One of the narratives I hear from time to time concerning the CPC is what may be called Marxist orientalism. What I mean is that a number of international (or ‘western’) Marxists have assumed a position common among liberals as well. It goes like this:

In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping started – it is believed – the process of China becoming a capitalist market economy. However, Deng continued to speak of the socialist road in, for instance, the first of the four ‘cardinal principles’. So how do you deal with the statements and the perceived acts? The approach that soon became apparent was that you could not trust the words and statements. Deng and those who followed him were speaking in coded language, sending signals for those who could read the code. The best example is Deng’s phrase, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

I come across this move again and again. Apart from the fact that it means you can conveniently ignore most of the detailed statements, writings and research of the last forty years on Chinese Marxism, it is also a form of orientalism. By that I mean a caricature of what an ‘eastern’, if not Chinese person is supposed to do. They never speak truthfully, or they speak in a way that means something different from what they appear to be saying. As someone said to me recently, ‘never trust a Chinaman’ – derogatory, to say the least. For Marxists to take this approach to Chinese Marxism is comparable to the phrase used almost a century ago: ‘the guile of the heathen Chinese’.

As a footnote and for those into cricket, the previous comment actually comes from English commentary on a test match between the West Indies and England in 1933. One of the West Indian bowlers, Ellis Achong, had Chinese background – a point the commentators were quick to notice. Indeed, one the English batsmen, Walter Robbins, was bowled by Achong, after which Robbins observed, ‘Fancy being done by a bloody Chinaman’. As a further twist, the type of bowling deployed by Achong became known as the ‘Chinaman’. It refers to left-arm unorthodox spin, the suggestion being that it is as rare as a ‘Chinaman’ playing cricket, but that it is also deceptive and unnatural.

Perhaps it is time for ‘Western’ Marxists to put aside this form of orientalism.

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