At a webinar of the International Manifesto Group on the theme of Anti-imperialism and the Western Left, Friends of Socialist China co-editor Carlos Martinez gave this talk about the Western left’s failure to meaningfully engage with Chinese socialism.
The focus of my presentation is: why doesn’t more of the Western left support the People’s Republic of China? Why doesn’t more of the Western left engage in a serious way with Chinese socialism?
There are lots of things about modern China that seem worthy of support, from a socialist point of view.
Poverty alleviation. Reducing poverty is a decidedly leftist objective. If there was no poverty under capitalism – if there were no homeless, no people without sufficient food to eat, without access to education and healthcare, without work or the possibility of earning an income – most people on the left would probably find something better to do with their time than struggling for a new society.
So the fact that China has achieved so much in the realm of poverty alleviation should obviously be something that we study and celebrate.
Not everyone trusts the Chinese government’s statistics, not everyone is convinced by the claim that China in 2020 eliminated extreme poverty. Fine. But it is absolutely beyond question that, in the period from 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed, the Chinese people have experienced an unprecedented and extraordinary improvement in their living standards and their level of human development.
China was one of the poorest countries in the world. Millions would die every year due to malnutrition, even in non-famine years. The vast majority of the population had no access to education and healthcare.
Life expectancy has more than doubled since 1949. China has achieved universal literacy. Everybody has access to education and healthcare. The social and economic position of women has improved beyond recognition.
Yes, life expectancy and literacy have improved in much of the world. But in China’s case, it has gone from a long way below the global average to a long way above the global average. The UN Development Programme describes China as having achieved “the most rapid decline in absolute poverty ever witnessed”.
There is tremendous inequality in China, and yes there are billionaires, but actually the economic baseline – the quality of life for the poor – is much higher than in other countries of the developing world.
The rural poor in China may not have a great deal of disposable income, but they have access to land, they have secure housing, they’re not drowning in debt to feudal landlords, their children get educated, they can see a doctor if they need to, they’re entitled to a pension, they have water piped into their homes, and so on. They might be considered as poor, but it’s a very different category of poverty to that which can be seen elsewhere in Asia.
And there are a number of other areas in which China is making amazing progress.
On climate change and biodiversity, China has emerged as a global leader.
On the Covid-19 pandemic, China has established the gold standard in terms of going all out to protect human life.
The fact that China is able to focus to such a degree on poverty alleviation, on renewable energy, on education, on suppressing the pandemic, on cracking down on corruption, and so on, doesn’t reflect some mystical, etherial quality of Chinese culture. It reflects the fact that the Chinese state prioritises the needs of ordinary people.
And that in itself reflects the fact that the CPC came to power via a revolution that was led by, supported by and sustained by the working class and peasantry. It was a revolution that created a workers’ state – moreover, a state led by a communist party with Marxism as its guiding ideology.
And yet, support for Chinese socialism is a niche position on the Western left.
To start with, an awful lot of people think that China is a capitalist country, or even an imperialist country.
China has nearly 700 billionaires. A lot is made of China’s billionaires. Of course, China’s a huge country. Proportionally speaking, measured in terms of billionaires per million population, China stands at 0.27, which is actually below the global average of 0.35.
Monaco, by the way, is the world leader, with 79 billionaires per million population! The US is well above the global average with just under 2 per million. So China can hardly be said to be the home of billionaires.
But anyway. You can find McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks in Chinese cities. There’s private capital, there are big businesses and wealthy individuals and significant inequality. There are rich people and poor people; there is exploitation of labour; and there is integration into global value chains operated by huge multinationals.
A lot of people on the Western left look at this situation and say, well, this can’t be socialism.
And yet such people face an ideological trap that’s very difficult to break out of.
The standard of living in China has increased dramatically and continuously since 1949, certainly including in the period from 1978 when China is supposed to have “gone capitalist”. No capitalist country has achieved what China’s achieved in terms of improving the lives of ordinary people – certainly not on anything like the scale, or for such a sustained period of time.
Under capitalism, wealth always has a counterpart in poverty. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, but tens of millions of people lack access to healthcare. Hundreds of thousands are homeless. And that’s before we even think about the extent to which US wealth relies on poverty, war and destruction elsewhere in the world – which is very much not the case for China.
If China is capitalist, and Chinese capitalism has delivered such extraordinary improvements to the lives of hundreds of millions of people, does that mean we need to think again about being anti-capitalists? That’s a serious question for anti-China leftists.
The Chinese themselves have always been very clear: they use market forces, within the overall context of a planned and state-run economy, in order to stimulate the development of the productive forces.
The Chinese state maintains tight control over the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy: heavy industry, energy, transport, communications, and foreign trade. China’s financial system is dominated by the ‘big four’ state-owned banks, which are accountable to the government rather than to private shareholders.
This level of intervention and regulation – which is the opposite of the free market fundamentalism and ‘small government’ neoliberalism that prevails in the West – means that capital isn’t in control; that the economy exists to benefit the people as a whole.
The land in China continues to be owned and managed at the village level.
So from an economic point of view, when you do a bit of investigation, China is much more socialist and much less capitalist than it might appear at a superficial level.
I often quote the Shanghai investor Eric Li, who’s interviewed on John Pilger’s film ‘The Coming War on China’. He makes an essential point about how China works:
“China is a market economy but it’s not a capitalist country. There’s no way a group of billionaires could control the politburo in the way billionaires control American policy making. Capital does not have enshrined rights in China.”
That is to say, in capitalist countries, the interests of capital come first. The capitalist class is the ruling class. In China that’s manifestly not the case.
Look at the top priorities of the Chinese government in recent years. Eradicate extreme poverty. Clamp down on corruption. Shift to renewable energy. Protect biodiversity. Protect human life in a pandemic. Improve living standards. These goals represent the will of ordinary people, not a capitalist elite.
Compare that with the major capitalist countries. Where I am in Britain, we’ve faced years of bitter austerity – life for ordinary working class people is getting worse all the time. Our death rate from Covid is almost a thousand times higher than China’s. Our progress rolling out renewable energy is painfully slow.
And the fact that China’s government represents the class interests of the masses is also reflected in the fact that it’s extraordinarily popular. Studies, including by Western academic institutions, routinely show that the CPC-led government has a 90-plus percent approval rating.
Meanwhile, the latest polling data indicates that only 20 percent of respondents feel the US Congress is doing a good job. But the US is the democracy, apparently.
The other thing to quickly mention about China and socialism is that the Chinese themselves continue to conceive of their political trajectory in terms of socialism and communism. Xi Jinping often says: “Only socialism can save China”, and “socialism with Chinese characteristics is socialism and not any other kind of -ism.”
All school students learn the basic tenets of Marxism; all the major universities have Schools of Marxism. It’s pretty difficult to understand why the Chinese would go to such lengths to pretend to be socialists.
Another important factor in how the Western left engages with China is the propaganda war. A lot of people who won’t even give critical support to Chinese socialism are happy to give uncritical support to anti-China propaganda put out by Western imperialists.
China’s the new colonial force in Africa.
China’s the new colonial force in Latin America and the Caribbean.
China is cornering developing countries in debt traps.
China is perpetrating a genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
China is preventing Tibetans and Inner Mongolians from speaking their languages.
China is trying to wipe out democracy in Hong Kong.
And the list goes on. Each item can be, and has been, comprehensively debunked. But why do people fall for these lies over and over again?
It should be perfectly obvious why the US and its allies would wage a propaganda war against China. China’s rise constitutes an existential threat for US hegemony. China is by most measures the largest economy in the world; it’s a leader in multiple key areas of science and technology; it takes an independent and anti-imperialist stance on the global stage and consistently supports the Global South, consistently works towards multipolarity; it’s a non-white power; it’s run by a communist party… For these reasons and more, China is the principal target in the US-led New Cold War, and the propaganda war is part of that.
But why do people fall for it? Why do people who consider themselves to be critical thinkers not think a bit more critically about the information they’re being fed about China?
There are several elements to this.
For one thing, a lot of this propaganda is quite powerful and sophisticated, and it actively connects to progressive ideas and sentiments. Particularly since the Carter administration, US politicians and media have really mastered the use of human rights as a stick to beat their enemies with. They find a problem, magnify it, exaggerate it, build a slick and all-pervasive campaign around it, and make you feel like you’re a bad person if you don’t join that campaign.
The accusation of genocide is particularly potent in these terms. By accusing China of genocide in Xinjiang, or Russia of genocide in Bucha, you create an emotional-intellectual environment where to stand with China or Russia is the equivalent of being a Holocaust denier. So you’ve massively increased the psychological cost of taking an anti-imperialist position.
The propaganda is very persuasive, very sophisticated, and we have to understand that and systematically counter it.
Then the Western left has a couple of quite deep-rooted problems that it needs to face up to.
It has a eurocentrism problem. The trajectory of Marxism over the course of the 20th century was towards the East and the South. It started as the ideology of the North American and West European industrial working class in their struggle against capital; it shifted East first to Russia, then China, Vietnam, Korea; then South to Cuba, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Guinea Bissau, Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Nicaragua, Grenada and elsewhere.
It became the ideology of the oppressed masses worldwide against imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy. It’s very significant that the final sentence of the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, reads: “Workers of the world, unite!” The Comintern, at its second congress in 1920, at the suggestion of a certain Vladimir Lenin, expanded this to: “Workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!”
But a lot of the Western left never quite caught up with that. In their minds, workers’ struggle still mainly looks like white men, working in factories and demanding pay rises. The idea of a Chinese or Zimbabwean peasant being at the cutting edge of the global class struggle doesn’t quite resonate.
The less a movement looks and acts like the European working class of the late 19th century, the less support it gets. And if you look at the communist parties in countries like China and Korea – countries that really aren’t at all Europeanised, that don’t have their philosophical roots in Greece and Rome, and so on – they don’t fit that bill.
Connected to that, the Western left also has a dogmatism problem. Let’s just admit it. In spite of – or perhaps because of – our lack of success building a socialist project of our own, we’ve developed very fixed ideas about what socialism is. And those ideas often don’t match the messy reality of Chinese socialism, which exists in the real world, which is engaged in a long-term battle for its survival in the face of ongoing imperialist hostility and destabilisation, and which therefore has had to make compromises and to develop creative solutions to new and complex problems.
How do we go about addressing these issues in our movement? It’s a tough question. Through the work that various groups and individuals have been doing – including the International Manifesto Group – we’re starting to see the re-emergence and consolidation of an international anti-imperialist movement. We need to continue developing this work, building unity and deepening our understanding.
We need to be cognisant of the propaganda war, and we need to fight resolutely against it.
And of course we always need to be alert to the intellectual arrogance and the prejudices that are so easy to absorb when you exist in a culture that’s fundamentally racist and Eurocentric.
Thank you very much for listening.