Everyone recognizes the growing importance of China both for world capitalist accumulation and for the remaking of the international working class. But the variety of approaches to the question in the broader “left” are as diverse as the old gamut of viewpoints on the “Russian question”, and ultimately flow from the same theoretical frameworks. The old Maoists and “Marxist-Leninists” argue for a return to the pre-1978 system of Mao.   Those who see China as state-capitalist (as I do) or scattered “bureaucratic collectivists”, or orthodox Trotskyists, all favor the removal of the Stalinist bureaucracy by working-class revolution (although for the Trotskyists such a revolution would be merely “political”, not social).   These different takes on the dynamic of China today, and how it got there, lead to different conceptions of the practical tasks.

All of these debates are tied up with the potential emergence of China as a future “hegemon” of the world capitalist system. Such debates uncannily and eerily echo the 1980’s debates about “Japan as No. 1”, and may well find themselves in the same dustbin down the road. The very formulation of the problem in this way leads to a briar-patch of further questions. Foremost is the 80-year old Marxist debate about the “decadence” or “decay” of capitalism as a global system, and how that analysis can explain and interpret the undeniable major development of the productive forces in East Asia in the past 35 years (in South Korea, Taiwan, and China, as well as in the “flying geese” such as Malaysia, Thailand, etc.) and finally in the broader “emerging economies” (e..g. Brazil, Russia, India) that are currently growing rapidly. Most judgements about contemporary China stand or fall depending on how one comes down on this question of “decadence”.

China undeniably has a long way to go before it can be a first-tier capitalist power in any sense of the term. GDP is still ca. $1,100 per capita.  Total GDP in 2003 was $1.4 trillion, sixth highest in the world, but Chinese statistics are (hardly unique to China) colored by local politically-motivated reporting. Yes, China surpassed the U.S, in 2004 as the top national recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI), and last year foreign capital earned approximately $10-15 billion net returns on investment. But global capital earned roughly the same amount in…Australia. So far the post-1978 turn to the “socialist market economy” has mainly improved the lot of about 200 million people in the coastal regions, and of them, approximately 50 million enjoy “middle-class” living standards. But one overriding social question in China today is what is going to happen to the other 900 million people (overwhelmingly peasants) as yet unaffected positively or affected negatively by the market reforms. There are an estimated 100 million people in the floating population that migrates from city to city in search of work.  A “rust bowl” has emerged in the northeast, particularly in Manchuria. A net 20 million industrial jobs have been lost, as the large “SOE’s” (state-owned enterprises) are downsized and looted by their managers. (At the party congress of 1997 that consecrated his replacement of Teng shao-peng, Xiang Zemin announced 100 million layoffs for the coming 10 years.) The banking system is reportedly filled with “non-operating loans”, and the Western capitalist press openly worries about a deflationary bust that would be as bad as or worse than the bursting of the Japanese bubble in 1990.

In this context, the political and social situation seems in serious ferment, if not yet outright explosive. Riots of workers, the unemployed and retirees robbed of their pensions seem to have become commonplace, particularly in the northeast, even if they have rarely gone beyond a local framework. A recent New York Times article ( Dec. 2004) recounted a riot of several days in a medium-size town touched off by an incident between an arrogant yuppie and a worker,  The article went on to say that 60,000 such incidents had occurred in the past year. Any attempt at independent labor organization (i.e.  outside the government-controlled unions) is met with serious repression, including prison, labor camps and outright execution of militants. (China Labour Bulletin, coming out of Hong Kong, is a useful source on these developments, but one must keep in mind that it is funded by northern European Social Democracies and the British Labour Party, undoubtedly hoping to see a Solidarnosc-type union movement arise in China as a battering ram against the still-entrenched Stalinist hard-liners in the party apparatus. ) Documents recently came to light about a meeting in 2003 between top U.S. government officials and the AFL-CIO to discuss the labor situation in China and what to do about it, and there are allegations (which seem to make perfect sense) that China Labour Bulletin has received serious funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which was behind the coup attempt against Hugo Chavez in 2003.

The position and role of the Chinese “hard-liners” (essentially, people hostile to the post-1978 market reforms from a Maoist viewpoint) is, for different assessments,  a major focus of contention. While some people on the far-left and ultra-left glibly assume that the emergence of full-blown capitalism in China is already irreversible, I think (as the above assessment already shows) that it is highly problematic, and that both factions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) know they are riding the whirlwind. The pro-reform faction would like to make China into a giant Taiwan or even Singapore, but the huge peasant question (something faced by neither Taiwan and still less Singapore) strikes me as a nearly-insuperable obstacle to such a dream.  The sophisticated Western capitalist think tanks and financial press remain acutely aware that the non-convertibility of the renminbi and the state monopoly of foreign trade (two factors that made China immune to the 1997-98 Asian financial meltdown) have to be dismantled to complete the integration of China into “globalization”. A non-convertible currency, the state monopoly of foreign trade and nationalization have nothing intrinsically “socialist” about them,  and all three existed in Nazi Germany (nationalization being of course more muted but very real). The Stalinist old guard seems to be the main constituency for maintaining them, and  currents such as orthodox Trotskyists point to them as proof of the lingering “socialist” character of China. Thus a state-capitalist, bureaucratic-collectivist or orthodox Trotskyist analysis of the nature of Chinese society leads to different appraisals of both the social dynamic and of the factional situation within the party elite. And such appraisals lead us right back to the question of capitalist “decadence”.

Many people writing about China today (and now I am referring to a much wider gamut of opinion than the Marxist or radical left debates) seem to take it for granted that China will successfully become a major pole of world capitalism by the mid-21st century, if not the actual hegemon. As indicated above, I think such an outcome is anything but certain. First, I think it could only come about through a process similar to that by which the U.S. displaced Britain, the latter occurring through three decades of world war, depression and social retrogression (fascism, Stalinism). (Future historians may indeed look back on the present era as the first phase of such a process.) Whatever happens in China, however important China is and will be, will happen as part of a WORLD dynamic. My own analysis is that China occupies, relative to world capitalism, a position quite similar to that of Russia in the decades before 1917, namely one in which the full constitution of a capitalist- bourgeois society is threatened by the very real possibility of a “permanent revolution” (an analysis applied by Marx to Germany in 1848 and by Trotsky to Russia after 1905) whereby the completion of the bourgeois revolution spills over into proletarian revolution.   The Chinese ruling elite is riding the whirlwind precisely because its own necessary reforms are quite visibly setting in motion social processes that could completely overwhelm it, namely a working-class and peasant insurrection which would necessarily  assume a (truly) socialist content and would have to link up with the world working class in a similar development, or (as in Russia) be prone to lapsing back into some kind of closed authoritarian autarchy.

I believe the U.S. capitalists are acutely aware that such an insurrection in China would be even more dangerous for them for them than the “mere” emergence of China as a new capitalist superpower challenging or displacing the U.S. hegemon.  China could also disintegrate regionally (as it has in the past), and tens of millions of refugees could potentially destabilize other parts of Asia. The U.S. and Western capitalists’  ultimate goal (one which seems to me extremely difficult to bring about)  has to be stability and an entente with a Chinese  elite willing to “globalize”, i.e. fully open the economy, and a Solidarnosc-type labor movement could help achieve that.  The CIA recently disclosed that the main thinking of the Bush administration is (contrary to the post-9/11 cooperation in the “war on terror”) that the U.S. and China are ultimately on a collision course.  I believe this is the deep meaning of the post-9/11 U.S. military deployment in Eurasia, continuing the U.S. success after the 1989-1991 disintegration of the Soviet bloc. The U.S. has a strategy all along the borders of Russia and China, and it has taken giant steps in achieving that strategy. Since I don’t think that the American capitalists think (at least for now) in terms of permanent revolution as a threat, their biggest nightmare is the emergence of an East Asian capitalist hegemon (perhaps an Asian version of the EU) and/or an Asian Monetary Fund of the type that Japan floated during the Asian meltdown of 1997-98. There are great obstacles to the creation of such a pole, namely the questions of Taiwan, of Korean reunification and resurgent Japanese nationalism, all of which are simmering pots the U.S. can stir to hinder Asian regional integration the way it can stir the Palestinian question in the Middle East.   Nonethless I am convinced that there are important members of both the U.S. and Asian elites who see precisely the emergence of such a pole as the current stakes.

No assessment of the global role of China can neglect the fact that the Bank of China (the central bank) holds over half-a-trillion in dollar reserves, most of it recycled into U.S. government paper, and every day brings new speculation about when China will tire of holding these depreciating assets and “diversify” out of the dollar. Currents that view China as an “anti-imperialist” force in the world have to explain how China came to have such a role in world capitalist accumulation, and is now emerging as a foreign investor (e.g. in Canada, in South America and in Africa) in its own right.

I have referred several times to the framework of “decadence” or the “epoch of capitalist decay” as necessarily part of any assessment of where China is headed. This theory has various expressions. But all of them come down to an assertion that there is something fundamentally different (and “decadent”) about world capitalist development since 1914.  Marxists who reject the decadence theory, on the other hand, think that capitalism today is doing what is always did, namely developing the global productive forces, and that China will successfully push the U.S. aside as the U.S. pushed Great Britain aside. As the main expression of capitalist decadence, I would cite the billions of people, mainly in the Third World (but not exclusively) (and hundreds of millions in China itself) who are living in extreme precariousness because capitalism cannot profitably employ them, quite analogous to the “reserve army of the unemployed” which Marx described in a mainly national (i.e. British) context in the 1860’s. This population, further, through world migration,  above all to the metropolis, is exercising a downward pull on working-class wages worldwide, just as the “reserve army” did in Marx’s day.  Thus my general hunch is that China will emerge as a superpower or as “the” hegemon only through a bloody reshuffling of the capitalist deck, and not through the kind of “normal” development that achieved world hegemony for Britain after 1815.

I think a debate on all aspects of these questions is a top priority for the existing and future international revolutionary left.

March 2005