Book Review: A China Reader

‘A China Reader: Socialist Education Project’, edited by Duncan McFarland, was published last year. Roger Keeran begins his detailed review, originally published by Marxism-Leninism Today, and which we reproduce below, with these words: “Everyone, particularly those on the left, should study China. I say ‘study’ and not just ‘read about.'”

Describing the book as “the best one volume political introduction to China”, Keeran notes: “The major strength of ‘A China Reader’ is that it raises the major questions and concerns that Marxists and other progressives naturally have about China and does not propose any pat answers about the nature and future of Chinese socialism. Yet, from a sympathetic viewpoint, it provides a variety of perspectives and a wealth of solid information. The major weakness of the book is that some of the articles and thus some of the statistics are a bit dated.”

Noting that contributors range from such major historical figures as Norman Bethune, Agnes Smedley and Langston Hughes, through a range of mainly (but certainly not exclusively) American academics and political activists, through to Chinese communists including President Xi Jinping, the reviewer observes that: “Though the overall point of view is highly favorable toward China and the Chinese socialist project, the book also contains frank discussions of the setbacks and challenges faced by the socialist project.”

Outlining the contributions of Xi Jinping in the anthology, Keeran notes: “According to Xi, in spite of the ‘large mistakes as the Cultural Revolution,’ the party has not discarded the ‘banner of Mao Zedong,’ but is building on his accomplishments. Similarly, the party does not reject the experience of the Soviet Union but has tried to learn from its mistakes, particularly the Soviet Communists’ underestimation of the importance of ideology and its own history. ‘To completely repudiate the history of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union], to repudiate Lenin, to repudiate Stalin was to wreak chaos in Soviet ideology and engage in historical nihilism,’ Xi Jinping says forcefully and clearly: ‘The party’s highest ideal and ultimate goal is to achieve communism.’

Keeran goes on to address some of the apparent contradictions in the Chinese socialist project, such as the encouragement of private enterprise and the emergence of billionaires and millionaires, adding: “Given such concerns, one might be forgiven for asking: Is all of this talk by the Chinese of building socialism and adhering to Marxist-Leninist principles just self-delusion or an elaborate Chinese shadow play designed to mislead the Party faithful and coverup an increasingly capitalist society of corruption, nepotism, and self-dealing? If that were true, it would be the first time in history that opportunism, revisionism or social democracy has so enthusiastically embraced Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.”

Noting that only 5,000 Chinese have died from Covid, compared to over a million Americans, Keeran states: “If this is an example of the failure of Chinese socialism, most of the world would be happy to fail so grandly.” Likewise, “just as the Soviet Union escaped the Great Depression, so the Chinese avoided the global consequences of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and after. After 2008 the Chinese actually increased wages and consumption and created enough jobs to compensate for those lost by the crisis.”

Noting the role that planning continues to play in the Chinese economy, Keeran writes: “In 2007, the Chinese planned to lay 8,000 miles of high-speed railway by 2020 and later advanced the date to 2012. The World Bank called this ‘the biggest single planned program of passenger rail investment there has ever been in one country.’ It is inconceivable that the state sector would remain so large and that working class wages would grow if China was undergoing a capitalist counter-revolution. Certainly, this did not occur in the Soviet Union after 1991.”

His review is well worth reading. And, as it makes clear, so is the book. The paperback can be ordered from Lulu, and the PDF can be downloaded from the Online University of the Left.

Everyone, particularly those on the left, should study China.   I say “study” and not just “read about,” because to learn about China by reading the mass media is not learning at all;  it is  consuming propaganda on behalf of the aggressive anti-China policies pursued by Presidents Obama, Trump, and now Biden.    The bulk of the stories portray China negatively, often on the basis of dubious anecdotes allegedly showing China’s failures, its problems, its authoritarianism, its genocides and so forth.   Therefore, it takes a little motivation and persistence to find sources that are factual and that explain the Chinese accomplishments, policies, and point of view.  It is also difficult to find research that raises questions of interest to socialists and other progressives.

This is no small matter.  After all, almost one in four people in the world lives in China.   China is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and if it is not now, it will soon be the world’s largest economy.  It has lifted millions of people out of poverty, particularly extreme poverty.  Plus, China is led by the Chinese Communist Party and its General Secretary Xi Jinping, who embrace Marxism-Leninism and whose stated goal is to move China to developed socialism by the year 2050.    The best one volume political introduction to China is A China Reader.

The major strength of A China Reader is that it raises the major questions and concerns that Marxists and other progressives naturally have about China and does not propose any pat answers about the nature and future of Chinese socialism.  Yet, from a sympathetic viewpoint, it provides a variety of perspectives and a wealth of solid information.  The major weakness of the book is that some of the articles and thus some of the statistics are a bit dated.

The book is a collection of essays, documents, book reviews, excerpts, speeches, and poems that covers Chinese history, U.S.-Chinese relations, Chinese economy and political thought.   There are twenty-three contributors ranging from such historical figures as the Canadian doctor and Communist Norman Bethune, and the American journalist Agnes Smedley, and the poets Langston Hughes and Gary Hicks to such contemporary commentators as the Egyptian political economist Samir Amin and the Indian Marxist Vijay Prashad.  There are also pieces by Chinese Communists including the Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The preponderance of contributors, however, are American academics and political activists. Though the overall point of view is highly favorable toward China and the Chinese socialist project, the book also contains frank discussions of the setbacks and challenges faced by the socialist project.   It ends with a list of additional sources for information on China and Chinese perspectives.  Not all of book’s articles have equal interest or quality, nonetheless no other book gives such an accessible wealth of information on such a variety of topics of interest to the Left.

Some of the book’s contributions deserved singling out.   Several articles deal with the history of U.S.-Chinese relations.  Particularly, striking were the persistent efforts of American policymakers to control Chinese affairs for the benefit of American capitalism.   The symbolic birth of these policies were the so–called “Notes” issued by Secretary of State John Hay in 1899 and 1900 demanding American access to Chinese markets.  In the decades before the 1949 revolution, the United States consistently supported Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang to counter the growing power of the Communist revolutionary movement.

After the revolution, American policy tried to boycott and isolate China for decades until 1969, when President Richard Nixon and national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, fashioned a new policy designed to influence China through “soft power,” that is, to recognize China, play China against the Soviet Union, and open China to American markets and investment with the ultimate goal of undermining Chinese socialism.   By 2000, however, China’s growing economic strength and influence became a concern of U.S. elites particularly after China did much better at overcoming the 2008 financial crisis than the U.S.  In 2011 under President Barack Obama, the U.S. pivoted away from collaboration with China and toward a more combative stance, a move signaled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a policy paper entitled, “America’s Pacific Century.”

Since then, particularly under President Donald Trump, the ideological attacks on China, the military encirclement of China, and economic strictures against China have only increased.  In 2020, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the era of “blind engagement” with China must end.  “We must not continue it, and we must not return to it.”  President Joseph Biden continued, even intensified, this approach, keeping in place Trump’s tariffs and initiating a new CIA department dedicated to countering China.

Another worthy achievement of this book is to explain the major stages in the development of the Chinese Revolution, including the Great Leap Forward, the Sino-Soviet split and the Cultural Revolution, all of which occurred under Mao, and the post-Mao policies aimed at building a “socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics.”  This was initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, expanded after Deng’s so-called Southern Tour in 1992, and continued after 2002 by Hu Jintao’s emphasis on scientific development.   Since 2012, Xi Jinping has stressed combatting corruption and poverty, raising domestic consumption, increasing the production of high-quality goods and technology, reducing dependence on low-wage export manufacturing, and taking an active engagement in economic development abroad known in what is called the Belt and Road Initiative.

Especially useful is the way the book provides a platform for Chinese Communists, including General Secretary Xi Jinping to explain their policies and objectives.  In discussing the current stage of Chinese development, Xi Jinping goes to great lengths to insist that the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics in no way represents a new ideology or a repudiation of Marxism-Leninism, or the past experiences of China under Mao Zedong or of the Soviet Union.  Xi Jinping insists that China continues to adhere “to the basic principles of scientific socialism.”  Among other things this means “the absolute leadership of the Communist Party of China,” “gradually realizing the common prosperity of all the people,” and building “an economic system in which publicly owned enterprises are the principal part, which develop side by side with diverse forms of ownership.”

According to Xi, in spite of the “large mistakes as the Cultural Revolution,” the party has not discarded the “banner of Mao Zedong,” but is building on his accomplishments.  Similarly, the party does not reject the experience of the Soviet Union but has tried to learn from its mistakes, particularly the Soviet Communists’ underestimation of the importance of ideology and its own history.  “To completely repudiate the history of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union], to repudiate Lenin, to repudiate Stalin was to wreck chaos in Soviet ideology and engage in historical nihilism.” Xi Jinping says forcefully and clearly:  “The party’s highest ideal and ultimate goal is to achieve communism.”   He adds, however, that the goal of communism can only by achieved by “a highly developed socialist society,” that is a society that has developed economically, technologically, and culturally, and “that the realization of communism is a very long historical process.”

A review of Xi Jinping’s three volumes titled The Governance of China, published in 2014, 2017 and 2020 explains the goals in the development of Chinese socialism under the general goals of building a “moderately prosperous nation” by the year 2021 and a “modern socialist country” by the year 2050.  For those in the West who are fed a steady stream of anti-Chinese stories about the growing capitalism in China or the impending collapse of China, the opportunity to read what Chinese Communists actually say is extremely enlightening.   Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, some western Communist Parties (the Greeks, the Canadians, and the Portuguese being notable exceptions), have jettisoned Marxism-Leninism and become social democratic.   This move toward opportunism was usually heralded by tossing out Party symbols (such as the hammer and sickle, portraits of Lenin and Stalin) and key concepts (such as the working class, class struggle, democratic centralism, dictatorship of the proletariat, and the vanguard role of the working class and Communist Party).

Consequently, it is important to see in the writing of Chinese Communists that for the most part this has not occurred.  Xi’s thought does not reflect classical opportunism.    Xi emphasizes the importance of studying Marxist theory, which he calls “the soul of the ideas and convictions of the Chinese Communists.”  Xi himself has taught classes in Marxism-Leninism for leading bodies of the CPC.  Xi refers to the working class as the “leading class,” and “our Party’s most steadfast and reliable class foundation.”  He also stresses the “leading role” of the 90 million strong CPC “organized according to the principles of democratic centralism.”

Still, one would be remiss not to remark on some ideological concerns revealed by the book.  Xi does, for example, prefer referring to “the people” rather than “the working class.”   Also, as far as the pieces from Chinese Communists, the concepts of exploitation, class conflict, and class struggles seem to have disappeared.  Understandably, Chinese Communists would find it difficult to carry on about exploitation and class struggle, while they are encouraging private enterprise and allowing the emergence of at least 152 billionaires (according to Forbes in 2024) and countless millionaires.  These vast fortunes were amassed only by exploiting Chinese workers.  It is difficult to ride two horses going in opposite directions.   It is difficult to encourage capitalist profit-making while attacking the exploitation upon which it rests.  It is difficult to encourage capitalist enterprises while encouraging class struggle against these very enterprises.

Given such concerns, one might be forgiven for asking:  Is all of this talk by the Chinese of building socialism and adhering to Marxist-Leninist principles just self-delusion or an elaborate Chinese shadow play designed to mislead the Party faithful and coverup an increasingly capitalist society of corruption, nepotism, and self-dealing?  If that were true, it would be the first time in history that opportunism, revisionism or social democracy has so enthusiastically embraced Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.   It would also mark an anomaly of leaders covering up for corruption while simultaneously campaigning against it.  In 2012 General Secretary Hu Jintao identified corruption as a major problem, and his successor Xi Jinping intensified the campaign against theft, bribery and nepotism, a campaign that has resulted in over 2.7 million investigations, 1.5 million punishments, including seven national political leaders and two generals.

Xi acknowledges problems and challenges posed by the Chinese road to socialism. He says that “the principal challenge” is the “gap between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s growing expectation for a better life.”   He also proposes a change in China’s policy of relying on low-wage, export-oriented factories to an emphasis on high quality products, innovation, cutting edge technology, internal consumption, imports, and the service economy.  Xi explains the Belt and Road initiative as part of an effort to increase China’s relations with countries of the global South while reducing its reliance on the West.  Xi also proposes ambitious environmental goals to move China away from its heavy reliance on coal and toward green energy and a sustainable economy.  China remains the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but under XI it has reduced carbon dependency, improved the air quality in Beijing, and become a world leader in the production of equipment for solar, hydroelectric and wind power.

Xi notes, “There has been no end to the different flavors of ‘China collapse’ theory.  Yet China has not collapsed.”   As I write this review, the New York Times (May 2, 2022) headline ominously reports that “Lockdown Grips Shanghai” and reports that Covid inspired shutdowns and testing “have ignited public frustration, exhausted local officials and medical workers, and sapped economic momentum.”   It reads like another China collapse story.   That is, unless you read the story carefully until the end.   Then you learn that China’s anti-Covid strategy has been “a signature achievement:  an effective, if expensive, and generally popular [emphasis added] vow that China would avoid mass sickness and deaths.”   Indeed, only 5,000 Chinese have died from Covid while over a million Americans have.  If this is an example of the failure of Chinese socialism, most of the world would be happy to fail so grandly.

The constant drumbeat of the failures of Chinese socialism that prevails in the West makes this book’s underscoring of its accomplishment refreshing and necessary.  For example, just as the Soviet Union escaped the Great Depression, so the Chinese avoided the global consequences of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and after.  After 2008 the Chinese actually increased wages and consumption and created enough jobs to compensate for those lost by the crisis.  Moreover, in spite of the increase in private enterprise during the period of reform and opening up, the state-owned enterprises continue to dominate the economy, particularly in such key sectors as telecommunications, shipbuilding, aviation, and high-speed railway, where the state’s revenue share is “around 83 percent,” and electronics and automotive  where “it amounts to 45 percent.” Of the 500 largest enterprises in China, 90 percent of the assets and 82 percent of the profits belong to the state owned enterprises.  Similarly, as Samir Amin points out, “China has remained outside of financial globalization.  Its banking system is completely national.” The income of the Chinese working class has grown.

By 2004 working class urban incomes were ten times higher in real terms than they were in 1978 and were growing by 7 percent a year.  The Chinese government continues to plan and continues to execute major planning projects.  In 2007, the Chinese planned to lay 8000 miles of high-speed railway by 2020 and later advanced the date to 2012.  The World Bank called this “the biggest single planned program of passenger rail investment there was ever been in one country.” It is inconceivable that the state sector would remain so large and that working class wages would grow, if China was undergoing a capitalist counter-revolution.   Certainly, this did not occur in the Soviet Union after 1991.

Nonetheless, it would be Panglossian to ignore the challenges faced by the Chinese road to socialism.  Amin, for example, notes that growing inequality “is a major political danger, the vehicle for the spread of rightest ideas, depoliticization, and naive illusions.”  In his essay, Cheng Enfu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences gives a startling account of the array of rightest ideas that flourish is some sectors of Chinese academia and in some sectors of the Communist Party itself.   According to Cheng Enfu, in 2012 (contrary to the figures given above) the state sector of the national economy had fallen to less than one-third, and that some academics like  a former dean of the Guanghua School of Administration of Beijing University call for neo-liberalism and even more privatization than exists.  Other professors associated with the journal China Digital Times openly advocate democratic socialist ideas.  Even some members of the Central Party School reject Marxism-Leninism and argue for what Enfu calls “eclectic Marxism.”  Even Qiushi, the magazine of the CPC Central Committee, has promoted a view of the market at variance from traditional Marxism-Leninism:  “the market economy and capitalism are two different things, the former being a means to allocate resources, which can be combined either with the capitalist or socialist system.”

Clearly the struggle over China’s future is far from over, and its outcome will have momentous consequences for the whole world.   There is not a better way to become acquainted with this struggle and with the reality of China today than A China Reader.

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