Australia’s split identity

While I do not pay much attention to the sheer childishness of what passes for ‘politics’ in Australia, I am intrigued by its split identity.

Let me put it this way: about 60,000 years ago a planned migration took place. Those who became the first peoples in Australia came from south-east Asia, heading southward across a series of islands to the mainland. They were homo sapiens, while Neanderthals still roamed Europe. But their arrival made it clear that the country was part of south-east Asia.

Some 240 years ago – by comparison a very short period of time – some Europeans arrived, tried to wipe out the most ancient continuous culture in the world, and tried to shape this part of the world as a western European outpost. It worked for a while, when the immigrants were mostly from the UK. For example, after the Second World War, the total population was 7 million, of which the vast majority were from the UK.

Since then, the shift has been dramatic. Waves of wider European immigration took place, and after 1972, more and more people emigrated from the Middle East, Africa and especially Asia. At the time of writing, the population is almost 25 million. Now those of English ancestry are a clear minority, and in the not too distant future those of European ancestry (like me) will also be a minority.

Why? Each year almost 200,000 immigrants move to Australia – apart from those who come to Australia to study and work. Of these, more than half come from Asia. Indeed, as I write, more than 2 million people who are Australian citizens were born in Asia, let alone those born in Australia of Asian parents over the last few decades.

Some time soon, the country may well revert to its former identity, but in the meanwhile it faces a continuing problem of split identity. Is it a ‘western’ European country that somehow – by a quirk of geography – found itself in another part of the world? Or is it really part of Asia, or perhaps the Asia-Pacific?

Or as a rather insightful article in the Global Times put it, with more immediate relevance:

Canberra must pursue an independent policy toward China. The key issue is Australia’s self-positioning. On the one hand, Australia identities itself as an Asia-Pacific country because Asia is the fastest-growing economic region, so involving itself in Asia’s industrial chain will bring tangible benefits to Australia’s economy. If Australia wants to follow that strategy, it has to carefully deal with its relations with China to enhance bilateral ties.

On the other hand, Australia is used to seeing itself as a member of the Western camp, acting as a US ally over political issues. But politics is bound to affect economic ties and economic problems between the two countries are essentially a political issue. Rethinking its identity will help Australia adopt an appropriate policy to deal with Chinese issues.

 

This article puts it in economic and political terms, but I would add cultural identity in light of the rapidly changing demographics.

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Why Is So Much Research on the State Inadequate for Analysing the Socialist State?

While researching my book on the socialist state, I have been digging into the literature. There is plenty of it, although I have been focusing on theoretical material and on research relating to specific features of the Chinese state. To my dismay, I have been struck by the inadequacy of most of this research.

Why? The philosophical assumptions are determined by the nature of the European liberal nation-state, or more accurately, the bourgeois state. In what follows, I deal with three topics: research on state theory; research on state practices; and the ways researchers dismiss work that comes from within socialist states.

Research on State Theory

Despite significant research on state theory, little deals with the philosophical question of the nature of the state when communist parties are in power.

A major reason is that most research focuses on the bourgeois state, especially those influenced by Weber’s definition of the state as ‘the form of human community [Gemeinschaft] that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence [Gewaltsamkeit] within a particular territory’ (Weber 2004, 33, 1919, 6).[1] While Weber speaks of the specific history of European nation-states, those who follow him are not always so careful and universalise, speaking of ‘the state’ in general (Corrigan and Sayer 1985, Tilly 1985, Giddens 1985, Tilly 1990, Elias 2000, Adams 2005, Bourdieu 2014, 4, Foucault 2014). The concern with the bourgeois state is also evident among Marxist scholars, who remain – perhaps surprisingly – relatively silent on what happens to the state under socialism (Sweezy 1942, Baran and Sweezy 1966, Miliband 1969, Poulantzas 1969, 1978, 1980, Offe 1974, Mandel 1975, Esping-Andersen, Friedland, and Wright 1976, Holloway and Picciotto 1978, Therborn 1978, Wright 1978, Domhoff 1979, Skocpol 1979, Block 1980, Jessop 1982, Carnoy 1984, Held and Krieger 1984, Offe 1984, Alford and Friedland 1985, Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol 1985, Przeworski 1985, Held 1989, Jessop 1990, Barrow 1993, Evans 1995, Jessop 2007).

The few who deal theoretically with the state under socialism restrict themselves to selective interpretations of Marx and Engels (Miliband 1965, Jessop 1978), try to locate the theoretical origins of a repressive regime (Harding 1984), or speak in negatives: not a federation, not a nation-state, not an empire, not a colonising power but an entirely new state formation (Suny 1993, 85, Martin 2001, 15, 19, 461, Weeks 2005, 567). But what type of state? A detailed analysis remains to be done.

Research on State Practice

In contrast with theoretical research, there is significant work concerning many socialist state practices, from parliamentary structures, through welfare and security, to minority policies. Since I have undertaken earlier research concerning the USSR (Boer 2013, 2017), the material analysed in this section focuses on China.

Research on socialist state practice is largely the preserve of political scientists and historians. While it has shed light on many aspects, with some useful overviews (Guo 2013), the underlying theoretical assumptions are inadequate. Scholars continue to deploy notions derived from the bourgeois state: separation of state and (civil) society, ‘intervention’ of the state in society and economics, ‘party-state’, authoritarianism and ‘totalitarianism’, nationalism, and universalising notions of ‘democratisation’ and ‘free-market capitalism’. The way such frameworks dominate may be also seen with longer histories of state formations, from the ancient Near East to the present. They inevitably end with the European nation-state without proper consideration of other contemporary state forms (Mann 1986-2013, Gill 2003).

Let me focus on four core assumptions. First is the distinction between state and society, with a number of consequences: a) deploying the category of ‘civil society’ (Yu and Guo 2012, Fu 2018) without considering its specific history as bürgerliche Gesellschaft (later back-translated as Zivilgesellschaft (Kocha 2004)), which arose only with the bourgeois state; b) assuming that a state involved in all layers of society must be authoritarian to some extent (Teiwes 1984, Harding 1987, Pei 2000, Shambaugh 2000, Weatherley 2006, Perry 2007, Blecher 2009, Wright 2010, Landry 2012, Hildebrandt 2013); c) the category of ‘developmental state’ in which the state drives economic activity (Deans 2004); d) the ‘intervention’ of the state in an ‘independent’ capitalist economy (Chen 2007, Dickson 2008, Huang 2008). The core problem is precisely the distinction between state and society/economy (Womack 1992, Saich 2004, Tsai 2007, Gries and Rosen 2010), without considering alternative models, especially socialist ones.

Second and closely related is the use of ‘party-state’ to indicate that political power is held exclusively by the communist party, entailing centralisation and bureaucracy (Lieberthal and Lampton 1992, Li 2014). While the concept has the benefit of indicating a focus of power, it neglects political structures. Thus, the multi-party system receives scant attention, the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference become ‘rubber stamps’, and ‘socialist rule of law’ remains a puzzle (Peerenboom 2007, deLisle 2014).

Third is the assumption that ‘democracy’ is a universally applicable concept and that China is not ‘democratic’, although may occasionally have made some moves towards ‘democratization’ (Friedman and McCormick 2000, Ogden 2007, Tsai 2007, Nathan, Diamond, and Plattner 2013, Huang 2013, Weatherley 2014). The problems are many: universalising from the particular form of liberal democracy that emerged in Europe; neglect of this specific history and location, with efforts to apply it to very different locations; a lack of effort, apart from some Chinese contributions (Yu 2008, Yang 2009, Li 2013, Li 2015, Ma 2015a, 2015b, Fang 2015), to understand what the different form of socialist democracy entails.

Fourth and underlying these misunderstandings is a core philosophical question: how does one deal with contradictions and tensions? Does one side cancel out the other, as is the tendency with European or ‘Western’ approaches to contradictions? Much of the work surveyed assumes that the state is alienated from and opposed to society, that dictatorship is opposed to democracy, centralised authoritarianism to freedom (Hayek 1960, Arendt 1976) – although there are occasional challenges to the framework (Losurdo 2011, Mulholland 2012). Or are there alternative approaches to contradictions, in which they can be both antagonistic and non-antagonistic, where they not only oppose one another but also complement one another (Mao 1937, Tian 2005)? We find this approach particularly in a Chinese context, where socialism became sinified with profound implications for understanding the state.

From Ideology to Betrayal Narratives

The previous material has identified key philosophical shortcomings in much research concerning the state under socialism in power. How does such research deal with viable alternatives, especially from within socialist states? The milder effort designates such analyses as ‘ideological’ rather than ‘scientific’, with an obvious favouring of the second (Joseph 2014). The distinction is convenient for justifying one’s own approach, but it neglects the interweaving of the two terms, as well as the ideological framework of the bourgeois state that determines what counts as ‘scientific’.

A stronger approach deploys the terminology of ‘myth’, ‘coded’ language and even ‘betrayal’. For example, ‘sinified Marxism’, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, ‘socialist democracy’ and ‘socialist market economy’ are seen as codes for ‘authoritarian capitalism’ (Kluver 1996). Stronger still is a betrayal narrative that derives from the paradigmatic biblical story of the ‘Fall’. For example, in a Chinese context some hypothesise that Deng Xiaoping and the whole ‘reform and opening up’ have betrayed Mao and Marxism, abandoning socialism in the exercise of power and replacing it with capitalism, nationalism and even Confucianism (Misra 1998, Gregor 2000, Deans 2004, Zhao 2004, Gries 2005, Bell 2006, Huang 2008, Wang 2016). The problems are many, including the need to postulate a massive conspiracy, with ‘codes’ that need to be ‘deciphered’, ossification of the idea of socialism rather than seeing it as a living tradition, and a form of orientalism.

In sum, the almost untranscendable horizon of theoretical, political and historical research is that of the liberal state. It matters not whether one is influenced by the Weberian or Marxist traditions, or if one engages in specific analyses of functions and features (even with many of the Chinese scholars cited here, although most work outside China). Why? The disciplines deployed – especially political science and modern historiography – arose in the context of the bourgeois state, subsequently asserting its framework as universal and using this to analyse all forms of the state (Wallerstein 2011, 264). The upshot is that – with few qualified exceptions (Sun 1995, Wang 2004, Wang 2012, Lynch 2015) – many do not take the variety of Chinese arguments and statements seriously.

As Pan Chengxin observes, ‘China watching has had a lot to say about what China does, but very little about what China says or thinks’ (Pan 2012, 154). This is especially true of socialist China.

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[1] I leave aside the classical tradition, which saw the state in implicit (and at times explicit) theological terms as arising from a state of nature and entailing specific limits for the sake of the common good.

Second meeting between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un

In case the rest of the world missed the message of the first meeting between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, they have just had a second at the beautiful port city of Dalian.

X&K 01

X&K 02

Addressing each other as comrades, they affirmed the four principles of close ties between China and the DPRK:

Xi stressed that he and Kim held their historic first meeting in Beijing in March this year, during which they had a long and in-depth communication, and reached principled consensus in four aspects on developing China-DPRK relations in the new era.

Firstly, the China-DPRK traditional friendship has been a treasure of both countries. It is an unswerving principle and the only correct choice for both countries to develop the friendly and cooperative China-DPRK relations.

Secondly, both China and the DPRK are socialist countries, and their bilateral relations are of major strategic significance. Both sides need to enhance unity, cooperation, exchanges and mutual learning.

Thirdly, high-level exchanges between the two parties play an irreplaceably significant role in guiding bilateral relations, Xi said. The two sides should maintain frequent exchanges, strengthen strategic communication, deepen understanding and mutual trust, and safeguard common interests.

Fourthly, cementing the people-to-people friendship foundation is an important channel to advance the development of China-DPRK relations, Xi said. The two sides should, by multiple means, enhance people-to-people communication and exchanges to create a sound foundation of popular will for the advancement of China-DPRK relations.

The full story is at Xinhua News.

Xi Jinping is serious about Marx: Speech celebrating the 200th anniversary

Finally, it seems as though commentators in other parts of the world are noticing that Xi Jinping is serious indeed aboout Marx. He gave a major speech on Marx, celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth and 170 years since the publication of the Communist Manifesto. While the translation of the speech is not yet available, you can find the Chinese version here at the CPC website. Newspaper reports can also be found, such as the one here and here.

And there is a video summary here:

Views from the Common People: Appreciating Xi Jinping

One of the problems of spending time in universities and research institutions is that you lose touch with everyday realities. Think of the nerd at school, who was always top of the class and a complete social misfit – all of them ended up in such places. I am no exception, but I also find the context alienating and weird. So to get a sense of what life is like for the vast majority, I travel on buses, metros, trains, I walk the streets in cities and the countryside, talking at length with workers, cleaners, local administrators – wherever I can find them.

Obviously, I am speaking of China, where I do this frequently.

Let me begin with a simple observation from a cleaner. We talked about many things, but when we came to Xi Jinping, he simply said: ‘Chairman Xi is good guy [bucuo], because he has recovered Chairman Mao’. Wow, I thought, right to the point. He added, ‘Chairman Xi has the common people [laobaixing] at heart’.

More comprehensive was a low-level provincial administrator in the south, working in the countryside. It is not a high-paid job by any means. I told her that every morning I study Mao Zedong’s key works, in Chinese (as part of my language study). She told me that I should also study Xi Jinping.

Why? ‘He is a really good chairman’, she said. ‘He has done a lot for common people like us. My parents like him very much, and all the common people love him’. The term she used was laobaixing, a colloquial term for everyday workers, who have a simple life, work hard because they see it as a great duty for the country, and appreciate someone who takes them to heart.

Our conversation went on, after I indicated that I actually have all of Comrade Xi’s writings (thus far).

The first crucial virtue is obviously a focus on the common people (laobaixing), but the second is his integrity – zhengzhi, which includes the senses of honesty, uprightness, decency and fair-mindedness. Old communist virtues, but also ones that run deep in Chinese culture.

How does this integrity show up in everyday consciousness? More obvious is the most thoroughgoing anti-corruption campaign in living memory, on which I have written elsewhere. For this person, it is the focus on honesty and integrity that comes through most strongly in the campaign. The feeling is that China is back on the right track.

The other example of Comrade Xi’s integrity was somewhat of a surprise: he is not a ‘philanderer (huaxin)’ like Donald Trump. For this woman, the fact that Trump is dealing with multiple accusations of chasing porn stars is a sign of his lack of integrity. By contrast, Chairman Xi’s personal life is also an example of integrity. Honesty, kindness and faithfulness are key virtues in this domain as well.

Examples of such conversations could be repeated time and again. It is one thing to quote international opinion surveys and ‘trust barometers‘, which indicate that up to 87 percent of Chinese people approve of and are confident of the direction in which China is heading. It is another thing entirely to talk with people and get their sense of deep appreciation of what Xi Jinping is doing.

Codes and Conspiracies, or, Trying to Understand the Infantile Disorder of ‘Left-Wing’ Communism

From time to time, I try to understand those who believe that China has made or is still making a transition from socialism to capitalism. Earlier, I explored the orientalist dimensions of this belief, as well as the reliance on a ‘betrayal narrative’, but here I would like to focus on the need to rely on codes. In brief: all of the statements by the CPC, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, function as a code. They say one thing but actually mean something else. So what one needs is the key to the code, after which one can set to work deciphering the various statements.

What is the key to this code? According to those who believe in the code, the key is a conspiracy: from Deng Xiaoping onwards a vast conspiracy has been unfolding, which is nothing less than the transition from socialism to capitalism. I will not go into the details here as to why this conspiracy theory arose, based as it was on selected interpretation of events in the 1980s and even 1990s. Instead, I am interested in how the need for a code arises from the conspiracy theory.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is through a few examples.

There are more obvious examples, such as the hypothesis that the ‘reform and opening up’ (celebrating 40 years in 2018) is not so much the necessary process of reform after a communist revolution (already clear from Lenin’s work), but simply a code for the passage to capitalism. Or the ‘socialist market economy’ is a coded way of speaking about capitalism with government ‘interference’ – neglecting the historical fact that a capitalist market economy is only one form of market economies.

But there are some more intriguing examples. To begin with, Deng Xiaoping famously said that if one wishes to cross a river, one must feel each stone on the river bed at a time with one’s feet. The obvious meaning of this statement is that the passage to socialism, and then communism, requires careful attention to each problem, each fact, which requires analysis and solution. But no, for those who believe in the conspiracy theory, he was speaking in a code: crossing a river entails going from one bank to another. Since China was socialist at one point, they believe, the other bank must be capitalism. A bit of a stretch, given that Deng made it clear China was in the preliminary stage of socialism.

More recently – 2017 at the nineteenth congress of the CPC – Xi Jinping famously announced a new primary contradiction that would guide government policy. This contradiction is between uneven and unequal development and the people’s desire for a better life (meihua shenghuo). Apart from drawing straight out of Mao Zedong’s major essay, ‘On Contradiction’, Comrade Xi made it clear that a ‘better life’ meant not only a ‘moderately prosperous society (xiaokang shehui)’ by 2020, but a ‘strong modern socialist country’ by 2050, which would be achieved through socialist modernisation. At the core of all this is Marxist political economy and the construction of socialism.

But what do our conspiracy theorists make of this? The desire for a ‘better life’ is a code for the full transition to capitalism.

Now we come the obvious problem of this use of a code. The more Xi Jinping makes Marxism central to China’s project, the harder one must work to fit it all into the code. Anomalies appear, much thought is devoted to working the many pieces into the code … so much so that even doctoral theses are devoted to deciphering the code (outside China). A waste of energy.

I am reminded of someone who taught me biblical languages many, many years ago. She believed that the New Testament was a massive code that really talked about specific events at the Qumran community (which wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, as many hold). I recall her coming into class on some days full of excitement: she had cracked another part of the code that had been bothering her. Do not get me wrong: she taught me Hebrew, Syriac and Coptic very well indeed. The discussions about her code-cracking were held around the edges of class time. But the experience has made me acutely aware of how much time and energy people devote to deciphering codes after they have believed in a core conspiracy.

All of which brings me back to Lenin and his great booklet from 1920, ‘“Left-Wing” Communism – An Infantile Disorder’. Lenin’s immediate target may have been different, but the problem persists. Stalin faced the problem, as did Mao, Deng and indeed Xi Jinping today. Among the international Left one can find such ‘left-wing’ communists from time to time and they are keen to find the occasional person in China who is happy to pander to their desires. I find it both a lazy approach and one that faces immense problems to sustain not only the great conspiracy, but also to need to believe in a vast code that they must constantly seek to reinforce.