The film crew from the ‘Red Tour’ of November 2016 has put together a short documentary of the experience. It came through wechat, but I have copied the link here. The documentary is a little way into the page, but the page also contains some photographs. We are discussing a longer documentary that will include the national day in Tiananmen on 1 October.

Something is definitely afoot here in China. A few years ago I gained the distinct sense that China was at a crossroads. Many possible paths were open, which people discussed endlessly. Such times are both dangerous and potentially creative. Now there is a greater sense of purpose and the path seems to be clarifying. More later, but let me note a few points here.

First, the anti-corruption campaign has been invoking Mao’s directives for cadres and leaders to live simple lives, without seeking personal gain. Yesterday, the government adopted a revised version of the guidelines against bureaucracy and extravagance. These include travelling ‘without pomp’, education and management of staff, guidelines on vacations, and so on. They are based on the core values of loyalty, honesty and frugality. The purpose: ‘To forge an iron, one must be strong oneself‘. In other words, a main focus of the campaign is to build a strong, united party, for the sake of a major move forward.

Second, in a direct echo of Mao’s famous lecture at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, Chairman Xi called on artists and writers to create great works of art, both distinctly original and beating with the heart of the people. This follows his earlier statement to let philosophy and the social sciences flourish, and guidelines for journalists in promoting public life and socialism with Chinese characteristics. I personally prefer these two statements:

Promoting socialist core values should be fundamental to artists and writers, who should firmly resort to Chinese people’s thoughts, emotions and aesthetics to create works catering to the times, featuring notable Chinese elements.

Literary and artistic work should be people-focused, and artists and writers should serve the people and socialism.

This of course directly invokes Mao’s directive that literature and art should serve the people.

I must admit that I find all of this quite exciting, a great time to be involved in China.

I have just completed eight amazing days of filming for the ‘Chinese Marxism’ MOOC that will be ready early in the new year. We travelled by plane, hard-seat train, bus and foot to get to what are still relatively remote places: Shaoshan (Mao’s birthplace), Ruijin (centre of the first soviet) and Yan’an (where the government was based for more than 10 years before 1949). Plenty of good footage to use.

However, one topic in the course concerns human rights. This may be regarded as a ‘sensitive’ topic, especially if one takes the one-sided approach of ‘western’ human rights, which focus almost exclusively on individual political rights and then attempt to universalise those.

But is there a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights, coming out of the Chinese tradition and Chinese Marxism? There is. You may gain an initial idea from the annual human rights report on the United States, produced by the State Council Information Office. The report on 2o15 is here.

On the filming ‘red tour’ I have been writing the episode on Chinese approaches to human rights, so here it is, in draft form:

Are human rights part of Chinese Marxism, let alone Marxism itself? I suggest that they are very much part of this framework, but in rather unexpected ways. The most commonly known account of human rights focuses on political rights, freedom of expression and at times freedom of religion. These are claimed to be universal and largely individual. And they are usually connected with liberal or bourgeois democracies.

What about a Chinese and Marxist approach to human rights? Usually, this approach does not get much airplay. So let me outline the main points for the sake of providing some very useful information.

1. Collective and Individual. One response to the assertion of western human rights is to argue that they are focused on the individual. By contrast, ‘Asian’ human rights focus more on the collective or the social – as we find with the ‘ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights’ from 2012. The Chinese approach is somewhat more nuanced. It recognises that there should be a careful balance between collective and individual dimensions in human rights. This means that specific collective groups also have distinct rights: women, children, minority nationalities, classes and even whole societies. At the same time, individuals also have rights in relation to collective rights.

2. Sovereignty. Related to the previous point is the importance of sovereignty in the giving and exercise of human rights. This is based on the idea that human rights are given by a society and are not inherent in human beings. But if a country is colonised and subjected to another country, such human rights are not possible. Therefore, a sovereign country is crucial for human rights.

3. Universal and particular. One criticism of western human rights is that it asserts universal positions on the basis of the specific history and experiences of Western Europe and North America. In other words, these human rights attempt to push on the rest of the world specific concerns that arose in a particular context. The Chinese approach does not take this path. Instead, it agrees that there are universal human rights, but the emphasis on the most important ones depends on the specific history, culture and situation.

4. Economic rights. Thus, the western tradition of human rights tends to focus on political and civil rights, especially in relation to political expression, the press and religion. It neglects other central human rights. A Chinese approach sees human rights as a combination political, social and political rights. Of these the most important in a Chinese context is the right to economic wellbeing.

Let me put this in terms of a common example. In theory, all children are born equal. Or, rather, in an ideal situation, a child should be born equal. However, the womb of a rich, upper-class mother has more nutrients for the embryo, thereby creating a better physical environment for the development of the embryo. This is apart from the advantageous conditions in which the child finds itself upon birth. By contrast, the womb of a poor, working class mother has less nutrients and potentially harmful substances. Thus, the embryo is already disadvantaged before it is born, let alone the poor conditions in which it will find itself after birth.

For these reasons, in a Chinese situation the economic right to wellbeing is primary. This explains the consistent policy of successive Chinese governments in improving the economic level of the population. For example, today the emphasis is on developing the economic conditions of people in central and western China, who have lagged behind the eastern seaboard. It also explains a major plank of each of the five year plans, which set targets for how many tens of millions will be lifted out of poverty.

It is also worth noting that, in light of this emphasis, the Information Office of the China State Council releases an annual report on human rights in the United States. While this may be seen as tit-for-tat, in reply to the US State Department’s comments on China, it is worth noting the emphasis on economic rights. For these reports, the neglect of economic rights in ‘western’ countries is revealed through consistent abuses of such rights. The report for 2016 may be found at the Information Office of the State Council (full text here).

5. But is this Marxist? I suggest that it is. The reason is that a main factor of socialism has always been about improving the economic conditions of the poorest and most vulnerable. A version of socialism sometimes appears, in which everyone is equally poor. This might be called populist socialism. But actual socialism is based on the need to improve people’s lot in life. We find a good expression of this position already from the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet of the early 1930s. Here a central ethos of the movement was articulated. The primary concern of every communist should be to ensure that people have enough food, adequate shelter and sufficient clothes. They should feel secure (anquan) in life – a fundamental feature of Chinese life. When people find they have such things through the communists, they will flock to join the movement and become revolutionaries.

Thus, the specific Chinese approach to human rights argues that the primary human right in the Chinese situation now is the right to economic wellbeing. This comes out of the intersection between the Chinese tradition and Chinese Marxism.


Says it all, really, including the Chinese appreciation of Xi Jinping

Last night I had the opportunity to speak and engage in discussion at the International Bookshop (at Melbourne Trades Hall) on the subject of Chinese Marxism. I talked about contradiction (socialism and capitalism), socialist democracy, a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights, and the form of the state, but our discussion ranged over much else.

As expected, a few among the group took the well-known position that China is a Stalinist state, with the CPC hell-bent on lining their own pockets and the people repressed, sullen and resentful. My response was simply to lay out more facts and it became clear to most that this position is quite untenable. Apart from the tendency among some to dismiss any form of socialism in power, which is both convenient and reflects a perspective from ‘before October’, I was struck my the way it simply does not measure up to reality. If one summarily dismisses something like Chinese Marxism, then it is easy to avoid reality. But it is also a profound pity that some among the left block out almost a century of the rich experience of socialism in power, in terms of both its stunning achievements and notable failures. You can’t learn much if you don’t engage with it.

Obviously, I am referring to Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections, which I risked suggesting back in July he would win. I refer not to the parts of the world that relied on the myth of pax americana. I mean the many parts of the world that have been bullied by the USA for too long. Trump’s turn will clearly be inward, retreating from US efforts to dominate many parts of the world where it had no business whatsoever. To be sure, declining empires never decline gracefully. They do so angrily, lashing out. But the decline is all the more clear.

So what to make of all this?

To begin with, the working class has expressed itself in an unexpected way. Given the narrow options within bourgeois democracy, this is one of the few paths open to the working class. Like Brexit.

Second, the old methods of opinion polling are no longer valid within bourgeois democracies. They are simply unable to track the way people actually feel. I discussed this with some fellow travellers on my recent journey by train across North America – the last of my trans-continental crossings that needed to be done. They were profoundly suspicious of what the polls were saying,

Third, Trump has reaped what Obama has sown. That may sound like a strange observation. But US politics has been predicated on a sense of decline. Think of Obama’s ‘hope’ campaign, with the implicit message of restoring a lost golden age. Trump simply claimed to ‘make America great again’, thereby signalling as clearly as possible that greatness was in the past. By contrast, Clinton’s claim that the USA is great but that it simply needs to be made ‘whole again’ did not cut it.

Fourth, Trump embodies the truth of US style bourgeois democracy. Anyone watching from outside is saying, ‘if that is bourgeois democracy, then no thanks’.

Do not get me wrong, I am not a supporter of Trump, nor of Clinton. In fact, I am not a supporter of bourgeois democracy. It is a terrible system. And Trump reveals how bad it really is.