I am always amazed by what careful study of texts does to you. Even if you have read the same text over and over, thinking you know what it says, a patient rereading leads you along new paths.

This is precisely my experience at the moment as I work through Engels’s texts on the state from the 1880s. Many of them remained unfinished, due to the onerous task of editing Marx’s scattered notes into the second and third volumes of Capital. But the material that he did write is rich indeed.

It seems to me that the secret of the socialist state, or rather, one crucial element, can be found in these texts. Now, it may seem strange to speak of a ‘socialist state’, since Engels insists again and again that a state is a ‘public power [öffentliche Gewalt]’ that is ‘separated [getrennte]’ from the people. The origin of this idea I have still to find – Hegel held to it, but it is older than Hegel. Engels sees it appearing with the emergence of classes, economic exploitation and so on.

So much is reasonably well-known. However, when we look at his considerations of pre-state formations, we find two important features. The first is that such formations have quite complex forms of ‘social organisation’ (Engels’s term). These include councils, which either included the whole adult population or were representative, elections, leadership roles (even the early Greek basileus and the Roman rex) and multiple organisational functions for the ordering and governance of society. The best term for these functions is an apparatus, albeit one that works within the social fabric. All of this, insists Engels, is not yet a state – assuming the earlier definition.

Why not? The reason – and this is the second point – is that the whole apparatus is enmeshed with the people. Social structures and mores, policing, war, marriage, burial, inheritance, religious practices and ritual – these and more were ordered through this enmeshed system. Engels can even describe this system as a ‘sovereign power [Gewalt]’.

How does all this provide a crucial angel into the socialist state, or should I say the communist state? Engels is famous for coining the phrase, in the third edition of Anti-Dühring, of the state ‘dying away’, or ‘withering’ as it is often translated in English. By this he means the notion of a separated power (Gewalt). Fair enough. But he and Marx are also quite clear that many functions of social organisation would continue, indeed that they would need to continue. This is where his proposals concerning pre-state formations come into play. I mean not the idea of some restored ‘primitive communism’, but rather a dialectically transformed situation in which the apparatus of governance is enmeshed with the people in a new way. Obviously, any idea of ‘bourgeois society [bürgerliche Gesellschaft]’, which is the German original of what is called ‘civil society’, has no place within this enmeshed system.

Two caveats are in order. First, socialism is clearly a transitional period, as Lenin was the first to point out. That it is an exceedingly long period Lenin already began to see, with Stalin then providing a rather robust theoretical foundation. Such a transitional period, which is really a phase in its own right, has forms of governance which may be seen as hybrid. Here a state as a separated power may continue, although it will do so in hitherto unforeseen ways. It will already exhibit many of the features of an enmeshed system that I have outlined all too briefly.

The other caveat concerns the tradition of Chinese dialectics (for I have Chinese socialism also in mind). This is a rich tradition indeed, including the complex philosophical dimensions of the yin-yang, the military insights of Sunzi’s The Art of War, let alone the original breakthrough of Mao Zedong’s ‘On Contradiction’, which was itself an intersection between Marxist and Chinese dialectics, transforming both in the process. This tradition is another key to understanding the socialist state, although my research concerning it is ongoing.

Can we indeed speak of a socialist state? I think we can, although it may be better to speak of an enmeshed state, which we already find in many ways in China.


Is China undergoing a historical dialectical leap?

This question has been at the forefront my thoughts of late, for reasons I am still formulating. It comes from the experience, each time I arrive in China, of stepping into a future society. I have written of that feeling elsewhere, so here I want to analyse the question of the leap itself.

A common perception among many Chinese is that China needs to ‘catch up’ to other countries deemed more ‘advanced’. It matters little what the catching up might mean, whether technology, medicine, social security, scholarship, social morality and so on. The model may be the United States (for reasons that puzzle me), Germany, Scandinavia or even – believe it or not – Australia. True, the perception is less common today, but it used to be pervasive not so many years ago.

But as more and more Chinese go overseas, for travel, work or study, they are beginning to experience a dislocation. If it is one of countries I have mentioned, the bewilderment is due to the sense that the country they perceived as ‘advanced’ has in many respects slipped ‘behind’. Many of the daily realities to which they have become accustomed in China simply do not exist in such places, or if they do, they are piecemeal and disorganised.

As for my own experience, it is quite astonishing to find that so much has changed, so much has become the new normal, so much creativity has burst forth. The way I am beginning to describe it is in terms of a dialectical leap.

Let me make a few philosophical points. The initial idea of the ‘leap’ comes Lenin’s notebooks on Hegel (1914-1915). In response to the crisis of the Second International at the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin retreated to the library in Berne, Switzerland, to rediscover Marx’s dialectic. And where did he go? To Hegel! Lenin dug deep into Hegel’s The Science of Logic. He was wary at first, anticipating an idealist at work, where one would find theology at every turn. Instead, he found a materialist at the core, one that advocated a dialectic of ruptures, breaks and leaps. At one point, Lenin exclaims in his marginal notes: ‘Leaps! Breaks in gradualness. Leaps! Leaps’.

Mao Zedong would take up Hegel’s notes later, especially in developing his unique and creative intersection of Marxism and Chinese dialectics on his lectures in Yan’an in 1937, but especially in the essay drawn from the lectures, ‘On Contradiction’. In his own way, Mao saw what Lenin saw: the crucial role of the dialectical leap (bianzhengfa feiyue).

Now. both Lenin and Mao had in their sights a communist revolution, which is indeed such a leap. But can this central philosophical idea be applied to China today, especially since the ‘reform and opening up’ is being described as China’s second revolution? (I leave aside the point that after a communist revolution, reform is necessary, but always in light of revolution.)

Perhaps history can help us. In the nineteenth century in Europe, the German states were in many respects the most backward in Europe – economically, politically and culturally. It was precisely in this context that Marx and Engels grew up and developed what became Marxism. But what happened in the German states? Did they ‘catch up’ to the more ‘advanced’ states such as France, England and the Netherlands? Not at all, it was precisely the unique backwardness of the German states that enabled a dialectical leap. Germany became and remains the economic, political and, in many respects, intellectual powerhouse of Europe.

My sense is that an analogous process is happening in China today. Of course, the specificities of each situation are different, but my aim to discern a deeper pattern based on Marxist analysis. It seems to me that the dialectical leap is underway as I write. And this is not some leap into a capitalist system, with associated patterns of politics and culture. Not at all, for becoming a ‘strong modern socialist country’ by 2050 requires a dialectical leap of the sort happening now.

These sorts of banners are everywhere in China now, especially after the 19th congress of the CPC last year and then the two sessions this year:


‘Hold high the mighty banner of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era; comprehensively implement the vigorous spirit of the party’s 19th congress’.

This one is at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, but I find all manner of banners and posters everywhere I go.

You really have to be here to get a sense of how much has shifted even in the last year. Marxism is forefront and centre in more and more places: in government policy; the renewed study of Mao Zedong; bookshops full of communist material, from Mao to Xi, let alone Marx and Engels; the best students flocking to schools of programs of Marxism; news and media engaging in in-depth examinations of its many dimensions; clarification of the practices of socialist rule of law, socialist market economy, socialist democracy and governance, and how this works out in international relations; people calling each other ‘comrade’ (example set by ‘Comrade Xi Jinping’). The list could go on for much longer.

It certainly sets me thinking and trying to understand further what is an extraordinary development. Not only does the relatively ‘liberal’ decade of the 1990s and even early 200os seem like a distant – and increasingly bad – memory, but I never thought I would live to see days like these, just as the USA and the ‘world disorder’ it had established is unravelling so fast.

The texts of this speech will be available soon, in many languages. In his first major international speech after being re-elected president, Xi Jinping presented a keynote at the Boao Forum, held in Hainan Province. It is known as the ‘Asian Davos’. A few of the key observations, remembering that 2018 celebrates forty years of the ‘reform and opening up’. Let me add that we are planning a conference later this year called ‘The Marxist Philosophy of the Reform and Opening Up’, especially since Marxism has become again the focus of so many researchers and the best students.

The reform and opening up, initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, has significantly unleashed and enhanced productivity in China, blazed a path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, demonstrated the strength of the nation, and actively contributed China’s share to the world, according to Xi.

Over the past 40 years, China has recorded an averaged annual GDP growth rate of around 9.5 percent, fostered a middle-income population of 400 million, and lifted more than 700 million Chinese people out of poverty, accounting for more than 70 percent of the global total.

China contributed over 30 percent of global growth in recent years.

Hailing it as “China’s second revolution,” Xi said the reform and opening up had not only profoundly changed the country but also greatly influenced the whole world.

In terms used for none other than Chairman Mao (although the background picture of this blog suggests an older history):

As the country’s helmsman, Xi launched the new round of reform and opening up, the largest in scale around the globe, at a time when the giant vessel of China has entered “a deep-water zone.”

And any country that seeks to isolate itself will be consigned to the ‘dustbin of history’:

“Humanity has a major choice to make between openness and isolation, and between progress and retrogression. In a world aspiring for peace and development, the cold-war and zero-sum mentality looks even more out of place.”

“We must dispel the clouds to see the sun, as we say in Chinese, so as to have a keen grasp of the law of history and the trend of the world.”

Xi said we live at a time with an overwhelming trend toward peace and cooperation as well as openness and connectivity.

Xi said we also live at a time with an overwhelming trend toward reform and innovation, adding that those who reject them will be left behind and assigned to the dustbin of history.

No prizes for guessing to whom he might be referring. Sourced from Xinhua News and Global Times.

One of the big lies bandied about these days is that China has been engaged in systemic and substantial ‘intellectual property theft’. Say it often enough and people will believe it – as Goebbels pointed out many years ago.

I leave aside the obvious points: that this is the usual practice of all big business and commercial research; that the United States is the past master at such practices, let alone Europe – most of their breakthroughs in the past were by foreigners, who willingly or willingly gave up these breakthroughs (think of Einstein, for example); that the idea of knowledge that benefits human beings is ‘private property’ is the most perverse idea of all.

Instead, I am interested in the rather obvious Orientalism of this accusation. To wit, China and its people – so the accusation would have us believe – do not have the wherewithal to make their own discoveries. For some, they are clearly ‘stupid people’ who have to steal other people’s ideas.

Nice one.

I cannot help wondering whether this accusation applies to the historical discoveries of paper, printing press, compass and gunpowder, which Europe ‘appropriated’ late in the piece.

Or whether it applies to the more than 1.3 million patents lodged by Chinese inventors in 2017, more than the Unites States, Europe, Japan and South Korea combined.

Or indeed to recent breakthroughs, such as the world’s first successful sending of a quantum message into space and the first successful 5G phone call.

Or to the fact that coming to China now feels like stepping into the future, where so much is the reality of an everyday life that is yet to be found elsewhere.

Obviously, socialists with Chinese characteristics must have ‘stolen’ such ideas from the future, or perhaps from aliens.

Amidst all the uninformed opinions about the constitutional changes at China’s recent two sessions of parliament, this piece by Eric Li is the most balanced I have read (in the Global Times.). The only point with I disagree somewhat concerns the merging party and state. The reason is that Xi Jinping has been promoting China’s unique multi-party system more than ever before. The nine political parties all play a role.

Why Xi’s lifting of term limits is a good thing

SHANGHAI — Western media and the Chinese chattering classes have been in an uproar since China’s National People’s Congress approved constitutional changes that included lifting the two-term presidential limit. China approves “president for life,” proclaimed Western media.

But this misinterprets the nature of the development. And the world appears to be overlooking consequential political reforms taking place in China that will impact our collective future for the better.

The presidential term limit has no bearing on how long a top Chinese leader can stay in power and lifting it by no means allows anyone to rule for life. In fact, the position of real power — the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee — has never had term limits. The most recent draft of China’s constitution, written in 1982, set the presidency as a symbolic head of state, with no actual power. Although the two offices happened to have been occupied by the same person for more than 25 years since Jiang Zemin, the institutional mechanics of the offices are rather separate.

Formally unifying these two positions at the very top will transform the entire Chinese governance structure by institutionally fusing the party and the state. This reform is good for China simply because the party has developed into the most competent national political institution in the world today.

As to the issue of lifetime rule, the party does have institutional mechanisms, both mandatory and customary, that govern officials’ retirement. In fact, the party constitution specifically states that no position has lifetime tenure. This system has been developed over decades and covers the many tiers of the party’s organizational structure, from the Politburo to ministerial and provincial positions. Within this framework, it is possible for Xi to lead the country for longer than his recent predecessors. But not for life.

Age limits have varied over time and differ based on position. The custom for most senior leaders in recent years has been to retire at the age of 68, which is often extended to complete a term. Exceptions have been made for the position of general secretary (one served, successfully, through his late 70’s). But still, it’s always finite.

However, eliminating the presidential term limit is still significant. It is part and parcel of highly consequential and, in my view, constructive political reforms. These reforms were set in motion at the 18th party congress held in 2012 and were a particular focus at the third plenum in 2013. I wrote then that the fusing of party and state would be the most far-reaching political transformation in Chinese governance. The completion of the current constitutional reform is the culmination of that process.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the leadership of the party has been central to China’s political DNA. However, institutionally the system has gone through significant growing pains. At first, China adopted the Soviet system that separated, at least on the institutional level, the party and government. The top organs — the party central committee, the National People’s Congress and the state council were parallel. But in reality, the party led everything. This produced significant conflicts that some have blamed as partially responsible for the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

When former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began his reforms over 40 years ago, he pushed a policy of administrative separation between party and government. But that was due to the particular circumstances of post-Cultural Revolution China. At the time, many senior leaders who were purged by Mao Zedong were rehabilitated and returned to their previous positions.

The party was just emerging from a period of upheaval, and those officials all came from the era of the centrally planned economy. China needed market economics. Deng’s policy unleashed younger and more forward-looking governing forces to execute the reform agenda. But more importantly, he also focused great energy on rebuilding the party institution.

In the following decades, the party has developed into one of the most elaborate and effective governing institutions in the world and, I would argue, in history. It is responsible for achieving what’s known as the greatest improvement in standard of living for the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time.

The party has now stepped forward to the front and center of Chinese governance. This constitutional reform further enshrines the party’s political centrality by extending the wording of party leadership from the preamble to the body of the constitution. At the governing level, the reform creates a super agency, the National Supervisory Commission, to combat corruption. It is an extension of the party’s Central Disciplinary and Inspection Commission and will further institutionalize the tremendous anti-corruption drive executed by the party commission over the past five years.

It is in this context that the removal of a presidential term limit is so significant. While the party’s leadership has always been politically paramount, the administrative separation of party and government has produced institutional contradictions and confusion. As China increasingly becomes a major power in the world, the office of the president has assumed greater importance, especially in China’s interactions with the rest of the world.

Bringing the presidency’s institutional mechanics in line with the office of party general secretary, and for them to be occupied by the same person, will create a more efficient and coherent governing structure and more transparency and predictability in China’s dealings with the world. It lifts the veil of pretense that, somehow, the party and state governance are not one, which is untrue and wholly unnecessary and counterproductive at this stage of China’s development. It signals the maturing of the Chinese political system that shows the world clearly how decisions are made and who is in charge.

The current Chinese system is a good combination of principle and flexibility. The principle of no lifetime tenure, combined with collective leadership and retirement rules, prevent unchecked rule for life by the wrong person. But a degree of flexibility in the retirement mechanism allows the right leader to govern longer. Xi will retire someday. But as long as he continues to lead successfully, that day will be a long way off.

I dare say that Xi has done more for China in five years than Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama combined did for the United States in 25 years. On the watches of those three American leaders, with slow and incompetent reforms and major catastrophes such as the Iraq War and the financial crisis, the U.S. managed to squander what was arguably the greatest advantage any nation ever had in history at the end of the Cold War and is now mired in dysfunction and losing its leadership position in the world. Meanwhile, opinion surveys, such as this one by the Harvard Kennedy School, show Xi consistently receiving the highest domestic approval ratings of any world leader.

It would be a mistake to judge that Xi is putting himself above the party and the nation. On the contrary, a major theme of his governing philosophy has been the centrality of the party as an institution. And in today’s China, both society and the party are much more robust and pluralistic than the time when Deng came to power.

The feedback mechanisms and channels available to China’s leaders to effectively respond to the needs of society are much more abundant today. It was popular discontent with pollution that spurred Xi’s administration into action and achieved, in just three years, the extraordinary improvement in air quality that took London and Los Angeles decades to accomplish — and the latter went through major deindustrialization, while China remains a growing industrial power.

Xi is now beginning his second term. No one knows for sure how long he will serve. But with his impressive life track record, it is understandable that there are genuine sentiments for him to lead China for a long time. Sadly, liberal democracy in its current state seems incapable of producing a leader half as good.

Recently, Australia’s ‘recycling’ industry was thrown into crisis. Why? It turns out that it was simply shipping recyclables and garbage to places like China. The stuff that people carefully separated in garbage and recycling bins was not being processed in Australia, but placed in containers and shipped away. Turns out Australia is by no means the only culprit in this practice. While China has developed impressive recycling technology, it has also decided that it will no longer be the world’s rubbish dump. The following article from Zhang Ming, head of mission to the EU, explains why. It originally comes from the the Euractiv website.

Dumping garbage overseas is not the right way to go

During the recent meeting of the World Trade Organisation Council for Trade in Goods, some representatives raised concerns about China’s ban on “foreign garbage” import. Some even asked China to halt its implementation. Zhang Ming explains China’s position.

Zhang Ming is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary and Head of Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the European Union.

As Chinese Ambassador to the EU, while quite surprised by such “concerns”, I would like to share my views on why China made such a decision and why China will not overturn the ban.

China is a Party to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal adopted in 1989. The Convention provides for and fully recognizes the right of its Parties to prohibit the import of hazardous wastes or other wastes.

China started importing solid wastes in the 1980s, whose annual volume surged from 4.5 million tons to 45 million tons in the past 20 years. A great amount of prohibited wastes, or “foreign garbage” as is often called, were mixed up in the imports, causing great harm to China’s environment and threatening public health. The widely-watched documentary “Plastic China” released in 2015 well captures the problem.

To address the challenge, China decided to ban foreign garbage and to reform the management system of solid wastes import. According to international law, China has the legitimate right to do so.

This is also what we must do to improve our environment and protect our people’s health, as a crucial part of our new development philosophy. The decision is widely welcomed and applauded by the Chinese people.

Before announcing the ban, China had full communication with other parties. It was half a year before the ban was actually put in place that we notified the WTO of the change. Issues arising in the course of implementation have been well addressed through timely coordination.

The Basel Convention stipulates that Parties have an obligation to minimize the quantities that are transported and to treat and dispose of wastes as close as possible to their place of generation. In other words, it is the due responsibility of Parties to do their best to reduce and take care of their own wastes.

Only when this principle is well appreciated can we join forces more effectively to promote green, low-carbon and circular development globally, and to make our planet a cleaner and better place.

Interestingly, those who have expressed “concerns” are all from developed countries. For a long time, well-off and well-equipped developed countries have been dumping their garbage to developing countries. This phenomenon should not be overlooked. It is more of a moral issue that relates to the future of mankind than of a trade issue.

The great Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “Do not do onto others what you do not want others to do onto you.” A famous quote from the Bible goes like this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Islam belief has it that “none of you have faith until he loves for the people what he loves for himself”. No matter in which civilisation, it is morally unacceptable to dump trash in others’ backyard. Moreover, as we already live in a global village, troubles shifted to your neighbour will get back to you sooner or later.

For those garbage exporters, it is inadvisable to cry out loud and ask for too much from others, like spoiled children giving little heed to others’ interests. Rather, they should first examine what is going wrong on their part and fulfil their responsibilities.

Developed countries need to rely on their own efforts to address excess waste and endeavour to develop a circular economy. Then they could see what they can do to help developing countries tackle their waste challenge. This is the right way to go.

Many still remember the public health disaster in West Africa in 2006 caused by toxic waste shipped from other countries. The tragedy should have prompted garbage exporters to stop doing the wrong thing. Unfortunately, little has changed ever since.

Mr Erik Solheim, the head of the UN Environment Programme, said “We should see the Chinese decision as a great service to the Chinese people and a wake-up call to the rest of the world”. Now, it is high time that developed nations re-thought their use of plastics and not simply sought alternative foreign dumping grounds.

We could already see encouraging changes in China and elsewhere in the world. The Chinese people are more aware of the necessity of waste separation and sorting and are following more stringent rules on waste management and recycling.

Some American companies are setting higher and more sophisticated standards for waste sorting, and have introduced artificial intelligence to handle wastes. The EU has adopted the first-ever Europe-wide strategy on plastics as part of the transition to a more circular economy and to enhance the Union’s overall capacity for waste disposal.

If China’s ban could trigger other countries to develop more advanced technologies out of a greater sense of urgency and to better serve their own people with a stronger sense of responsibility, China must, indeed, be doing a good deed.