China's "peaceful rising"-A Marxist Historian's View



The following is an edited and expanded version of  a presentation  at this years Left Forum at Pace University

First let me say that while I am  an historian of  U.S. history, not  of Asia and China, I did study Chinese East Asian history at City College with Conrad Schirokauer, whom I remember very fondly, and as a minor field at the University of Michigan with Albert Feuerwerker and Samuel Chu.  

Memories of the "old normal" on China

In those days, Chinese history, or rather the history we studied ,ended in 1949.  The Cultural Revolution was raging in China and  it was being hailed by  anarchist oriented New Left radicals  and those I today call  kindergarten "Communists"  who formed groups to rival the CPUSA as they   identified subjectively  and selectively with Mao Tse-tung-the Progressive  Labor Party,(PL) the Revolutionary Communist Party(RCP), and the Communist Party-Marxist Leninist(CPML)t#

But much of the scholarship  of the time on China was liberal-in the tradition of John Fairbank, Benjamin Schwartz, and  of course, Owen Lattimore, who continued  in academia  the thinking of the "old China hands" who had been purged in the state department and Foreign Service after World War II#

  While one could not clearly identify with the Chinese Communist party (I was occasionally warned about that in a gentle way) the achievements of the CCP in winning over masses of people, the corrupt and reactionary nature of the Kuomintang regime, and the exploitation and oppression of the Chinese people were at the center of understanding modern Chinese history.


In the study of the Soviet Union, of course it was very different.  Joseph Stalin was  the ecumenical devil; the Bolshevik revolution was a "coup" against the real February Revolution.  Everything the Soviets did was cynical, ruthless, and the opposite of what they said. 

    Today, things have   changed in  academic scholarship and popular media. Since the Soviet Union was destroyed a generation ago, Mao Tse-tung is no longer played against Joseph Stalin; he has joined
Joseph Stalin asa "co-devil"  in the upper echelons of capitalist demonology, ironically as the defenders of the Vietnam War sought unsuccessssfully  to portray him nearly a half century ago.

The New Portrayals of China-Capitalist Surrealism or Schizophrenia?

Since Deng Shao-p'ing, whatever one may think of his policies, did not become a Chinese Gorbachev (and there have been no Chinese Yeltsins and Putins to overthrow the Chinese Communist party and lead a new class of compradors and regional warlord bosses comparable to the former Soviet Republics  tied to the major capitalist states, and this shows no sign of happening), the relationship of  the  capitalist world system  and capitalist states toward the Peoples Republic remains very contradictory.

Some may nervously remember  what is believed to be an  old Chinese proverb-"be careful what you wish for; it may come true".  The capitalist world did get from Deng the opening up of China to capitalist investment and significant trade (the latter not quite what they expected).  They also gained an informal but significant strategic alliance from Deng against the Soviet Union in its last period-an alliance which increased divisions within Soviet leadership and may have contributed to the Gorbachev forces gaining power.#

They, the defenders of the capitalist path and their pundits both in the world of academic work (what sadly is often what the great social scientist Thorstein Veblen called the higher superstition) and mass media(what is often propaganda aka spin),  are still looking for Chinese Gorbachevs to be followed by Chinese Yeltsins and Putins to give them what they want and have wanted since the Opium wars,--that is a weak China that they can control and use for their own profits.

Capitalists however clever they may be are compelled by the system in which they maneuver to act out the old definition of reactionary-to learn nothing and forget nothing.   Even though they today trade with China, export capital to China under conditions that they are not completely happy about, and  accept Chinese credit for their own debt ridden economies,  they still cheer on the Dalai Lama and all Chinese at home and abroad  who  appear to be enemies of the CCP.    Since capitalists by nature are anti-intellectual (too much time thinking is bad for business and scholars are servants they employ) they do not stop to wonder why the China market they dreamed of in the past has become China's market.

China as "New Russia" is still their  dream of a "free China"-Russia except for its nuclear weapons is back to some extent where it was in world affairs in the Czarist period-dismembered, its anti-Communist government weak, the major capitalist syndicates coveting its natural resources, trying to tie it to them, and succeeding in tying former Soviet Republics to them with loans and even military bases.


China's mixed economy path   on the other hand has in the larger sense worked; it has since the revolution and particularly since it adopted its mixed economy path over the last three decades lifted more people out of poverty than any nation in human history. #

Just as politicians like Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the U.S. and others through the world adopted policies taken from the socialist movement to both save and reform capitalism, especially state investment based on Keynesian economic theory, Chinese leaders have adopted policies taken from capitalists, the use of markets and private investment for profit, along with a great deal of Keynesian economic theory, to develop socialism in China.  

In the U.S, the political organizations and mass media of the right seventy five years ago and forever after accused Roosevelt's government of advancing socialism and Communism.  In the U.S. and in the world, many on the non and anti-Communist  left who have no real power or access  media except when they criticize  mainline Communists ,(the capitalists have always understood the value of having enemies of their main enemy)have written off China as a capitalist country.  

China today is made a scapegoat for both the "evils" of Communism as seen by anti-Communists and also the "evils" of capitalism as seen by much of the non and anti-Communist left, what I call the lone ranger left, those who go from situation to situation, country to country, striking blows in the abstract for the working class, for revolution, and then marching off to the next demonstration for the next country-attacking sweatshops in China while the cities of the U.S. team with sweatshops. Condemning Chinese unions and labor laws while we in the U.S. have the worst labor laws for workers and just about the weakest trade union movement in the developed. World.   Condemning "genocidal" policies against a Tibet about which they know nothing while keeping silent largely about the conditions of life in the slum ghettoes of the U.S. (where millions of people of color face daily dehumanization) about which they want to know nothing.  

       This lone ranger left, even when it rides into China, is sort of the reverse  of Norman Thomas famous comment about liberals-that is they are more sympathetic to socialism the further away it is from the United States.

The groups of the  lone ranger left  are more critical and  hostile to attempts to construct socialism in ways different from their views the further away it is from the United States and their abstract criticisms, sometimes  for criticisms, sake  means that the they nothing to contribute to the construction of socialism with American characteristics.   It is easy after all to fight for Chinese workers at Apple Plants in New York, when less than one out of ten private sector workers in the U.S. are unionized, and millions of undocumented workers line up in front of supermarkets as day laborers with no protections of any kind.

            What is China Today?  

As I see it, it is the world's greatest experiment in social construction and no one can say with any certainty where that great social experiment will lead to?    But we can sympathize and empathize with the Chinese people and those of us who are for socialism can and must struggle for Sino-American friendship and cooperation, struggle to learn from and help each other.  
Let me look briefly at Chinese history, a history which means little to capitalists or to the lone ranger left,     These are my views based on my past study and analysis, not necessarily the views of my comrades in the CPUSA
Chinese feudalism, with its landlord-scholar bureaucrat economic political power structure  interacting dialectically with  its rationalist-idealist Confucian ideology,  existed for millennia in large part because it as it developed became  the most advanced feudal system in the world, absorbing conquerors expanding without over extending itself, keeping merchant capitalists and others who might threaten it at bay.
But  the landlord class, its mandarin state machine  and its Confucian ideology, could not withstand the assault of industrial  capitalism, which in the name of "civilization and progress" free markets" and" the rule of law" fought wars to sell opium that destroyed the bodies and minds of millions of Chinese people;  seized Chinese territories; looted and burned the emperor's summer palace in 1860; established unequal treaties and extraterritoriality for its agents, largely turning  the Chinese  people into servants in their own homes.

And then of course, for the Chinese, there was  Japanese imperialism's annexations and  its master plan to gain complete control of China as the foundation for its becoming the great   Empire of Asia, removing and supplanting   all of the European imperial powers and the U.S.

Where were the capitalist states and their agents when it came to preserving the human rights and civil liberties of Chinese people, not to mention their right to food, clothing, shelter, without which all other human rights are cruel jokes, before the Chinese revolution?

In reality the capitalist imperialist states mission of "civilization and progress" was to wait like vultures for Chinese division, weakness, and then to  take more  and more from the crumbling feudal empire; to carry forward the savage suppression of what capitalists call the Boxer Rebellion; to hypocritically refuse  to support the people's democratic reformer Sun Yat-sen  and instead  support  the warlord of warlords, Yuan Shih K'ai ,as he betrayed the Chinese anti-feudal revolution of 1911 .  Why?    Yuan would give the consortium of capitalist banker and traders the economic concessions that they wanted and   that was all they cared about in China in 1913 or for the U.S. in the Caribbean and Central America at the same time.

As Franklin Roosevelt would say in the late 1930s about the military strongman of a Carribean country  owned largely by U.S. interests and backed by U.S. marines, he was a "son of a bitch but our son of bitch."  Yuan, like Ch'iang Kai-shek a decade later and many others through the world, was "our son of a bitch" who would protect U.S. capitalist economic and later military interests, and that was the real meaning of "freedom and democracy" for   the colonial and semi colonial regions as all of the capitalist powers practiced it.

And for China that was only the beginning.  When the Soviet Union and the Comintern made anti-imperialism a foundation of world Communist policy and helped to craft a united front of the Chinese Communist party and Sun's KMT, all of the major capitalist powers opposed Sun, continuing their internecine rivalries, supporting their warlord stooges.
What a difference a month makes.  March, 1927, Nanking, while the United Front under Chiang Kai-shek is still in existence, British, U.S. and Japanese ships bombard KMT outposts.

 In April, when Chiang turned  on Communists, workers and students in the bloody Shanghai massacre, betraying both the united front and the policies and legacy of Sun Yat-sen and claiming tens of thousands of lives, then all of the major capitalist states threw him their support as he became the "strong man" all of them except the Japanese wanted, since the Japanese did not want to "share" China with other imperialist states

The issue  then became the battle over China, with Japanese imperialism by far, quantitatively and qualitatively ,the greatest evil, engaging in its aggressions , annexing Manchuria, bombing Shanghai  and eventually, after a second United Front was established, launching a full scale war in 1937---the real beginnings of WWII, in which the people of China would be subject to war crimes and crimes against humanity on a scale comparable to what the Soviet people and the people of the Jewish religion in Europe were subject to at the hands of Hitler fascism and its fascist allies#

As for the U.S,  the New Deal government eventually stood with Chiang's regime against the Japanese imperialists and also allied itself with the Soviet Union and the beleaguered British Empire to fight against the fascist German-Japanese axis, even though U.S. oil companies from 1937 to June 1941 continued to supply with oil  and other goods the Japanese war machine as it  carried out its atrocities in China.    Fortunately, for the world's people,  New Deal policy was not too little too late.

One can only imagine what  a Republican government, following the dictates of former President Herbert Hoover, who rejected this policy in favor a "fortress America" isolationist approach(expanding U.S. power in the Western Hemisphere and continuing to maintain economic and political relationships with both Axis and Allied powers) would have meant for the eventual outcome of the war had it been in power.

Under the heroic, and no one can seriously  call it anything different, leadership of Mao-tse tung, Chou En lai,, Chu-te-#, Deng Shao -ping   and the revolutionary vanguard of the Chinese Communist party, the Chinese people fought back against Japanese imperialism, tying down millions of Japanese troops in a war of national liberation and social revolution which continued  after the war as  the Kuomintang with the support of the Truman administration sought to restore the prewar regime, to return to landlord rule with Chiang K'ai-shek as the warlord of warlords. #

However,  short of a U.S. invasion on the scale of the Japanese,  this was impossible and such an invasion was of course impossible, given both U.S. public opinion, geopolitical realities, and the overall commitment of U.S. cold war policy planners to "save" Western Europe and Japan, the devastated but developed capitalist regions, from socialist revolutions.

At  the height of their arrogance, though,  postwar reactionaries  used the cold war political climate in the U.S. to carry  out sweeping purges of those  New Deal and progressive elements in the U.S. government who sought a peace policy with the new Peoples Republic of China .  They were able successfully to  contend  that the U.S. had "lost China," thanks to Soviet agents and Communist spies in the U.S. government, as if China somehow was U.S. territory like Hawaii and such momentous events in history could be reduced to this espionage fairy tale.

The Days of McCarthy, the "Old Nixon", and a small Island called "free China".

Americans whatever their political views are not the people to judge the Peoples Republic of China.  Before 1945, the U.S of the major imperialist powers had been the least of China's enemies. From 1946 to the rapprochement of the 1970s it became the greatest of China's enemies.   Influenced by the development of the cold war and the postwar purges it brought about in the U.S., particularly, the hysteria fomented by Senator Joseph McCarthy, an alcoholic sociopath  who, the support of big capital, used the Chinese revolution as a point of departure to accuse the Truman administration of being under the control of Communist agents who orchestrated the "Red Chinese takeover"      successive U.S administrations did the following;

 Intervened in the Chinese Civil War to permit the Kuomintang to establish a fraudulent Republic of China on Taiwan in 1950;
Blocked the seating of the peoples Republic in the United Nations until 1971;
Threatened China's borders in the Korean War, leading to Chinese intervention and then engaged in nuclear threats or brinkmanship at a time that China had no nuclear weapons;
had the CIA work with feudal religious elements in Tibet to foment an uprising against the peoples republic;
aided Kuomintang commandos  in various provocations and assaults on Chinese territory ;
refused to recognize the  Peoples Republic of China fully for  30 years;
used its influence under the Truman and especially Eisenhower administrations to try to encourage other nations not to recognize or trade with China; engaged under the Eisenhower -Dulles administration in confrontations in the Formosa Straight that almost led to full scale war.
Some Lessons for Today, Or History Does Matter Unless One Wishes to Be Run Over By It
But that's old history you say.  Who cares?  What about labor conditions in Chinese factories.  Chinese trade policies costing American jobs.  Chinese pollution.  The Chinese military buildup?   The Dalai Lama, the second coming of Mahatma Gandhi supported today by the forces who never supported Ghandi.   That is all that matters
What do we care about Opium Wars, Taiping and Boxer Rebellions, tens of millions perishing in famine and war, American oil companies and other firms helping to arm Japan in the late 1930s while they engaged in mass murder in China, the loose John Foster Dulles talk about the use of nuclear weapons against China .  Besides the moral and ethical questions involved, and the colossal hypocrisy of our ruling class's present position, we must both understand and care if we, meaning  labor and the broad left,  are not to become the "useful idiots" of those who provoke Sino-U.S. conflict in ways that can only strengthen reactionary forces.

We  indeed, all of the major capitalist nations should be "thankful" that the Communist Party of China continues to lead the Chinese people-were  any narrow national party committed to capitalist development in power in China, a party like our own Republicans,  they would certainly seek revenge for the abuse that China as a nation and its people have suffered over the last 170 years.

A rational China policy that a serious left seeking to represent   the American working class should endorse as I see it is can and must include the following
First, a commitment not to use China as an excuse for the U.S. military industrial complex.  Chinese military spending is second to the U.S. in the world, but we should remember that China, with four times the population of the U.S. is currently spending in U.S. dollars 1/6 of what the U.S. is spending  for all the propaganda about increasing Chinese military spending and the really absurd revival of the containment doctrine against China in Asia
Second,  a commitment  not to use China as an excuse for the loss of u.s. jobs and labor's decline and the development of  an economic policy that benefits both peoples.

Raising the living standards of Chinese people in terms of their money incomes and of American people in terms largely of their social incomes will increase the mass purchasing power of both people, enabling them to purchase each other's goods without costing each other jobs as is currently the case.

Third we should stand for , a clear commitment to socialism with intellectual and cultural freedom, a version ofwhat the CPUSA here has long called "Bill of Rights Socialism."    I would say to my Chinese, American and international friends and comrades that intellectual and cultural freedom is not only precious but much more necessary under socialism than under capitalism.

Under socialism political and economic leadership is united, not separated institutionally as it is under capitalism.   Open discussion and debate does not prevent large errors, but it does prevent the establishment of bureaucratic cliques who treat ideas and policies the way capitalists treat stocks and bonds-as their investments to be protected regardless of the consequences.  And a society where intellectual freedom reigns is a healthy society and one that fosters loyalty among the masses to the socialist system.   

It was the Marxist movement which advanced the struggle for democracy through the world.  And in the Communist wing of that movement, democracy for the people, not only inside political parties, is too important to be left to social democrats, who often see the protection of democratic rights as a tradeoff with the acceptance of capitalist institutions and political economy

And there is much that we can learn from China today First, we can learn from China's mixed economy forms of planning, its control of state finance, and its advances in alternative energy development.  

We can and must work together to create the foundation for economic cooperation that will greatly lesson the power if not eliminate entirely the transnational  energy corporations who in alliance with feudal regimes in Western Asia hold both the developed and developing world hostage to their price fixing policies; to the IMF world bank system which channels the flow of investment capital  to undermine the sort of public sector  mixed economy that China is developing and advance free market "jungle" capitalism.  

The Chinese have never said nor would they say that they would remake the U.S. in their image.  
We must stop trying to remake China in our image, real or imagined.  Not only because it wrong, but because it is absurd and impossible
In that sense we can begin to seriously advance with our friends and comrades in China and through the world a genuine policy of "civilization and progress" based on developing socialist economic forms, cooperative development, and international peace.

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  • Comparing Deng with Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin is overly schematic. In real life, Deng signaled his determination to collaborate with the imperialists by invading Vietnam.

    How would you evaluate the suppression of the Tien An Men square demonstrations? An abortive democratic revolution which will be fulfilled when the CCP is overthrown?

    Doesn't the Bo Xilian affair signal the use of force and fraud by the Chinese leadership against any effort by other Party leaders for social reform of the mixed economy, even using foreign intelligence assistance against those who would appeal (for whatever reason) to socialist ideals? On what grounds do you automatically accept the official verson of those events?

    I believe that the much lower starting point of development of productive forces in China has permitted the "mixed economy" to go on much longer than normal bourgeois development. In particular, the remainder of state enterprises as acted as a stabilizing influence. But as the productive forces increase, the tempo of change in the political and social spheres also increases. The Chinese leadership is actively destabilizing its own economy by increasing ever and again the attacks on socialized property.

    Even as we speak, the Chinese economy may have reached a tipping point where the leadership's travels down the capitalist road has fatally undermined its ability to raise the living standards of the masses any further, that in fact, like most capitalist economies, its hopes for further growth lie in fact in deepening the exploitation of workers, not abolishing capitalism.

    Posted by steven johnson, 06/15/2012 8:13am (7 years ago)

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