Huoshenshan (Fire God Mountain) Hospital completed today, ahead of schedule

Never let a crisis go to waste: the Chinese are clearly making the most of the coronavirus (flu) outbreak to show the world what they can do these days. Earlier, I have noted that they call this ‘Chinese speed’. About 80 years ago, Stalin called it ‘Bolshevik tempo’. Only a socialist system can do this.

Below are two time-lapse videos, tracking the way Huoshenshan (Fire God Mountain) Hospital was built in 9 days – 3 days ahead of schedule. As I write, it is being handed over to the PLA’s medical corps to deal with coronavirus patients in Wuhan. The other hospital – Leishenshan (Thunder God Mountain) – will be ready soon.

What is the best way to deal with human-animal disease cycles?

The recent outbreak of another strain of influenza in China – known as ‘Novel Coronavirus’ – set me thinking about human-animal disease cycles. This is a problem as old as human communities.

About 12,000 years ago, human beings began the long process of moving towards collective living in villages. It took a long time, perhaps 4,000 years, and entailed the slow domestication of animals and plants. During this period, hunting remained a crucial feature in human food supply – what we now call ‘game’ meat. Why so long? Domestication takes some effort: originally wild animals need to mutate, through restriction of movement, controlled breeding, regulation of feeding, and extension of lactation. The first animals – in Asia, which usually leads human development – were what we now know as domesticated sheep and goats. In the process of mutation, wool became longer and more amenable to human use (by selective breeding through which plucking during annual moulting gave way to non-moulting wool that could be shorn), and the animals became smaller than their wild relatives. Meanwhile, hunting of the gazelle, onager, aurochs, hare, fox, and wild sheep and goats continued for a long time alongside the herding of domesticated animals, but the shift had been made.

However, this process of collective and semi-settled living and domestication of animals (and plants) also brought with it a whole series of new diseases. Why? Many diseases require different hosts for their life cycles, and with human beings and animals living in close proximity, humans became more and more part of the cycles. To be sure, this was already the case with the hunting of wild animals, in which the eating of ‘game’ meat brought its own risks. But with daily interaction between human beings and sheep, goats, pigs (where water was plentiful) and the rare bovine, a series of new diseases arose. Plagues were common, small populations were regularly decimated, and life expectancy was short (about 30 years).

In our world, we are supposed to have overcome these ‘primitive’ realities. Not so.

Hunting is still common in many parts, especially for ‘real men’. In the United States, Canada and Australia – for example – you can (with a gun license) go out and shoot wildlife, cut it up, take it home and eat it. Go to a fancy restaurant in Sydney or Copenhagen and you can buy an expensive dish of ‘game’ meat. Or go to the simplest barbeque, and it will be the men who stand around the barbeque cooking the ‘kill’ (even if it comes from a butcher).

In regard to disease cycles between domesticated animals and human beings, these continue to abound. Think of the ‘swine flu’ (H1N1), of which the most recent version appeared in North America in 2009, especially the United States of America. Or the avian influenza, which makes its way from the wild bird population, into the domestic bird population, and into human beings. Or the Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which appears to have entered into the human population in 2012 via camels (and perhaps originally bats).

As for transmission from the ‘wild’ population, we have of course the coronavirus (influenza) from bats with both SARS and the recent Novel Coronavirus. But more notable is HIV/AIDS, which came through from primates into human beings and became a pandemic, originating in the United States.

Obviously, these disease cycles are a reality of human communities and their association with animals. They will continue as long as these two realities continue, so the question is how one deals with them. Let me take two comparable examples, one negative and one positive.

The first is the outbreak of ‘swine flu’ (H1N1), which appeared first in the United States (or perhaps Mexico). The World Health Organisation initially called it ‘North American Influenza’. The response by the regime in the United States was shambolic and slow. Schools remained open, workplaces did not use face masks, and U.S. airlines took virtually no measures, relying instead on previous and ineffective practices of looking for individuals with flu-like symptoms, not providing face masks even for cabin crew, and relying on the aircraft’s air-cleaning systems. Other airlines did take measures, especially from Eastern Asia. I recall arriving in Shanghai in 2009, and before we were allowed to disembark, all passengers were checked by health officials (one passenger had a temperature and those up to three seats around were quarantined). Perversely, the U.S. regime issued a travel warning for ‘restrictive’ measures instituted by Chinese medical experts. The result: by the time the pandemic had run its course, about 30,000 people died in the United States and up to 579,000 worldwide.

Obviously, this is an example of how not to deal with an outbreak.

Ten years later, we have the Novel Coronavirus outbreak in China. In this case, the Chinese government moved quickly, mobilising all of the state’s significant resources to contain the outbreak, communicating directly with WHO on a daily basis and sharing all information. Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, went into lock-down, all post Spring Festival travel was halted across a country of 1.4 billion, and from villages to cities people undertook the necessary measures to contain the virus’s spread. How was this possible? It has nothing to do with ‘authoritarian’ measures, but everything to do with the primary focus in China on the common good. Everyone contributes. The outcome: at the time of writing, about 10,000 people have been infected, only those with underlying conditions have died (in the low hundreds), and more and more leave hospital after recovering – and this is before a vaccine has been developed.

So effective were the measures that the World Health Organisation promoted them as a new model for dealing with diseases arising from the human-animal cycle (see also here).

Press conference by director of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Increasingly, the China model is cutting through. For example, the influential director-general of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised once again the highly efficient response by the Chinese to the coronavirus outbreak.

And here is a summary of his earlier praise at Xinhua News, from which I quote the following:

The director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday that China deserves the international community’s gratitude and respect for having taken very serious measures to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak and prevent exporting cases overseas.

Addressing journalists at a press conference in Geneva, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus thanked the Chinese government for the extraordinary steps it has taken to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

Tedros reiterated that almost 99 percent of cases and all deaths have been within China, with only 68 confirmed cases and no deaths in 15 countries and regions outside China. “For that, China deserves our gratitude and respect … China is implementing very serious measures and we cannot ask for more,” he said.

The WHO chief also thanked China for having identified the pathogen in a short time and shared it immediately, which has led to the rapid development of diagnostic tools.

“China has been completely committed to transparency, both internally and externally, and has agreed to work with other countries that need support,” he reiterated, citing the latest case in Germany which, due to the immediate notification and sharing of information by the Chinese government, was very quickly identified and given medical care.



A Tale of Two Systems: How to Deal with a Natural Disaster

The following reflections were prompted by a comment from my wife. She had been reading one of the Danish newspapers in regard to the Wuhan Coronavirus Pneumonia. A journalist asked a Danish medical expert why SARS (in 2003) or the Coronavirus were detected first in China. The specialist’s answer: because the Chinese have excellent and sophisticated methods for detecting such outbreaks very early. Indeed, they are now among the best in the world.

This observation leads me to reflect on the difference between two systems in dealing with a natural disaster. I should say that we also had a discussion concerning this matter at a recent branch meeting of the Communist Party of Australia.

System 1: Australia’s neo-liberal capitalist system. Australia is one of the last hold-outs for a defunct neo-liberal agenda, which most countries in the world have rejected. Come the present southern summer’s bushfire crisis (which is by no means over) and Australia was relying on a hopelessly under-resourced volunteer fire-fighting service in the countryside. The relatively small numbers did their absolute best, but they were hampered from the very beginning. Why? They were expected to protect ‘private property’ first. They simply did not have anywhere near the resources to do their jobs, and were forced to ‘crowd-source’ for basic items like smoke-masks. The regime’s response: they ‘want’ to be there, so the regime should not be in the business of assisting them. Add to this the prime minister’s holiday in Hawaii and you get the picture. Even more, the Australian fore-fighting services do not have even one air-borne water-bomber. They have to rent them, believe it or not, from the United States.

System 2: China’s socialist system. On 20 January of this year, a new virus was detected in Wuhan. It is called either Wuhan or Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia. Immediately, all the of the state’s resources swung into action. Even though the virus is classed in China as Level B, the decision was made to hit it early as though it were a Level A outbreak. Specialists focused their energy, detection kits were widely distributed, Chinese medical experts kept in close contact with the World Health Organisation, all those even suspected of having the virus were quarantined, all aircraft arriving in China are inspected before passengers disembark and have been checked for the virus. On it goes. Today, I read that Wuhan, a city of 10 million people and the capital of Hubei Province, has been locked down. Even the expert who first identified SARS in 2003, Zhong Nanshan who is a household name in China, has become involved, travelling to Wuhan to bring his 84 years of experience to bear. All of the actions by Chinese have been praised by the World Health Organisation as extremely efficient and contributing significantly to curbing the spread of the virus.

How can China do this and Australia not (or indeed any other of the small number of Western countries)? Simply put, China is a socialist country with extremely high levels of planning and state resources. One of the great myths since the beginning (in 1978) of the Reform and Opening Up is that China abandoned planning for the sake of a socialist market economy. This is rubbish: planning has been elevated to a whole new level, so much so that some are now arguing that China is achieving a dialectical transcendence of the old opposition between planning and market.

Washing Brains: How to Understand Chinese Marxist Research

Some foreigners say that our ideological reform is brainwashing. As I see it, they are correct in what they say. It is washing brains, that’s what it is! This brain of mine was washed to become what it is. After I joined the revolution, [my brain] slowly washed, washed for several decades. What I received before was all bourgeois education, and even some feudal education … At that time, none of us knew anything about how the Chinese revolution was to be promoted! (Mao, Zedong. 1957. ‘Speech to Chinese Students and Trainees in Moscow’ )

I begin with this text from Mao Zedong, since it expresses very well an experience of my own from the last decade or so. Mao was addressing Chinese students studying in Moscow, when he was part of a 1957 delegation to the Soviet Union.

How is this text relevant for my own experience? Whenever you dig into research material on China, you soon encounter two different frameworks, two different languages. On the one hand, there is whole language that has been developed and is used by ‘China watchers’. They are typically informed by the Western liberal tradition and use terminology and assumptions deriving from this tradition. On the other hand, we have the Chinese Marxist approach, which is informed by the reinterpretation of thousands of years of Chinese history and thinking in light of an overall Marxist framework. The differences between the two frameworks and languages becomes clear when we look at a few examples.

1. History of the Reform and Opening Up, from 1978.

Among ‘Western’ historians, there is an overwhelming tendency to divide the Reform and Opening Up into two periods, with 1989 and the Tiananmen incident being the fulcrum. This division applies particularly to economic and political history.

By contrast, this periodisation does not appear in Chinese scholarship. This is not due to some mythical ‘repression’ of information – a beloved trope of ‘Western’ China watchers – but simply because 1989 does not mark a major turning point. For example, in my recent research on the socialist market economy, a three-fold periodisation is more common: the breakthrough, in which socialism can also engage in a market economy (1979-1982); the transition, in which planning and the market are combined (1982-1989); and the establishment of a socialist market economy (1989-1993).

2. Socialist and Post-Socialist.

Related to the previous point, it is reasonably common in ‘Western’ literature to find a distinction between the ‘socialist’ and ‘post-socialist’ phases of China’s recent history. The terms are left suitably vague, but they often turn on the distinction between a planned economy and a market economy. In this respect, they assume the old 1932 slogan from Count Ludwig von Mises: ‘the alternative is still either Socialism or a market economy’. The Count was of course one of the godfathers of a now defunct neoliberalism, but his deceptive slogan influences the distinction between socialism and post-socialism: socialism inescapably entails a planned economy, while a market economy is by definition capitalist.

When dealing with Chinese approaches, it is very soon clear that this distinction simply does not work. To begin with, China has by no means abandoned a planned economy; instead, both planning and market are components, or institutional forms, of an overall socialist system that determines the nature of the components. In this light, it is misleading to speak of ‘post-socialism’.

There is a further problem with this distinction: it seeks to draw Chinese developments into a European framework, where Eastern Europe and Russia are now in a ‘post-socialist’ phase. Few indeed are the ‘Western’ researchers who realise that this effort to align China with European history is distinctly unhelpful.

3. Approach to Politics.

This one is fascinating: when ‘Western’ interpreters deal with Chinese politics, they inevitably focus on what is perceived to be ‘factional’ struggle within the CCP. Why? The overwhelming assumption is that politics is antagonistic, that it must involve struggle between opposing camps. Of course, the effort to examine the inner workings of the CCP relies on hearsay, unnamed ‘sources’ and so on.

Occasionally, a ‘Western’ interpreter is forced to admit that the CCP has remarkably little factional struggle and that it a rather stable political party. This admission moves a small step towards Chinese approach, for which we should use the terminology already developed by Marx and Engels. When envisaging what socialist governance might look like, they speak of ‘de-politicising’ governance. What does this mean? More and more dimensions of governance are no longer determined by class struggle and antagonism. This applies to policing, law courts, policies and even elections.

Yes, elections can be and indeed are de-politicised in China. From local village and city-district elections (direct) to election (indirect) of the president, these are all based on qualifications and merit for office and not through populist rhetoric by opposing political parties. Even more, China’s 9 political parties do not engage in class-based antagonisms, but work in a consultative and critically constructive manner.

4. Deformation of Language.

This deformation is an ongoing problem in ‘Western’ approaches, but let me focus on one example. It is common to speak of ‘conservatives’ and ‘reformers’, in which the ‘conservatives’ are those who hold the Marxist-Leninist line (from Deng Xiaoping onwards) and the ‘reformers’ are those who would turn China into a bourgeois state with a capitalist system.

Obviously, Chinese research provides a very different framework, between communists who ensure that China follows Marxist policies, and liberals who seek to turn China into the chaos and populism of a ‘Western’ system. That the latter are also potentially guilty of treason should be obvious.

I could offer many more examples of the differences between the two frameworks and languages, but the point should be clear. Of course, within each framework there are many debates and differences of opinion, but one must assume the framework to engage in such activities.

A question remains: do the proponents of the two frameworks actually listen to one another? It is more common for Chinese researchers to engage extensively with Western liberal scholarship, but it is criticised and appropriated within a Chinese Marxist approach.

It is far less common for ‘Western’ researchers to engage with Chinese Marxist research. Instead, their typical approach is as follows: they begin with a brief mention of official government positions, which are quickly dismissed as mere ‘rhetoric’ and ‘ideology’; they suggest they are dealing with ‘actual’ conditions, and then perhaps cite newspaper articles, occasionally providing the Chinese title to give an impression of ‘serious’ research; they may also cite one or two scholars with Chinese names to give the piece some ‘credibility’, but who typically live outside China, write in English, and assumes the same framework and language. Obviously, this is a rather shoddy way to undertake scholarly research, indicated by both the method – if it can be called that – and the conclusions reached.

To return to Mao Zedong: it is precisely this whole Western liberal framework, with its in-group language, that needs to be washed out of one’s brain to approach the material afresh.

China’s Socialist Market Economy (final article completed)

After some years of reflection and research, I have finally completed a longish study of China’s socialist market economy. A little earlier, I posted a short version of my study of East European market socialism. This was necessary background work, but it became clear that the Eastern European experiments were very preliminary and qualitatively different from China’s socialist market economy. Hence the present study. Copied below is the introduction, which outlines the main points of the argument. Since I have now submitted the article to a journal for consideration, the link that was previously here has been removed. Later, it will form a chapter in my book on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

China’s Socialist Market Economy: Introduction

When one engages seriously with Chinese Marxist philosophy on China’s socialist market economy, one soon notices a distinct disjunction: in China, key issues in the debate have largely been settled some time ago, while outside China significant misunderstanding remains. A major reason for this ignorance is that non-Chinese researchers remain disconcertingly uninformed concerning Chinese-language scholarship. Thus, the purpose of this study is to present the major developments of this Chinese-language scholarship. My focus is expository, providing contextual explanations material where necessary, but keeping my own assessment to a minimum. And given that the idiom of Chinese scholarship is different to that familiar to English readers, most of whom have been saturated with the Western liberal tradition, the exposition requires a process of ‘translation’ from one idiom to another. Throughout, the underlying motivation is that one cannot engage in serious debate without the preliminary step of seeking understanding and thus trust with interlocutors. To use a metaphor: one begins with open eyes and ears, while keeping one’s mouth shut; only after gaining understanding can one open one’s mouth in a considered and constructive manner.

The following study begins with the need to de-link a market economy from a capitalist system, as also a planned economy from a socialist system. This entails an engagement with Deng Xiaoping, plus a historical survey – beginning with Marx – on market economies throughout human history. Second, I delve into Chinese scholarship and its deployment of Mao Zedong’s contradiction analysis. The concern is to identify the primary contradiction in the context of socialist construction; or, rather, the manifestation of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. For Chinese researchers, this manifestation is in terms of the overall socio-economic system and its specific components, or what may be called institutional forms, which include planned and market economies. Given that the primary purpose of socialism is to liberate the forces of production, the question now concerns what institutional form enables such a liberation. Initially, a planned economy was able to liberate productive forces, but later and in light of its unfolding contradictions a market institutional form becomes necessary – although planning does not disappear. The third section concerns the dialectic of universality and particularity, in which a market economy has universal or common features but its nature is determined by the particular socio-economic system of which it is a component. This section also seeks to answer the question whether the market economy in the context of socialism is indeed socialist, an answer that also entails a return to Marx and Engels. The final section deals with more recent developments concerning the dialectical sublation or transformation of both market and planned economies. Obviously, planning has not been abandoned, but it has been transformed to a qualitatively new level – as has the socialist market economy. By now it should be obvious that the framework is resolutely Marxist – or more specifically Marxist philosophy – for this is the approach that Chinese scholars use and have developed further in light of China’s specific conditions.