ever existed, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, from Vietnam to Venezuela, from China to Albania, from People’s Korea to Yugoslavia. Any progress made by these countries is totally ignored; any problems and failures are magnified out of all proportion; issues are distorted and lies are spread.

Am I saying that these socialist countries, led by communist parties, were/are perfect models of this new type of society? Clearly not. There were, and are, massive problems in the building of socialism and laying the foundation for a future communism. However:

1) All of these problems are exaggerated by a well-funded western media and academia, and all too often the ‘statistics’ about socialist history are based on the claims of highly dubious McCarthyite ‘scholars’.

2) Issues regarding repression must be seen in the context of socialist states having to protect themselves within a hostile international atmosphere where the enemy spares no effort to destabilise and attack them (just look at the 600+ attempts by the CIA to kill Fidel Castro).

3) Building a new society and getting over the inheritance of feudalism and capitalism is never going to be easy.

4) Most accusations pointed at the socialist countries generally speaking apply in much greater measure to the capitalist countries. For example, no socialist country in history ever had anything like the incarceration rate of the modern day USA.

5) Whilst it’s popular to talk about the “crimes of communism”, what about the “crimes of capitalism”? Such as, for example:

  • The transatlantic slave trade
  • The genocide of the native populations of the Americas and Australia
  • The numerous famines in India and Ireland brought about by British colonial policy
  • Apartheid
  • The dispossession of the Palestinians
  • The killing of 10 million Congolese by Belgian colonialism
  • The 13 million that die every year due to malnutrition (wholly preventable but for capitalist greed)
  • The rape of Africa
  • The wanton destruction of Vietnam and Korea
  • The Opium Wars
  • The Nazi holocaust
  • Systemic racism
  • The cult of the individual and the breakdown of community
  • The destruction of cultures across the globe
  • The monopolisation of wealth by a small handful of implausibly rich people

It’s quite obvious to any thinking person that, even if we accept the extremely dodgy and dubious claims of CIA-payroll historians like Robert Conquest, the “crimes of capitalism” far outweigh any “crimes of communism”.

6) Meanwhile, in the face of great difficulties, socialist countries have achieved some pretty extraordinary things.

Let’s take China for example. Pre-revolution life expectancy was around 35; now it’s around 74. Literacy was under 20%; now it’s 93%. It has witnessed the most rapid poverty alleviation in history. Its people were looked down upon as the scum of the earth. As WEB DuBois said in a broadcast on Radio Peking:

“What people have been despised as you have? Who more than you have been rejected of men? Recall when lordly Britishers threw the rickshaw money on the ground to avoid touching a filthy hand. Forget not the time when in Shanghai no Chinese man dare set foot in a park which he paid for.”

And who doesn’t know that Cuba provides by far the highest standard of living for ordinary people anywhere in South America and the Caribbean; that it has a life expectancy of 79 and literacy rate of 99.8%, in spite of a cruel economic blockade; that it has done more to eradicate the scourge of racism than any other country in the western hemisphere?

And who doesn’t know that the Soviet Union brought about a profound improvement in the living standards of the vast majority of its people; that it defeated Nazi Germany and saved Europe; that it provided crucial support to the liberation movements in Africa, to Cuba, to Nicaragua, to Vietnam, to Korea; that it brought about a transformation of the republics of Central Asia, ground down for centuries by competing colonial interests? When we think of communism, why isn’t it all this that we think of?

Certainly, many individuals have suffered unfairly in socialist countries. But why is the blame always assigned to ‘communism’? If I want to see oppression and repression, I can take the briefest of walks down Tottenham High Street. If I want to see corruption, bureaucracy and the centralisation of power, I can observe the proceedings at Westminster. But these things don’t get attributed to ‘capitalism’. Most people who walk past dozens of homeless people each day don’t turn into zealous anti-capitalists (more’s the pity). Anti-communism is the dominant narrative, and so it’s easy to adapt to. Anti-capitalism is not at all the dominant narrative, and to adapt to it is to face isolation and abuse.

The question is: can the C-word be re-claimed, or has the propaganda war already been lost? Are sensible, progressive people so put off by any mention of communism that they immediately disregard anything associated with it? Do we need new terminology for the basic principles of equality, people’s power and social justice? I have come across quite a few very decent and principled people putting forward such an argument – that the C-word is beyond the pale. I’m not convinced. Imperialist cultural hegemony isn’t going to broken unless people who oppose it stand up confidently and loudly for what they believe in. Are we simply going to allow free reign to slander and disinformation? Should we leave prejudices intact? To use a parallel from the world of religion: could Muslims get rid of islamophobia by changing the name of their religion to, say, Democratic Mohammedanism?

Prejudices need to be attacked. Disinformation needs to be exposed. People’s psychological/ideological/cultural reliance on imperialism needs to be broken. That won’t happen if we keep playing by the enemy’s rules.

Like Malcolm said:

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

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)


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.