By Danny Haiphong and Carlos Martinez
China is led by a communist party, with Marxism as its guiding ideology. In the period since the foundation of the PRC in 1949, the Chinese people have experienced an unprecedented and extraordinary improvement in their living standards and level of human development. The social and economic position of women has improved beyond recognition, along with the rights and conditions of ethnic and religious minorities. In spite of all this, support for China within much of the Western left is a somewhat marginal position.
This article, written to coincide with the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC), provides a brief overview of why we believe anyone considering themselves to be a socialist should support the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Poverty alleviation and improvement in living standards
In its 72 years of existence, the People’s Republic of China has accomplished more in the realm of poverty alleviation than any nation in history. China in 1949 was one of the poorest countries in the world, with a life expectancy of 36 years (9 years lower than the global average). Its GDP constituted 0.3 percent of global GDP. Malnutrition, illiteracy and homelessness were rife; millions died every year for lack of food. Population numbers had remained static between 400 and 500 million for a hundred years.
During the first three decades of socialist construction, feudalism was eliminated, comprehensive land reform carried out, and basic medical services were set up throughout the country. However, although the basic problem of feeding the population was solved – and famines had become a thing of the past – hundreds of millions of people in the countryside still endured harsh conditions.
Since the launch of reform and opening up in 1978, the number of people in China living in internationally-defined absolute poverty has fallen from 850 million to zero. And although market reforms have resulted in high levels of inequality, the inverse correlation between wealth and poverty has been broken – life for ordinary workers and peasants has continuously improved, at a remarkable rate and over an extended period.
China’s average life expectancy is now 77 years (4 years higher than the global average) and its per capita GDP over 10,000 USD. Its GDP constitutes 18 percent of global GDP. The entire population (of 1.4 billion) has secure access to food, shelter, clothing, education and healthcare. By any measure, this progress is extraordinary and historically unprecedented. Anyone considering themselves socialist should appreciate the far-reaching significance of these steps forward in wiping out poverty and improving the living standards of the Chinese people.
Innovations in Marxism and the construction of socialism
China has billionaires and is a top destination for foreign direct investment. It has hundreds of branches of Starbucks and KFC, along with significant private ownership of capital. It suffers from high levels of inequality. These factors lead many to question whether it really is what it claims to be: a socialist country.
China’s leaders are very clear that “socialism with Chinese characteristics is socialism, not any other ‘ism’” and that “only socialism can save China”. Elements of capitalism have been purposefully used in order to develop the productive forces, increase productivity, attract investment, encourage technical development, and to support peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world. This has all proven invaluable in improving the living standards of the Chinese people and creating conditions for the construction of an advanced socialist society.
All this is ‘unorthodox’ in the relatively short history of actually-existing socialism, but Marxism offers no templates or formulas; there are no textbook solutions to the problem of how to build a new society in a large, underdeveloped country under constant threat from a hegemonic US imperialism. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is a creative contribution to Marxism based on the concrete analysis of concrete conditions.
Although private capital abounds, China’s basic economic agenda is set by five-year plans, put together on the basis of discussion and consultation that reaches throughout society. The state maintains tight control over the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy: heavy industry, energy, finance, transport, and communications. Finance – which has a key influence over the entire economy – is dominated by the state-owned banks.
Most importantly, capitalists are not allowed to dominate political power like they do in the West. If capitalists dominated political power, China would be a capitalist country – but then China would be a very different place. With capital calling the shots, China would not have been able to carry out the largest-scale poverty alleviation in history; it would not have taken the lead in tackling climate change; it would not be able to so successfully contain Covid, or to organise its scientific and technical infrastructure to develop some of the first vaccines and produce 5 billion doses in a year; it would not be systematically expanding its social welfare program.
In 1989, Deng Xiaoping commented to Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere that, “so long as socialism does not collapse in China, it will always hold its ground in the world.” Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of China represents the Marxist mainstream, and continues to develop socialist theory and practice, to map out a path towards a future classless society free from exploitation.
Leading the way in the battle against climate breakdown
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.
This was a matter of necessity: 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.
In recent years however, China has emerged as a leader in the global struggle against climate catastrophe. Xi Jinping announced last year that China would reach carbon neutrality by 2060, with its greenhouse gas emissions peaking before 2030. These commitments are in line with UN targets for developing countries, and as British environmental expert Mike Berners-Lee points out, China has unusually strong capacity for meeting its targets. “More than in most countries, if a policy idea is seen as a good thing, the Chinese can bring it about.” (There Is No Planet B, Cambridge University Press, 2019)
Indeed, half of Chinese cities and provinces are already switching to primarily renewable energy. In the course of the last decade, coal has gone from 80 percent to under 60 percent of China’s power mix – roughly the same as Australia, a country with a per capita GDP five times higher than that of China.
China is becoming the first “renewable energy superpower”, responsible for 38 percent of global clean energy investment, creating millions of green energy jobs along the way. The Green New Deal that much of the Western left is calling for is already being implemented in China, on an almost unimaginable scale. In the words of Xi Jinping, “We will never again seek economic growth at the cost of the environment.”
Challenging imperialism and building towards a peaceful, multipolar future
In sharp contrast to the US and its allies, China has not been to war in more than 40 years, never conducts regime change operations, does not get involved in destabilisation of other countries, and does not unilaterally impose sanctions as a form of economic bullying. Nonetheless, over the past decade, China has been mischaracterized by Western observers as an “imperialist country.” The scant evidence provided for “Chinese imperialism” includes China’s massive export economy as well as the financial instruments utilized in China’s global development project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A simple review of the facts, however, indicates that China is actually challenging imperialism on several fronts and contributing to a more peaceful and multipolar future.
China’s challenge to imperialism possesses both an economic and political component. Politically, China is committed to building a multipolar world whereby global problems are resolved by multilateral institutions and cooperation among nations rather than a singular nation’s influence. China’s orientation to world affairs can be summarized by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s remark that “the UN is not a club for big or rich countries; all countries enjoy sovereign equality and no country is in a position to dictate international affairs.”
China’s adherence to multilateralism takes several forms. China is a signatory of over 500 international treaties. Furthermore, China regularly stands up to the United States and the West’s promotion of unilateral coercive measures such as sanctions which have caused an enormous level of destruction for more than thirty countries around the world. On June 23rd, China voted at the UN General Assembly for the removal of US sanctions on Cuba. That same day, China called for the removal of illegal US sanctions on Syria.
China has actively sought multilateral partnerships with all nations seeking to bring about a more peaceful world order. Russia and China have worked together on numerous occasions at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to block resolutions that threaten global peace. This includes the consistent veto at the UNSC of efforts to escalate the US war in Syria, much to the chagrin of pro-interventionist forces. During the US-backed coup in Ukraine in 2014, China stood firmly with Russia in denouncing outside interference and has championed the development of political resolutions for all disputes within and between nations.
China’s growing economic partnerships with nations around the world, particularly in the Global South, have been maligned in the West as “debt-trap diplomacy.” The facts tell a different story entirely. According to Director of the China Africa Initiative at John Hopkins University, Deborah Brautigam, China’s economic ties with developing countries in Africa serve a critical infrastructure need and represent only a small fraction of the developing world’s overall debt portfolio. A recent working paper published by Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center argued that China’s willingness to renegotiate debt and provide multiple avenues for financing serves as a possible alternative to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditional lending practices.
What this means is that China is committed to sharing in its successes with high-speed rail development, 5G technology, and the like without demanding privatization, austerity, or any other kind of political or economic reform from its trade partners. Greek economist and former government minister Yanis Varoufakis summarized China’s role in the world aptly when he said:
“The Chinese are non-interventionist in a way that Westerners have never managed to fathom… They don’t seem to have any military ambitions… Instead of going into Africa with troops, killing people like the West has done… they went to Addis Ababa and said to the government, ‘we can see you have some problems with your infrastructure; we would like to build some new airports, upgrade your railway system, create a telephone system, and rebuild your roads’… they have never combined their investment with imperialistic [goals].”
Leading the way in the battle against Covid-19
China was the first to discover the novel coronavirus in December 2019. Covid-19 has since developed into a worldwide pandemic that has taken the lives of at least four million people to date. Given China’s enormous population, it could be assumed that the country would be plagued by a high number of pandemic-related deaths and cases.
Yet the exact opposite is true. China has had roughly 103,000 cases to date and .35 deaths per one hundred thousand in the population. Contrast this with the United States, which has had a whopping 33 million cases and 184 deaths per one hundred thousand in the population. While the United States and much of the West have demonized China’s pandemic response and even blamed the country for the spread of the virus, the real question is: how did China take the lead in combating COVID-19?
Make no mistake, China took the emergence of Covid-19 seriously from day one. China wasted no time in alerting the World Health Organization (WHO) and taking swift action to contain the virus’s spread. By January 12th, 2020, China had provided a genome sequence to the WHO. By January 23rd, the city of Wuhan was effectively placed under lockdown and infection-prevention measures implemented across the country to curb viral transmission. China, under the leadership of the Communist Party (CPC), mobilized an enormous public health response in the cause of preserving human life.
Hundreds of thousands of party cadres organized to ensure basic human needs were fulfilled for the entire population. Hospitals were built within weeks to increase healthcare capacity. Industries were repurposed for the production of personal protective equipment (PPE). Technology was deployed to assist with contract tracing. Entire cities were tested for the virus at any sign of an outbreak. For all of these reasons and more, China was able to not only preserve human life but also restart its economy four months after its outbreak and become the only major economy in the world to post positive growth for the duration of 2020.
Internationalism has been a critical aspect of China’s ongoing pandemic response. China has donated a massive amount of PPE in the form of masks, ventilators, and testing kits to dozens of countries around the world since the beginning of the pandemic. China is also the global leader in Covid-19 vaccine distribution, exporting hundreds of millions of doses to nations that otherwise would not have access. In stark contrast to the US and Western narrative, it is quite clear that China has demonstrated both the capacity and the political will to lead the way in the global battle to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic.
China is a socialist country, where government policy is determined principally on the basis of the needs and desires of the working people. That is why China is able to take the lead globally when it comes to wiping out poverty, transitioning to renewable energy and tackling the pandemic. At a global level, China is leading the shift towards a multipolar world – a more democratic system of international relations in which each country has the right to determine its own development path, free from bullying and intervention.
Such is the contribution of the ongoing Chinese Revolution to the people of China and the world. Of course the Communist Party of China, like any governing organization, makes mistakes and has to make compromises with a complex and difficult reality; it is by no means above criticism. However, its overall record is one of immense and continuing progress for the global working class and the cause of socialism.