Chinese Revolution at 70: Twists and Turns, to What?

Photograph Source: 邹健东 – Public Domain


On October 1, 2019 the peoples of China celebrated 70 years of the rule of China by the Communist Party (CPC). There was much to celebrate in so far as over the seventy year period the Chinese society had risen from a poor, underdeveloped society to be the second most important economy in the world, in the process lifting the living standards and confidence of hundreds of millions. Central to the transformation of Chinese society were the sacrifices made by the Chinese people to overcome warlords, exploitation, economic backwardness and imperial domination. In period since 1949, the state squeezed more work out of the workers and peasants in order to accumulate surpluses that could be invested for the diversification of the economy. The economic and political choices over this seventy year period produced many twists and turns, ups and downs in the process of unleashing a great leap forward, a cultural revolution and then a ‘reform ‘ agenda. It is in this fourth stage after the ‘reforms’ where the challenges of militarism, financialization and environmental degradation will test the mettle of Chinese socialism.

The choice of the label of socialist to mark the nature of the Republic was made in October 1949 by the political leadership when they seized power and announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China at Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949. In order to penetrate the social content of this declaration towards socialist construction, it will always be necessary to understand the survival of the CPC in relation to the internal and external contexts. Today, in the midst of a prolonged capitalist crisis and a collision course with the military management of the international system, the working peoples of China are now confronted with a new stage of the struggle for a new order. This commentary seeks to place the celebration of 70 years of the socialist revolution in the context of the rise of a social stratum in China whose intellectual and ideological subservience to neo liberalism is laying the foundations to the erosion of the positive gains of the Chinese people since 1949.

Emerging from the Long March – Coming to Power of the Chinese Communist Party

On October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was formally established, with its national capital at Beijing. Standing before the people at the gates of the old imperial palace Mao, Chairperson of the CPC had declared that, ‘the Chinese People have stood up.’ The Chinese peoples had been humiliated by western imperialists from the middle of the 19th century when Britain, France, Germany, the USA and Japan extracted concessions from the Chinese imperial state and occupied Chinese territory. The leaders of the decaying Qing ruler ship had to open the port cities to the monopoly capitalists and also granted them legal and territorial concessions. It was in the period of the first Opium War, in 1842, when the Chinese emperor ceded Hong Kong to the British.[1] Chinese youths, students and workers opposed imperial domination and formed organizations imbued with ideas of the self-determination of China. One such organ was the small party that was started in Shanghai in 1921 and called itself a Communist Party. Influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin and the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Great October Revolution of 1917 in the USSR, the Communist Party of China set about unifying with other anti-colonial forces. One of these forces was the nationalist elements of the Guomindang, led by Chiang Kai-shek. Urged on by the Soviet Union to form an anti-colonial alliance with the Guomindang, the Communist Party had worked with national capitalists, but by 1927 the stark differences in objectives were clear with the contradictions between the comprador classes and the masses. In 1927, the Guomindang massacred hundreds of Communists in Shanghai and the surviving leaders fled to the rural areas of China rooting themselves among the peasantry.

After crushing the Communist Party in Shanghai, between 1930 and 1934 Chiang Kai-shek launched a series of military encirclement campaigns against the Chinese communists in an attempt to annihilate (them politically and militarily) especially in their base area in southeastern China. The Communists successfully fought off major campaigns using tactics of mobile infiltration and guerrilla warfare developed by Mao. In the fifth campaign, Chiang mustered about 700,000 troops and established a series of cement blockhouses around the communist positions. The Chinese communist Central Committee, which had removed Mao from the leadership early in 1934, abandoned his guerrilla warfare strategy and used regular positional warfare tactics against the better-armed and more-numerous Nationalist forces. As a result, the communists suffered heavy losses and were nearly crushed. It was in 1934 when surviving communists now under Mao’s leadership embarked on the Long March (1934–35). This historic 6,000-mile (10,000-km) trek of the Chinese freedom fighters, which resulted in the relocation of the communist revolutionary base from southeastern to northwestern China and in the emergence of Mao Zedong as the undisputed party leader. Fighting Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek throughout their journey, the communist troops crossed 18 mountain ranges and 24 rivers to reach the northwestern province of Shaanxi. The heroism attributed to the Long March inspired many young Chinese to join the Chinese Communist Party during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Mao’s base in Yunan became a center of resistance to the Nationalists and the Long March decisively established Mao’s leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. It was under the leadership of Mao where the Party organized poor farmers and peasants in the countryside.

By 1937 when the Japanese carried out genocide in Nanking and occupied most of China, the communists led the fight for Chinese sovereignty. Mao Zedong had emerged as the theoretician of the Chinese path to socialism by developing new ideas about revolution. Where in the classical Marxist texts, the vanguard of socialist change was supposed to be the workers, Mao studied the Chinese reality and set about the building of peasant soviets. It was from these social forces that Mao and the communists forged a Red Army that fought a long and brutal battle for power. [2] Emerging from a long march in the late thirties, the Maoists had fought the Japanese and the Goumindang and emerged victorious in 1949. From their base at Yunan, the communists grew in strength and eventually defeated the Nationalists in the struggle to control mainland China.

There was no blueprint to build socialism.

When the Communist Party acceded to power in 1949 there was very little industry left after foreign occupation and Civil War. The new Chinese state looked to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union for assistance but even before there was any agreement, about socialist planning, the Chinese society was thrust into another war in Korea in June 1950 less than one year after assuming power. The United States had opposed the Communists and even after the victory in 1949 had recognized the exiled Republic of China government in Taipei as the ‘legitimate’ government of China. Anti- communists in the USA and their allies kept up this farce from 1949 until 1973 when the nonaligned movement forced the acceptance of China as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people at the United Nations. During this period of anticommunist provocations, the United States aggressively opposed the People’s Republic of China. China was sucked into the Korean War when the aggressive strategy of the Eisenhower administration pushed the western forces (fighting under the flag of the United Nations and the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur) right up to the border of China. The Communist Party of China and its leadership mobilized millions of Chinese workers and peasants in the Chinese People’s Volunteers Force (CPVF) to repel the US occupation of Korea. After more than a million combat casualties had been suffered on both sides, the fighting ended and in a stalemate in July 1953. Negotiations in 1954 produced no further agreement, and the front line has been accepted ever since as the de facto boundary between North and South Korea.

It was in the midst of this war situation when the leaders of the CPC launched the period of the ‘transition to socialism’ with the announcement of the First Five Year Plan (1953-1957) with the goal of achieving industrialization, collectivization of agriculture and political cohesion of the state. In 1949, 89% of China’s population lived in the countryside, with agriculture accounting for about 60% of total economic output. The backbone of China’s economy, agriculture and industry together employed more than 70% of the China’s labor force and accounted for over 60% of the country’s GDP. By 1956, over 90 per cent of the land had been collectivized and the government nationalized banking, industry and trade. Private capitalism was virtually demolished and the leading capitalists sought refuge in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Great Leap Forward _ First Major twist

The next period of the Chinese revolution is one that has been the most controversial; this was the period when the Party launched the Great Leap Forward. It was from this era where the state developed planning at the national level and key to this were measures to keep consumption down among the producers in order to amass surpluses for investment. With rising tensions between the Soviet Union and China in the late fifties, the political leadership had calculated that it would be optimum to put their large rural population to work to hasten the transition to socialism. Building on the experiences of the soviet communes of the period of the Long March, the party undertook a new campaign called the Great leap Forward between 1958 and early 1960 to organize its vast population, especially in large-scale rural communes, to meet China’s industrial and agricultural problems. The plan was to develop labor-intensive methods of industrialization, which would emphasize human power rather than machines and capital expenditure. The Great Leap Forward approach was epitomized by the development of small backyard steel furnaces in every village and urban neighborhood, which were intended to accelerate the industrialization process.

Politically, the Great Leap Forward strengthened the Communist Party in robbing the landlord class of social power in the rural areas and strengthening the collective ownership of land. Under the commune system, agricultural and political decisions were decentralized and a commitment to socialism rather than expertise was emphasized. The peasants were organized into brigade teams, and communal kitchens were established so that women could be freed for work. Millions of women were freed from domestic work and joined agricultural fieldwork, pasturage, mining, foundry, irrigation, communication, transportation, all kinds of factories, commerce, shop work, and various other public services. One other great achievement of this period was the integration of modern medicine with Chinese traditional medicine (TCM). “Due to the call by Mao Zedong, as well as the practice of the combination of Western medicine and TCM by the first group of Western doctors with a training in TCM, medical circles paid more attention to integrating Western medicine and TCM. It became more popular among doctors of Western medicine to study TCM.” [3]

From the many scholarly reports from sources that were not influenced by the Cold War, the program for socialization in the rural areas was implemented with such haste by overzealous cadres that implements were often melted to make steel in the backyard furnaces, and discontented peasants slaughtered many farm animals. The challenges in the implementation of the Great Leap Forward were compounded by drought, natural disasters and the withdrawal of Soviet technical support. The social and economic dislocation led to inefficiency, sabotage and internal struggles within the party. With the disruption of agriculture where peasants were exhorted based on moral incentives, diversion of farm labour into small-scale industry disrupted China’s agriculture seriously, and three consecutive years of natural calamities added to what quickly turned into a national disaster. There are diverging estimates on how many peasants perished during the period of the Great Leap Forward and one of the tasks of a future socialist regime in China will be to develop clear records on what happened during these years. This period coincided with hunger, famine and the deaths of millions. Since that time, the debates have not been able to separate the truth from the anticommunist claims that Mao oversaw the death of millions of Chinese peasants. [4]

Joseph Ball and Samir Amin in separate commentaries have been able to locate the challenges of the Chinese society at that period within the context of the agrarian question in semi colonial societies. Both have been able to analyze the goals of achieving the economic and technical transformation of the society. Both acknowledged the successes and setbacks of the process of transformation underlining the reality that transformation in a society never proceeds in a linear process, or in liberal terms, clear ‘progress.’[5] Joseph Ball’s essay in Monthly Review on “Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward” has added to the debates on the complexities of this bold attempt by the Chinese Communist Party. He had noted that,

‘the approach of modern writers to the Great Leap Forward is absurdly one-sided. They are unable to grasp the relationship between its failures and successes. They can only grasp that serious problems occurred during the years 1959-1961. They cannot grasp that the work that was done in these years also laid the groundwork for the continuing overall success of Chinese socialism in improving the lives of its people. They fail to seriously consider evidence that indicates that most of the deaths that occurred in the Great Leap Forward were due to natural disasters not policy errors. Besides, the deaths that occurred in the Great Leap Forward have to be set against the Chinese people’s success in preventing many other deaths throughout the Maoist period. Improvements in life expectancy saved the lives of many millions. [6]

The Great Cultural Revolution and the Left Turn

The struggles within the Communist Party of China in the first twenty years of the revolution were compounded by imperial encirclement and differences with the USSR over the paths to socialist reconstruction. Inner party struggles had led to Mao stepping down in 1959, but by 1966, Mao had recovered his position within the party by launching a movement to rejuvenate the party. Identifying himself with the ‘left’ trend within the Communist Party, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in May 1966, soon calling on young people called the Red Guards to ‘bombard the headquarters’ and proclaiming ‘to rebel is justified.’ Mao charged that bourgeois elements had infiltrated the government and society and that they aimed to restore capitalism. The Red Guards were directed to root out those among the country’s population who were not ‘sufficiently revolutionary’ and those suspected of being ‘bourgeois.’ In the process of this revolutionary upsurge there was the humiliation and shaming of those leaders in the Party who had been designated as ‘rightists’ and capitalist roaders.

The Cultural Revolution in China had coincided with the international left wave of 1968 when youths in all parts of the globe were protesting for better conditions. In the case of France and Germany, the convergence of the cultural revolution and worker protests had been a high point in anti-capitalist activities with demonstrations, major general strikes, and occupations of universities and factories. In the USA, the struggles for Black liberation had reached a new high and in response even nonviolent leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. In China Mao had proclaimed, that, ‘revolution is not a dinner party. Revolution means rebellion. It means violent action with one class overthrowing another.’ The Maoist faction of the Communist Party compared the Cultural Revolution armed struggles to war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Goumindang.

The Red Guards had little oversight, and their actions led to anarchy and terror, as ‘suspect’ individuals—traditionalists, educators, and intellectuals, for example—were persecuted and killed. The Red Guards were soon reined in by officials, although the brutality of the revolution continued. In a sympathetic assessment of the Cultural Revolution, Amin noted,

‘while the Cultural Revolution met Mao’s expectations during the first two years of its existence, it subsequently deviated into anarchy, linked to the loss of control by Mao and the left in the party over the sequence of events. This deviation led to the state and party taking things in hand again, which gave the right its opportunity. Since then, the right has remained a strong part of all leadership bodies. Yet the left is present on the ground, restricting the supreme leadership to compromises of the “center”—but is that center right or center left? [7]

Within China, the limited summing up of the twists and turns of the revolution has led to the formulation that the Great Cultural Revolution and the Greta Leap Forward were mistakes of Mao. Yet, the same analysis that designated Mao’s mistakes have not yet acknowledged the reversal for progressive politics in the Sino Soviet rift during this period.

Errors of analysis of Soviet Social Imperialism

The Chinese peoples were alert to imperial provocations from 1949. At the end of the Korean War, the skirmishes between Beijing and Taiwan over the Quemoy and Matsu islands had seen the threats of the United States that it was considering using nuclear weapons to defend the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. After negotiations that threat receded, but provocations in Tibet were only compounded by the Sino Indian War of 1959 and the withdrawal of Soviet Advisors in 1960. For the Chinese revolutionaries, Nikita Khrushchev and the leaders of the USSR had embarked on a ‘capitalist road’ and the radicals in China designated the USSR as a social imperial state. In this analysis, the Maoists declared that social imperialism was a bigger threat to socialism than US imperialism and in the process; Moscow replaced Washington as China’s biggest threat.

This line of the Chinese leadership proved disastrous for those fighting wars of national liberation. There were many liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America that came to adopt the tactics and strategies of peoples war as advocated by the thoughts of Mao. From Nepal to India (Naxalites) and from Peru to Zimbabwe, freedom fighters adopted the ideas of Mao. In practice, the Chinese leaders decided that any liberation movement that received assistance from the USSR or COMECON countries was a lackey of social imperialism. The Sino Soviet spilt fostered opportunism among Third World Leaders who were anti communist. A leader such as Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo who had been complicit in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba was received with pomp by the Chinese leadership. Similarly, opportunists such as Jonas Savimbi of Angola represented himself as a Maoist fighting against Soviet imperialism and her ’Cuban’ lackeys. This position of China was manipulated by the United States and Henry Kissinger openly boasted of the intrigue involved in this manipulation in his book, On China. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security advisor of President Jimmy Carter, went one better and mobilized over 80,000 tons of weapons for the apartheid regime via Jonas Savimbi in this period of the rhetoric of Soviet Social imperialism. This period is so shameful in the annals of the Chinese revolution that in 2013, when Nelson Mandela joined the ancestors, the leader of China was the only significant head of state absent at the celebration. The Chinese Leaders had erroneously branded the African National Congress of South Africa as a puppet of the Soviet Union.

One of the continuing mysteries of the Chinese revolution is the extent to which many Chinese intellectuals and communist party leaders view Henry Kissinger as a friend of the revolution. In the past, the Chinese had been astute in working with sections of the US state machinery to end political isolation. In July of 1971, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had made a secret trip to China. With pressures from the nonaligned movement for the USA and the UN to recognize the government in Beijing as the legitimate representative of over a billion people, the US opened diplomatic relations after President Nixon travelled to China in 1972. Nixon who had been a staunch opponent of China spent eight days in China in February 1972, during which he met with Chairman Mao Zedong and signed the Shanghai Communiqué with Premier Zhou Enlai. The communiqué had set the stage for improved U.S.-Sino relations by allowing China and the United States to normalize relations.

This normalization of state-to-state relations confused the political leadership in China and has become a consistent source of contradictions within China’s leadership class. For example, after the brutal assault against the Chilean peoples in 1973 and the massive bombing of the Vietnamese peoples, the leadership embraced Henry Kissinger as a friend. This embrace was to reach its most obscene position when under the banner of combatting social imperialism, China fought a brief war with Vietnam in 1979.  In the brief border war fought between China and Vietnam in early 1979. China launched a punitive expedition in response to Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1978 (which ended the rule of the Khmer Rouge). Similarly, the initial inability of China’s political and economic leadership to deal with President Trump was a result of their failure to fully understand the shift which had taken place in how America’s political, economic and defense elites viewed China, from a strategic competitor to a strategic national security threat. This failure was partially a product of China’s gradual adoption of neo-liberal financial liberalization reforms in the early 2000’s and the strong friendships between China’s capitalists and government with the leaders of Wall Street (Black Stone,  Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, etc.) and subsequent over reliance on their views and lobbying influence over the USG’s economic policies towards China.  But this is to anticipate.

The Reform Period and pragmatism in China

After the death of Mao in September 1976, the Cultural Revolution was brought to an end by the removal of the allies of Mao from the leadership of the Party. The faction of the Communist Party led by Deng Xiaoping emerged as the driving force of the Chinese revolution. It was in this period after 1978 when China embarked on the era of ‘reforms.’ The first stage of this process involved the relaxation of the state centered approach to agriculture with the de-collectivization of agriculture, the opening up of the country to foreign investment, and permission for unleashing the capitalists who had been underground inside China since 1949. These reforms did not minimize the central role of the state in the economy. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the reform twist involved the privatization and contracting out of much state-owned industry and the lifting of price controls, protectionist policies, and regulations, although state monopolies in sectors such as banking and petroleum remained. The private sector grew remarkably, accounting for as much as 70 percent of China’s gross domestic product by 2005. From 1978 until 2013, unprecedented growth occurred, with the economy increasing by 9.5% a year.

Western social scientists, international financial institutions and pundits attributed the phenomenal growth in China to the opening to the West and adoption of “free market forces.” For no society which has been universally acknowledged for lifting more human beings out of poverty in human history and which helped sustain the global economy following the last two capitalist financial crises, could have done so via socialism. However, Samir Amin noted that one cannot understand the massive growth in the economy without grasping the transition and changes that were laid in the period of the Great Leap Forward. In short, ‘lifting 600 million human beings out of poverty cannot be attributed to the market but to socialization of the society’ and the fact that the commanding heights of the economy were still in the hands of the state. In Amin’s words,

“The results of this choice are, once again, simply amazing. In a few decades, China has built a productive, industrial urbanization that brings together 600 million human beings, two-thirds of whom were urbanized over the last two decades (almost equal to Europe’s population!). This is due to the Plan and not to the market. China now has a truly sovereign productive system. No other country in the South (except for Korea and Taiwan) has succeeded in doing this. In India and Brazil there are only a few disparate elements of a sovereign project of the same kind, nothing more.

He continued

To say, as one hears ad nauseam, that China’s success should be attributed to the abandonment of Maoism (whose “failure” was obvious), the opening to the outside, and the entry of foreign capital is quite simply idiotic. The Maoist construction put in place the foundations without which the opening would not have achieved its well-known success. A comparison with India, which has not made a comparable revolution, demonstrates this. To say that China’s success is mainly (even “completely”) attributable to the initiatives of foreign capital is no less idiotic. It is not multinational capital that built the Chinese industrial system and achieved the objectives of urbanization and the construction of infrastructure. The success is 90 percent attributable to the sovereign Chinese project. Certainly, the opening to foreign capital has fulfilled useful functions: it has increased the import of modern technologies. However, because of its partnership methods, China absorbed these technologies and has now mastered their development. There is nothing similar elsewhere, even in India or Brazil, a fortiori in Thailand, Malaysia, South Africa, and other places.[8]

Lin Chun’s work on the changes in Chinese society since 1978 takes the same position as Amin. In the book, the Transformation of Chinese Socialism, the question was posed thus, Were the seeds of the present planted long ago, only germinating so slowly that at the time it was difficult to see or imagine the shape of things to come? [9] The answer of Lin Chun was that in order to understand what is happening in China forty years after the ‘reform’ period it is necessary to go further back in history than 1978 and the pragmatism of Deng Xiaoping. In 1949, the decision had been made that the political leadership of the CPC would rationally coordinate the planning of an entire national economy of China in such a way as to transform the major economic choices of the society into political choices, responsive to the will of the people. Central to this process were the sacrifices made by the Chinese people to overcome economic backwardness. In that period the state squeezed more work out of the workers and peasants in order to accumulate a surplus that could be reinvested for the diversification of the economy.

Future of socialist transformation or the recomposition of capitalism in China

One of the outcomes of the emphasis on the ‘development of the productive forces’ has been the massive increase in the industrialization without regard to the health and wellbeing of the population. The levels of ecological degradation in China as a result of a form of industrialization without regard for the population has led to China having one of the worst air qualities in the world. In all major industrial areas of China, the quality of the lives of the peoples have been impaired by pollution. Beijing and industrial areas of northern China have the worst levels of Sulphur dioxide pollution on the planet earth. China is home to 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air pollution. The drive to urbanize and industrialize had been so intense that in the three-year period 2011 to 2014, China poured more concrete in three years than the UUS did in the entire 20th century. [10] Research by the Chinese Academy on Environmental Planning, revealed that 100 million people live in cities where the pollution reaches “very dangerous” levels.

This level of pollution is most extreme is a city such as Shijianzhuang, in Hebei province where the coal barons have a base in the Communist party. The environmental crisis in China is also an expression of the alliance of capitalists in China with international capitalists. Since 1978, the leaders of China marketed the society as a space of cheap labor and a society where environmental standards were ignored. There is enough scholarship on the environmental crisis in China that outlined how western capitalists located polluting industries in China. [11] Many of the polluting factories sell their cheap goods to richer nations. Throughout the reform period (1978 to present), local officials have been evaluated and promoted primarily based on their ability to meet economic development and family planning.[12] In 2011, the Party launched National “12th Five-Year Plan” for Environmental Protection with ambitious targets to reverse environmental degradation. That plan has been caught in the class struggles in the party between the coal barons and other sections of Chinese capital and by 2016 the Party announced th13th Five year plan announcing that the old forms of industrialization had run its course..

The leadership in China launched another plan to transcend the old polluting industries with the China 2025 project. Labelled as Made in China 2025, this new turn seeks to engineer a shift for China from being a low-end manufacturer to becoming a high-end producer of goods. To centralize this vision, the government’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology released a Made in China (MIC) 2025 document in 2015 – pushing for leadership in robotics, information technology, and clean energy, among other sectors. These sectors are central to the so-called next generation technologies (nexgen), which refers to the integration of big data, cloud computing, and other emerging technologies into global manufacturing supply chains. “Chief among these are electric cars and other new energy vehicles, next-generation information technology (IT) and telecommunications, and advanced robotics and artificial intelligence. Other major sectors include agricultural technology; aerospace engineering; new synthetic materials; advanced electrical equipment; emerging bio-medicine; high-end rail infrastructure; and high-tech maritime engineering.”[13] The foundations for this pace of scientific transformation had been laid in the seventies when there was the project of science walking on two legs.[14] In terms of science policy, it referred mainly to the balance China has sought to achieve between “pure” science and applied technology.

The China 2025 program has since become a bone of contention for US capitalist’s administration, and has partly been responsible for the increased competition between the US and China. The US policy leaders have been alarmed by this new turn in China and the current tensions in the trade war is linked to the threats that sections of the US military industrial complex sees from this new direction of China. Presenting this new direction of China as a threat to global trade, the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) of the USA and other think tanks have been effusive in outlining the dangers to US hegemony from this new direction in China. Anticommunist scholars of the USA such as Peter Navarro who made a name out of China bashing rose to the position of being an adviser to President Trump on trade. His coauthored book Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action, had been a staple among those in the US policy circles who carried forth the old anti-communism of the Cold War era. His assessment on China is that “China is basically trying to steal the future of Japan, the U.S. and Europe, by going after our technology.” Of course such a paradigm also conveniently obscures the myriad of political, social, and economic impacts causing a decline in the structural competitiveness of the US in numerous ‘nexgen’ industries and sectors which is being produced by the increasing financialization of capitalism in the US.

The so called Thucydides Trap.

Realist scholars in the USA have also been raising the ‘alarm’ about the rise of China. John Mearsheimer in his 2014 book, The Tragedy of the Great Power Politics, argued in the last chapter, ‘Great Power Politics in the twenty first century,’ that, if the China continues growing rapidly, the US will once again face a potential peer competitor, and great-power politics will return in full force. Trapped by the history of realism, and visions of hegemony, Mearsheimer argued China cannot rise peacefully. In this understanding, there can only be one major power and the emergence of alternative centers of economic and political power will inevitably lead to warfare. Professor Graham Allison of Harvard University has added to this militaristic understanding of history with the study, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?[15] In this book, Allison argued that in 12 of 16 past cases in which a rising power has confronted a ruling power, the result has been bloodshed. This kind of rhetoric has been backed up by a new direction of the planning for war against China. The 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States has been explicit that the US needs to be prepared for war with China. [16] Mainstream scholars of International Relations have not yet fully grasped the Meaning of the Second World War and the argument made that capitalist competition will lead to war. The more developed the capitalist state, the more deadly the competition. Historical materialism and an understanding of imperialism will reveal the impulse of capital to seek to resolve economic challenges by military means. Since the end of the Cold War the western leaders have attempted a military management of the international system with implications for West Asia in the invasion of Iraq and war drums against Iran, and in Africa in the creation of the US Africa Command. In Asia, this militarism over the past decade has been manifested under President Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ and currently under President Trump’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’.[17]

When Thucydides was writing about the Peloponnesian War, he was writing about small societies that were not enmeshed in global value chains. Moreover, these wars were limited in geographical scope and did not arise out of competition between capitalist powers. Nuclear power, the rise of the Global South and the tremendous importance of the rising states renders the kind of analysis that refer back to 19th century imperial rivalries, out of date. The political leader of China communicated this reality to the leaders of the USA in 2015 when he noted,

“There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”

Imperial Two Track Strategy on the Chinese Revolution

While one section of the US bourgeois is planning for war with China, the other section is working hard to strengthen the capitalist classes in China so that they can become fully compliant and subservient allies of international capital. Since the ‘reform’ era, thousands of western corporations have invested in China to profit from the cheap labor and absence of environmental regulation. Whether it is companies (such as Walmart and Apple) who profit from the cheap labor conditions or General Motors, Boeing, Microsoft and Google, western capitalists operating in China have developed a strong alliance with Chinese capitalists. The leaders of the US-Chinese business Council have been most aggressive in strengthening the Chinese capitalist class. The Officers and Directors of the US-China business Council reads like a who’s who of corporate America. [18]

While one faction of international capital complain of theft of intellectual property and piracy of Chinese state corporations, another faction has set about strengthening neo liberal capitalist ideas among the Chinese intelligentsia. This has become most evident with the activities of private capitalists such as Stephen A. Schwarzman, CEO and Co-Founder of Blackstone group of Wall Street. In 2013, Schwarzman founded an international scholarship program, “Schwarzman Scholars,” at Tsinghua University in Beijing to educate future leaders about China. The US$350 million program is modeled on the Rhodes scholarship that had been started by Cecil Rhodes at the start of the twentieth century to train loyal servants of empire. It is one indication on the ideological subservience of the top intellectuals in China as to the operations of the world system that they would agree to work with known international capitalists in their premier university such as Henry Paulson and Stephen Schwarzman. It means that the Chinese do not care that they will be training their future leaders to be imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes.

Chinese education and imperialism

J P Morgan and Blackstone are the ones with the money they will finance institutions to promote individualism and the accumulation of capital for a few. These Wall Street magnates invest in University education in all parts of the world to reproduce the most conservative ideas about society. The current Chinese political leadership at all levels see the training of their children in the USA and capitalist Europe as the basis of the future ideological and intellectual development of China. Very rich Chinese donate to keep top Ivy League colleges in North America as thriving centers of capitalist scholarship at precisely the moment when a generation of youth are looking for resources to redirect education and social planning.

From the most recent reports in the financial papers, there are close to 300,000 Chinese students in higher education in the USA, this does not include Community colleges. In the spirit of internationalism, it will be important for Chinese students to study in all parts of the world, but the question, is, what do they study? Which Professors do they gravitate towards? Do they study imperialism, contemporary class struggles, reparative justice, environmental science to support environmental repair in China or the physics of the future to alleviate the suffering of workers everywhere?

The reality is that many Chinese students overseas see themselves as being apolitical, while the 70 per cent that study economics, business, entrepreneurship or the other offerings of schools funded by the bankers, they study and internalize the most conservative brand of neo-liberal capitalism. This training of neo conservatives for China has been supported by the new foreign policy of China based on ‘harmony’ that promotes Confucius Institutes in all parts of the world. The Confucius Institutes are the embryo of the 21st century Chinese imperial project that stands against the rights of workers, women and oppressed nationalities. Ironically, conservative elements of the USG are leading efforts to close these institutes in the United States, along with prohibiting investments into the United States by Chinese private capitalists, because both have been labeled as new threats to America’s national security.

Side by side with these Confucius institutes, the current Chinese state has unleashed hundreds of thousands of rapacious capitalists (and would be capitalists) to Third World societies. The very negative social impact of these ‘investors’ has led some western commentators to label China as the new imperialist state.[19] Some in the left have offered a specious thesis of China as a ‘sub imperial state’ [20] while some former Marxists pontificate When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. [21]

Whither the Chinese Revolution?

The capitalists from North America have used their military power to dominate the global trading, currency and financial system. In the last capitalist depression and subsequent war 1929-1945, one of the triggers of war was the competitive devaluations. Today the devaluations and currency wars have been accompanied by trade wars, information warfare and cyberwarfare. The Chinese peoples are trapped in the old international trading system and currently the state of China holds more that US3 trillion outside China, mostly in US Treasury. Paul Craig Roberts suggested that China simply pull out their money from western securities. This is not a realistic alternative in the short run. The alternatives must be internationalist and rooted in what is good for everyone, especially in the Global South. Unfortunately, projects of the political leadership in China to diversify their holdings of US Treasury point to building One Belt One Road to Europe.

In the throes of the financial crisis, the leadership pivoted to the Global South with the initiative called Brazil, Russia, India China and South Africa (BRICS). However, the underdevelopment of the study of capitalism influenced the thinkers behind the BRICS bank to accept neo-liberal principles of economics while US imperialists sought to suborn Brazil and India out of the new initiative for South -South Cooperation. It is in the spirit of 1949 where there is now another opportunity for Chinese society to come up with real alternatives that are protracted and will avoid outright warfare. In this delicate balancing, the Chinese leadership can either be socialist and internationalist or based on strategic planning and alliances for China to be the co imperialists with the USA in the so called G2 as proposed by Zbigniew Brzezinski among others. In the short run, the ASEAN plan for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is proposing a form of economic partnership that can neutralize the plans of the US capitalists for war in Asia. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS bank can carry out aggressive swap arrangements to support Iran, Russia and Venezuela in this current geo-political and economic war.

Socialist reconstruction and transformation

It was within the womb of capitalism in Britain and Germany where Karl Marx developed a critique of capital. Vladimir Lenin of Russia deepened this initial study of capital with his grasp of the changes from industrial capital to monopoly capital or the era of imperialism. The important contribution of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg was to grasp the centrality of militarism in modern imperialism. The attempt to build socialism in the USSR imploded after 74 years. Western triumphalism after the fall of the Soviet model proclaimed that there was no alternative to capitalism. However, workers and poor people in all parts of the world are revolting against the oppressive conditions of Financialization, the new era of imperialism. Three hundred million workers in China trapped by the Hukou system want freedom of movement and the ‘right to the city.’ From Egypt to Ecuador and from Wukan in China to Iraq, workers, students, poor farmers, oppressed women and unemployed are in combat against capitalism. Many Chinese youth agree with the global youth movement for a clean environment.

Capitalism is a global system and we know that the transition to a new system will be long. However, while those opposed to capital are on this road, they will have to clean up the environment. This is the number one task so that the workers and small farmers can have a good quality of life. We have to have clean water and food that does not kill children. These are basic rights of humans in all parts of the world. Those who believe in the linear conception of socialist transformation argue that China will have to industrialize and urbanize further in order to move to a true socialist path. Linearity in thought in China from the ‘reformers’ merge with the plans of those who promote the silencing of the workers and peasants.

Imperial intellectual cultures serviced by corporations provide information and organization for the capitalist classes using the moribund Breton Woods Institutions to enforce onerous conditionalities on working peoples. World Bank and western concepts of democracy, human rights and governance reinforce western liberalism and cannot serve the interests of Chinese peoples. It is for this reason why many progressive scholars are confounded when they hear the formulation of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ When one conceptualize 21st century socialism, the progressive forces of the world are excited by the prospects for socialist reconstruction and a new science that supports research to strengthen the organization of workers and to build a new internationalism.

We are in the midst of a very exciting future. New technologies in solar, biotechnology, robotics and information technology opens up vast opportunities for the socialist project. Instead of promoting Henry Paulson, Henry Kissinger, Stephen Schwarzman and titans of empire, Chinese communists should be energized by the anti-capitalist project in a way that inspires the Chinese youth to be self-confident and be internationalists. The project of western capital in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong is to propagandize the Chinese youth to strengthen international forces and the local real estate capitalists who are called ‘developers.’

The task of building internationalism in the social sciences is also linked to building an anti-racist curriculum in China. This will have to be carefully thought out to avoid the excesses of the past. Intellectual and ideological struggles are deadly and those with power will not give up power easily.

In the celebration of the 70 years after coming to power, China can be constructive by working directly with Cuba to halt the counter revolutionary forces in Venezuela. This will entail an even bigger social investment in education and social questions in a place such as Venezuela. The future cooperation between Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina and Bolivia will give the socialist forces internationally the intellectual, financial and political leverage in a moment when imperial intervention will get desperate.

Internationalism will require solidarity with the most oppressed. I will again draw from Samir Amin’s analysis when he noted,

“My central question is this: is China evolving toward a stabilized form of capitalism? Or is China’s perspective still one of a possible transition to socialism? I am not asking this question in terms of the most likely “prediction.” I am asking it in altogether different terms: what inconsistencies and struggles have emerged in China today? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the approach adapted (to a large extent capitalist in fact)? What advantages do the (at least potentially socialist) anticapitalist forces have? Under what conditions can the capitalist approach triumph and what form of more or less stabilized capitalism could it produce? Under what conditions could the current moment be deflected in directions that would become a (long) stage in the (even longer) transition to socialism?

The fact that the Chinese project is not capitalist does not mean that it “is” socialist, only that it makes it possible to advance on the long road to socialism. Nevertheless, it is also still threatened with a drift that moves it off that road and ends up with a return, pure and simple, to capitalism.”


1. Orville Schell and John Delury, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century, Random House , New York 2013

2. One of the most sympathetic noncommunist account of the Long march is in the book, by Edgar Snow, Red Star over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism, Grove Press, New York 1994

3. H E N K E J I a n d XU HAO, “The integration of traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine,” European Review; Cambridge Vol. 11, Iss. 2, (May 2003): 225-235

4. Joseph Ball, “Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?” Monthly Review, September 21, 2006

5. https://monthlyreview.org/commentary/did-mao-really-kill-millions-in-the-great-leap-forward/#en10

6. Samir Amin, “China 2013,” Monthly Review, https://monthlyreview.org/2013/03/01/china-2013/

7. Ball ibid. See also the analysis of Lin Chun, The Transformation of Chinese Socialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

8. Samir Amin, Theory is History, Springer, 2013, page 126

9. Samir Amin, China 2013, https://monthlyreview.org/2013/03/01/china-2013/

10. Lin Chun, The Transformation of Chinese Socialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

11. Figures are to be found in the article by Bill Gates, “Have You Hugged a Concrete Pillar Today?” Gates Notes, June 12, 2014 https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Making-the-Modern-World

12. Jim Watson and Tao Wang, “Who Owns China’s Carbon Emissions,” (Sussex: Tyndall Centre, 2007)

13. Darrin Mage, “China is my Backyard: China’s environmental degradation in a global context, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Summer/Fall 2011),pp. 120-128

14. James McBride and Andrew Chatzky, “Is ‘Made in China 2025’ a Threat to Global Trade?” Council on Foreign Relations, May 2019 https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/made-china-2025-threat-global-trade

15. Dan Connell and Dan Gover , eds, China: Science Walk on two legs Avon Books, 1974

16. Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Mariner Books, New York 2018

16. National Defense Strategy of the United States, 2018, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf

17. Kurt Campbell and Brian Andrews, Explaining the US “Pivot to Asia,” Chatham House, London, 2013, http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/public/Research/Americas/0813pp_pivottoasia.pdf

18. US- Chinese Business Council, https://www.uschina.org/about/board-of-directors

19. Howard French, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, Random House, New York, 2015

20. Patrick Bond, ‘The Rise of Sub imperialism,’ Counterpunch, 2012, https://www.counterpunch.org/2012/11/23/the-rise-of-sub-imperialism/

21. Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, Penguin Books, London, 2012


Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science, Syracuse University. He is the author of Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya, Monthly Review Press, 2013.  Notes.

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