China


How is this for a timely intervention: last year I was asked to write a piece on the socialist imagination. So I decided to write ‘Xi Jinping’s China: Keeping the Socialist Imagination Alive’. It is based on a careful analysis of ‘The Governance of China’, containing his main writings up to 2014. More is on the way, into which I plan to delve. But now we find calls from the leaders of the CPC itself to study Xi Jinping’s speeches and texts. For example, Liu Yunshan has urged:

Chief officials and leading cadres should take the lead in studying Xi’s speeches and mastering Marxist standpoints to raise political awareness and improve governing ability … He said that the speeches contain the essence of Marxism, the wisdom rooted in traditional Chinese culture and the Party’s innovation and creative thoughts since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012.

This includes CPC leadership in philosophy and social sciences, as an earlier report indicates (see also here):

Noting that Marxism will remain the guiding theory in philosophy and social sciences in China, it called for more efforts in pushing for the sinicization, modernization and popularization of Marxism, and developing a Marxism that fits into the 21st century and contemporary China.

Not a bad time to be involved in China.

It’s all happening in Beijing this week, with the major Belt and Road Forum drawing representatives from 130 countries – and the expected levels of security. If there was any doubt about Chinese global leadership, then it is probably time to lay such doubt to rest. Apart from all the usual commentary, what fascinates me is that this massive project – some call it the project of the century and some the most ambitious project in human history – is being spearheaded by nothing less than the Communist Party of China and its chairman. The full video of Xi Jinping’s speech can be found here.

Not that long ago, there was much debate in China about its direction. That debate had passed, with Xi’s China Dream and its concrete manifestation – in part – with the Belt and Road. It is also part of the internal aim of moving to a ‘xiaokang’ society – a moderately peaceful, prosperous, harmonious and strong society by 2021-49 – or what is known is these parts as the second stage of socialism.

In the 1930s and 1940s, there was the wonderful Anti-Japanese University in China, known as Kangda. It’s full name was the Zhongguo Renmin Kangrì Junshì Zhengzhi Daxue (Anti-Japanese Military and Political University). It later merged with the PLA’s university, but it set me wondering: what would an equivalent be today? I suggest the following as possibilities:

  1. The Anti-USA University
  2. The Anti-EU University

There is now an extraordinarily insightful paper by Fu Ying on the DPRK-USA tensions. She was the head of the Chinese delegation involved in bringing together the USA and the DPRK a decade or more ago and she is now chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress. Fu Ying is the most experienced Chinese foreign relations expert, with a deep understanding of North Korean concerns. Her recent detailed assessment can be found here.

She shows consistently how direct dialogue has eased tensions, how the DPRK has responded and continues to respond to US provocation and reneging on agreements, how vulnerable the DPRK feels and the failure to understand this vulnerability. In her careful diplomatic way, she makes it clear that just when agreements had been reached, the USA started ramping up sanctions and bellicose actions. Obviously, this was viewed as a betrayal of the agreements in the DPRK. In fact, sanctions came first and the DPRK’s response second. Again and again, the DPRK has been quite willing to shut down its nuclear weapons capacity, anticipating that the threats and sanctions would be removed. The USA had not reciprocated, since it is clearly unwilling to compromise. In fact, its agenda is for the DPRK and its communist system to be destroyed. The DPRK views this position as non-negotiable. Now we are in a situation where China (and indeed Russia) want an end to US build-up of weapons in the Korean Peninsula – especially THAAD – and an end to joint large-scale military exercises between the USA and South Korea. In exchange, the DPRK would denuclearise and achieve the peacetime stability it desperately craves.

Through the whole piece is the consistent position that China seeks peaceful resolution, since it shares a long border with the DPRK.

There are many good points in the long article, but I really love this section, in the midst of discussing the dialogues of 2003:

I remember during one visit to Washington, the U.S. side stated: “We agree to talk, but the military option is also on the table.” The Chinese side disagreed with this and argued that if the U.S. insisted on keeping the military option, North Korea would also keep the nuclear option. In a later meeting in Washington, the U.S. told us that the wording had been adjusted to “The military option is not off the table.” It was quite hard to see the difference between the two versions, especially for non-English speakers, but the American side insisted that these were the president’s words. I jokingly asked an American colleague: if the military option “is not off the table” and not necessarily on the table, then where could it be? And he said that one could only use one’s imagination. When I conveyed this sentence to my North Korean counterpart Ri Gun, he looked at me, eyes wide open, and asked, “Then where is it now?”

 

Over a quiet stretch in Beijing, I was able to read Xi Jinping’s first volume as president of China. As one would expect, it is a series of selected statement on key issues, called The Governance of China (Tan zheguolizheng), published in 2014.

It is, I must admit, an extraordinary read. To begin with, it carries on the venerable Marxist tradition in which state leaders are also thinkers, whose thoughts appear in writing. Think of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping. Chairman Xi clearly thinks and writes in a similar vein. So the genre is alive and well! Further, it is distinctly Chinese. Xi has a fondness for Chinese sayings and proverbs, peppering his speeches and writings with many a traditional saying, but also many a communist saying, for the two now form part of a long tradition of Chinese wisdom.

Main Themes

At a general level, it soon becomes clear that nothing is hidden as far as the goals of the communist party are concerned. China seeks stability and global peace, and continues an independent foreign policy that enhances such a situation. Internally, the main theme running through the volume concerns the two Centenary Goals and the Chinese Dream.

The first goal is 2021, the centenary of the foundation of the communist party, by which time China will be a moderately prosperous society in all respects. This is now widely seen as the transition to the second stage of socialism. The second goal is 2049, the centenary of the founding of the people’s republic. By that point, the goal is to have achieved a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious. By this time, socialism will have matured in a Chinese situation, or to put it in Confucian terms, this entails a fully realised xiaokang.

All of this is wrapped up in the term ‘Chinese Dream’, the many dimensions of which are explained the book. It may include the elimination of poverty (for which extensive measures have been enhanced), the success of the current rectification program, ecological civilisation, and so on. A tall order perhaps, and the road is neither straight nor smooth, but Xi Jinping is making sure he drives it forward as much as he is able. All of this is predicated on the ‘great furnace’ of the reform and opening up (gaige kaifang), which he sees very much in terms of another revolution – one of ‘socialist modernisation’. So crucial is this process that the main position is that the current problems facing China are due to an inadequate realisation of the reform and opening up, which is itself unending. A new version of permanent revolution, if you will.

Much more can be written, but I will focus on an initial collection of gems that caught my eye. They appear in no necessary order.

Scholars

The first comes from a talk with scholars, where Xi invokes a number of figures well-known in Chinese culture. One is Sun Jing, of Han times (206 BCE – 220 CE), who loved reading so much that he tied his hair to a roof beam so he wouldn’t nod off while reading. Another is Kuang Heng, also of Han Dynasty times, who could not afford candles. So he bored a hole in the wall to make use of the neighbour’s candlelight. And another is Che Yin of Eastern Jin times (317-420 CE), who could not afford an oil lamp, so he caught fireflies, put them in a bag of thin white cloth so as to study by the light. And Sun Kang of the Southern Dynasties (420-586 CE), who read by the reflected light from snow on winter nights. These stories are of course used to encourage students, albeit perhaps not to go to such extremes. I must admit that while this type of learning culture produces some of the best students in the world, I often find myself giving a mini-lecture on the benefits of a good night’s sleep.

Ecological Civilisation

On ecological civilisation, Xi points out simply that the total population of the well-off countries is 1 billion. China’s population is 1.3 billion (and is anticipated to peak at 1.45 billion). If all of these people too become well-off in the way to which the others have become accustomed, consuming vast amounts of resources and energy, all of the existing resources in the world would not be enough. The conclusion: the old path is a dead end.

One Country, Two Systems

The definition of ‘one country, two systems’. This is a model for realising Chinese unification and dealing with the issues relating to Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. Under this model, the mainland keeps practicing socialism, while Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan retain their capitalist ways of life for a long time while enjoying a high degree of autonomy. This of course means that the Chinese Dream in its own way is applicable to these places as well. It is worth noting that the DPRK (North Korea) has consistently held this approach for achieving Korean reunification.

Peace

Apart from the obvious point that peace is absolutely necessary for the achievement of the two Centenary Goals and the Chinese Dream (even though some countries do their best to disrupt the process), Xi invokes a large number of sayings out of the Chinese tradition of 5,000 years to show that peace is deeply embedded in the culture. These include: ‘a warlike state, however big it may be, will eventually perish’; ‘replace weapons of war with gifts of jade and silk’. But the most telling point for me is that although China was for long one of the most powerful countries in the world, it never engaged in colonialism and aggression. Once again, it one of the most powerful countries in the world.

Beer and Tea

On a comparable note, Xi often invokes the proverb that the ocean is so large because it accepts all rivers. On each invocation, he gives it a slightly different interpretation, such as the need to be aware of the different histories and cultures of each place in determining the best political system. But I am interested here in the anecdote of beer and tea. He writes: ‘the Chinese people love tea, and Belgians love beer. To me, the moderate tea drinker and the passionate beer lover represent two ways of understanding life and knowing the world, and I find them equally rewarding. When good friends get together, they may want to drink to their heart’s content to show their friendship. They may also choose to sit down quietly and drink tea while chatting about their lives. In China we value our ideal of “harmony without uniformity”’ (p. 310).

Faith in Marxism

The importance of faith in Marxism. This is a recurring theme, especially when dealing with the near-crisis of legitimacy when he took over the leadership. The most extensive, pervasive and long-lasting anti-corruption campaign has been the result, explicitly evoking the Yan’an Rectification Campaign of 1942-45. Xi has much to say on this matter, but I focus on the question of ideals and convictions. Two points, the first dealing with the People’s Liberation Army and the second with Party officials.

For the army, faithfulness to Marxism and the leadership of the CPC is paramount, so that the PLA is in lock-step with the party. Indeed, ‘we will apply political convictions as a measure when reviewing and appointing officers to ensure that our weaponry is always in the hands of those who are reliable and loyal to the Party’ (p. 238).

For Party officials: ‘To be firm in their ideals and convictions is the supreme criterion for good officials. No matter how competent an official is, he cannot be regarded as the sort of good official that we need if he is not firm in his ideals and convictions, does not believe in Marxism or socialism with Chinese characteristics, is unqualified politically, and cannot weather political storms. Only those who are firm in their ideals and convictions will adopt an unequivocal approach towards major issues of principle, build “diamond-hard bodies” to withstand any corruption, remain dauntless when facing political storms, firmly resist all kinds of temptations, and act in a reliable and trustworthy manner at any critical moment’ (p. 463). This is pure Mao, if not the model of a communist.

Xi Jinping as a Marxist

Stray items to begin with, but in case there are any doubters, Xi is a convinced Marxist and has instituted a large number of programs to ensure that all Party members know well what Marxism is and what it entails. Further work by me will focus on the nature of the socialist state (plenty of material), and what is meant by Xi’s sincere position that China is a socialist country, with socialist modernisation and a socialist market economy, in which the ‘visible hand’ is strong and determinative.

Throughout it all, Xi Jinping comes through as a gentle but firm man, which is of course what one would expect for such an edition. Yet, he is perhaps tougher than many expected when he first became president, or ‘chairman’ (zhuxi), but the effect has been to gain the appreciation of many who roundly condemned the leadership of the CPC not so many years ago. The fact that he has already stared down Trump only adds to his esteem. At the same time, his resolute emphasis on stability and security (anquan) touches a deep chord in Chinese culture.

This is but the first volume of Xi Jinping’s thoughts. Much has been written and said since it was published in 2014, so I anticipate more volumes. In this respect, the tradition of actual writings and sustained thoughts by an avowed lifelong student carries on a communist tradition since Lenin. The fact that he also leads the most powerful socialist state in human history increases my fascination.

I am working my way through Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China, enjoying especially a piece from 2013 called ‘Hard Work Makes Dreams Come True’. One of a number of statements on the Chinese Dream (which actually means at a minimum the second stage of socialism, or xiaokang as it is called hereabouts), it addresses workers as the backbone of the party and the country. Here we find many good old communist themes – as with the book as a whole – such as the role of the working class, model workers and so forth.

The theme of hard work continues today in Xi Jinping’s statements, most recently in his new year’s address for 2017, where he called on all to ‘roll up your sleeves and get to work’ – sparking lines in pop songs, memes and images.

One of the great myths concerning socialist collectivisation of agriculture is that it produced ‘man-made’ famines, since it is supposedly less ‘efficient’. This story is perpetrated by friend and foe alike.

Example 1: The famine of 1932-33 in the Soviet Union, which is supposed to have been ‘man-made’.

Let me set the context. During the ‘socialist offensive’ of the late 1920s and 1930s in the Soviet Union, a massive process of industrialisation and collectivisation took place.

The Soviet Union did not have access to and did not want to use capitalist modes of accumulating funds, namely, colonial expansion (dispossession of others) and international loans. So the industrialisation process had to rely on internal, or socialist accumulation. In order to generate such accumulation, the government set higher prices for the increasing abundance of manufactured goods, as a type of super-tax that would flow back into industry. Meanwhile, prices on agricultural goods were set lower, albeit with fluctuations depending on seasonal shortages and in light of the constant efforts at speculation. This tensions of this ‘scissors’ method of generating revenue for further industrialisation generated obvious problems, but these were exacerbated by a famine in 1927-28, requiring enforced requisitions of grain in response to some peasants withholding agricultural produce for speculation (Withholding of grain for the sake of raising prices was an old practice, appearing not only during the NEP of the mid-1920s, but also much earlier). Obviously, something had to be done, since the ‘scissors’ method could not continue – it was always conceived as a temporary measure.

Another persistent problem was that traditional Russian farming methods were inadequate in light of new developments and a rising population. I mean not the subsistence survival agriculture practised in many parts of the world for millennia, but the practice of landlords extracting food necessary for survival by farmers. In fact, rural famines were endemic to Russian life. In more recent memory, famine hit in 1890-91, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 had taken place in the context of widespread famine, which added to socio-economic chaos. Famines also blighted 1918-20 and were exacerbated during 1920-21.

So the process of collectivisation was at one level an effort to deal with endemic famine.

Many of course will point to the famine of 1932-33, with some even suggesting it was a deliberate policy of ‘genocide’ focused on the Ukraine (the ‘Holodomur’). But the famine also affected Northern Caucasus, Volga Region and Kazakhstan, the South Urals, and West Siberia. Enough research has been done to show that the famine was the result of significant weather conditions (drought), low harvest, international blockade, and the profound turmoil and frequent violence of the 1930s.

Were there famines later? Yes. One could argue that the food shortage during the siege of Leningrad was a famine, but the reasons are obvious here. And after the devastation of war and the effort to defeat Hitler, a famine took place after a drought in 1947. Most importantly, despite the drought cycle, no further famines were experienced.

Obviously, collectivisation had a distinct result in dealing with the endemic problem of famines. Why? Collectivisation enabled mechanisation and increase in the amount of land under cultivation, so much so that in 1932 many farmers worked harder to ensure greater crop yield and overcome the famine by the next year.

Example 2: The Chinese famine of 1959-61, during the ‘Great Leap Forward’, is also described as ‘man-made’, a result of the ‘foolhardy’ effort at collectivisation.

Once again, famine was endemic to Chinese agriculture (see Losurdo’s War and Revolution, pp. 271-72). Restricting ourselves to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, famines occurred in 1810-11, 1846, 1849, 1876-79 (9-13 million died), 1896-97, 1907, 1911, 1920-21 (again in northern China), 1928-30 (3 million people died), 1936 (5 million), 1940-41 (2-3 million). In famine was a persistent problem.

If we add the semi-colonisation of China, invasions, insurrections, along with droughts, the deaths in China between 1850 and 1950 were by far the highest in the world.

Again, something obviously had to be done. Having seen the long-term success of the collectivisation in the Soviet Union in overcoming the persistent cycle of famine, collectivisation was also undertaken in China.

The problem now was not only the devastation of decades of civil war and Japanese occupation, but a deliberate policy of economic warfare and strangulation by the Truman regime. This included schematic bombing from Taiwan of any industrial facilities built on the eastern seaboard. The deliberate aim was to keep the new communist country below subsistence level so as to produce a catastrophic economic situation, if not disaster and collapse.

We need to add Mao’s impatience. Seeing the dire situation of the country in light of economic devastation and US policy, he sought to leap over stages of development in order to escape from the desperate trap. Again, the US regimes made the most of situation, seeking to exacerbate the situation and cause widespread devastation. By the early 1960s, the Kennedy regime, looking back on the famine of 1959-61, gloated that they succeeded in retarding Chinese economic development by decades.

Were there famines after this time in China? Again, no. The long history of endemic famine and the tragic lesson of 1959-61 meant that China has managed to put famine behind it.

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