Charles McKelvey: China and the Third World

We are pleased to republish this interesting piece by Charles McKelvey which explores the parallel trajectories – and recent convergence – of the projects for Third World liberation and Chinese socialist construction. The article, rich in historical detail, concludes that the continuing and deepening coordination between China and the rest of the developing world is crucial to the emergence of a more rational, prosperous and democratic world system.


Two projects of importance to the future of humanity have sustained themselves for the last seven decades, namely, the Third World project of national and social liberation, and the Chinese project of socialist construction. They evolved in a parallel form, with occasional points of contact and coincidence. But for the past ten years, they have moved toward significant cooperation, and in the process, they are constructing an alternative more just and less conflictive world-system. And they are doing so precisely in a historic moment in which the capitalist world-economy is falling into parasitic decadence. The project of the Third World plus China is laying the foundation for a sustainable future for humanity; whereas the neocolonial world-system is demonstrating its unsustainability.

The two projects are anti-imperialist, but they are not anti-Western. From their beginnings, they have appropriated modern Western scientific methods and philosophical concepts, transforming them in order to adapt them to their anti-colonial theory and practice.

And the two projects have given birth to exceptional leaders, with an unusual capacity to interpret the signs of the times and to guide their peoples toward the necessary course of action. Their speeches and writings constitute an important dimension of the heritage of humanity, but unfortunately, they are not studied seriously by Western intellectuals, for the most part. So the majority of Western intellectuals today, including those of the left, do not understand China, and they do not take the Third World into account.

The Third World project

The Third World project of national and social liberation was launched in 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia, where leaders of twenty-nine newly independent nations of Asia and Africa met. Sukarno, Nehru, Nasser, and Zhou En-lai played leading roles in putting forth the strategy of Third World unity in opposition to European colonialism and Western imperialism and in formulating the principle of economic cooperation without exploitation among nations. The relations among newly independent nations were given organizational form in 1961, when twenty-one governments of Asia and Africa plus the former Yugoslavia and Cuba established the Non-Aligned Movement in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. In 1964, seventy-seven nations formed the G-77 as a bloc within the United Nations, which called upon Third World nations to develop new forms of mutually beneficial trade among one another in order to ameliorate the effects of imperialist exploitation. In 1966, eighty-three governments and national liberation movements from Africa, Asia, and Latin America met in Havana for the First Solidarity Conference of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, which named colonialism and imperialism as the source of Third World underdevelopment and defended nationalization as an effective strategy for attaining control over national economies.

In 1974, the Third World brought its vision to the General Assembly of the United Nations, which approved the Non-Aligned Movement’s proposal for a New International Economic Order. The document affirmed the principles of the right of self-determination of nations and the sovereignty of nations over their natural resources. It advocated: the creation of raw materials producers’ associations to give raw materials exporting states control over prices; a new international monetary policy that did not punish the weaker states; increased industrialization of the Third World; the transfer of technology from the advanced industrial states to the Third World; regulation and control of the activities of transnational corporations; the promotion of cooperation among the nations of the Third World; and aid for Third World development. In 1979, ninety-three nations at the Sixth Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana reaffirmed “their deep conviction that a lasting solution to the problems of countries in development can be attained only by means of a constant and fundamental restructuring of international economic relations through the establishment of a New International Economic Order.”

The world-system, however, was entering into a sustained structural crisis, as a consequence of the fact that it had reached and overextended the geographical limits of the earth. The global elite responded to this situation with a turn to the Right, reducing the role of the state and abandoning the systemic commitment to productivity, albeit uneven productivity. The Third World project was derailed.

But the voice of the Third World was not silenced. On October 13, 1979, Fidel presented to the UN General Assembly his report as President of the Non-Aligned Movement. He pronounced a historic discourse, in which he forcefully declared, “the unequal exchange that is ruining our peoples ought to cease, the external debt ought to cease.” Declaring the developed countries responsible for the situation of global inequality and poverty, he demanded implementation of the UN declaration for a New International Economic Order. He ended with a great call to all of humanity to struggle for their just aspirations. In this important speech, Fidel was declaring that the unjust international economic order was central to the political struggle of the neocolonized peoples.

In 1983, at the end of his term as president of the Non-Aligned Movement, Fidel presented a report to the Seventh Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in New Delhi in 1983, subsequently published in an expanded form as The Economic and Social Crisis of the World: Its repercussions for the underdeveloped countries, its dismal prospects, and the need to struggle if we are to survive. Fidel maintained that the maladies of the international financial system and the neocolonial world-system can be overcome through the mobilization of a global political will for the creation of a New International Economic Order, as proposed by the Non-Aligned Movement and adopted by the UN General Assembly. He maintained that the peoples of the Third World must struggle to create a more just world order, recognizing that the peoples of the Third World constitute the immense majority of humanity. He further maintained that the development of the Third World economies would be beneficial to the world-system as a whole, suggesting that the economic and social development of the Third World would enable the world-system to overcome its structural crisis. Accordingly, the peoples of the Third World must struggle: to transform the structures that promote unequal exchange and declining terms of exchange; for the cancellation of the Third World debt; for new and more equitable international monetary and financial systems; for a form of industrialization that responds to the interests of the Third World; for necessary socioeconomic structural changes, such as agrarian reform; for the adoption of measures by states that would control and limit the activities of transnational corporations; and for an elevation of the prestige of the United Nations. The struggle requires the unity of the peoples of the Third World, in spite of political and cultural differences, in recognition of their common experience of colonial domination.

In the late 1990s, the Third World project was brought to renewed life on the basis of popular social movements in opposition to neoliberalism, which found their most advanced expression in Latin America. This time, however, not only would ideas be expressed, they also would be implemented in practice. Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador began to develop mutually beneficial economic and cultural relations, on a basis of respect for sovereignty. Their evolving relations with one another during the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century constituted an effort to move from dependency on trade with the global powers of the European-centered world-economy, which were economically disadvantageous, toward trade with other nations of the South, looking for win-win strategies based on mutual respect. They took the lead in forming regional associations, seeking to provide practical support for mutually beneficial trade and to include other nations in the process. ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America) was established in 2004, proclaiming the need for solidarity and cooperation among nations. UNASUR (the South American Union of Nations) was established in 2008, calling for solidarity in the use of the resources of the region. CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) was established in 2010. In CELAC’s Second Summit in Havana in 2016, the Declaration of Havana affirms the commitment of the 33 governments to expand commerce within the region and to develop a form of integration based on complementariness, solidarity, and cooperation.

The revitalization of the Third World project at the beginning of the twenty-first century can be seen in the retaking by the Non-Aligned Movement of its historic principles. The 2006 Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana, in a declaration affirmed by its 218 member nations, affirmed historic principles, including the equality and sovereignty of nations, non-intervention in the affairs of other states, and “the free determination of peoples in their struggle against foreign intervention.” At the Seventeenth Summit of the Non-Aligned movement in Venezuela in 2016, the 220 member nations called upon the peoples of the Third World to struggle against colonialism and neocolonialism and to participate in the construction of a more just world, established on a foundation of solidarity and cooperation. Reflecting changing global dynamics, the Venezuelan presidential term in the Non-Aligned Movement followed the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Socialism with Chinese characteristics

During the nineteenth century, imperialist powers (the Western European colonial empires plus the USA, Japan and Russia) competed for control of natural resources and labor beyond their national territories. China was not included in this process of competing imperialisms. For millennia, Chinese empires had been among the most advanced human civilizations. But by the nineteenth century, China had experienced economic decline, as a result of Western semi-colonial penetration, during which the Chinese empire was compelled to accept trade agreements that undermined its economy.

In the late 1890s, there emerged in China a nationalist anti-imperialist tendency among intellectuals, in reaction to Western commercial and military penetration as well as the imperialism of Japan. Chinese Marxism was born in this nationalist anti-imperialist intellectual environment. The Chinese Communist Party was established in 1921 by two Beijing University professors and their student followers. Among them was a young library assistant, Mao Zedong, who formulated an adaptation of Marxist theory to the conditions of China.

Following a decades-long military and political struggle with, on the one hand, a Chinese nationalism that accommodated to Western interests, and on the other hand, the military occupation of China by Japan; Mao Zedong arrived in Beijing on October 1, 1949 to proclaim the People’s Republic of China.

The intention of the triumphant Chinese Revolution was to set aside the previous policy of accommodation to bourgeois and foreign interests, and on this basis, to propel the economic modernization of the country. The Agrarian Reform Law of 1950 distributed land to individual peasant proprietors, liquidating the landed estate bourgeoisie as a class, with the intention of organizing the peasants into cooperatives. There emerged disagreements within the leadership of the Communist Party concerning the pace of the collectivization of the peasants, with Mao pushing for acceleration of the process. And there also emerged disagreements concerning the form and the pace of industrialization. The period of 1950 to 1976 was characterized by intense political conflicts within the Communist Party leadership, with Maoists pushing for rapid transformations, against the pragmatists that were in the majority in the Party leadership; and with both sides mobilizing masses in defense of their cause.

Events would favor the pragmatists. Mao’s Great Leap Forward of 1957 to 1958 was an economic failure with tragic consequences; and Mao’s divisive comportment in 1965 and 1966 stimulated the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Moreover, growth in China’s Gross Domestic Product and national income was much greater during times in which pragmatic policies prevailed, in contrast to the periods of ultra-leftist policies or political conflict.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, the Communist Party embarked on the pragmatic road. In the period of 1978 to 2012, China pursued a program of “Reform and Opening,” followed by “The New Reform,” from 2012 to present. Both stages of reform are based on the concept of a socialist market economy, which departs from the classic view that a market economy is inherent to capitalism, and a planned economy is inherent to socialism. In a socialist market economy, economic planning is primary, and the market plays an auxiliary role, defined by the state-formulated plan; and state-owned property is the pillar of the economy.

The reform was initially formulated by Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping as a series of measures, which later became the practical basis for the formulation of theory by the Communist Party. The reform sought to increase long-stagnant agricultural production through contracts with peasant families on state-owned land, with expansion of the free market for agricultural products. The measures also expanded space for private capital in industry.

In an article published in the Qiao Collective platform, Isak Novak stresses the continuity between the projects of Mao and Deng. Mao saw the importance of the national bourgeoisie in the economic development of the country. He taught that China must use capitalism to elevate the economy and the standard of living of the people; but with structures that ensure that the bourgeoisie does not control the state. Similarly, Deng taught that the development of the productive forces is central to socialist construction; he therefore advocated limited, highly regulated capitalism with state ownership of the commanding heights of the economy.

Inasmuch as the modernization of the economy required levels of investment beyond the reach of national capacity, China also turned to attracting foreign investment, a central component of the so-called “opening” of the economy. From 1979 to 1995, various structures were established that enabled a significant increase in foreign investment, in which 185 nations of the world have participated. Novak calls it “the bargain with foreign capital.”

Novak places the arrangement with foreign capital in the period of the 1980s through the 2000s. Foreign capital had access to a large and relatively cheap labor force for use in export-oriented production. But restrictions were placed on foreign capital: they had to form joint ventures with Chinese firms, facilitating the transfer of technology; they were excluded from certain sectors that were vital to China’s national goals; and they were under regulation and oversight by the state. These restrictions ensured that the capitalist class would not be able to assert control over the political system.

Novak observes that the USA had thought that the market reforms in China would undermine the ideological base and the power of the Party. But the opposite has happened. The Communist Party of China enjoys broad popular support; it is one of the most popular ruling parties in the world. In the ideological plane, the thought and teachings of Marxism, Mao, and Deng are taught, as the Party educates and guides the people in the construction of socialism.

Meanwhile, during course of the twentieth century, the United States had forged a new form of imperialism, which involved economic penetration of other territories, without seizing direct political control. Chinese foreign policy rejects the new form of imperialism, which has become integral to the neocolonial world-system. Chinese foreign policy is based on the anti-imperialist principle of cooperation and sovereignty among nations. It affirms, in theory and in practice, that all nations of the world ought to be free to control their economies, their political systems, and their foreign policies; and they ought to be free to trade among themselves, without interferences and interventions by global powers that seek control of natural resources and markets. In developing in practice commercial relations on the basis of these concepts, China departs from the standard practices of the established neocolonial world-system.

The two projects connect

The evolution of Chinese foreign policy dovetailed with the Latin American turn to South-South cooperation. In 2014, Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, met with the heads of state of the nations of CELAC, including Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, to establish the China-CELAC Forum, and he subsequently visited Venezuela and Cuba. In an interchange with Latin American journalists, the Chinese President described China as a large nation, but not a global power, and in a phase of development similar to Latin America and the Caribbean nations. He maintained that China is seeking to develop through trade based on cooperation and win-win relations of mutual benefit. He defended South-South cooperation as the engine that can drive the autonomous and sustainable development of the underdeveloped nations, and he observed that the expanding economic and social relation between China and CELAC to be an example of this necessary South-South cooperation. He affirmed the commitment of China to an alternative international economic and political order, more just and reasonable.

The declarations of the Chinese president prompted Cuban journalists Yaima Puig and Leticia Martínez to write, “Our region, historically plundered and beaten by foreign powers, now receives respectful treatment and gratitude from the Asian giant.” They described the China-CELAC Forum as a project for integral development of cooperation through commerce, investment, and financial cooperation, increasing the economic growth of both parties, with reciprocal investment oriented toward the productive sectors and the diversification of production, and financial cooperation among the central banks. They maintained that China is announcing “a road . . . where our interests also are important and are taken into account; a road that announces a clear sign concerning the strengthening of unity and collaboration and the promotion of South-South cooperation between China and Latin America and the Caribbean.” It is a road of respect for the principles of complementarity and dialogue. They commended “the respect and simplicity with which the Asiatic giant has approached [Latin] America.”

Since its establishment in 2014, the China-CELAC Forum has incorporated nineteen countries in the Chinese project of the New Silk Road. Six airline flights have been established, and forty-four Confucius Institutes have been opened. Various Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua participated in the sixth meeting of the Forum from October 27 to October 29, 2019 in Beijing, in which Senator Frederick Audley of the Bahamas praised China for its aid in constructing infrastructure in different countries in the continent and its execution of plans to promote development, especially with respect to the small island states.

At the same time, as I noted in the last two posts, African activists and intellectuals maintain that the increased trade between China and Africa is unfolding in the context of China’s policy of respect for the sovereignty of African nations and of non-interference in African political affairs. They maintain that there is a renewal of Pan-Africanism on the continent, a phenomenon that is supported by China’s anti-imperialist policy of mutually-beneficial trade.

The future of the American Republic

Tu Zhuxi (Chairman Rabbit), the “America-watching” Chinese blogger with an enormous following, observes that, inasmuch as the USA is a multinational country, it must forge a national identity on the basis of popular support for the Constitution of the United States and the foundational values of the nation. This reality of the U.S. political culture, Tu maintains, creates a dynamic in which the U.S. system cannot be criticized; to criticize the American system is a serious political error. Therefore, even apparent criticisms of the system turn out to be criticisms of particular individuals, organizations, or institutions. Fundamental assumptions are untouchable; no one speaks of overthrowing the system and starting over. This means, Tu concludes, that there cannot be a revolution in the United States; even those who consider themselves socialists or revolutionaries do not know the meanings of these terms.

Tu is right with respect to the current situation of U.S. political culture. But this does not mean that the political culture cannot be transformed, seizing opportunities created by the sustained structural crisis of the world-system and the relative decline of the USA.

The left in the USA must learn the political art of attacking the system without attacking the Constitution and the foundational political values of the nation; indeed, it must learn how to attack the system as violations of the foundational values of the nation. Here is the source of the political weakness of a true left in the United States; not only has it not learned the required political art, it has not even seen the need to do so.

What are the dimensions of the required political art in practice? First, all critiques and proposals for change have to be presented as grounded in the foundational values of the nation, as the fulfillment in the current historical context of the foundational values. Secondly, all concrete proposals for change have to be expressed as proposals for constitutional amendments and new federal and state laws, in accordance with the Constitution; and in accordance with the historic pattern of the peoples’ movements, as illustrated by the amendments and new laws that resulted from the abolitionist movement, workers’ movement, farmers’ movement, women’s movement and the civil rights movement. Thirdly, this implies the need for a reformulation of the American narrative that takes into account economic and social developments since 1789, including the current national and global situation; a new narrative that is a reformulation of the foundational values.

In the context of the current economic, political, and cultural crisis of the nation and the civilizational crisis of humanity, a revolution of the people, seeking power for the people, could emerge in the United States, if there were to emerge exceptional leaders with insightful understanding of political-economic dynamics, who possess mastery of the art of politics. Exceptional leaders capable of explaining to the people the significance for the future of humanity of the Third World project of national and social liberation, the Chinese project of socialist construction, and the alternative world-system that the two projects are building in practice on a foundation of cooperation.

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