A newcomer to politics would likely assume that members of the global left support the People’s Republic of China. It is after all led by a communist party, with Marxism as its guiding ideology. During the period since the Communist Party of China (CPC) came to power in 1949, the Chinese people have experienced an unprecedented improvement in their living standards and human development. Life expectancy has increased from 361 to 772 years. Literacy has increased from an estimated 20 percent3 to 97 percent.4 The social and economic position of women has improved beyond recognition (one example being that, before the revolution, the vast majority of women received no formal education whatsoever, whereas now a majority of students in higher education institutions are female).5 Extreme poverty has been eliminated.6 China is becoming the pre-eminent world leader in tackling climate change.7
Such progress is evidently consistent with traditional left-wing values; what typically attracts people to Marxism is precisely that it seeks to provide a framework for solving those problems of human development that capitalism has shown itself incapable of satisfactorily addressing. Capitalism has driven historic innovations in science and technology, thereby laying the ground for a future of shared prosperity; however, its contradictions are such that it inevitably generates poverty alongside wealth; it cannot but impose itself through division, deception and coercion; everywhere it marginalises, alienates, dominates and exploits. Seventy years of Chinese socialism, meanwhile, have broken the inverse correlation between wealth and poverty. Even though China suffers from high levels of inequality; even though China has some extremely rich people; life for ordinary workers and peasants has continuously improved, at a remarkable rate and over an extended period.
Yet support for China within the left in countries such as Britain and the US is in fact a fairly marginal position. The bulk of Marxist groups in those countries consider that China is not a socialist country; indeed many believe it to be “a rising imperialist power in the world system that oversees the exploitation of its own population … and increasingly exploits Third World countries in pursuit of raw materials and outlets for its exports.”8 Some consider the China-led Belt and Road Initiative to be an example of “feverish global expansionism”.9 The Alliance for Worker’s Liberty, with characteristic crudeness, describe China as being “functionally little different from, and in any case not better than, a fascist regime,”10 every bit as imperialist as the US and politically much worse.
The growing confrontation between the US and China is not, on these terms, an attack by an imperialist power on a socialist or independent developing country, but rather “a classic confrontation along imperialist lines”.11 “The dynamics of US-China rivalry is an inter-imperial rivalry driven by inter-capitalist competition.”12 The assumption here is that China is “an emerging imperialist power that is seeking to assert itself in a world dominated by the established imperialist power of the US”.13 If that is the case, those that ground their politics in anti-imperialism should not support either the US or China; rather they should “build a ‘third camp’ that makes links and solidarity across borders”14 and adopt the slogan Neither Washington nor Beijing, but international socialism.”
It’s an attractive idea. We don’t align with oppressors anywhere; our only alignment is with the global working class. Eli Friedman eloquently presents this grand vision in the popular left-wing journal Jacobin: “Our job is to continually and forcefully reaffirm internationalist values: we take sides with the poor, working classes, and oppressed people of every country, which means we share nothing with either the US or Chinese states and corporations.”15
We’ve been here before: Neither Washington nor Moscow
This notion of opposing both sides in a cold war – refusing to align with either of the two major competing powers and instead forming an independent ‘third camp’ – has deep roots. Prominent US Trotskyist Max Shachtman described the third camp in 1940 as “the camp of proletarian internationalism, of the socialist revolution, of the struggle for the emancipation of all the oppressed.”16 During the original Cold War, in particular in Britain, a significant proportion of the socialist movement rallied behind the slogan Neither Washington nor Moscow, withholding their support from a Soviet Union they considered to be state capitalist and/or imperialist.
Then as now, the third camp position drew theoretical justification from the strategy promoted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in relation to World War 1. The communist movement in the early 1910s recognised that a war between the two major competing imperialist blocs (Germany on one side, and Britain and France on the other) was near-inevitable. At the 1912 conference of the Second International in Basel, the assembled organisations vowed to oppose the war, to refuse to align themselves with any component part of the international capitalist class, and to “utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”17 Rather than rallying behind the German, British, French or Russian ruling classes, workers were called on to “oppose the power of the international solidarity of the proletariat to capitalist imperialism.”
When war eventually broke out in July 1914, the Bolsheviks stuck to this internationalist position. Lenin wrote regarding the warring imperialist blocs: “One group of belligerent nations is headed by the German bourgeoisie. It is hoodwinking the working class and the toiling masses by asserting that this is a war in defence of the fatherland, freedom and civilisation, for the liberation of the peoples oppressed by tsarism… The other group of belligerent nations is headed by the British and the French bourgeoisie, who are hoodwinking the working class and the toiling masses by asserting that they are waging a war for the defence of their countries, for freedom and civilisation and against German militarism and despotism.”18
Further: “Neither group of belligerents is inferior to the other in spoliation, atrocities and the boundless brutality of war; however, to hoodwink the proletariat … the bourgeoisie of each country is trying, with the help of false phrases about patriotism, to extol the significance of its ‘own’ national war, asserting that it is out to defeat the enemy, not for plunder and the seizure of territory, but for the ‘liberation’ of all other peoples except its own.”
However, the majority of the organisations that had signed up to the Basel Manifesto just two years earlier now crumbled in the face of pressure, opting to support their ‘own’ ruling class’s war efforts. Lenin condemned the prominent Marxist leaders in Germany, Austria and France for holding views that were “chauvinist, bourgeois and liberal, and in no way socialist.”19 This bitter strategic dispute was a catalyst to a split in the global working class movement. The Second International was disbanded in 1916, and the Third International (widely known as the Comintern) was established in 1919 with its headquarters in Moscow. A century later this rift – described by Lenin in his famous article Imperialism and the Split in Socialism20 – remains a fundamental dividing line in the international left. Broadly speaking, one side consists of a reformist left inclined towards parliamentarism and collaboration with the capitalist class; the other side consists of a revolutionary left inclined towards an independent, internationalist working class line.
The theorists of Neither Washington nor Moscow in the 1940s insisted that the Cold War was analogous to the European inter-imperialist conflict of the 1910s; that the US-led bloc and the Soviet-led bloc were competing imperialist powers and that it was impermissible for socialists to ally with either of them. The characterisation of the Soviet Union as imperialist was highly controversial within the global left at the time, but prominent socialist thinkers led by Tony Cliff of the Socialist Review Group (the precursor to the Socialist Workers Party) argued strongly that “the logic of accumulation and expansion” drove the Soviet leadership to take part in “external global military competition”.21 Given Soviet imperialism and state capitalism, “nothing short of a socialist revolution, led by the working class, would be able to transform this situation”.22
The third camp has apparently survived the storm generated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and simply pitched its tent a few thousand kilometres southeast; Neither Washington nor Moscow has reappeared as Neither Washington nor Beijing. Once again invoking the spirit of the Bolsheviks, several prominent left organisations call on the working class in the West to oppose both the US and China; to fight imperialism in all its forms; to support workers’ struggle everywhere to bring down capitalism. If their assumptions are correct – if the New Cold War is indeed analogous to the situation prevailing in Europe before WW1, if China is an imperialist country, if the Chinese working class is ready to be mobilised in an international revolutionary socialist alliance – then perhaps their conclusion is also correct. I argue in this article that the assumptions are not correct, that China is not an imperialist country, that China is in fact a threat to the imperialist world system, and that the correct position for the left to take in regard to the New Cold War is to resolutely oppose the US and to support China.
Is China imperialist?
The position of opposing both the US and China relies mainly on the premise that China is imperialist, and that the New Cold War is an inter-imperialist war – a war in which “both belligerent camps are fighting to oppress foreign countries or peoples”23. If China can be shown not to be an imperialist power, and if the New Cold War can be shown not to be an inter-imperialist struggle, then the slogan Neither Washington nor Beijing should be rejected.
What is imperialism? One definition is “the policy of extending the rule or authority of an empire or nation over foreign countries, or of acquiring and holding colonies and dependencies.”24 Although vague, this incorporates the core concept of empire, hinted at by the word’s etymology.
In his classic work Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism – the first serious study of the phenomenon from a Marxist perspective – Lenin states that, reduced to its “briefest possible definition”, imperialism can be considered simply as “the monopoly stage of capitalism”.25 Lenin notes that such a concise definition is necessarily inadequate, and is only useful to the extent that it implies the presence of five “basic features”:
- Capitalism has developed to a level where, in the main branches of production, the only viable businesses are those that have been able to concentrate a huge quantity of capital, thereby forming monopolies.
- The emergence of a “financial oligarchy” – essentially banks – as the driving force of the economy.
- Export of capital (foreign investment) as an important engine of growth.
- The formation of “international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves”, the equivalent of the modern multinational company.
- The world’s territory has been completely divided up among the capitalist powers; markets and resources around the globe have been integrated into the capitalist world system.
A century later, Lenin’s definition remains a useful and relevant description of the capitalist world. Indeed in some important ways it is more apt than ever, given the further concentration of capital and the domination of “generalised monopolies … which exert their control over the productive systems of the periphery of global capitalism.”26
However, a few months after the publication of Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, a new variable appeared in global politics, in the form of a ‘socialist camp’. The socialist group of countries (which at its peak comprised the bulk of the Eurasian land mass) disrupted the imperialist system in a number of ways: most obviously, it directly withdrew the socialist countries from that system; it offered support to colonial and anti-imperialist liberation movements, accelerating their victory; and it offered aid and favourable trading relations to formerly colonised states that would otherwise have little other option than to subject themselves to neocolonial oppression. The arrival of socialist state power in Europe and Asia was, therefore, an unprecedented boon for the cause of national sovereignty around the world. At the same time and in equal measure, it was a setback for the imperialist world system.
No longer is the world so cleanly divided into imperialist and oppressed nations as it was before 1917. As such, Lenin’s five features of imperialism can’t simply be used as a checklist for answering the question of whether any given country is imperialist. Canadian political analyst Stephen Gowans has proposed the following broad definition: “imperialism is a process of domination guided by economic interests.”27 This domination “can be declared and formal, or undeclared and informal, or both.” This provides a useful framework for thinking about whether China is imperialist: is it engaged in a process of domination guided by economic interests? Does it, in Samir Amin’s words, leverage “technological development, access to natural resources, the global financial system, dissemination of information, and weapons of mass destruction” in order to dominate the planet and prevent the emergence of any state or movement that could impede this domination?28
If it can be proven that China seeks to dominate foreign markets and resources; that it uses its growing economic strength to affect political decisions in poorer countries; that it engages in wars (overt or covert) to secure its own interests; it would then be reasonable to conclude that China is indeed an imperialist country.
Crossing the line: at what point could China have become imperialist?
If China is an imperialist power, when did it become one? At the time Lenin was writing, China was unambiguously in the group of oppressed countries, having been stripped of a large part of its sovereignty by the colonial powers over the course of the preceding 80 years. One of the world-historic victories of the Chinese Revolution was to end that domination and to establish the national independence of the Chinese people.
The People’s Republic of China rejected the capitalist model and set out on the journey towards communism – an economic system envisioned by Marx as “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.”29 Jumping directly from semi-feudal conditions such as existed in pre-revolutionary China to a communist system of production relations isn’t feasible, and what was established in China in the 1950s was a mixed economy, with publicly-owned industry and massive land reform as its key features. Feudalism was comprehensively dismantled – another historic step forward, and one that remains incomplete in most other parts of the Global South. This mixed economy – which oscillated ‘left’ (with accelerated collectivisation and a heavy emphasis on moral incentives) and ‘right’ (with the limited use of market mechanisms) – was anything but imperialist. By no reasonable metric was it an example of monopoly capitalism; China’s “export of capital” was limited largely to foreign aid projects in Africa, most famously the Tazara Railway linking Tanzania and Zambia, which aside from enabling regional development, broke Zambia’s dependency on apartheid-ruled territories (Rhodesia, South Africa, Mozambique).30
Following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the economic reformers among the revolutionary leadership won the debate about how to move the revolution forward, and China embarked upon a course of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – leveraging market mechanisms, the profit motive, and foreign investment (within a context of central planning and heavy regulation) in order to rapidly develop the productive forces and pave the way for a better quality of life for hundreds of millions of Chinese people. Private business became increasingly important, and parts of the economy took on an essentially capitalist character. But again, not even the most hardline third-campist could consider China in the 1980s and 1990s as an imperialist country. It exported precious little capital; rather, it was the recipient of enormous volumes of foreign capital, from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the US and Europe. In a controlled, limited and strategic way, China opened itself up to exploitation by the imperialist powers so as to develop its technological capacity and insert itself into global value chains.
So inasmuch as China is imperialist, this must be a phenomenon of the last 20 years, in which period China’s sustained GDP growth has resulted in it becoming the largest economy in the world (in PPP terms) and a technological powerhouse. Certainly China has its fair share of monopolies that deploy extraordinary quantities of capital. Alibaba and Tencent for example are both in the world’s top 10 companies by market capitalisation.31 Export of capital has increased by an order of magnitude, albeit starting from a very small base. The number of
Chinese firms operating globally has grown at an estimated 16 percent a year since 2010.32 China’s foreign direct investment outflows stand at around 117 billion USD, slightly more than Germany, slightly less than the Netherlands. In terms of FDI outflows ratio to GDP (ie the importance of capital export to the national economy as a whole), the value for China is 0.8 percent – a similar level to Brazil, and far less than Ireland, Japan, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates. It would be difficult to make a case for labelling China imperialist on the basis of its foreign investment alone.
In a long piece for Counterfire, Dragan Plavšić poses the question of whether China is a socialist force for good or an imperial superpower in the making. Concluding the latter, he claims that China’s global expansion is “merely the latest example of a road well-travelled by other major economies such as Britain, Germany and the US, as they too expanded beyond their national limits in order to take competitive advantage of global trade and investment opportunities.” Moreover, “the competitive logic that motivated them is not qualitatively different from the one motivating China today.”33
Competition demands relentless innovation, which inevitably reduces the role of human labour in the production process, which by definition reduces the component of ‘variable capital’ with the magical property of being able to transform a given sum of money (the cost of labour) into a larger sum of money (the value added by labour). The ever-declining proportion of variable capital means an ever-declining rate of profit, which capitalists can only compensate for with ferocious expansion, capturing new markets and lowering the costs of production. This is the economic engine at the heart of imperialism.
The problem with Plavšić’s analysis is that the “well-travelled road” taken by Britain, Germany and the US is no longer open. By the time Lenin was writing – a century ago – the world was already “completely divided up, so that in the future only redivision is possible”. That is, country A can only dominate country B by displacing country C; the means for this process is war and military conquest. Since China’s record remains remarkably peaceful, it’s evident that inasmuch as China has a path to becoming an imperialist power, it is by no means the “well-travelled” one. Noam Chomsky, by no measure an ideological adherent of the CPC, pokes fun at the idea that China would become an aggressive military power on the order of the US, “with 800 overseas military bases, invading and overthrowing other governments, or committing terrorist acts… I think this will not, and cannot, happen in China… China is not assuming the role of an aggressor with a large military budget, etc.”34
Further, the structure of the Chinese economy is such that it doesn’t impel the domination of foreign markets, territories, resources and labour in the same way as free market capitalism does. The major banks – which obviously wield a decisive influence over how capital is deployed – are majority-owned by the state, responsible primarily not to shareholders but to the Chinese people. The key industries are dominated by state-owned companies and subjected to a heavy regulation that doesn’t have private profit maximisation as its primary objective. Arthur Kroeber, an expert in China’s economic system, describes “an economy where the state remains firmly in command, not least through its control of ‘commanding heights’ state enterprises, but where market tools are used to improve efficiency.”35 In summary, the Chinese economy fulfils much the same function now as it did in 1953, when Mao described it existing as “not chiefly to make profits for the capitalists but to meet the needs of the people and the state”.36
Li Zhongjin and David Kotz assert that while “China’s capitalists have the same drive toward imperialism of capitalists everywhere,” but further note that any such drive is restrained by a CPC government which “has no need to aim for imperial domination to achieve its economic aims.” While capitalists are represented within the CPC, there is “no evidence that capitalists now control the CPC or can dictate state policy”; hence “the Chinese capitalist class lacks the power to compel the CPC to seek imperial domination.”37
As such, the prospect of foreign domination does not have the same gravitational pull on the Chinese economy as it did/does on the economies of Britain, the US, Japan and others. Nor do the objective conditions exist for China to establish even an informal empire without direct military confrontation with the existing imperialist powers. The CPC was serious when it declared at its 17th Party Congress in 2007 that China “will never seek to engage in hegemony or empire expansion.”38 The Chinese government actively positions itself in the Global South, as a socialist country that stands in solidarity with the developing world, and this outlook structures its foreign policy.
Nevertheless, China stands accused of imperialist behaviour on several fronts, notably its economic relationship with Africa, its economic relationship with Latin America, its vast Belt and Road infrastructure programme, and its behaviour in the South China Sea. I will address each of these.
China and Africa
In recent years there has been a seemingly endless stream of articles about Chinese imperialism in Africa. Western journalists and politicians tell us that China has become a new colonial power; that China is attempting to dominate African land and resources; that Africa is becoming entangled in a Beijing-devised debt trap; that Chinese investment in Africa only benefits China. I’ve written in some detail on this question39 and will therefore only include a brief sketch here.
Deborah Bräutigam, Professor of Political Economy and Director of the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, has done extensive research on the question of China’s engagement with Africa. On the basis of this research, she is able to authoritatively debunk some of the most popular myths. For example in response to the trope that Chinese companies only employ Chinese workers, Bräutigam notes: “Surveys of employment on Chinese projects in Africa repeatedly find that three-quarters or more of the workers are, in fact, local.” Meanwhile, “Africans are being invited to Chinese universities. China is offering scholarships. When Africans are thinking about technology and skills, they are thinking of China as a valid option.”40
Regarding the so-called debt trap, Bräutigam’s research team found that “China had lent at least $95.5 billion between 2000 and 2015. That’s a lot of debt. Yet by and large, the Chinese loans in our database were performing a useful service: financing Africa’s serious infrastructure gap. On a continent where over 600 million Africans have no access to electricity, 40 percent of the Chinese loans paid for power generation and transmission. Another 30 percent went to modernising Africa’s crumbling transport infrastructure… On the whole, power and transport are investments that boost economic growth. And we found that Chinese loans generally have comparatively low interest rates and long repayment periods.” Indeed the reluctance of Western development banks to take on risky loans means there’s major demand for Chinese loans. And China tends to be more flexible with debt relief, restructuring and cancelling unsustainable payments.41
And on the ‘land grab’, the various stories about wealthy Chinese buying up large tracts of African land in order to grow food for China “turned out to be mostly myths… China is not a dominant investor in plantation agriculture in Africa, in contrast to how it is often portrayed.”42
Western establishment figures enthusiastically embrace the idea of China being an imperialist power, for the obvious reasons that it diverts attention from their own imperialism and helps promote disunity and mistrust within the Global South. Hillary Clinton says China is engaged in a “new colonialism” in Africa.43 John Bolton believes China is using “predatory practices” to stunt Africa’s growth.44 Yet these ideas are not exclusive to the professional defenders of imperialism. Adrian Budd, writing in Socialist Review (purveyors of finest Third Camp ideology since 1950), states unequivocally that China is imperialist and complains that “Chinese investment in Africa, long dominated by Western imperialism, was $36 billion in 2016 against the US’s $3.6 billion, Britain’s $2.4 billion and France’s $2.1 billion.”45
But there’s no equals sign between investment and imperialism – Angola is not an imperialist power in Portugal, in spite of its extensive investments there.46 China’s investments in Africa are welcomed in the recipient countries, because they serve to address critical gaps in infrastructure and finance. Deals are conducted on the basis of sovereignty and equality, without coercion. Progressive Greek economist and former government minister Yanis Varoufakis notes that “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.’”47 Varoufakis – who prefaces his remarks by noting that he is by no means a fan of the Chinese Communist Party – posits that the reason for this offer was not pure charity but rather to build trust with the Ethiopian government so as to be well positioned to be awarded oil contracts. Nonetheless, it is a fundamentally different approach to doing business than that adopted by Europeans and North Americans over the course of centuries.
Chinese loans are not conditional on countries imposing austerity or privatisation. Indeed the availability of alternative sources of funding means that debtor countries are not forced to accept the unfair terms that have been imposed by Western financial institutions for so long. As former South African minister of trade and industry Rob Davies put it, China’s expanding presence in Africa “can only be a good thing … because it means that we don’t have to sign on the dotted line whatever is shoved under our noses any longer … We now have alternatives and that’s to our benefit.”48
Martin Jacques addresses this issue in his book When China Rules the World: “Chinese aid has far fewer strings attached than that of Western nations and institutions. While the IMF and the World Bank have insisted, in accord with their Western-inspired ideological agenda, on the liberalisation of foreign trade, privatisation and a reduced role for the state, the Chinese stance is far less restrictive and doctrinaire.” Jacques points out that the Chinese emphasis on respect for sovereignty is “a principle they regard to be inviolable and which is directly related to their own historical experience during the ‘century of humiliation’”.49
The expanding infrastructure investment is enabling development of countries that have been forcibly underdeveloped by the imperialist powers (Walter Rodney’s work on this topic is required reading).50 For example, Chiponda Chibelu notes that “in the last decade, African countries have largely turned to China to help them build and expand their digital infrastructure,” having “received little support from Western governments for technology infrastructure.”51 China is actively encouraging the ICT revolution in Africa.
Meanwhile Chinese companies are investing in green development projects throughout the continent – and indeed the world. China has been the top investor in clean energy for nine out of the last ten years, according to the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management.52 The Chinese Academy of Sciences is heavily involved in supporting research projects in Africa, including agronomic research aimed at ending food shortages.53 Tens of thousands of African students attend universities in China, which now offers “more university scholarships to African students than the leading western governments combined”.54 Mohamed Hassan, president of the World Academy of Sciences, says that China is “doing better than any other country for Africa” when it comes to training scholars.55
Overall, rising Chinese investment and trade has been welcomed by African countries and is playing an important role in the continent’s development. China has adhered firmly to its ‘five-no’ approach as outlined by President Xi at the 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation: “No interference in African countries’ internal affairs; no imposition of our will on African countries; no attachment of political strings to assistance to Africa; and no seeking of selfish political gains in investment and financing cooperation with Africa.”56 Africa has known imperialism, and it doesn’t look like this.
So China’s engagement with Africa bears very little resemblance to the “well-travelled road” of Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, Germany and the US. Under European colonialism and neocolonialism, Africa remained in much the same state as was described by Marx in 1867: “A new and international division of labour springs up, one suited to the requirements of the main industrial countries, and it converts one part of the globe into a chiefly agricultural field of production for supplying the other part, which remains a pre-eminently industrial field.”57 As Liberia’s former Minister of Public Works W Gyude Moore writes, under European colonialism “there has never been a continental-scale infrastructure building program for Africa’s railways, roads, ports, water filtration plants and power stations”; meanwhile “China has built more infrastructure in Africa in two decades than the West has in centuries.”58
Mozambican independence leader Samora Machel, president from 1975 until his death in 1986, made a similar point about neocolonial underdevelopment: “They need Africa to have no industry, so that it will continue to provide raw materials. Not to have a steel industry. Since this would be a luxury for the African. They need Africa not to have dams, bridges, textile mills for clothing. A factory for shoes? No, the African doesn’t deserve it. No, that’s not for the Africans.”59
On this question, the Senegalese-American musician Akon demonstrates a far greater insight than the third campists when he states that “no one has done more to benefit Africa than the Chinese.”60
China and Latin America
Chinese firms have also been investing heavily in infrastructure projects in Latin America, as well as becoming the continent’s largest creditor and lead trading partner. Max Nathanson observes that “Latin American governments have long lamented their countries’ patchy infrastructure” and that China has “stepped in with a solution: roughly $150 billion loaned to Latin American countries since 2005.”61 The emergence of Chinese economic involvement in Latin America inspired then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – not widely known for his boundless anti-imperialist spirit – to accuse China of being a “new imperial power … using economic statecraft to pull the region into its orbit.”62
However, China’s role in Latin America is not considered to be ‘imperialist’ by the representatives of the working class and oppressed masses in that continent. For example, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez visited China six times over the course of his 13 years as President of Venezuela and was a strong proponent of China-Venezuela relations. He considered China to be a key partner in the struggle for a new world, memorably stating: “We’ve been manipulated to believe that the first man on the moon was the most important event of the 20th century. But no, much more important things happened, and one of the greatest events of the 20th century was the Chinese revolution.”63
The Chávez government and its successor have always encouraged Chinese economic engagement with Venezuela, and have never considered it to be imperialist. On the contrary, Chávez considered that an alliance with China constituted a bulwark against imperialism – a “Great Wall against American hegemonism.”64 Chinese financing has been crucial for development projects in energy, mining, industry, technology, communications, transport, housing and culture,65 and has thus played a key role in the improvement in the living conditions of the Venezuelan poor over the last two decades. Kevin Gallagher writes in The China Triangle that Venezuela’s unprecedented anti-poverty programmes were made possible by a combination of “the high price of oil in the 2000s and … the joint fund with China.”66 Across the continent, the “China Boom” from 2003-13 “helped erase the increases in inequality in Latin America that accrued during the Washington Consensus period.”67
A crucial difference between Chinese and Western investment – between Latin America’s “China Boom” and the Washington Consensus – is that “when Chinese banks do come, they do not impose policy conditionalities of any kind, in keeping with their general foreign policy of nonintervention.”68 Rather, Chinese investors treat borrower countries as equals and work to design mutually beneficial deals. Since Chinese loans don’t come with punishing conditions of austerity and privatisation, Latin American governments have been able to leverage China’s investment and purchase of primary commodities to spend at an unprecedented rate on reducing poverty and inequality.
Chávez spoke plainly about the difference between China and the imperialist powers: “China is large but it’s not an empire. China doesn’t trample on anyone, it hasn’t invaded anyone, it doesn’t go around dropping bombs on anyone.”69 This dynamic continues. Comparing the attitude taken towards Venezuela by the US and China, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza stated that “our country is under permanent attack and aggression from the United States of America… Thank God humanity can count on the People’s Republic of China to guarantee peace or at least less conflict.” Arreaza described the trade and investment deals between China and Venezuela as being set up in a “just, fair and equal manner.”70
Fidel Castro – no slouch in the anti-imperialist department – thoroughly rejected the notion that China was an imperialist power. “China has objectively become the most promising hope and the best example for all Third World countries … an important element of balance, progress and safeguard of world peace and stability.”71 China’s assistance and friendship has proven invaluable to socialist Cuba; China is now the island’s second largest trading partner and its main source of technical assistance.72
China also established strong relations with Bolivia under the progressive government of Evo Morales. Speaking at a recent event of the No Cold War campaign, Bolivian journalist Ollie Vargas talked about China’s role in launching Bolivia’s first telecoms satellite: “Bolivia is a small country, it doesn’t have the expertise to launch a rocket into space, so it worked with China to launch the satellite which now provides internet and phone signal to all corners of the country, from the Amazon to the Andes, and here in the working class areas of the big cities.”73 Vargas said that the project had been a positive model of mutually beneficial cooperation, as China brought expertise and investment but it didn’t seek to take ownership of the final product; the satellite belongs to the Bolivian people.
As with Africa, accusations of Chinese imperialism in Latin America don’t stand up to scrutiny. China trades with Latin America; China invests in Latin America; but China is not attempting to dominate Latin America or compromise its sovereignty.
Belt and Road
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a global infrastructure development strategy proposed by China in 2013. Unprecedented in scope, the BRI seeks to revive the original Silk Road – a vast trading network that arose during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) and which connected China with India, Central Asia and further afield. The BRI seeks to promote global economic integration and cooperation via the construction of vast numbers of roads, railways, bridges, factories, ports, airports, energy infrastructure and telecommunications systems, all of which will enable deeper integration of markets and more efficient allocation of resources.
As of early 2021, 140 countries across Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean have joined the BRI by signing a Memorandum of Understanding with China.74 BRI investment projects “are estimated to add over USD 1 trillion of outward funding for foreign infrastructure” in the ten years from 2017.75
The basic economic motivation of the BRI is to drive growth through expanding cooperation and coordination across borders. As Chinese economist Justin Yifu Lin puts it, “the greater the division of labour, the higher the economy’s productivity. But the division of labor is limited by market size. So the larger the market, the more specialised the labour.”76
Politically, the project fits into China’s longstanding approach of using economic integration to increase the cost (and thereby reduce the likelihood) of confrontation. Peter Nolan writes that “China is in a position to make use of its rich experience in domestic infrastructure construction in order to make a major contribution to the development of the Silk Road in Central and Southeast Asia.” A key political byproduct of this is “stimulating harmonious relations between the countries.”77
China is uniquely well placed to be the driving force of such a project, given its size, its location, and the nature of its economy. The Portuguese politician and academic Bruno Maçães observes that the essentially planned nature of the Chinese economy, with the state “firmly in charge of the financial system”, has enabled China to act quickly and decisively, directing immense financial resources towards BRI projects.78 Chinese engineering expertise is already opening up some of the most difficult terrains in the world for roads and railways, for example.
Ashley Smith and Kevin Lin, writing in the DSA’s Socialist Forum, consider that the BRI is “unmistakably imperialist”, picking items out of the Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism grab bag in order to prove their case. China is attempting to “export its vast surplus capacity, secure raw materials for its booming economy, and find new markets for its products.”79 They claim that the BRI is locking entire countries into “dependent development”, even “de-industrialising some countries like Brazil and reducing all to serving the needs of Chinese capitalism.”
This latter critique is more Mike Pompeo than Vladimir Lenin, and connects to an emerging New Cold War policy of blaming all economic problems on China. It’s certainly the case that more open markets render some businesses unviable, but overall China’s emergence as Brazil’s largest trading partner has been beneficial for the people of both countries. Indeed Brazil’s foreign minister in the Lula government, Celso Amorim, considered the blossoming China-Brazil relationship to be at the heart of a “reconfiguration of the world’s commercial and diplomatic geography.”80
If the BRI truly seeks to impose “dependent development”, it’s perhaps surprising that nearly every country in the Global South has signed up to it – including 42 of Africa’s 56 countries. Surely not all turkeys are voting for Christmas? In reality, most countries are highly favourable towards the BRI because it offers exactly what they need, and exactly what global imperialism has been impeding for centuries: development. Currently, for example, just 43 percent of people in Africa have access to electricity.81 The road and rail networks are badly underdeveloped. Hundreds of years of a European ‘civilising mission’ in Africa have brought all of the misery of modern capitalism with very little of the progress.
Belt and Road projects are establishing an essential framework for economic development and are thereby creating the conditions for formerly colonised countries to break out of dependency, to evade the economic coercion perpetrated by the US and its allies. The larger part of the reason that the Washington Consensus – the imposition of ‘shock doctrine’ economics – has been broken is the availability of alternative financing, particularly from Chinese or China-led development banks; even the IMF and World Bank have had to scale back their loan conditionalities, as debtor countries now have better options. Kevin Gallagher notes that, for example, Latin American leaders “have been reluctant to further bind their economies to Washington Consensus policies—in large part because they believe they have an alternative in China.”82 Furthermore, the trajectory of BRI investment is towards environmentally-friendly projects – for example, wind, solar and hydropower made up 57 percent of BRI energy investments in 2020, up from 38 per cent in 2019.83
While much noise has been made in the West in relation to “debt trap diplomacy” along the Belt and Road, the actual situation is that “virtually every study that looks at the terms of developing country debt sees developed country lending as more onerous than that of China.”84 Responding to accusations that China had created a Belt and Road ‘debt trap’ in Pakistan, the Chinese ambassador noted that 42 percent of Pakistan’s debt is to multilateral institutions and that Chinese preferential loans only constitute 10 percent.85 Writing in The Atlantic, Deborah Braütigam and Meg Rithmire debunk the debt trap narrative, forensically examining its canonical example: that of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.86 Braütigam and Rithmire comment that the idea of a cynical China hoodwinking naïve governments in the Global South “wrongfully portrays both Beijing and the developing countries it deals with”; indeed it contains an element of racism, the idea that the majority of countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are lining up to be bamboozled by a Chinese colonialism that’s so cunning as to not even require gunboats.
The BRI unquestionably promotes globalisation, but globalisation and imperialism are not the same thing. The original Silk Road was “the epicentre of one of the first waves of globalisation, connecting eastern and western markets, spurring immense wealth, and intermixing cultural and religious traditions. Valuable Chinese silk, spices, jade, and other goods moved west while China received gold and other precious metals, ivory, and glass products.”87 This is evidently a form of globalisation, but without the domination and coercion that characterise imperialism. The development of trade, building of infrastructure and expansion of friendly cooperation are all in the interests of the peoples of the participating countries. To compare such a process to imperialism as practised by Western Europe, North America and Japan is an insult to the hundreds of millions throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America that have endured the misery of colonial and neocolonial subjugation. The Western powers are certainly concerned about the Belt and Road, given its “practical significance of shifting the world’s centre of gravity from the Atlantic to the Pacific”, in the words of Henry Kissinger.88 But that ought not to be anything for socialists to be afraid of.
South China Sea
China’s “military expansionism” in the South China Sea is the other oft-cited example of Chinese imperialism. China claims sovereignty over the bulk of the South China Sea, and in recent years has stepped up its naval operations and its construction of artificial islands in the area. Chinese claims overlap in several places with those of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Amitai Etzioni points out that China’s claims in the South China Sea, while extensive and ambitious, are not particularly unusual. For example, “Canada, Russia, Denmark, and Norway have made overlapping claims to the North Pole and the Arctic Ocean, and have conducted exploratory expeditions and military exercises in the region to strengthen their positions.”89 Even in the South China Sea itself, other countries put forward ambitious claims and engage in military construction. Jude Woodward observed that China’s island-building was carried out largely in response to the actions taken by other states in the region: “In its actions on these disputed islands, China can with justice argue that it has done no more than others… It [is] rarely mentioned that Taiwan has long had an airstrip on Taiping, Malaysia on Swallow Reef, Vietnam on Spratly Island and the Philippines on Thitu.”90
China’s interest in the South China Sea islands isn’t new, nor is it linked to the discovery of natural resources on those islands, as is often claimed.91 These are uninhabitable islands that have been important stopping points for Chinese ships for at least 2,000 years; China has regarded the islands as its own since the time of the Han Dynasty.
The purpose of China’s assertion of sovereignty over much of the South China Sea has nothing to do with “expansionism” and everything to do with ensuring its economic and military security. Robert Kaplan writes that the South China Sea is “uniquely crucial” for China’s interests – “as central to Asia as the Mediterranean is to Europe”.92 Its bases at sea have no impact on shipping or ordinary peaceful activities, but are aimed at reducing its strategic vulnerability and preventing any attempt by hostile powers to impose a blockade. Given the continued US militarisation of the region,93 and its open attempt to create a Pacific alliance against China, this is more than just an abstract hypothetical issue. For example, the only major shipping route from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean is through the Malacca Strait; if the US were allowed the unadulterated control of the oceans that it seeks, it would be in a position to quickly cut off China’s energy supplies.
Peter Frankopan writes: “China’s present and future depends on being able to ensure that it can get what it needs, safely, securely and without interruption – and ensuring that those who are keen to manage or curtail economic growth are prevented from being able to threaten routes to and from markets elsewhere in the world.”94
Concerns about Chinese expansionism in the Pacific are misplaced and hypocritical, given the rights asserted by the US, Britain, France and others in the region. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), passed in 1992 – but which, notably, the United States has refused to sign – each nation is awarded an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles around its territory. An EEZ accords special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources, including energy production from water and wind. Peter Nolan observes that, under this system, China’s undisputed EEZ is just under a million square kilometres.95 Meanwhile France has 10 million, the US 10 million, and the UK 6 million square kilometres’ EEZ, the result of persisting colonial outposts. Britain’s overseas territory includes the Falklands (Malvinas), Sandwich Islands, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Monserrat, British Indian Ocean Territory and the Pitcairns – all many thousands of miles away from Britain. The Pitcairn Islands, a group of four volcanic islands in the South Pacific, with a combined population of 70 people, provide Britain with a similar EEZ to that of China – with a population of 1.4 billion people. Inasmuch as there’s a pressing issue of maritime colonialism that we should take a stand on, surely this is it.
There are several thorny longstanding territorial issues in the South China Sea, which will take time and goodwill to resolve. They can only be resolved primarily by the countries in the region themselves. The increasing US-led militarisation of the region, the deliberate stoking of relatively dormant disputes, and the US Navy’s ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols – totally unnecessary given that “more than 100,000 vessels pass through the South China Sea every year [and in] no single case has freedom of navigation been affected”96 – only serve to escalate tensions, increase China’s perceived threat level, and delay resolution. Indeed the US’s actions (fully supported by Britain,97 needless to say) are creating one of the most complex and fragile flashpoints in the world today. To complain of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea is to wade into dangerous waters precisely on the side of US hegemonism. The key demand for the peace movement and for anti-imperialists must be for an end to US-led militarisation of the region, along with support for peaceful dialogue between the countries with competing territorial claims (an example of this is the negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea agreed by China and ASEAN in 2017).98
Multipolarity is a prerequisite for socialist advance
The slogan Neither Washington nor Beijing, but international socialism is an emphatic statement that the global working class can’t hope to advance towards socialism by associating itself with either the US or China; that the rivalry between the two is inter-imperialist in character; that both countries promote a model of international relations designed solely to further their own hegemonic interests.
However, since a closer evaluation indicates that China is not imperialist, Marxists should make some effort to analyse its strategy and assess the extent to which it offers an opportunity for global socialist advance. Perhaps the correct slogan is closer to Not Washington but Beijing, and international socialism. This is not simply a matter of idle curiosity for the radical left. We are agreed that humanity faces a set of intractable problems that cannot be solved within a framework of capitalism; that eliminating the fundamental contradiction of social production and private appropriation is the sine qua non condition for securing humanity’s future. If there’s a chance that China’s strategy can contribute to the building of a socialist path, it should be studied and taken seriously.
In the 1950s and 60s, revolutionary China pursued an unambiguously revolutionary anti-imperialist foreign policy, providing crucial support for liberation movements in Vietnam, Algeria, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.99 Just a year after the declaration of the PRC, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army crossed the Yalu River in order to aid the people of Korea against the genocidal war launched by the US and its allies.100 Three million Chinese fought in that war, and an estimated 180,000 lost their lives. Although the fierce ideological dispute between China and the Soviet Union led to some objectively reactionary positions (for example in Angola and Afghanistan), the guiding principle of Chinese foreign policy was militant anti-imperialism.
In the early 1970s, after over two decades of intense hostility, a window of opportunity opened for improved China-US relations. This laid the ground for China to regain its seat at the United Nations in 1971 and, at the end of the decade, the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the US. With the start of the economic reform in 1978, China urgently sought foreign investment from, and trade with, Southeast Asia, Japan and the US. The need to create a favourable business environment led to the adoption of a “good neighbour policy”, which included dialling down support for leftist armed struggle in Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere. Deng Xiaoping’s recommendation to “hide our capabilities and bide our time” meant, in essence, China minding its own business and focussing on its internal development.
Over the last 20-plus years, and the last decade in particular, however, China has become more active in its foreign policy, with a strong focus on multipolarity: “a pattern of multiple centres of power, all with a certain capacity to influence world affairs, shaping a negotiated order.”101 Such a world order is specifically non-hegemonic; it aims to transition from a US-dominated unipolar world order to a more equal system of international relations in which big powers and regional blocs cooperate and compete. The interdependence between the different powers, and their comparable levels of strength, increases the cost and risk of conflict, thereby promoting peace.
Although the multipolar narrative doesn’t make explicit reference to anti-imperialism, it’s clear that a multipolar world implies the negation of the US hegemonist project for military and economic control of the planet. As such, its basic character is anti-imperialist, which is why it is treated with such contempt in US policy circles; it represents a world that looks very different from “global American leadership”102, a world where the US is no longer “without peer in its ability to project power around the world.”103
As discussed above, the very fact that China exists as a source of investment and finance is a major boost to the countries of the developing world (and indeed parts of Europe), which no longer have to accept punishing austerity and privatisation as conditions for emergency loans. Jenny Clegg writes that “developing countries as a whole may find, in the opportunities created by China’s rise, more room for flexibility to follow their own mix of state and market, and even to explore the socialist experiments they were forced to abandon by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the 1980s.”104 This is an important point. Multipolarity opens a path for greater sovereignty for developing countries; it breaks the stranglehold of the imperialist core (US, Europe, Japan) over the periphery and, in so doing, “provides the framework for the possible and necessary overcoming of capitalism”, in the memorable words of Samir Amin.105 Through forums such as BRICS (an international alliance of five major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), FOCAC (Forum on China-Africa Cooperation), China-CELAC (Forum of China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) and others, China is strongly promoting South-South cooperation and helping to advance the interests of the developing world in general.
Clegg notes that “what is at stake with China’s rise is … a real choice over the future model of the international order: the US strategic goal of a unipolar world to uphold and extend existing patterns of exploitation, or a multipolar and democratic one for a more equitable, just and peaceful world.”106 For the left to issue a plague on both these houses would be nothing short of a farce.
‘Neither Washington Nor Beijing’ in reality means support for Washington
In this article, I have attempted to prove that the basic character of global politics in the current era is not that of inter-imperialist rivalry between the US and China, but rather a struggle between the US-led push for its continued hegemony and the China-led push for a multipolar world order. I have further attempted to demonstrate that multipolarity provides greater opportunities for peace and development, and a more favourable context for humanity’s advance towards socialism. If Marxists do indeed “point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality,”107 they should support the movement towards multipolarity. China is leading this movement, and the US is leading the opposition to it.
If there existed a thriving political movement to the left of the Chinese Communist Party which sought to continue China’s progressive global strategy but to reverse the post-Mao market reforms and transition to a system of worker-run cooperatives (for example), Western leftists would have to assess the relative merits of supporting such a movement in its struggle against the CPC government. But this is sheer fantasy. Opposition to the CPC government in China comes primarily from pro-Western pro-neoliberal elements that seek to undermine socialism and roll back the project of multipolarity. Meanwhile, Chinese workers and peasants by and large support the government, and why shouldn’t they? In the four decades from 1981, the number of people in China living in internationally -defined absolute poverty fell from 850 million to zero.108 Living standards have consistently improved, at all levels of society. Wages are rising, social welfare is improving. According to an extensive study conducted by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, 93 percent of Chinese people are satisfied with their central government.109 Even former MI6 director of operations and intelligence Nigel Inkster grudgingly admits that “if anything, objective evidence points to growing levels of popular satisfaction within China about their government’s performance.”110 The basic conditions that inspire people to rise up against their government simply do not prevail.
Regardless of what one thinks of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, anyone on the left must support China against US-led imperialist attacks and the New Cold War. The prominent Belgian Trotskyist economist Ernest Mandel was by no means a supporter of Soviet socialism, but he insisted firmly that the Soviet Union must be defended against imperialism. Arguing against Tony Cliff’s slogan of Neither Washington nor Moscow, he wrote: “Why, if it is conceivable to defend the SPD [German Social Democratic Party] against fascism, despite its being led by the Noskes, the assassins of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, is it ‘inconceivable’ to defend the USSR against imperialism?”111
Let the latter-day third-campists answer the same question in relation to China.
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