Why isn’t the British left excited by what’s happening in China?

Diary of an ex-Corbyn foot soldier (September, 2021) 

Dictionary definition of “foot soldier”: “…a dedicated low level follower…” 

Michael Murray: murraymicha@gmail.com; FaceBook: Michael Murray London

Contents:  

(1) “Why isn’t the British left excited by what’s happening in China?”

(2)  “The Uyghurs and China”

(1) “Why isn’t the British left excited by what’s happening in China?”

Introduction

“Okay. Name one country in the world where socialism works?” 

How often have you been asked this question, on the doorstep canvassing, or in the pub, shooting the breeze? “Well,” you begin, wondering where to start. “See? You can’t even name one.” 

Today, I might give a one word answer “China” but fully expecting a torrent of negativity: “What? China?  That’s a Communist dictatorship ! Look what they’re doing in Hong Kong? “The Uyghurs. What about the Uyghurs?”  

In the pub with our leftie friends the negativity, of course, would be on a higher level. 

“China? “State capitalism, not socialism”; “A deformed workers’ state” (an older Trot, probably thrown out of the Labour Party in the 1980s, caught in his time warp, might opine).  

And the words of “Ballad of a thin man” come into your head: “Something’s happening here, And you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr Jones?” (Well, it is Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday year.) 

Who is John Ross?

This month’s Diary entry will take the form of the review of a book, which has all the answers to the questions raised above, and more: “China’s Great Road,” written by John Ross, published in England, June 2021 by Praxis Press. The book is the reason I ask the question: “Why is the British left not excited by what’s happening in China?

The 260 page book comprises 7 key discussion papers written between 2010 and the present, accompanied by 14 pages of explicatory Footnotes and Bibliography. These include statistically well-referenced material, covering the scale of China’s achievement compared to other countries, using copious, clearly presented, reader friendly, techni-coloured charts and graphs. All it’s missing is an Index, my only quibble. 

It’s a scholarly work, as befitting a Senior Fellow of  the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies – one of the most influential think tanks in China. John has authored hundreds of papers and books, including two best sellers in Chinese.

He came to international notice in the early 1992 with the seminal paper: “Why the Economic Reform Succeeded in China and will fail in Russia and Eastern Europe” – written in Russian. 

The publisher’s bio tells us he lived in Moscow from 1992 to 2000, where he failed to persuade the Russians to follow the Chinese approach instead of Western neo-liberal ’shock therapy.” An interesting detail in itself. One wonders if Russia might be going through a re-evaluation of that advice now, the Russia-China relationship presently viewed, in Foreign Minister Wang Li’s words – after a massive military exercise, where personnel exchanged weapons, equipment and vehicles as part of the training –“Not allies but better than allies.” (Economic Times, 15 July, 2021)

Which brings us to the last relevant biographical detail in the productive life of John Ross: he was for a while Director of Economic Policy for the mayor of London in Ken Livingstone’s time. 

An overview of the book “China’s Great Road”

First, an overview of the book’s contents. Paper One (The papers are referred to as “Sections” in the book) is devoted to a description of China’s economic and social achievement which not only lifted an estimated 850 million people out of absolute poverty and delivered the world’s fastest rise in average living standards:“with life expectancy figures showing that its social achievements are even better than its economic result.”  

Paper Two addresses the relevance of China’s progress, not only to the developing world but to the ‘advanced’ countries also. This ought to be read with Paper Four which explains the theoretical base of Chinese foreign policy.  

Paper Three.“China is a Socialist Country in line with Marx” takes up 112 pages of the book, and deals with why China can be defined as a socialist country. At its centre is the description of the synthesis and further development of  the pioneering work of Adam Smith (“The Wealth of Nations”)  by Karl Marx (Das Kapital)  and using that to explain to socialists and non-socialists alike the essence of what the Chinese are attempting. It’s a terrific read. 

But if  how many angels can dance on the head of a pin does not grab you; if you are more concerned with ascertaining if this idea of a “socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics” delivers for the people than with the integrity of the Marxist theory behind it, John Ross gives the reader permission to go to the sections of the book which present the facts for you to evaluate for yourself. 

Having said that, there is also a lengthy comparison of the Soviet Union and China’s approach to establishing a socialist economy which most open-minded readers will find illuminating, especially those with an interest in political history.   

Paper Five, written early this year, deals with China’s increasing alignment with the “Global South”    and what Ross calls the “dynamics” of the Biden presidency. It can be read alongside the relatively short Paper Seven: “China’s Socialist Economy explains its superior anti-crisis economic performance.”  This shows how China, compared to other countries, coped with the 2007- financial crisis and the far more damaging Covid 19 pandemic, which is still with us. 

Paper Six – absolutely my favourite – offers an explanation of China’s economic policy in terms of Marxist and “Western” economics. It was first published in 2010 as “Deng Xiaoping and John Maynard Keynes.” As Ross says: “Most people in the West are unaware of, or disagree with  Marxist economic categories.”  So, he presents them in western economic, Keynesian terms as well.  

And he stresses that he has in mind the actual Keynes of “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money,” notthe vulgarisations that often appear in economic textbooks.  Budget deficits play only a marginal role in China’s stimulus packages: “Even during 2009’s maximum anti-crisis measures China’s budget deficit was only 3% of GDP.”  The core of Keynesianism centres on the factors determining investment, Ross points out and: “It is through this optic that both Keynes’s and Chinese economic strategy can be best approached.” 

A bonus in Paper Six is the description of how China’s current policy of  “A Socialist Market Economy with Chinese characteristics” was born out of a constructive critique of the Soviet experience. The main lesson drawn was that a far longer term view of social transformation was called for. Also, what was intended to be a ‘planned’ economy was in fact an overly cumbersome ‘administrative’ micro-managed one. The way in which agriculture was collectivised so early on in the Russian revolution was also criticised. Did it matter in the short run, in the early stages of social change whether socially necessary economic activity, such as peasant agricultural or craft production, small shops, restaurants and small businesses was undertaken by private sector individuals or the state? Ross, controversially, in some people’s judgement, considers the way in which the private sector was brought under state control as “ultra-left,” and at odds with Marx. 

Paper Seven is entitled: “China’s Socialist Economy Explains its Superior Anti-Crisis Economic Performance.”  Ross lists the key macro-economic features of China’s economic ability to respond to crises such as the 2007- financial crash and the (ongoing) Covid19 pandemic, compared with the US.

These would include China’s use of direct state investment to alter investment levels, in addition to fiscal and monetary measures, whereas the US rejects state investment and relies almost solely on fiscal and monetary policy for macro-economic management;  its higher level of fixed investment as a percentage of its economy than the States;  a large state sector, in addition to a private one, to regulate its investment.

China, this book shows, has achieved the greatest improvement in the lives of – by far – the greatest proportion of humanity in human history. All that progress, literally “for the many, not the few” within a mere 70 years, less than the average life span nowadays. 

From being one of the world’s poorest countries, China has risen to approaching the World Bank definition of being a high-income economy: it is considered by WB measurement to be passing through the latter stages of the ‘middle income’ band.- just when, after decades of stagnation and austerity, we in Britain are coming to terms with the fact that the long experienced gradual inter-generational amelioration of living standards has ground to a halt: our children and grandchildren are now dependent on us.  

Not the way it was supposed to be, most British middle aged people are ruing, as they agonise about how to “fix up” their children – the latter hamstrung with low paid, insecure jobs and high rents and no prospect of them achieving even the basic necessity of life: a roof over their head, on their own steam. And that’s not all of it: parents who may have themselves enjoyed free third level education and training may have to put their hands in their pockets – again – to fund their offspring’s education.            

And Ross doesn’t mention, or not that I noticed, that China, not only had to address widespread systemic poverty but also overcome the loss of upwards of 20 million dead, countless maimed  and most of its cities razed to the ground in the 1937 to 1945 war against the Japanese invaders. 

John Ross’s approach is to compare China’s “Socialist Development” strategy, to the neo-liberal economic paradigm which first emerged in Europe in the last days of the failing post-war Soviet Union and the confidently anticipated demise of communist led China to follow. 

Neo-liberal economics, we shouldn’t need reminding, classically advocates wholesale privatisation, the minimisation of an economic role for the state and the subordination of public needs and wants to the primacy of private property. It comes replete with the convenient ideational underpinning  that, in Thatcher’s immortal words: ”there is no such thing as society.” There is only individuated, self-interested economic man. 

Leave the property-owning classes to itself, the theory goes, and the wealth they will generate through a market free from constraining regulation and overly disincentivising taxes and charges will ‘trickle down’ to the rest of society.  

This “There’s no such thing as society” view has a corollary – you could even say a consequence. 

“The world is not a global community,” an article in the Wall Street Journal read recently, “(it’s) an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage,” adding: “America First signals the restoration of American leadership.” (then National Security Secretary, McMaster and then Director of the National  Economic Council, Cohn, WSJ, quoted in Ross Paper Four)

The significance of the WSJ article was that it was written, according to Ross, “in response to President Xi Jinping’s presentation to the 2017 Davos World Economic Forum where President Xi had outlined China’s completely opposite vision for international relations which is, in brief:

“In today’s world all countries are interdependent and share a common future;

“All civilisations are equal;

“We should embrace the diversity of different countries;

“We should not seek to impose uniformity.” 

But, trade and competition  are ultimately seen as a zero sum game by neo-liberals.  If one country outcompetes another, the loser, if powerful enough, may reach for the sanction list or tariff options or something more destructive  – all in the name of “free trade” and “competition.”                             

“The accumulated achievements of China since its revolution of 1949 are so great that they now not only changed the world but must lead every socialist and progressive person to think about their relation to them.”  That’s what John Ross says in this book.  

“If,” he continues, “the international Left does not raise itself to understanding China’s socialist development then it is lagging in understanding one of the most enormous facts in human history.”  

Irrefutable, I would suggest.

So, why isn’t the British Left excited by what’s happening in China ?  

(2) The Uyghurs and China

Since the Uyghurs are not written about in the review of  “China’s Great Road,”  except for one mention in passing, a note is being added here. 

In June of this year, a Joint Statement on the Human Rights situation in Xinjiang was delivered on behalf of 44 countries, including the US, to a meeting of the UN in Geneva by the Canadian Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the UN, Leslie E. Norton.  

“We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. ‘Credible reports’ (my emphasis) indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang and that there is widespread surveillance disproportionately targeting Uyghurs and other minorities and restrictions on fundamental freedoms and Uyghur culture. 

“There are also reports of torture or cruel and inhuman degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilisation, sexual and gender-based violence –   and forced separation of children from their parents.”

This was in the same month that the North American papers carried the following story, not reliant on “credible evidence,” as cited by the Canadian UN Representative above, but on the cold, hard tangible evidence of the cruelest “separation of children from their parents”: the ongoing discovery, in Canada, of mass graves of indigenous children who had been forcibly taken from their parents to erase their culture in the “Murder Machine” of the dominant colonialist education system. 

According to more recent coverage in The Guardian, 150,000 children were forced to attend such church-run schools, and churches across the country have been set on fire. Interestingly, the article continues: “… Activists have pointed the finger at Canada’s colonial ruler, demanding greater recognition of the British Empire’s role in establishing policies that aimed to erase indigenous culture – and a system whose effects are still being felt today.” (Guardian, 6 July, 2021)

Amongst the 44 countries putting the boot into China, not only for the treatment of the Uyghurs, but also Tibetans and Hong Kong residents, were Canada, the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand – all colonialists with form in the treatment of their indigenous people. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, you’d think. 

Sadly, for me, Ireland was one of the 44.

Readers of Labour Affairs will know there are 173 countries represented at the UN. So how representative was this “Joint” statement?  India 1.3 billion population wasn’t featured. Nor Africa 1.3 billion. Nor Latin America/Caribbean 670 million (only Honduras, Belize … and Haiti appear).  Nor Africa 54 countries, 1.3 billion. Nor India 1.3. billion. Nor the vast swathe of the Middle East and Asia – excepting Israel and Japan.  

The OIC (Organisation of Islamic Countries) is the largest representative Islamic body in the world, comprising 57 countries, 49 of which are Muslim-majority countries, the remainder being countries “in which Islam plays a significant role.” It currently represents just short of 2 billion Muslims.

Only one majority Muslim country in the OIC  is to be found supporting the UN Statement on China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and the other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang: Albania.

In the same month of June last the OIC warmly welcomed China’s first representative on that body and thanked China for its aid to Islamic countries, especially the least developed ones, during the Covid pandemic. In recent years, its Secretary General said: “Political mutual trust and cultural exchanges with China and Muslim countries have deepened in recent years.” 

Of the eight countries bordering Xinjiang, 5 are majority Muslim. All eight support China on the issue of Xinjiang, though there is some cross border involvement with dissenting ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, given the historic porousness of national boundaries in that part of the world. 

Things have to be seen in context.     

Xinjiang has been weaponised in the US-led confrontation with China as it fights to maintain its global predominance.  The ingredients of ethnic conflict are there in the disputed history – and pre-history – of the many ethnic groups which comprise its population. The diversity is best illustrated by the proliferation of its languages. Apart from the two official languages, Uyghur and Mandarin, there are over 40 others in Xinjiang. It’s a melting pot. 

And it’s vulnerable to being stirred by actors not motivated to wanting to harness and enjoy the diversity for the benefit of all, but turn ethnic groups against each other for reasons of personal or political gain. Xinjiang has long been identified by the US as a vulnerable part of China. As China has moved up to a position in the world to the point of being perceived by the US as an existential threat, so the aggravation of ethnic differences in Xinjiang is used to slow China’s progress. That’s a feature of US behaviour, discussed by John Ross, in the book reviewed above. Even apparently dedicated ally, Japan, was subjected to measures to slow it down back in the 1980s when its economy began to threaten. 

The right wing “Diplomat” acknowledges the geopolitical divide on  this issue at the UN, with the attacks on China coming from the “Western” states, mostly in Europe. (Diplomat: Know The Asia-Pacific, “Which countries are For or Against China’s Xinjiang Policies?” 15 July 2019.) And, of course these hybrid attacks, now a long way down the continuum of “pre-kinetic” warfare and approaching the kinetic (ie a euphemism for all out military action) as  China is ringed with more bases and missiles and the “Western” allies send their naval fleets from the other side of the world to clog up the South China Sea.   

The immediate threat to China, though, is that the two-way flow of militant Uyghur jihadist involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere is numbered in the high thousands and is a reason why China has to be extra vigilant – and vigilance comes at a price in terms of limits on freedoms.  

In the now time-honoured manner, the “West” will weaponise the liberal and humanitarian instincts of its peoples for its purposes. And it constitutes a strong hand in this modern “grand game,” here in Britain, as we saw confirmed in the emergency debate on Afghanistan 18 August, 2021 in the House of Commons, where a visitor from Mars would be hard put to distinguish the jingoist contributions to the debate between the governing Tory party and the loyal Labour opposition.  

The situation in Xinjiang hasn’t been made easier, either, for China by the release of 57 varieties of jihadis from Afghan’s prisons by the Taliban in recent days, and the massive bomb detonated at Kabul airport, despite Taliban promises to the Chinese to contain the flow of these hard liners from entering Xinjiang.  A promise which seems worth less now.  

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