Rise of China and Pragmatic Marxism, An Interview


12-22-08, 9:40 am

Editor's Note: Josef Gregory Mahoney teaches East Asian Studies in Michigan. He has written numerous articles and essays on Chinese history, politics, culture, and philosophy. He has also been a visiting scholar at the Central Minzu University for China Nationalities in Beijing.

PA: You recently wrote a review for Political Affairs on Kishore Mahbubani’s The New Asian Hemisphere. The central idea of his book seems to be that there we are seeing “a rise of Asia,” especially China. You were somewhat critical of his perspective on that and the shift of global hegemony to the East. Could you talk about this?

MAHONEY: As I’ve already stipulated, I have a bit of hostility towards Mahbubani, given some of the statements he has made about China in the past where he has described the CCP not as the Communist Party of China but as the Chinese Capitalist Party. I have written about that elsewhere. In the first instance, Mahbubani is absolutely correct, that there is a rise of power in China, but what is the nature of that power? What is that power based on? On the one hand, it is based on the fact that they are able to sell so many products to the United States. So it is a power that is mediated by their ability to sell in the capitalist market, in the global capitalist market. In other words, it is dependent, in a fashion, on whether or not the United States is buying things from China, but, more than this, it is dependent on whether or not businesses like Wal-Mart and others are investing in China. This has led some critics in China to assert that much of China’s economic growth is a result of comprador capitalism. So is this is a true rise, or is it a rise on the coattails of Western hegemonism? That is the question.

But more than this, Mahbubani’s central thesis is that Asia itself is rising – with perhaps China at the center (he kind of avoids saying this, but he focuses on China so much that one gets the impression that this is the case). China is at the center and India is at the periphery. This is important, because again, much more than China, India’s rise has been driven by providing services to the United States. They provide the US with countless services. For example, if you have a problem with your AT&T bill, you call AT&T and you get someone in Bangalore. But what happens if the United States economy experiences a meltdown? What happens to all the money that is being poured into India now, and by extension what happens to all the money that is pouring into China? What happens to these vast dollar reserves that China holds, that could be literally worthless if the value of the American currency plummets? This is something which many people are very concerned about, including China. China right now is in talks with the European Union trying to find a way of getting around using the dollar as the international common currency.

But to get back to Mahbubani’s point of reference. In The New Asian Hemisphere, he looks at the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and how China handled that crisis. As I wrote in my review, this crisis was a very important event. It was one of the most important events in the last 20 years. One could even say it is one of the most important events in the history of global capitalism.

Effectively what happened is that you had a number of people – George Soros was chief among them, perhaps – who saw an opportunity to enter the currency market and make a quick killing on the Thai bhat. This led to the exposure of a number of structural weaknesses in the Thai economy, and it started a chain reaction, because people began seeing that these structural weaknesses also existed in other places, such as Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. So we began to see a snowballing effect and what was effectively a huge divestment from Asia. And as Western investors began to pull money out of Asia, where did they put it? For the most part they put it in the United States. This has led some Asians to suggest that the Asian financial crisis was, in fact, a strategic or tactical maneuver by the West to effect a massive transfer of wealth back to the West – which maybe even staved off the financial crisis we are now experiencing for another decade.

Meanwhile, what did that financial crisis provoke in Asia? The immediate outcome was that the United States went in with guarantees and shored up the economies of Thailand, South Korea and other areas, effectively re-establishing tighter hegemonic capitalist control over these countries at a time when they were beginning to become more independent. Thus we find the United States establishing itself once again more firmly and making these countries more beholden to the United States, at a time when China is trying to rise in the region.

In regard to China's response to all this, there is a great book on Premier Zhu Rongji and how he handled the financial crisis by Laurence J. Brahm, titled Zhu Rongji and the Transformation of Modern China (2002), who talks about how the United States tried to pressure China to follow the Washington Consensus that was then being pursued in Thailand and South Korea, and China declined. Many people saw this as a very bold break with American hegemony, a break that was fundamentally in China’s best interests. But, Mahbubani thinks that China’s refusal to follow Washington’s policy was, in fact, something that hurt China and should have been followed for the greater good of Asia. To me, Mahbubani's conclusion is sort of a mythological narrative, the same sort of narrative that we would expect from someone who says that the Chinese Communist Party is the Chinese Capitalist Party.

I think another important thing to keep in mind about China over the last 10 years is that you have 1997, which is the beginning of the Asian financial crisis, but more than this you have 9/11. There are a number of people in China, important and intelligent people, who conclude that the aftermath of 9/11, although it was billed as a war on terror, was really a cover for an encircling campaign to contain China. Why? Well, one of the immediate aftermaths of 9/11 was, of course, that we went into Afghanistan, but more than that we began establishing relations and building bases in Khyrgystan and Uzbekistan. When you take into consideration that the US has bases there and in Afghanistan and Iraq, we could effectively shut down the Gulf. We have F-16s throughout Central Asia. In Southeast Asia we have a big naval base in the Singapore area. In effect we have military assets in Taiwan, because we keep selling them planes and weapons. We have the Pacific Fleet, and we have armed forces in South Korea and Japan. We have effectively surrounded China. The military estimates are that we could hit any target in China with conventional weapons in under 15 minutes. Now this is very concerning and disconcerting to China. It is disconcerting in a manner that recalls two other incidents. The first was the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, which many Chinese believe, and people in government believe, the US did intentionally. Secondly there was the spy plane incident in 2001. We fly planes up and down China's coast with monitoring equipment. There was some aggression between two planes and one was forced to land on Hainan island. As people will recall, it was a very big deal.

So China sees itself as being in a strange sort of contradictory position, where on the one hand it does business with the United States and welcomes investment, but on the other hand it is certain that the United States is in a sort of low-grade struggle with China, and that the United States is trying to position assets that could effectively curtail China and threaten it.

PA: So your criticism of Mahbubani’s argument is not so much with his argument about the rise of China, as in the way you see them pursuing that rise in relation to the US?

MAHONEY: Although we can talk about our interests abroad, let’s keep in mind that the United States is bordered by only two countries, Mexico and Canada. China is bordered by thirteen countries: Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Khyrgystan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, and North Korea. A lot of these countries are places where there is some degree of unrest, where there are things happening that may be a broader threat to regional, if not global, security. And if you start talking about how many countries are close enough to China that a short-range missile could be launched from them and hit China, the number goes up quite a bit more. So, given its geographic situation, it is in China’s best interests to create good relations with its neighbors, because the consequences otherwise would be too difficult to deal with strategically. How do you maintain ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and some kind of deterrent capacity against the United States, but at the same time maintain the ability to go to war with all the small countries that surround you. And China has gone to war. They had a border conflict with the Soviet Union in the 1960s, and they fought a war with Vietnam in the 1970s right after we left. There is friction with North Korea. There is continued concern about Japan, because Japan keeps electing these very nationalistic governments, and Taiwan continues to buy very high-tech weaponry that is basically offensive in nature, not merely defensive.

So China lives in a difficult era. But, more than this, China has to have access to oil; it has to have access to resources. It needs to have a good relationship with Russia, because Russia has such vast energy resources. Furthermore, because the United States has effectively put itself in a position to lock down the Gulf, China needs other sources of oil, which is why it has been building relationships in Africa. As a result of China's opening to Africa, the American military is establishing AFRICOM to counteract what it sees as China’s meddling in Africa. But China’s “meddling” in Africa is in large measure driven by the need to have access to resources that may be closed off to them, given American hegemony in the Middle East.

In addition, China has come under substantial attack for working with Myanmar. We keep pressuring China to pressure the admittedly ruthless junta in Myanmar to facilitate democracy, and China has not done this. Neither has India, by the way, and India doesn’t get criticized that much. But why hasn’t China done this? Because there is oil in the waters off of Myanmar, and China has financed and built a pipeline through Myanmar to have access to that oil. Why? For its national security. China is also being criticized for supporting the government in Sudan. But why is it supporting the government in Sudan? Is it because they believe in the repression of minorities? Some would argue yes. They would say, yes, China wants to repress minorities. They do this to their own people. I don’t think that is true. I think that the primary reason they are in Sudan is the same reason they are in Myanmar. They are looking for access to oil and ways to counteract American hegemony in the Middle East. By the same token, just to turn the criticism around, you could say that the United States does business with Saudi Arabia and other regimes that are in many ways as anti-democratic and repressive as the ones that China does business with.

This is a broad discussion that has repercussions in many different areas. Do I think that China is broadly committed to global harmony and prosperity? In fact, I do. But I am not convinced by what we have seen in terms of their actions in response to the war on terror or in response to the Asian financial crisis, that there is solid evidence that they are acting in the best interests of the global community. Rather they seem to be simply trying to survive in very difficult times.

PA: You are leading us toward, I think, a kind of ideological discussion about China’s role – that there may be a tendency to view China as a replacement for the Soviet Union. There has always been this idealistic view in our movement that the leading countries in the world socialist movement have an international responsibility to promote democracy, socialism and international solidarity. What you seem to be saying is that China is not trying to take up that banner, except insofar as they can link their own national self-interests to that broader solidarity goal, to the broader issue of internationalism. On the other hand, it is also true that China has developed the concept of peaceful development, so that its own successes do not come at the expense of other countries, as is the case with the United States, but in cooperation with other countries. Could you talk about the history of that concept of peaceful development?

MAHONEY: To speak directly to the ideological aspect, Hu Jintao has articulated the notion of a Scientific Development Concept. We could read this on the one hand as the Chinese version of sustainable development, but it is a sustainable development that is not necessarily founded on the idea of sustaining capitalist consumptive practices, as sustainability is so often construed in the West. Instead, it has at its core the notion of socialism and harmony, which is the second major element of Hu Jintao’s ideological statement: the harmonious society. Hu Jintao and others are clear, in a reasonable and logical way, that China cannot – that no country can – dominate the globe and sustain that position over the long term, and, furthermore, that pure capitalism is so fundamentally at odds with democracy that it results in exploitative practices, which cannot, at the level of human resources or humanity, or any notion of humanism, be sustained over the long term. But more than this, what we generally see with capitalism is what you see in Northern Mexico right now as a result of NAFTA. It is one of the most polluted areas in the world – children are being born with birth defects, women are being raped, and so forth and so on, by as a result of the disruptions caused by so-called free trade. Therefore China has expressly stated that this model is not the model it wishes to pursue. I believe that that conviction is based less on ideology than it is on observation of fact.

With regard to the idea that China that we should view China in some way as a replacement for the Soviet Union. On the one hand, I do think that we should very carefully study what China is doing. Why? Because China is a big part of the world. But more than this, I believe that China is seriously trying to advance Marxist theory and socialism, and we ought to look at those efforts. However, this is still largely a case of “socialism in one country.” It is a form of socialism that understands that it cannot sustain itself in China by trying to establish China as a hegemonic power.

Now this is not a recent trend. In order to contrast it with the perception of the Soviet Union as the vanguard, we need to maybe go back to 1966, when Mao made it very clear (and the Party seemed to back him on this), that the Soviet Union was pursuing policies that were not sustainable over the long term, and furthermore that the Soviet Union was trying to establish a hegemonic position in the so-called communist world. Therefore, China decided to do two things in the 1960s: First, it broke with the Soviet Union and secondly it broke with internationalism. Whereas in 1950 it entered the conflict in Korea and effectively pushed back the UN forces – but primarily the United States – and established a buffer with North Korea. There is also evidence that has been declassified by the Chinese over the last several years that it was largely Chinese – and this is no slight against the efforts made by Vietnam’s liberation movement – but it was largely Chinese artillery units that defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Some estimates are that as many as 70,000 pieces of artillery were sent across the border by Mao by Chinese wearing Vietnamese uniforms (see Chen Jian’s Mao’s China and the Cold War, 2001).

China was very active in the 1950s trying to advance an internationalist cause/agenda, but then something happened in 1959 – it was a tragedy really. Again this is according to recently declassified information. The CIA was in fact in Tibet trying to stage an uprising. This led to what then happened to Tibet, which is that the PLA rolled in and crushed the uprising, and the Dalai Lama fled. The Dalai Lama headed an organization that worked directly with the CIA. Now, it is not a popular thing to say in the West, but Lamaist Buddhism in Tibet was one of the most oppressive forms of theocratic feudalism the world has ever seen. So when China says they liberated Tibet in 1949, they mean it, and when they had to go in in 1959 and crush the CIA-organized rebellion there, the really had to. Because whoever controls the Tibetan plateau has an incredible strategic advantage over the whole heartland of China. It was a very unfortunate circumstance, and no one applauds it or feels good about Tibet, but I often say that if you want to criticize China’s modern nation-building in Tibet, then criticize America’s modern nation-building in California, New Mexico, or more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But that aside, in 1966 China effectively abandons internationalism. It’s a very interesting moment in Chinese history. On the one hand China initiates the Cultural Revolution, and you see this very hard movement to the left, which the Soviets hated by the way – they hated it and they criticized it ruthlessly. So there was this very hard movement to the left internally, and at the same time a hard movement to the right internationally. They now abandon internationalism. They abandon supporting movements abroad, and they begin to make overtures – this starts in 1966 really – to the United States, culminating in Nixon and Kissinger’s visit in the early 1970s. It is not Deng Xiaoping who opens China to the world, it is Mao who does this. Deng is going to get the credit for it, and we would like to pretend like there is this big rupture between Deng and Mao, but it is really Mao who moves China to the right internationally. It is Deng who will move China to the right domestically.

The next thing is that many people on the left, and for good reasons, admire Cuba, Venezuela, and what is going on in Ecuador, Bolivia, and the leftism that has to some degree emerged in Brazil. We love it when Chávez goes to Beijing or when officials come from Beijing and travel to these countries and you get these great photos. We have this sense that there is a rise in leftism, that there is solidarity, and that maybe China is at the center of it. But I am not sure that this is really the case, because there is really no evidence that China is pursuing a leadership role in a global solidarity movement that is exclusive of anyone. I think maybe the best evidence of my argument here against this would be the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, which is right there on China’s border. I mean this is a Maoist insurgency for democracy and for socialism, and it wins, it is victorious – but there is absolutely no evidence that they have received any support, ideological, moral, financial, or material from the Chinese. So I am not sure how anyone can then say, 'Well here’s China, and they it's are doing all these things at the center of some internationalist, and we should see them within an internationalist Marxist revolutionary paradigm.' After all, in large measure we saw the end of of the claim to uphold an internationalist model with the fall of the Soviet Union. For China, the Soviet 'fall' came much sooner than 1989, of course. Ironically, one of the reasons China broke with the Soviets in the 1960s is that the Chinese did not think the Soviets were capable of supporting China’s best interests, let alone the broader interests of global revolution. Furthermore, in 1966, China effectively abandoned revolutionary international policies. Given this historical context, I think that those people who come to see China as a potential international solidarity revolutionary leader, as some second coming of the idealized role played by the Soviet Union, is a recurrence of wishful thinking in the same way they saw the Soviet Union have an idealization problem.

That said, I am not going to retreat from my earlier point, which is that we do need to study China. We do need to study their work in Marxist theory, because it is very advanced. There is much that we can learn from it about what it means to struggle for progress in the world as it presently is, about what it means to survive and grow, about how to sustain some form of socialism within the context of global capitalist hegemony. This is the broader tactic at work in China, and I think that they have achieved a lot. On the other hand, and I know that this is something that we need to discuss separately, there have been some important issues and questions, and the biggest question has to do with “What about democracy?”