Selective Sensationalism, or why I do not read newspapers

This is a short note to point out that for some time now I have not read newspapers – especially ‘Western’ ones that may be desrcibed as corporate, state-owned (Dansk Radio, BBC, ABC etc) or even supposedly ‘independent’ operators (like The Guardian, but also many more), let alone the various ‘grey zone’ outlets.

There are a number of reasons. The first is that there is precious little actual news reporting. Much of the material contains gossip (for example, personal life matters, a certain person’s ‘tweets’), opinion and advertising disguised as news.

The second is very little in-depth analysis that tries to consider the whole picture. When they do appear, the items end up propogating a particular view of the world that derives from the Euro-American situation. This ideological framework is like a slow drip of toxins into the brain. At the same time, there are profound absences concerning important developments in many other parts of the world (Africa, Eurasian integration, among other examples).

The third is perhaps the main reason: selective sensationalism. When there is something from, say, China or the DPRK, one or two pieces of half-truth or simple falsities are selected, spun into a certain narrative and then sensationalised. Highly unreliable stuff. I can guess some of the content, even though I have not read this material for some time: life and politics in the DPRK; the situation in Xinjiang (China), the social credit system in China, as well as the widespread use of facial recognition software.

Reading such material, as they say, rots your brain.

What do I read, if anything? From time to time my preferred location is Xinhua News. Why? It is government funded and properly resourced, with an emphasis on in-depth analysis and study by its journalists. Usually, they take time to research an article, with a number of contributors. Opinion is restricted to where it should be: occasional editorials. And it steers clear of anything like gossip.

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Concerning the Taiwan Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China

We need to get used to a simple fact: Taiwan is part of China. It is not a separate state and virtually no country or international body in the world recognizes it as such. Everyone you ask on the mainland simply assumes that Taiwan is part of China. We should do likewise.

The Chinese government has been exceedingly patient on this one, allowing for a long time a type of double-speak. On the one hand, people speak of ‘Taiwan’ as though it were a state, and yet governments around the world, as well as the UN, recognize the ‘one China’ principle. But time is up and the double-speak needs to wind down.

To get a handle on the situation, it is useful to return to some observations by the man-of-few-words, Deng Xiaoping.

The first is ‘An Idea For the Peaceful Reunification of the Chinese Mainland and Taiwan’, from 1983. Deng observes:

The most important issue is the reunification of the motherland … The idea is not that one party should swallow up the other. We hope the two Parties will work together for national reunification and both contribute to the Chinese nation.

We do not approve of “complete autonomy” for Taiwan. There must be limits to autonomy, and where there are limits, nothing can be complete. “Complete autonomy” means two Chinas, not one. Different systems may be practised, but it must be the People’s Republic of China alone that represents China internationally. We recognize that the local government of Taiwan may have its own separate set of policies for domestic affairs. And although, as a special administrative region, Taiwan will have a local government, it will differ from local governments of other provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions. Provided the national interests are not impaired, it will enjoy certain powers of its own that the others do not possess.

A year later, Deng made the following observations during talks in Hong Kong and in preparation for its long overdue return to China. This is from his famous ‘One Country, Two Systems’ piece:

We are pursuing a policy of “one country, two systems”. More specifically, this means that within the People’s Republic of China, the mainland with its one billion people will maintain the socialist system, while Hong Kong and Taiwan continue under the capitalist system. In recent years, China has worked hard to overcome “Left” mistakes and has formulated its policies concerning all fields of endeavour in line with the principle of proceeding from reality and seeking truth from facts. After five and a half years things are beginning to pick up. It is against this background that we have proposed to solve the Hong Kong and Taiwan problems by allowing two systems to coexist in one country.

The concept of “one country, two systems” has been formulated according to China’s realities, and it has attracted international attention. China has not only the Hong Kong problem to tackle but also the Taiwan problem. What is the solution to these problems? As for the second, is it for socialism to swallow up Taiwan, or for the “Three People’s Principles” preached by Taiwan to swallow up the mainland? The answer is neither. If the problem cannot be solved by peaceful means, then it must be solved by force. Neither side would benefit from that. Reunification of the motherland is the aspiration of the whole nation. If it cannot be accomplished in 100 years, it will be in 1,000 years. As I see it, the only solution lies in practising two systems in one country. The world faces the choice between peaceful and non-peaceful means of solving disputes. One way or the other, they must be solved. New problems must be solved by new means. The successful settlement of the Hong Kong question may provide useful elements for the solution of international questions. Has any government in the history of the world ever pursued a policy as generous as China’s? Is there anything recorded in the history of capitalism about any Western country doing something similar? When we adopt the policy of “one country, two systems” to resolve the Hong Kong question, we are not acting on impulse or playing tricks but are proceeding from reality and taking into full account the past and present circumstances of Hong Kong.

Sanctions – what Sanctions?

‘No, impossible!’ She said with the sweetest voice.

I had pointed my camera at a shop shelf full of products and looked over at the attendant hopefully. It was not to be, so I put the camera away.

Why could I not take a photograph in a shop in Pyongyang? I wondered as I bought some water and walked away. You can take pictures of almost anything, except military personnel. So why not the shop?

Like other shops I visited, it was indeed full. It had products made in the DPRK, from China, Vietnam, Germany – you name it – except perhaps for the United States. A department store with two levels was full of people, buying food downstairs, and clothes, furniture (IKEA), appliances and sports equipment upstairs. A booth enabled one to exchange foreign currency, specifically Chinese Yuan, Euro and US dollars, into Won. If you had any left over at the end, you could change them back. Foreigners were not the only ones at the booth. In fact, when I went I was the only foreigner changing money.

What is going on the DPRK? Everywhere I turned were flat screen televisions, with music videos, news, soap operas playing. The modest hotel where we stayed had hair-dryer, fridge, scales, safe, alarm clock and whatnot. The brands were the ones you would see elsewhere. The streets were busy with traffic, some older but also quite a few new ones. The Koreans make their own cars, but there were plenty of foreign brands as well. The metro, trolley buses and trams have begun sporting newly designed and made vehicles. To be sure, the older ones still run, with clear vintage from Eastern European production during the era of the Communist Bloc (and well-made they were). But they are being replaced by new ones made in the DPRK.

Even more, Pyongyang is undergoing a building boom. A couple of years ago, everyone took a year off from their study and non-essential jobs to volunteer on building sites for a year. This was only part of  a longer boom that started a few years ago. Foreign architects have been working with Korean architects to design a new phase of unique architecture, which one simply cannot find anywhere else. Older buildings are being renovated, new ones are springing up.

Clearly, the DPRK economy and trade are doing rather well. Very few analysts have realised this, apart from the Chinese (for example, here, here and here). To be sure, some areas still need a lot of work after the ‘arduous march’ of the 1990s, when the economy almost fell apart, floods devastated the countryside and a fair amount of poverty returned. The railways and roads have been told they need to make do with the existing and ageing infrastructure, and many rural areas still use hand sowing and harvesting (although I also saw new machinery in parts). That will come, they plan, with Chinese and southern cooperation. Indeed, at the hotel where we stayed were a few foreigners like ourselves, but it was mostly used by visiting Chinese business people and Koreans.

Obviously, the much-hyped sanctions are not working very well. Northern Koreans have lived with sanctions for much of their 70 years as a state, so they know how to deal with them. But now is different. One reason is that channels for trade have been opened up and are running well indeed, but under the radar. Another reason is that countries like China, Russia and others have already made moves to work with the DPRK after Kim Jong Un’s clear international engagement. As is the Asian preference, when negotiating one builds trust by making reciprocal moves on the way forward. It does not do to demand everything and not budge.

But the third reason may be the strongest: sanctions are typically made in US dollars. This works if the preferred currency for international transactions and reserves are held in US dollars. However, with the United States wildly slapping sanctions all over the world, more and more countries and entities are dispensing with the US dollar. For example, last year only 39 percent of international transactions used the US dollar, while 37 percent used the Euro and 3 percent the Chinese Renminbi. Soon, the US dollar will slip even lower, especially when more and more people see that currency as toxic. I suggest that this situation is a major factor in the ineffectiveness of the sanctions on the DPRK.

While they do not like to use the terminology, the DPRK is clearly developing its own version of the ‘Reform and Opening Up’. In China they celebrated 40 years of the Reform and Opening Up in 2018. The DPRK has seen how beneficial such a process can be, although they prefer the terminology of ‘changes’. But at heart lies the socialist ideal of improving the socio-economic lives of everyone – as is stated in the DPRK constitution.

So why was I not permitted to photograph a shop full of products? The answer should be obvious: they did not want a non-Chinese foreigner plastering photographs all over the internet to show how ineffective the sanctions really are.

Xinjiang’s soft landing to peace, stability deserves respect

Following on from my earlier piece on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, the Chinese papers are producing a series of articles on Xinjiang, including:

‘Governance in Xinjiang stands on righteous side’ (here)

‘Interfaith harmony is mainstream in Xinjiang’ (here)

And this article as well, from the Global Times:

Xinjiang’s situation has been improving in recent years. Its flourishing tourism shows Chinese societal confidence in Xinjiang security is recovering rapidly. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region revised its anti-extremism regulation last Tuesday, which will further promote the fight against the three evil forces of separatism, extremism and terrorism in Xinjiang.

The regulation stipulates that government above county level can set up vocational training centers. This has attracted wide attention. Since the beginning of this year, some Western media and politicians have been viciously attacking actions adopted by Xinjiang to help those affected by extremism to return to their families and society through educational transformation, accusing Xinjiang of “violating human rights”. Trainees learn the national language, laws and job skills in the institutes. Western forces accuse the authorities of religious persecution. Radical Western politicians and media have set off a wave of anti-China rhetoric and Xinjiang has become their new target.

When terrorism was spreading in Xinjiang a few years ago, the local authorities took firm action and successfully prevented the situation from worsening. Xinjiang miraculously realized a soft landing toward peace and stability. The turmoil was avoided and tranquility was restored.

Thanks to the incredible hard work of people and officials in the region, the success has contributed to Northwest China and even the whole country. By strengthening governance, Xinjiang has avoided extreme situations which happened in other parts of the world. It should be seen as a rare positive example of governing high-risk situations.

From Bosnia and Herzegovina to Kosovo, Libya and Syria, the tragic stories are different but also similar. Many people died and a large number of refugees fled those regions. The West intervened in those regions’ turmoil, but the price was high. Does the West really want to see shocking humanitarian disasters in Xinjiang and watch Xinjiang create hundreds of thousands even millions of refugees?

Officials in Xinjiang and Western forces have different goals. The governance in Xinjiang is to restore peace and stability, wipe out extremism and benefit people of all ethnicities in the region. But Western forces only want to find fault with China, suppress China internationally on the one hand and mess up governance in Xinjiang on the other.

Those Western forces don’t care about the welfare of the Xinjiang people. They would rather sacrifice stability in Xinjiang and the lives of hundreds of thousands for a single geopolitical victory over China.

Vocational training centers in Xinjiang and internment in the West are fundamentally different. An increasing number of trainees reintegrated into society and found employment after finishing training at the vocational training centers. Obviously, vocational training is a periodic and temporary plan aimed at eradicating extremism. It has been proven effective with the least cost to Xinjiang stability.

Some Westerners who know nothing about Xinjiang interpret the region with their stereotypes and political prejudice. In the West-led opinion sphere, they make up a set of narratives against governance in the region. These narratives are detached from the reality in Xinjiang and full of their own values, geopolitics and sentiments.

Even Chinese authorities find Xinjiang governance a thorny issue, so how can Westerners have the sincerity and patience to rack their brains to offer suggestions? They are just messing up the whole thing and creating a narrative against China.

China needs to strengthen communication with the world over Xinjiang governance, but the purpose is not to persuade Western political and opinion elites who hold a hostile attitude toward China. They don’t plan to understand Xinjiang. They more hope to see a turbulent Xinjiang. They are only interested in finding a new perspective to mount an offensive against China and add a fresh angle to their outdated rhetoric.

An Effort to Understand the DPRK (North Korea) in Light of the Marxist Tradition

This year (2018) the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – or DPRK – celebrated 70 years. This is no mean feat, given the challenges it has faced. These include Japanese imperialism, United States imperialism, and what they call the ‘arduous march’ of the 1990s, when the web of connections with the Communist Bloc of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed. Through all this they have persevered through what they see as a struggle, for they define the transition period of socialism as a long process of struggle.

I was fortunate enough to visit the DPRK for the second time in early October of 2018, soon after the celebration of 70 years of struggle. We managed to catch a late episode of that unique creation, the ‘mass games’ which were in this year called ‘The Glorious Country’. It recounted through dance, music, song and gymnastics, the history of struggle and achievement. The experience, along with an intense week of in-depth engagement at many levels, has led to an effort to understand the DPRK within the longer Marxist tradition. It begins with the tension between old and new, in which a revolution is meant to usher in a qualitatively new society that at the same time stands in a complex relationship with what has gone before. This leads to the second topic, which concerns the relationship with the Marxist tradition, which may now be seen in its own way as an element of the old. In this case, the DPRK has been undergoing a process of claiming a distinct autochthony and gradually dispensing with reference to the tradition. Third, I investigate this development in light of anti-colonialism, which had an initial emergence within the Soviet Union but took on a whole new phase on the Korean Peninsula. Here the desire to rid this part of the world of foreign interference runs strong, so much so that Korean independence and sovereignty not only determine the nature of socialism in this part of the world, but also the drive towards reunification. At the same time, I remain intrigued by a unique feature of DPRK socialism, which is the role played by the leadership. It is very clear that the glue of the Korean project is the Kim family with its socialist succession and that the majority of people in the DPRK genuinely believe in the power and tradition of the family. How to understand this feature? I want to suggest that it ties in closely with the constituent feature of inheritance, according to which the actual figure of the revolutionary leader is embodied in the son and grandson of Kim Il Sung. Finally, I approach the whole situation in light of the ‘Western’ Marxist trope of the qualitatively different nature of socialist society.

Between Old and New

A constituent feature of revolutionary movements like Marxism is a tension between the old and the new. A revolutionary seizure of power is predicated on dispensing with the old and beginning the process of constructing a new society. The particular modulations of such a construction – the stages of socialism and communism, the use of contradiction analysis in the new situation, the development of new philosophical positions in light of circumstances, and so on – are merely part of this more fundamental question.

From the Russian Revolution inwards, this tension appears. Thus, in what became the Soviet Union, we find a significant push to discard all that had gone before, for it was part of the corrupt and exploitative old order of autocracy and nascent capitalism. Everything was to be destroyed and the new constructed from the ground up. On the other side were those – such as Lenin and Lunacharsky – who felt that this was impossible. It was not only that socialism had many precursors that it would be foolhardy to dismiss, but also that a dialectical relationship with what had gone before should be taken up and transformed in the context of the new. All that was best of the past should be appropriated and thoroughly sublated through the process of socialist construction. The second approach ended up becoming the basis of the Soviet Union’s construction of socialism, although it was always  in tension with the desire for creation ex nihilo.

Let us move forward to the second great communist revolution of the twentieth century. In China, the reality of a complex and very long pre-history was far greater than in Europe or Russia. How to deal with this old tradition? While Mao Zedong argued for the need to make Marxism concrete in Chinese conditions, running all the way from Confucius to Sun Yat-sen, and while he deployed much from this tradition in his own thinking and action, he tended towards a desire to begin anew. Perhaps the most significant manifestation of this tendency was during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when the whole tradition that had gone before was to be wiped out. That the excessive trauma of this period runs deep in China even today is witness to the presence of a strong sense that one needs to engage dialectically with the past.

How is all this relevant for Korean socialism? In this case we find not so much a continuing tension, with now one and now the other approach coming to the fore in relation to constructing socialism. Instead, the DPRK is a qualitatively new society, unlike any other country on earth. The challenge is to understand this different in light of the Marxist tradition. This means that the old is understood at two levels. The first is in terms of imperialism and colonialism, which Korean experience has been and continues to be capitalist imperialism. At the same time, the ‘old’ is very much present through the internal tension with the south of the peninsula and the continued occupation of United States troops. In response, the DPRK has set itself in stark contrast to the capitalist south.

The second level in which the old operates is a rather unique development, for it concerns the Marxist tradition itself.

The Marxist Tradition

With its 200 year history, Marxism has developed a rich tradition, full of experiences in seeking power and exercising state power. On this road, the philosophical developments have become significant indeed. How does the DPRK relate to this tradition? Curiously, the Marxist tradition has come to be seen as part of the old. Thus, there has been a steady process of stressing the originality, if not the autochthonous nature, of Korean socialism. If we study the extensive writings of Kim Il Sung – a 50-volume ‘Works’ exists, but the ‘Complete Works’ is still under way, with who knows how many volumes – we find a clear identification with the Marxist-Leninist tradition. Texts are cited, names mentioned, core elements of the tradition are developed further. Indeed, on one of the earlier monuments in Pyongyang devoted to the construction of socialism, one can still find the inscription ‘Uphold Marxism-Leninism’.

However, Kim Il Sung also stressed other features and floated the beginnings of an alternative terminology. So we find the first mention of ‘Juche’, that human beings are masters of their destiny, as well as a core principles of reunification, which is to be undertaken independent of foreign powers. These and other ideas would provide the seeds for his successor, Kim Jong Il, to stress more and more the autochthonous nature of his father’s thought. ‘Juche’ began to replace Marxism-Leninism, and the new security policy of ‘Songun’ was seen as originating with Kim Il Sung. Gradually, more and more of the traditional Marxist vocabulary began to disappear. The latest casualty – I am told – is the term ‘dialectics’. To be sure, they still speak of the stage of constructing socialism as one of struggle, which will eventually lead to communism. And one notices many features that come from earlier experiences of constructing socialism, such the planned economy (although there is a careful shift underway to a socialist market economy), education, socialist culture, and the history of art. The latter is intriguing: after the revolution and liberation of Korea, one finds first a period of socialist realism that then becomes Juche art, or realism with social features.

At the same time, if one studies the literature from the late 1990s until now, one finds less and less of the conventional Marxist terminology. Indeed, one may gain the impression that the socialism in question was created by Kim Il Sung and elaborated later. Indeed, under Kim Jong Un (since 2011), there has been a further shift, speaking of Kimilsungism and Kimjongilism as the body of theory and practice.

So we find a gradual and studied move from the old to the new – to keep the terminology I have been deploying. Korean socialism may have begun with a clear awareness of its debts to the old, maintaining close links with countries in the Communist Bloc. But it has moved ever more clearly into the new, stressing the sheer autochthony of this socialism.

Anti-Colonialism

As I have elaborated elsewhere, I am not inclined the deploy a ‘betrayal narrative’, especially since such a narrative is a Western European product with heavy debts to the biblical story of ‘The Fall’. Instead, I seek to understand this relationship to the Marxist tradition.

An important factor in this shift to an autochthonous Korean socialism is the anti-colonial project. The connection between socialism and anti-colonialism was initially made – theoretically – in the Soviet Union. In the immensely creative 1930s, they began to realise that the internal affirmative action policy in relation to minority nationalities (sometimes erroneously called ‘ethnic groups’) had implications for anti-colonialism. If the internal policy was to foster such nationalities at all levels so that they gained autonomy within the Soviet Union, then the same applied to other places in the world seeking to throw off the colonial yoke.

The intrinsic connection between Marxism and resisting capitalist imperialism appeared again and again in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. Practically, this meant substantial support – albeit not without occasional friction – from the Soviet Union. Politically, it meant that some newly independent countries established themselves on a socialist basis. We see this situation clearly in China, where even today the anti-colonial project unfolds with extraordinary consequences. Think of the Belt and Road Initiative, the heavy investment of China in African infrastructure and economic development, as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In Korea, the anti-colonial struggle was initially directed at Japan, which had unilaterally annexed the peninsula in 1910. Brutal was the regime and intense was the struggle. The effort to develop a united front against Japanese imperialism meant that ‘patriotism’ was often the key determining factor. For example, in Kim Il Sung’s writings, we encounter all manner of groups and individuals who were not necessarily communists. Some were of a religious background, others were not, but as long as they worked to overthrow Japanese domination, they were seen as part of the same project.

Soon after the defeat of Japan, with the crucial role of the Soviet Red Army after it had defeated Hitler, a new imperialist force appeared on the peninsula. Keen to get a foothold on the Asian landmass, United States troops scurried to occupy part of the peninsula. Ignoring Korean requests to determine their own future, the United States Commander installed the well-known anti-communist hitman, Syngman Rhee, as the ruler of the south. A state was quickly declared in the south (with the north reluctantly following with it sown declaration), tens of thousands of people were slaughtered in crackdowns on uprisings, and United States troops remain on the peninsula.

For the DPRK, the Korean War – or what they call the Fatherland Liberation War – was an effort by the United States to impose its imperialism on the whole peninsula. Resisting this effort was an extraordinary achievement at an extraordinary cost. Twenty percent of the population was slaughtered, every building and piece of infrastructure destroyed, with more napalm and biological weapons used on the north than in Vietnam. Everything one sees in the DPRK today had to be built again or, very often, anew. Pyongyang is perhaps the best example of a completely new city. One or two former buildings (such as Chilgol Church) might have been rebuilt, but the city as a whole has been built from scratch.

As they like to say in the DPRK, Kim Il Sung managed to defeat two imperialisms in his lifetime. Not a bad effort at all.

All of this means that independence from foreign forces is close to hearts of those in the DPRK, as well as a good number of those in the south. Sovereignty here has a distinct sense: no interference from outside forces. This understanding of sovereignty the DPRK shares with China and other formerly colonised countries. It also shapes the policy of reunification, which the north has consistently promulgated. The three principles for reunification are that it should be determined by Koreans and not outside powers, that it should be peaceful, and that it should result in a federated Republic of Koryo, with a socialist north and a capitalist south.

While these developments constitute a worthy topic in their own right, I am also interested in the implications for the autochthonous socialism that I discussed above. Given the strength of the desire for the sovereign independence of the whole peninsula, it should be no surprise that this desire also influences the relationship with the Marxist tradition. Marxism is, of course, originally a foreign and indeed Western European body of theory and practice. But it took root in what at first seemed to be unexpected places, such as Russia, China and Korea. However, instead of acknowledging this tradition and the specific form it has developed in Korea – socialism with Korean characteristics – the preference is to efface the tradition itself. If they did acknowledge it and see themselves as part of it, they would in some way undermine the sheer emphasis on independent sovereignty.

Lest I steer too much in this direction, let me add a caveat: I have found Korean students very knowledgeable about Marx, Engels, Lenin and others, so much so that I have been asked what Marx and Engels would think if they visited the DPRK today. At the same time, this remains at the level of education and discussion, not officially stated positions.

Inheritance and Leadership

Let me now shift my underlying framework of old and new to a slightly different register: the type of socialism found in the DPRK is the most qualitatively different I have found anywhere in the world. One can, of course, identify specific features that one recognises from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. But the way the pieces come together and how they have developed is quite distinct.

What holds them together? It is a feature that many foreigners find most difficult to understand: the leadership. President Kim Il Sung, General Kim Jong Il and Marshal Kim Jong Un provide the inescapable cohesion of the whole project. As one person put it me when were discussing the recent developments towards reunification: ‘as long as we have our marshal, everything will be fine’. The vast majority genuinely hold to this position. The respect and veneration given takes place every day. For example, at the Palace of the Sun (mausoleum), one shows absolute respect, bowing low at three points of each leader’s preserved body (not the head). Or whenever one comes before a statue, one bows low in respect. Images of the leaders are not to be reproduced for commercial purposes, and one always uses their titles when speaking of them.

The question is how this might be understood from a Marxist approach. Those foreign Marxists who are sympathetic to and even supportive of the DPRK project usually bracket out the leadership. Apart from the inherited leadership, they say, they can support what the DPRK is doing. Obviously, this approach will not work, for the leadership is absolutely central for understanding the DPRK.

Alternatively, one can draw on various non-Marxist examples to gain some perspective. It may be the reverence given to the Thai king, with prison sentences for any act that shows disrespect. Or it may be the development of absolute monarchy in Europe, during its transition from feudalism to capitalism. Or it may be due to the old Korean imperial tradition, with its dynasties and indeed representations of large rulers. These suggestions may help a little, but they do not get us very far.

Other approaches draw nearer to Marxism, at times arising from within as internal criticisms. These include the ‘cult of the personality’, especially surrounding the one who leads the party to power through a revolution, or the well-worn trope of a quasi-religion, with the rituals and reverence for the alternative communist tradition and its practices likened to religion. I have written enough about such dubious suggestions elsewhere, so will not repeat those points here, save to indicate that they are decidedly unhelpful in the DPRK.

I would like to suggest another approach, which arises from the complex laws of inheritance in the DPRK. In the statement on family law (published most recently in 2018), we find a very strong emphasis on family continuity. Someone in the family must inherit the property of the one who dies, even when no spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, brothers or sisters can be found. Even a will written by the testator can be declared invalid if it ‘prejudices the interests of one who has been supported by the testator’. In other words, anyone in the family who has even remotely been supported by the testator can apply to have a will overturned. On the other hand, an inheritor can lose the right to inheritance if they ill-treated the deceased, did not take of the deceased properly or even ‘created conditions for inheritance’. Both conditions are sweeping and reciprocal.

Two questions arise from this feature of family law. First, the document is clear that it refers primarily to property, but one may wander what private property is doing in a socialist country. Here the constitution (revised in 2016) can provide some insight. Articles 21 to 24 stipulate three types of property: state owned, cooperatively owned, and private property. The first two are familiar from other socialist systems and ideally work together. Private property, however, also clearly exists. It is ‘property owned and consumed by individual citizens’. It may arise from socialist distribution according to work (as developed by Stalin in the Soviet Union), from ‘sideline activities’ and ‘other legal economic activities’ – rather broad, to say the least. Crucially the state guarantees this private property and the right to inherit it. Is this an innovation in light of the thriving DPRK economy, which deftly manages to negate economic sanctions (as was abundantly clear on our recent visit)? Not at all, already in the Soviet Union it became clear that only under socialism can everyone enjoy full access to their private property.

The second question concerns what may be inherited beyond property, or indeed whether property includes items that are not material. Some may want to refer to the ‘songbun’ system, in which all families are classified – in many subcategories – as ‘core’, ‘wavering’ or ‘hostile’, depending on family history and loyalty. The catch with this analysis is that it has never been outlined by the DPRK, but rather by CIA operatives, lousy ‘evidence’ from defectors and creative interpretations of Kim Il Sung’s texts. So I prefer not to deploy it here. Instead, what is important is family history and tradition, with a distinct focus on those from anti-imperialist fighters, peasants and workers. The nature of a family continues through the generations, being embodied in each generation. This too, I suggest, counts as inheritance.

By now the implications for understanding the central role of the leadership should be clear. Marshal Kim Jong Un inherits the family tradition of being a revolutionary leader. Let me add one further ingredient: it has become clear by now that the revolutionary leader is crucial not merely for the success of the revolution, but even more so for the construction of socialism. This complex process of veneration first developed with Lenin, but has been repeated in each effort to construct socialism. Lenin died only a few years after the October Revolution, but he lived on in so many ways. Leaders like Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung were fortunate enough to live long after the revolution, leaving their imprint on the new societies they led. In many respects, the leader embodied the revolution, so much so that the body itself was preserved and continues to be venerated (I, for one, have paid my respects to Lenin, Mao, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il).

If we connect this history of veneration of the revolutionary leader with the strong emphasis on inheritance in the DPRK, we are led to the following conclusion: Kim Jong Un today inherits the role of revolutionary leader from his father and grandfather. But he is not merely the descendent; he is the revolutionary leader. It is not for nothing that he is represented much like his grandfather at the same age, with similar clothing, bearing, and even hair.

Conclusion: A Qualitatively Different Society

In closing, I would like to return to the underlying tension between old and new. A visit or two to the DPRK can be a disconcerting experience, for it is simply like no other society on earth. Some of the elements I have outlined above, but let me use the example of Pyongyang. It has the advantage of having been thoroughly destroyed during the Korean War. In doing so, the United States did the city an unexpected favour. It could be planned and designed anew. And it has been.

Without going into detail concerning the city lines and unique architecture (a new building boom continues as I write), one way of putting it is that Pyongyang is what many cities in eastern Europe tried to become. Perhaps Minsk, also completely destroyed, comes closest, but Pyongyang is far beyond Minsk. What I mean is that Pyongyang is the world’s first truly socialist city. The very construction of space is different, a socialist space at once monumental and collective. The vast majority of the buildings are for the people – sport institutes, cultural venues, performance venues, reading houses, and so on. And now, with the economy moving along at a good clip the streets are full of people and traffic, although most prefer to use the trams, trolley buses and metro to get about – in the newly designed and manufactured vehicles from the DPRK. Many are the foreigners who find it disconcerting, unable to find a way to be in it. I find it one of the most amazing cities on earth.

But it is utterly and qualitatively different, as is the society of the DPRK. Here we may deploy an element of ‘Western’ Marxism. It has been the wont of some ‘Western’ Marxists to stress the qualitatively different nature of socialism, let alone communism. So different will it be, they suggest, that we can barely imagine what it will be like. This approach has many negative dimensions (idealism, romanticism, perpetual putting off of socialism, myopia regarding actual socialist states), but here it may provide an unwitting insight. If you want a qualitatively different socialist country, then the DPRK is it.

Do I like it? I admire it, I enjoy many elements within it, but I am not sure if I like it. This essay is one effort among a number to understand it and come to terms with this sense. Let me put it this way: I am not an admirer of much of ‘Western’ Marxism, especially its emphasis on the new and the qualitatively different. Too many are the negatives with this approach. Instead, I can say that of the socialist countries (past and present) in which I have lived or which I have visited, I prefer socialism with Chinese characteristics, with its complex dialectical relationship with the past – including a clear sense of the Marxist tradition.

Reading Deng Xiaoping: On the Origins of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

Deng Xiaoping’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics [zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi]’ is often mentioned in relation to his speech at the twelfth congress of the CPC in 1982. This was indeed a major statement and was elaborated on many occasions afterwards.

However, the idea was neither a new development, nor a departure from Mao Zedong. As part of my Chinese language study, I have been reading the key statements by Deng and came across a speech from 1956, called ‘Integrate Marxism-Leninism with the Concrete Conditions of China’ (Selected Works, volume 1, pp. 256-58). Let me quote the key section:

The universal truth of Marxism-Leninism must be integrated with the concrete practice of a country – a formulation which is itself a universal truth. It embraces two aspects – universal truth and the integration of that truth with a country’s concrete conditions. We have consistently held that neither aspect can be ignored. It is the view of our Chinese Communist Party that the universal truth includes abolishing feudalism and capitalism and realizing socialism, to be followed by communism. Can we do without taking the socialist road? No, we cannot. If we deviate from this universal truth and give up our efforts to establish socialism, the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party would have no need to exist. How then can China abolish feudalism and capitalism and realize socialism and communism at an earlier date? We have to study the characteristics of our own country. Otherwise, if we mechanically copy the experience of other countries, this universal truth will not be realized in China. You, my friends, must have learned about China’s socialist transformation of capitalist industry and commerce in the various places you visited. This is a case of integrating the universal truth with the concrete conditions of China. The universal truth calls for abolishing capitalism and exploitation, and realizing socialism. If we depart from it, socialist transformation of capitalist industry and commerce would be out of the question, and we shall find ourselves on the capitalist, not the socialist, road. This is one aspect of the matter. The other aspect is that the road we are taking today, namely, transforming capitalist industry and commerce, is the one which Lenin had in mind but was unable to take. We have chosen the peaceful transformation of capitalist industry and commerce. Experience has shown that in so doing our production has not been impaired but, rather, expanded and we have not only eliminated capitalism but educated the bourgeoisie as well. It has proved to be a good method. If the universal truth had not been integrated with the concrete conditions of China or had been poorly integrated, we would have suffered great losses. The same is true in the socialist transformation of agriculture and in all other fields of our endeavour as well.

Was this perhaps a new idea in 1956? Not at all, for Deng is careful to point out its origins:

Who decides which of the classic international principles of communism are applicable to China? The Seventh National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, held 11 years ago, laid down the following principle: we shall integrate the universal truth of Marxism and Leninism with the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution as a guide for our country’s revolution and development. This principle, formulated by our Party and Comrade Mao Zedong on the basis of the experience of failure and success in revolution, was affirmed at the Seventh and Eighth Party Congresses.

If one reads Mao Zedong’s lengthy report to the seventh national congress of 1945, one finds the following:

From its very beginning our Party has based itself on the theory of Marxism-Leninism, for Marxism-Leninism is the crystallization of the most correct and most revolutionary scientific thought of the world proletariat. When the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism began to be integrated with the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution, the Chinese revolution took on an entirely new complexion … the Communist Party of China has brought a new style of work to the Chinese people, a style of work which essentially entails integrating theory with practice, forging close links with the masses and practising self-criticism. The universal truth of Marxism-Leninism, which reflects the practice of proletarian struggle throughout the world, becomes an invincible weapon for the Chinese people when it is integrated with the concrete practice of the revolutionary struggle of the Chinese proletariat and people. This the Communist Party of China has achieved (Selected Works, volume 3, p. 314).

Actually, we can go back even further to 1938, where Mao observes:

There is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism. What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China, and not Marxism abstractly used … consequently, the sinification of Marxism – that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics, using it according to Chinese peculiarities – becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole party without delay (‘On the New Stage’, 1938, p. 539).