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.

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Book review: China’s Great Road – Lessons for Marxist Theory and Socialist Practices

By John Ross, Praxis Press, 2021
Reviewed by Dr Jenny Clegg

Updated 09 April 2022: John Ross contacted us to note that the review incorrectly quoted him as describing Deng Xiaoping as “the greatest Marxist of all time”. This should have been “the world’s greatest economist.”

John Ross has, for some years now, been one of the most forceful advocates of the present Chinese road to socialism on the Western left. His ‘China’s Great Road’ (for which we held an online launch) presents his key arguments. In this detailed review, Dr Jenny Clegg, writer, China specialist, peace campaigner and Friends of Socialist China advisory group member, acknowledges Ross’s useful contribution to the debate, but also draws attention to what she considers its flaws, regarding both the complexities of China’s recent trajectory and the historical record of socialism under Stalin and Mao.

Introduction

Literature on China’s supposed ‘reversion to capitalism’, whether of the neoliberal or state-led kind, abounds. It has been argued over again that China’s success over the last four decades came as a result of its abandoning ideology for pragmatism so as to follow policies of ‘reform and opening up’.  Either that or the wholesale embrace of markets unleashing the creativity of its individual capitalist entrepreneurs.  John Ross, a Senior Fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University, swims hard against this tide in his book, China’s Great Road, arguing the exact opposite:that China’s remarkable achievements are the result, not of a reversal of Marxism, but in fact a return to basic Marxist tenets.

The book comprises a collection of recent articles, some originally published in Chinese, others in English, which makes for some repetition, but leaves no doubt as to the arguments.  Ross’s aim is to persuade others on the international left to look seriously at China’s socialism and see what can be learnt from its success.

The book presents two key propositions.

The first, that China has achieved far more than any other country in history in improving the well-being of its people, is set out with the help of easy-to-read graphs.  The evidence, as Ross shows, is all there in World Bank figures: China has lifted over 900 million people out of poverty, raising livelihoods and life expectancy at unprecedented rates, whilst exceeding every other economy in output, wage growth and household consumption over the last 30 years. 

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Book review: Uyghurs – to put an end to fake news

We are pleased to republish this summary of the French-language book, ‘Uyghurs: To put an end to fake news’, reviewed by Roger Keenan on the website Marxism-Leninism Today. Written by Maxime Vivas, a writer, journalist and former postal worker, the book refutes new cold war propaganda and presents the true situation, based on the author’s research as well as his travel to Xinjiang.

The United States government is ratcheting up a cold war against China.  The Biden administration’s  agreement to supply Australia with nuclear submarines, its decision to create a new department in the CIA aimed at countering China, and its recent decision to impose a diplomatic boycott on the Chinese Winter Olympics are just three recent signs of the aggressive posture taken by the U.S. in the new cold war.   A key part of the new cold war is a tidal wave of ideological attacks on China aimed at showing that China is a threat—to human rights, democracy, women’s rights, labor rights, and American security.   All of this is geared to justify American belligerence toward China and generate support for this belligerence and a frightened public’s willingness to pay for it.  (Recently the Senate passed a bill previously passed by the House calling for $768 billion appropriation of Defense Department, $24 billion more than either Biden or the Pentagon sought.)  A centerpiece of this ideological offensive that the mass media amplifies on a daily basis is that China is committing genocide against its Moslem Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang autonomous region.

Even though  most politicians, as well as the general population,  have no idea who the Uyghurs are, where Xinjiang is on a map, what Chinese policy toward the Uyghurs is, or even how to pronounce Uyghur, they buy the idea of Uyghur genocide.    The widespread ignorance makes Maxime Vivas’s book  so valuable.  Vivas not only provides a primer on the Uyghurs and Xinjiang, but also explains the Chinese policy in Xinjiang, and makes a forceful argument that the charge of genocide is of apiece with other lies like those about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that serve to justify American imperial belligerence.

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Capitalism on a Ventilator: The Impact of COVID-19 in China and the U.S

This book review of the crucial 2020 book Capitalism on a Ventilator, edited by Sara Flounders and Siu Hin Lee, first appeared on LA Progressive on 11 August 2021. It is written by Dee Knight. Reproduced with thanks.


As the Delta variant threatens to drag this country and the world back into the abyss of the pandemic, and while the danger of war between the U.S. and China intensifies, it may be good to take stock. Capitalism on a Ventilator can help: it compares the impact of COVID-19 in China and the U.S., in the words of “social justice activists discussing a global choice: cooperation vs. competition.

Capitalism on a Ventilator

Critics claim Ventilator is one-sided – heavily favoring the Chinese response to the virus over the chaotic disaster we’ve lived through in the U.S. In fact, the book re-balances the narrative, documenting major differences. Graphs and pictures tell much of the story: one graph illustrates the contrast in cases during the first 100 days of the pandemic. China’s rate stayed flat while U.S. cases went through the roof.

Another graph shows how Wall Street investments skyrocketed while virus cases exploded. Meanwhile in China, economic concerns were set aside to manage the crisis. Industrial plants abruptly switched from regular production to churn out protective gear, ambulances, ventilators, electrocardiograph monitors, respiratory humidification therapy machines and more. Responding to early infections in Wuhan, “from across China came 1,800 epidemiological teams… to do surveys of the population,” conducting demanding and dangerous door-to-door surveys. In the first month of the virus outbreak, health authorities inspected more than 10 million people in Wuhan: 99 percent of the population.

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Book review: Roland Boer – Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: A Guide for Foreigners

Roland Boer
Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: A Guide for Foreigners

Springer, Singapore, 2021. 316 pp., 103,99 € hb
ISBN 9789811616211

Reviewed by: Tamara Prosic


Ever since the reform and opening-up from 1978, and especially during the last few decades, China has often been portrayed as an economic and a political hybrid: an officially socialist country which has, under the aegis of its Communist Party and its leaders’ continuing declarations of allegiance to Marxism and building socialism, embraced two key components of capitalist systems: private ownership over the means of production and a market economy. For many, this hybridity is also an insoluble contradiction which, similar to the classical liar paradox, involves a range of mutually invalidating opposites lining up with popular understanding of ‘authentically’ Marxist/socialist/communist economic and political values, practices, etc., and respectively ‘authentically’ capitalist/liberal/neoliberal values, practices, etc. Overall, the reasoning goes that if China is truly socialist and if its Communist Party sincerely adheres to Marxism (as its theoretical and practical guide for building socialism and eventually communism), then introducing practices typical of capitalism constitutes a betrayal of Marxism (or deviation from it) and introduction of capitalism. Based on this essentialising dualistic logic, China has become ‘state capitalism’, ‘bureaucratic capitalism’, ‘capitalist socialism’, ‘neoliberalism/capitalism with Chinese characteristics’, ‘crony capitalism’, ‘red capitalism’, and many other capitalisms. Many of these ‘capitalist’ qualifications come from non-Marxists and are often just poorly veiled attempts to reassert Thatcher’s ‘there is no alternative’ slogan and Fukuyama’s ‘the end of history’ thesis. Unfortunately, many Marxists, especially in the West, also succumb to the trap of dualistic social ontology in thinking about China. The glaring fault in their approach: disregard for the basic Marxist method, more concretely, dialectics, which involves understanding reality, including the reality of socialism, as the constant development of contradictions and their resolutions through sublation.

Socialism with Chinese Characteristics challenges the simplistic mutually exclusive dualistic lens through which socialism in China is often viewed and judged. Truthful to its title, the book is a guide to Chinese socialism, both comprehensive and incisive, although not so much for foreigners as for those who lost sight of Marxist dialectics as theory, analytical method and most importantly, as a framework and guide for social practice. For others, who like myself, grew up and lived in a socialist country, reading Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is a journey simultaneously familiar and new: familiar in recognising the language of specifically socialist Marxism and new regarding the ways it has been applied in Chinese circumstances.

It is not easy to provide a short overview of Boer’s book. It has ten chapters (each one with many sections and subsections) which aim to provide comprehensive answers and explanations to many different questions one can ask about modern China. Some are more theoretical, other more factual, but all of them draw on a variety of strands involving history, Marxism, politics, law, linguistics, etc. The book covers what some might consider the ‘big’ issues such as the Marxist basis for the reform and opening up, the introduction of private ownership and market economy (chapters 4 and 5), the theoretical foundations and practical functioning of Chinese socialist democracy (chapters 8 and 9) and ideas about sovereignty and human rights and their practical applications (chapter 7). In dealing with these ‘big’ issues, however, a number of other questions are also clarified, such as the status of minority nationalities and their involvement in the democratic process (section 8.5), the meaning of ‘legal system’ and ‘rule of law’ (subsection 8.6.1), the role of the Party and the role of the government (subsection 9.6.2), views on globalisation (subsection 10.4.8), etc. Every chapter also involves quotes and references from Chinese sources, which include works and speeches by Party leaders (Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping), documents from congresses and conferences and an incredible number of Chinese Marxist philosophers, political scientists, economists, etc., most of which are unfortunately unknown outside of China. The book also includes explanations of Chinese words, expressions and characters which are part of the Chinese Marxist discourse, such as shishiqiushi (seeking truth from facts) (32), datong (unity, togetherness, harmony) and xiaokang (moderately well-off, healthy, peaceful and secure) (chapter 6), baquan (hegemony) (256), etc.

The way in which all of this versatile material is woven together and presented is clear and accessible, but the book is far from being a simple descriptive journey as one would expect from a ‘guide’. It is also a deeply analytical work which in order to highlight the distinctiveness of Chinese Marxism and the complexities of building socialism involves careful reading of Chinese textual material (and their squaring up with actual practice), frequent comparisons with Soviet and Western Marxism and Western liberal thought, constant moving between the past and the present, zooming in on details and zooming out to the big picture and frequent expositions about how described practical aspects fit in with Chinese Marxist discourse. In this sense, reading through Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is not an easy ride. There is breadth and depth to it which requires constant focus and, most importantly, also an open mind and readiness towards accepting reconfigured, sometimes in a completely new way, well-known Marxist ideas and concepts. 

The picture of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ that emerges from this intense journey is of a vibrant, dynamic and complex society which is in constant development and in a critical dialectical dialogue within itself and with the rest of the world. Indeed, if I were to summarise what ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ entails without doing grave injustice to its complexity, it would be that it exemplifies Marxist dialectics in real action. Dialectics was the force behind the reform and opening up (chapters 2, 3, 4, section 5.3) and it is still the dominant theory and method that informs and shapes development of Chinese socialism (section 1.2 and chapter 10). What differentiates Chinese Marxist dialectics, however, from Marxist dialectics in the classical sense is that it is referential to Chinese history and conditions (subsection 1.3) and that its primary focus is not anymore on contradictions arising from capitalism, but on resolving contradictions that arise in socialism, that is, in a post-revolution social reality where, as Marx would say, the expropriators have already been expropriated (section 3.4 and subsection 4.5.1). In other words, this is a type of socialist/socialistic dialectics whose main concern is development of socialism as concrete social, economic and political practice.  

Dialectics is the dominant theme of the book, but the key to understanding specifically Chinese socialist(ic) dialectics and appreciating the intricacies of Chinese socialism and its functioning are the first four chapters because most of the ideas they deal with are, with an ever-growing complexity, further elaborated in the rest of the book. In the introduction, Boer explains the role Marxism plays in China, what is specifically Chinese about it and a number of liberal and Western Marxists’ (mis)representations of Chinese socialism, which Chinese scholars and Boer view as inadequate and methodologically faulty since they try to understand China from the perspective of Western history, Western intellectual traditions and Western Marxism. The second chapter discusses Deng’s two principles (liberating thought from dogmatism for the purpose of liberating the forces of production, and seeking truth from facts as the basis of the Marxist method) that were instrumental for the move from strictly planned to mixed planned/market economy. The third chapter presents ‘contradiction analysis’ or dialectical materialism as it was developed in the Soviet Union, namely, the understanding that contradictions continue in socialism albeit in non-antagonistic form, and its application in Chinese conditions. Finally, the fourth chapter explains the reasons for the reform and the opening-up via contradiction analysis in a series of opposites such as collective/individual, equality/difference, revolution/reform, self-reliance/globalisation and their recalibration within the Chinese socialist economic and political context. From here, the book turns to an extremely detailed discussion of more concrete aspects of Chinese socialism, such as the economy, socialist modernisation, sovereignty, human rights and democracy, ending with an exposition of Xi Jinping’s thought. What all of these chapters clearly demonstrate is the firm footing of Boer’s claim from the introduction, namely, that Marxism is at the core of Chinese socialist project, although, as mentioned before, this is Marxism that is primarily referential to and applicable to problems arising in socialism.      

Does Boer’s book deliver on the promise to ‘redress the lack of knowledge’ about the concept and practice of socialism with Chinese characteristics? It certainly does and more so. For those who wonder whether China is still socialist or suspect that Chinese Communist Party abandoned Marxism, the book provides a lot of material on which to base their answers. In fact, anyone who wants to engage seriously and extensively with ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ should read the book. As for me, I never doubted that China is socialist. What Socialism with Chinese Characteristics did for me was to reaffirm that communism is indeed ‘the riddle of history solved’, which I began to doubt after the Yugoslav and the Soviet disaster, and to rekindle the hope that the world will come to that solution sooner rather than later. China wants to lead towards achieving this aim by example and Boer’s book certainly shines a very bright light on the ins and the outs of that example.


Tamara Prosic is a Senior Researcher with the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.