Washing Brains: How to Understand Chinese Marxist Research

Some foreigners say that our ideological reform is brainwashing. As I see it, they are correct in what they say. It is washing brains, that’s what it is! This brain of mine was washed to become what it is. After I joined the revolution, [my brain] slowly washed, washed for several decades. What I received before was all bourgeois education, and even some feudal education … At that time, none of us knew anything about how the Chinese revolution was to be promoted! (Mao, Zedong. 1957. ‘Speech to Chinese Students and Trainees in Moscow’ )

I begin with this text from Mao Zedong, since it expresses very well an experience of my own from the last decade or so. Mao was addressing Chinese students studying in Moscow, when he was part of a 1957 delegation to the Soviet Union.

How is this text relevant for my own experience? Whenever you dig into research material on China, you soon encounter two different frameworks, two different languages. On the one hand, there is whole language that has been developed and is used by ‘China watchers’. They are typically informed by the Western liberal tradition and use terminology and assumptions deriving from this tradition. On the other hand, we have the Chinese Marxist approach, which is informed by the reinterpretation of thousands of years of Chinese history and thinking in light of an overall Marxist framework. The differences between the two frameworks and languages becomes clear when we look at a few examples.

1. History of the Reform and Opening Up, from 1978.

Among ‘Western’ historians, there is an overwhelming tendency to divide the Reform and Opening Up into two periods, with 1989 and the Tiananmen incident being the fulcrum. This division applies particularly to economic and political history.

By contrast, this periodisation does not appear in Chinese scholarship. This is not due to some mythical ‘repression’ of information – a beloved trope of ‘Western’ China watchers – but simply because 1989 does not mark a major turning point. For example, in my recent research on the socialist market economy, a three-fold periodisation is more common: the breakthrough, in which socialism can also engage in a market economy (1979-1982); the transition, in which planning and the market are combined (1982-1989); and the establishment of a socialist market economy (1989-1993).

2. Socialist and Post-Socialist.

Related to the previous point, it is reasonably common in ‘Western’ literature to find a distinction between the ‘socialist’ and ‘post-socialist’ phases of China’s recent history. The terms are left suitably vague, but they often turn on the distinction between a planned economy and a market economy. In this respect, they assume the old 1932 slogan from Count Ludwig von Mises: ‘the alternative is still either Socialism or a market economy’. The Count was of course one of the godfathers of a now defunct neoliberalism, but his deceptive slogan influences the distinction between socialism and post-socialism: socialism inescapably entails a planned economy, while a market economy is by definition capitalist.

When dealing with Chinese approaches, it is very soon clear that this distinction simply does not work. To begin with, China has by no means abandoned a planned economy; instead, both planning and market are components, or institutional forms, of an overall socialist system that determines the nature of the components. In this light, it is misleading to speak of ‘post-socialism’.

There is a further problem with this distinction: it seeks to draw Chinese developments into a European framework, where Eastern Europe and Russia are now in a ‘post-socialist’ phase. Few indeed are the ‘Western’ researchers who realise that this effort to align China with European history is distinctly unhelpful.

3. Approach to Politics.

This one is fascinating: when ‘Western’ interpreters deal with Chinese politics, they inevitably focus on what is perceived to be ‘factional’ struggle within the CCP. Why? The overwhelming assumption is that politics is antagonistic, that it must involve struggle between opposing camps. Of course, the effort to examine the inner workings of the CCP relies on hearsay, unnamed ‘sources’ and so on.

Occasionally, a ‘Western’ interpreter is forced to admit that the CCP has remarkably little factional struggle and that it a rather stable political party. This admission moves a small step towards Chinese approach, for which we should use the terminology already developed by Marx and Engels. When envisaging what socialist governance might look like, they speak of ‘de-politicising’ governance. What does this mean? More and more dimensions of governance are no longer determined by class struggle and antagonism. This applies to policing, law courts, policies and even elections.

Yes, elections can be and indeed are de-politicised in China. From local village and city-district elections (direct) to election (indirect) of the president, these are all based on qualifications and merit for office and not through populist rhetoric by opposing political parties. Even more, China’s 9 political parties do not engage in class-based antagonisms, but work in a consultative and critically constructive manner.

4. Deformation of Language.

This deformation is an ongoing problem in ‘Western’ approaches, but let me focus on one example. It is common to speak of ‘conservatives’ and ‘reformers’, in which the ‘conservatives’ are those who hold the Marxist-Leninist line (from Deng Xiaoping onwards) and the ‘reformers’ are those who would turn China into a bourgeois state with a capitalist system.

Obviously, Chinese research provides a very different framework, between communists who ensure that China follows Marxist policies, and liberals who seek to turn China into the chaos and populism of a ‘Western’ system. That the latter are also potentially guilty of treason should be obvious.

I could offer many more examples of the differences between the two frameworks and languages, but the point should be clear. Of course, within each framework there are many debates and differences of opinion, but one must assume the framework to engage in such activities.

A question remains: do the proponents of the two frameworks actually listen to one another? It is more common for Chinese researchers to engage extensively with Western liberal scholarship, but it is criticised and appropriated within a Chinese Marxist approach.

It is far less common for ‘Western’ researchers to engage with Chinese Marxist research. Instead, their typical approach is as follows: they begin with a brief mention of official government positions, which are quickly dismissed as mere ‘rhetoric’ and ‘ideology’; they suggest they are dealing with ‘actual’ conditions, and then perhaps cite newspaper articles, occasionally providing the Chinese title to give an impression of ‘serious’ research; they may also cite one or two scholars with Chinese names to give the piece some ‘credibility’, but who typically live outside China, write in English, and assumes the same framework and language. Obviously, this is a rather shoddy way to undertake scholarly research, indicated by both the method – if it can be called that – and the conclusions reached.

To return to Mao Zedong: it is precisely this whole Western liberal framework, with its in-group language, that needs to be washed out of one’s brain to approach the material afresh.

China’s Socialist Market Economy (final article completed)

After some years of reflection and research, I have finally completed a longish study of China’s socialist market economy. A little earlier, I posted a short version of my study of East European market socialism. This was necessary background work, but it became clear that the Eastern European experiments were very preliminary and qualitatively different from China’s socialist market economy. Hence the present study. Copied below is the introduction, which outlines the main points of the argument. Since I have now submitted the article to a journal for consideration, the link that was previously here has been removed. Later, it will form a chapter in my book on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

China’s Socialist Market Economy: Introduction

When one engages seriously with Chinese Marxist philosophy on China’s socialist market economy, one soon notices a distinct disjunction: in China, key issues in the debate have largely been settled some time ago, while outside China significant misunderstanding remains. A major reason for this ignorance is that non-Chinese researchers remain disconcertingly uninformed concerning Chinese-language scholarship. Thus, the purpose of this study is to present the major developments of this Chinese-language scholarship. My focus is expository, providing contextual explanations material where necessary, but keeping my own assessment to a minimum. And given that the idiom of Chinese scholarship is different to that familiar to English readers, most of whom have been saturated with the Western liberal tradition, the exposition requires a process of ‘translation’ from one idiom to another. Throughout, the underlying motivation is that one cannot engage in serious debate without the preliminary step of seeking understanding and thus trust with interlocutors. To use a metaphor: one begins with open eyes and ears, while keeping one’s mouth shut; only after gaining understanding can one open one’s mouth in a considered and constructive manner.

The following study begins with the need to de-link a market economy from a capitalist system, as also a planned economy from a socialist system. This entails an engagement with Deng Xiaoping, plus a historical survey – beginning with Marx – on market economies throughout human history. Second, I delve into Chinese scholarship and its deployment of Mao Zedong’s contradiction analysis. The concern is to identify the primary contradiction in the context of socialist construction; or, rather, the manifestation of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. For Chinese researchers, this manifestation is in terms of the overall socio-economic system and its specific components, or what may be called institutional forms, which include planned and market economies. Given that the primary purpose of socialism is to liberate the forces of production, the question now concerns what institutional form enables such a liberation. Initially, a planned economy was able to liberate productive forces, but later and in light of its unfolding contradictions a market institutional form becomes necessary – although planning does not disappear. The third section concerns the dialectic of universality and particularity, in which a market economy has universal or common features but its nature is determined by the particular socio-economic system of which it is a component. This section also seeks to answer the question whether the market economy in the context of socialism is indeed socialist, an answer that also entails a return to Marx and Engels. The final section deals with more recent developments concerning the dialectical sublation or transformation of both market and planned economies. Obviously, planning has not been abandoned, but it has been transformed to a qualitatively new level – as has the socialist market economy. By now it should be obvious that the framework is resolutely Marxist – or more specifically Marxist philosophy – for this is the approach that Chinese scholars use and have developed further in light of China’s specific conditions.

State of disaster: Australia’s bushfires, a pariah state and the catastrophe of neoliberalism

What a situation:: a bushfire season like no other. No-one can recall anything like it. To be sure, Australian trees like fire and every summer we have bushfires, but never like this. The fires began in September (way earlier than usual) and by now thousands have burned across eastern Australia.

Some statistics might begin to tell the story:

12 million hectares burnt.

Half a billion animals killed, some species to extinction.

1600 houses destroyed.

23 people killed directly by the fires.

And we have not even reached the peak of the fire season, which has already been underway for months. It will most likely get worse. Already the fires are so fierce they cannot be contained. Flames leap 50 metres in the air, turn the sky black, yellow and red, create their own tornadoes and even weather systems.

The smoke clouds – known as pyrocumulus – suck up moisture from the trees, generate their own lightning and set more fires alight. Embers fly 15-20 kilometres ahead of a fire.

 

By now you can see that a state of emergency is somewhat limp in light of these developments. Indeed, a couple of days ago, the state of Victoria declared a ‘state of disaster’. This is the new normal.

catastrophic bush fire warning 的图像结果

But there is another disaster behind all of this: the disaster of neoliberal policies over the last four decades. Coupled with the fact that Australia is a pariah state due to its regime’s denial of climate change, it is also one of the last holdouts for neoliberalism, since most of the rest of the world has turned its back on such an approach. Let me put it this way: many of the fires are ‘fought’ by volunteers. Yes, volunteers. We have catastrophic fire conditions and a state of disaster and volunteers are expected to front up. Even more, there is so little government support for such ventures that the firefighters have to crowd source for face masks and safety equipment.

Further, the infrastructure has proven completely inadequate, as have the few government services left after all the cuts. Australia has terrible phone converage, so text messages sent out by the fire service cannot always be guaranteed to arrive on your phone. People have had to bunch around radios to find out the latest emergency warnings. Supplies are running short and fuel is scarce. Roads in many areas are inadequate, so people ordered to evacuate cannot do so. In the end, the navy has had to sail in with a couple of humanitarian relief vessels to evacuate people from the water’s edge in the southeast. Finally and on the other side of the volunteer firefighters, they and those stranded by the fires are now relying on donations of food, clothing, water, and so on to get by.

Image

It can be different. I have been discussing this with comrades in the local CPA branch. Countries like China with a socialist system immediately mobilise the massive government resources during times of natural disaster. Communist party officials are at the forefront, getting into the area, overseeing relief efforts and rolling up their sleeves. Ah yes, you do need a socialist system for such an approach. Or at least one that has turned its back on neoliberal dogma.

On retirement and other matters

A slightly more personal post than usual these days. A little over a week ago, I retired. It was an early retirement, since I am not quite yet 59, which is the average age of retirement age in Australia. I have worked for the last 11 years at the University of Newcastle in Australia, although I only ever had one foot in the door since I worked at no more than 50 percent. I must admit that I feel incredibly good about retiring.

Why? The negative side is that universities in Australia – like most universities that claim a heritage from the ‘Western’ liberal tradition – are in a spiral of decline. Governments keep cutting funding in the vain belief that the US model is the one to which one should aspire, so periodic ‘restructuring’ is the order of the day. It goes without saying that ‘restructuring’ is a euphemism for cutting costs and thus positions. For example, I recently witnessed the University of Newcastle axe whole disciplines, such as philosophy, (Western) classics and religion. Given that my training was in precisely in these areas, I felt somewhat alone.

But the negative reasons for retiring are a relatively minor matter. They can continue their downward spiral and lose international pretige and – increasingly important for the bottom line – international students. On a distinctly more positive note, I have been engaged in China for some years now. I first came to China in 2007, but for the last six years or more I have been engaged more closely with a few universities, initially in Beijing and more recently elsewhere.

I have experienced at first hand not only how central Marxism is to the Chinese project, but also the incredible level of work and innovation, forging ahead to continue to build the new China.

So what do I do with all this inspiration from the Chinese experience? I am trying to put all of this in ways that non-Chinese people who are interested in a rapidly changing world can understand. In this light, I am reshaping this blog so that it provides more information for those who are interested, including relevant downloads from my recent (last ten years) of publications.

Light from the east: red star over Christmas

I have always been intrigued by the biblical ‘light from the east’ that led the wise men in the traditional nativity scenes. Clearly, the East was seen as a place of wisdom and culture, and indeed stars. Obviously, this one is ripe for some communist symbolism, given that the red star is a very communist one:

From a nativity scene to the Soviet red star:

Although in the Soviet Union they tended to focus celebrations on New Year’s Day

With Lenin, of course:

And an emphasis on Soviet achievements in space:

Now we still have the red star from the East, the red star over China:

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Model workers: Common people doing their jobs with devotion

China is witnessing the return of the old revolutionary idea of the model worker, reshaped for the modern era. These days, it is ordinary people doing extraordinary jobs. It might be a postman in Tibet, or a teacher in a remote village, or a university graduate who has gone to the countryside to upgrade farming practices in the final frontier against poverty.

In this case, I am interested in a certain Chang Xiaolong, who in 2015 began working as a railway police officer in the mountainous Anhui province. His daily life includes basic conditions, keeping an eye on a 21.48 km stretch of railway line, which has 8 villages, 9 tunnels and 11 villages, growing vegetables, assisting the elderly with buying rail tickets, and working on poverty relief. I should add that in China such a job is seen more in terms of fulfilling a duty to assist in the greater common than simply as a job.

A few pictures from Xinhua News:

 

What is the world’s second most popular destination for international students?

In 2018, 22 percent of global international students ended up in the United States, although this percentage has been in consistent decline over the last few years.

In the same year, 10 percent of international students went to the UK and 10 percent to China.

Yes indeed, China is now equal second as a favourite for international students. It has outpaced 3 of the traditional post-WWII big five – Australia, Canada and New Zealand are now behind China.

How could this happen? The key is that a sign of a country’s openness and confidence on the global stage is how welcoming it is for international students. And of course how willing it is to provide financial support for such students. Scholarships are available for students from countries that are part of the Belt and Road Initiative, especially students from Africa, Central Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. If you are young enough and prepared to spend a year of intensive language study before beginning your studies, you too could land a scholarship. Even more, facilities at many universities have been upgraded, and the post-degree job opportunities in China or in the country of birth are bright indeed. As Matteo Giovannini observes: ‘Generous scholarships, investments on facilities and programs, unrestricted access to student visas and introduction of long-term residency permits for talent in specific fields of knowledge all have contributed to make China a friendly environment for talented foreigners’. And this is only the beginning: China is aiming for a staggering 500,000 international students by 2020.

So why is the Anglophone world declining. Perhaps Ahmed Baghdady, the manager of research and content development at WISE, says it best: ‘We’re seeing several movements of nationalism, and even hate speech and racism against international students from some countries’. His reference is of course to the United States, which has been demonising international students from more and more countries. But so also have Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Obviously, this approach is a sign of decline and weakness. As for the United Kingdom (an imperialist project that will come to an end in my lifetime with the independence of Scotland and the reunion of Ireland), the sheer uncertainties over its future are beginning to make it a doubtful destination.

Let me go back to an earlier observation: a sign of a country’s confidence on the global stage is how much it welcomes foreigners to engage, especially foreign students. Come to study, learn the language and culture, gain a world-class degree and perhaps even stay to work for a while. That was the UK in the 19th century and the USA in the 20th century. But no more. Increasingly it is China.