China


More reports on the People’s Daily and Xinhua News on the China-Russia joint naval exercises in the South China Sea.

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And a series of articles in the People’s Daily analyse the USA as a ‘source of turmoil in the world’. It is keen both to make a mess and to brainwash the elites in some non-Western countries. To a large degree, this is ‘a reflection of a twisted mentality of an empire moving downhill’.

Strange how I need to read Chinese newspapers to find out details about the major joint naval exercises between China and Russia in the South China Sea. As I have pointed out before, their increasing closeness is perhaps the major geopolitical development in recent years.

How about this for an image (from Xinhua News):

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This week has seen one of the more nasty and ugly developments in Australian politics, and that is saying something. In a classic case of dog-whistle politics, a senator was accused of accepting donations from a Chinese businessman, which implied that his positive comments on China had been ‘bought’. ‘Manchurian candidate’ is the term bandied about, with both racist and anti-communist undertones. Then of course the university China research centres that offer a more positive view of China have been accused of similar tendencies. So what is going on here? Fear of geopolitical shifts? Somewhat. Lack of adequate political representation of the diversity in Australia? Again, true enough. But deeper down is the stoking of an old theme in Australian politics: the fear of the ‘yellow peril’, which was and is also a fear of communism (the weird thing about this is that most immigrants these days come from Asia). Add to this that the one who has been accused is an Australian of Iranian background and another layer is added. By comparison, the regular reporting on internal political matters, from within a political party, to the CIA is not regarded as a threat.

For what it is worth, when I am asked why I like coming to China (where I am now), I respond: I like the food, the culture, the history, the people, the chaotic excitement of the rapid changes everywhere around me, but above all the fact that the communist party is the government.

A comrade at the University of Newcastle, Roger Markwick, has written a great piece on the ‘new cold war.’ A specialist in Soviet and Russian history, he tracks the way NATO’s blatant provocations and aggressive stances are aimed at threatening Russia and how Russia’s responses should be seen in that light. In other words, invade Russia at your own risk. NATO – ‘a lethal instrument of the world’s most powerful military machine, harnessed to a predatory, highly developed capitalist system that brooks no challenges to its hegemony’ – risks following in the steps of Napoleon and Hitler. It did not end well for them.

I would add to Roger’s analysis the growing alliance and cooperation between Russia and China, which embodies the bulk of the Eurasian landmass, huge resources, economic power and military sophistication.

As my research has moved into the complexities of socialism in power, first in the Soviet Union and now in China, I have been struck by what might be called structural anti-communism in many Russian/Slavic Studies and China Studies programs. This is not a comment on individuals who often do excellent work, but on the structural formations of such places. My thoughts on this were initially triggered by Immanuel Wallsterstein’s observation that the disciplines of anthropology and ‘Orientalism’ arose as a way for Atlantic centres of power to understand and control large parts of the world over which they felt the entitlement to domination. However, after the Russian and Chinese revolutions, along with the huge anti-colonial movement supported (ideologically and materially) by socialist states, the game changed somewhat. Now government resources were channelled into Russian and Chinese studies. The reason was the need to understand the new ‘enemies’ who dared to challenge to world order. With this background, such programs and centres usually became structurally anti-communist, if not anti-Russian and anti-Chinese. Of course, it helped that fugitives from the Russian and Chinese revolutions (in the latter case from Hong Kong and Taiwan) often gained positions in such centres. But the key is in the structures of such places. Today we once again find that such centres have a new lease of life. Putin has become the number one enemy of the ‘West’ (often likened to Stalin, although Putin is anything but a communist). And China’s inexorable rise in economic and political power – led by the Communist Party – has led to a new batch of studies focusing on ‘authoritarianism’, ‘freedom of the press’, and the clampdown on ‘dissent’.

And here is a sample video to see how I might go. I must admit I like the second one better.

With the China Road conference over (turned out to be a great event, although it took me a few days to recover – more later), I am turning my attention to producing a MOOC on Chinese Marxism. My paper at the conference concerned precisely this, so I copy the paper below (minus the interviews):

Let me begin with a conversation from earlier this year. I was meeting with the head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Newcastle.

‘The Vice-Chancellor wants to know if are interested in doing something’, she said.

‘What?’ I said.

‘She would like you to put together a MOOC on Chinese Marxism’, she said.

‘A MOOC?’ I asked. ‘Chinese Marxism?’ Both items were a little puzzling for me.

I had no idea what a MOOC is. I do know more about Chinese Marxism, but I was surprised the Vice-Chancellor had asked me to construct a MOOC on this topic.

And so began a steep learning curve, which I would like to discuss today.

Before I proceed, a question may have arisen in some of your minds: how can I speak at all on such a topic on which so many people know so much more than me? I may have a position in China (at Renmin University of China), where I spend 3-4 months a year, but still …

So let me quote from a Chinese poem, written by Su Shi (苏轼) from the Song Dynasty. It is actually called 题西林壁 ( Tí xīlín bì), or ‘Written on the wall of the West Forest temple’.  This was given to me by someone who is present at this conference. In Chinese, it reads (powerpoint):

横看成岭侧成峰,

远近高低各不同。

不识庐山真面目,

只缘身在此山中

Héng Kàn chéng lǐng cè chéng fēng,
Yuǎn jìn gāo dī gè bù tóng.
Bù zhī Lúshān zhēn miàn mù,
Zhǐ yuán shēn zài cǐ shān zhōng.

Sideways a mountain range, vertically a peak.
Far-near, soaring-crouching, never the same.
No way to know Lushan’s true face
When you’re in the middle of this mountain!

In other words, Lu Mountain may look different depending on the angle, light, distance, and so on. But you cannot see the whole of Lu Mountain if you are inside it.

Why a MOOC?

My first question concerns a MOOC itself. I tend to avoid such matters and keep myself at a distance from new developments. But I soon found out that MOOC means Massive Open Online Course, but this did not help me that much. Does not the university already record all of thousands of lectures? Why would I engage in producing yet another one to join the mix? I imagined huge amounts of background research, hunting down material, and then hour upon hour of lectures in front of a camera.

But no (and forgive me for covering material that some of you know), a MOOC if far from such a format. To begin with, the course is usually open to anyone and everyone to join. No fees apply to enrol. If a person enrolled does want a certificate for completing the course, then it may be possible to charge a small fee ($20-30).

So what are the purposes of such a MOOC? The purposes are mixed. It seeks to return to an old idea: education should be free for everyone. It should not be restricted by fees, entry examinations, and the many restrictions that seem to apply in our day. With this purpose, I can only agree, given my own social and political preferences. The only prerequisite for such a course should be curiosity and a desire to learn something new.

Another purpose concerns a relatively modern concept – branding. This is to provide a unique identity for a younger university that is making its mark on the world stage. In this case, knowledge becomes a commodity, if not the university itself, a situation I am not so keen on. Then again, as I have said from time to time, Marxism pays.

A third and related purpose is to publicise what the university does. How is the University of Newcastle different from every other university in Australia, let alone the world? Here the Vice-Chancellor was certainly onto something. Outside China, one would be hard put to find a research concentration on Marxism, let alone Chinese Marxism. But this is the case. Indeed, PhD students come from China (and indeed around the world) to study various types of Marxism at the University of Newcastle. Currently, we have students from Samoa, Egypt, Norway, Indonesia, and China, who are here doing exactly that. Yes, students of Marxism come from China to the University of Newcastle to undertake rigorous and sustained research on Marxism.

So a MOOC would be a good idea.

Constructing a MOOC

How does one go about constructing a MOOC? I soon found out that a MOOC involves 5-7 minute presentations rather than hour-long lectures. More like an online how-to video, I thought. I had consulted such videos when I doing some tiling a while back. In 5-7 minutes you can really make only one or two major points.

Would I just get in front of a camera and talk? Again, not really. A MOOC requires a clear topic, a useful prop (visual), key content, and activities. This I learnt from talking with some of the technical experts at the university.

[How to assess the work of a MOOC? It soon became apparent that old-fashioned written assignments would not work. What if 1,000 people enrol, or even 10,000? This would entail endless hours of reading through everything written. Clearly, not an option. It would require types of assessment that could be automated. Or those that made the most of newer approaches to knowledge, in which students contribute as much as the one delivering the course (wiki style). It would need discussion groups, which in turn require a moderator.]

All of these factors entailed a complete rethink as to how I might go about constructing a MOOC.

Where to begin?

I began by setting myself a target of 18 presentations of 5-7 minutes.

Next question: what should be the focus? Here endless possibilities presented themselves. I could focus on Mao Zedong and the early history of Chinese Marxism. I could focus on developments in Marxist philosophy in China (I have recently convened a conference on this topic in Beijing, in April this year). I could focus on the practice of socialism. Or I could focus on the situation in China today.

I decided on the last topic: Marxism in China today.

Why?

On more than one occasion, I have been asked: is China really Marxist or socialist today? Does anyone believe in Marxism in China today (strange question, for what does ‘believe’ mean)?

Above all, I have been struck by the lack of knowledge among people outside China concerning Marxism in China today. Many assume it ended with the death of Mao Zedong – if they know about it at all.

All of this raises the question of a potential audience. Who would be interested in such a course? Initially, the thought was that it may be students in China, who may be interested in the perspective of a foreigner. But my experience tells me that many more outside China would be interested, given the lack of knowledge about such matters (and, I would add, the woeful reporting on China in the media outside China). So I penned the following introduction to the course, which will be used in the course description:

‘From Mao to Now’ presents new and little known material on the current situation of Chinese Marxism. It covers 18 lessons in 6 weeks, dealing with current topics that anyone who wishes to engage with China should know.

Target audience: the prime reason for undertaking this course should be curiosity about China and Marxism today. Students inside China and internationally will find the material important and fascinating. Professionals who are working or plan to work in China may also be interested, since they will at some time or other need to deal with government officials, state-owned companies, or be able to understand conversations where these topics arise regularly.

Everyone in China knows about these issues, with many different opinions, so why shouldn’t you?

You may wonder how the title came to be: From Mao to Now. I was meeting with some of the technical wizards at the university. I explained that it was difficult indeed to find useful material on the situation in China since the death of Mao Zedong, so this would be my focus. One of them tossed out an idea: From Mao to Now.

Topics

I penned a few early drafts of the course outline with my ideas, and then found out that the course should cover 6 weeks, to be repeated on a regular basis. So I revised the course with the following topics:

Week 1: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

  1. Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: What does it mean?
  2. What About Other ‘National’ Characteristics?
  3. Socialism Seeking Power versus Socialism in Power

Week 2: Contradiction

  1. Why is Contradiction Important and Beneficial?
  2. Contradictions in European and Russian Marxism
  3. Contradiction in Chinese Marxism
  4. Socialism and Capitalism in China

Weeks 3 and 4: The Socialist State

  1. What Was the Soviet Union and What Is China?
  2. Class is Primary!
  3. A Multinational State?
  4. An Anti-Colonial State
  5. A New Form of the State?

Week 5: Chinese Democracy

  1. There Is No Such Thing as ‘Democracy’!
  2. Varieties of Socialist Democracy
  3. Is China a Socialist Democracy?

Week 6: Mao Zedong Today

  1. Is Mao Relevant for China Today?
  2. Has Mao Been Betrayed or Reinterpreted?
  3. Mao and the New China (Visiting the Chairman)

An Example

For the final part of my talk, I would like to give some details on one the actual presentations. Or rather, I will provide some material on how the episode is shaping up, instead of the final version. It concerns the first topic, socialism with Chinese characteristics. What does it mean? What are the different opinions concerning this topic? How does one condense the huge amount of analysis of this topic in China, or indeed outside China, concerning socialism with Chinese characteristics? Indeed, how could I provide a reasonable assessment of the different perspectives presented at this conference on the subject? At one level, it is impossible, so how could I possibly go about it?

I decided the begin this one with some sound-bite interviews. Over the last couple of days, I have interviewed random people at the conference, who agreed that I could use the interviews for this presentation (the MOOC will of course require proper permission for use on the internet and I promise not to use any of these for the MOOC itself). I give a few of them here (and I apologise if I have not used them all). I should say that the answers are meant to represent a range of opinions and do not necessarily reflect the actual opinions of the people recorded (I had to prompt a couple for the answers I wanted!).

[Interviews appear here]

Let us see what they have said. When I began I assumed that ‘socialism’ and ‘Chinese characteristics’ are two distinct items and that we are seeking the relationship between them.

  1. The first hints at a common idea: that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is simply a screen or a code for unbridled capitalism. This is a common position among quite a number of people internationally. For example, I have heard it from some involved in the international Left. It is a common position among those involved in the Historical Materialism conferences, in both Australia and elsewhere, where they use the term ‘neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics).
  2. The second emphasises the ‘Chinese characteristics’. (Please note that I was not able to find anyone who would take this position thus far.) Sometimes, this is translated into a form of Chinese nationalism, rather than anything that might be remotely socialist.
  3. The third answer stresses socialism itself, in terms of public ownership and the distribution according to work (or ‘from each according to ability, to each according to work’). I could say much more about this one, but I am unable to do so at this time.
  4. The fourth answer is a little different: socialism with Chinese characteristics means China’s modernisation process. Here the special characteristic is actually socialism itself, which has enabled China’s significant return to economic and political power.
  5. The fifth answer, I suggest, stresses both terms – socialism and Chinese characteristics. It is both socialism (however we understand the term, since this is also open to debate) and a concern with the specific cultural and social histories that profoundly influence what socialism means.

Let us backtrack for a moment. What is the origin of the idea of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’?

This of course alludes to the statement by Deng Xiaoping:

In carrying out our modernization programme we must proceed from Chinese realities. Both in revolution and in construction we should also learn from foreign countries and draw on their experience, but mechanical application of foreign experience and copying of foreign models will get us nowhere. We have had many lessons in this respect. We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics – that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history (1982).

But the first form of this statement actually comes from Mao Zedong (and ultimately Lenin), as many of you will know:

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 (1938).

Conclusion

So what is socialism with Chinese characteristics? That is for the students of the course to offer their own answers. But I would like to make the following points (apart from issues of history and culture):

  1. It is one thing to position oneself before the revolution. It is entirely another thing to win the revolution and have power. As Lenin and Mao said repeatedly: winning power in a revolution is relatively easy; wielding power is infinitely more complex. Once you have power, everything changes.
  2. Most people seem to assume they know what socialism is and then judge accordingly. But what if we do not yet know and need to develop it as we go along?
  3. One crucial aspect of a Chinese approach is a different way of dealing with contradictions. Instead of qualitative differences (one or the other), the contradictions must learn to live with one another. It is this very presence of contradictions and differences that constitutes unity. Is it possible that this one aspect of socialism with Chinese characteristics?


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