by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Paul Kagame/Flickr/CC

AT THIS LATE stage in the game, one should not be surprised at how incredibly poor the western left’s understanding of China is. Many western leftists remain unable to conceptualize any imperial or capitalist power outside of the US and therefore romanticize or downplay China’s authoritarianism because it seems to them at least an alternative to US global hegemony. In a time in which it is popular to talk of “provincializing” Europe or “deprovincializing” Asia as a response to Eurocentrism, what this reflects more than anything is the provincialism of the western Left—which inevitably centers the West, sees no other actors of concern in the world, and sees anything that is not the US through a rose-tinted lens, no matter how authoritarian they may also be. 

This is the case, then, with respected leftist magazine Monthly Review’s recent August issue on China, featuring such writers as Asian American tankie commentator Mark Tseng-Putterman, and no less than the diasporic ethno-nationalist Qiao Collective. It proves of some hilarity to see the Monthly Review, which once hosted the Brenner debates and writing by luminaries such as Herbert Marcuse, Noam Chomsky, C. Wright Mills, and others, now platform the Qiao Collective. 

Make no mistake, Qiao has strayed into explicit ethno-nationalism in some of its writings, with memorable quotes such as the following:

“Knowing I am Chinese is knowing that the civilization my grandparents, parents, and I descend from produced salt before Europe knew its taste. That it was this civilization that gave birth to thinkers and leaders like Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong, and Soong Ching-ling, who saw what the future needed in the face of a West doomed to fall apart and take the rest of the world down with it. These leaders knew more about human progress, requiring a new sense of morality, than the West. […] This civilization existed before the West, and it is something that can inspire our creation of a new world as the modern world as we know it collapses.”

So, too, has Qiao uncritically defended the expansion of Chinese state power, including the police and court system. Despite Qiao otherwise being critical of the US police state, apparently police states outside of the US are not an issue for Qiao. 

How the mighty have fallen, then! Yet as the issue’s “Notes from the Editors” makes clear, Monthly Review has always had something of a flirtation with Maoism, returning to the New Left’s idealistic projection onto China as an alternative to American imperialism. 

The main task of Monthly Review’s August issue, then, seems to be to absolve China of claims that it is an imperialist, capitalist nation-state. This is mostly accomplished through a lot of rhetorical handwaving to redirect attention away from the grotesque socioeconomic realities that exist in China—one of the world’s most economically unequal societies—and back to the only real Big Bad in the world, the US. At other times, Monthly Review strays into outright denial of atrocities taking place in China, such as the vast detention camps in Xinjiang, or harsh domestic repression in Hong Kong in which simply being a young person or wearing black outside is now sufficient cause to be jailed. 

What one sees in these pieces is a view of China in starkly homogeneous terms. Chinese New Left Li Minqi’s piece, probably one of the stronger pieces of the issue, is willing to acknowledge Chinese president Xi Jinping’s massive personal wealth. But the overall point of his article is to deny that China is an imperialist power. While he is willing to entertain the debate about whether China is imperialist or not, his rather facile conclusion is that: “The currently available evidence does not support the argument that China has become an imperialist country in the sense that China belongs to the privileged small minority that exploits the great majority of the world population.”

Certainly, there is the technical argument that China is not an empire in strictly defined terms, as articulated in the work of Lee Ching-Kwan and others—though such academics are clear that this does not absolve China of authoritarian or prejudiced actions in Africa and elsewhere. Yet Li’s argument primarily aims to point at uneven development in China to suggest that therefore, China necessarily cannot be exploitative of other countries. Apparently, it is only developed countries such as the US that can be imperialist powers; Li seemingly cannot entertain the thought that China may be a highly unequal society while also being exploitative of other societies. 

Arguably, what underwrites Li’s argumentation, then, is a simplistic view of history and socioeconomic development in which only the First World or “Core” can ever be imperialist. Of course, if one takes the US as the best contemporary example of an imperialist country, as Li does, it is hardly as if the US is not also wracked by large financial disparities between its privileged elite and working class. So, too, with China. If so, why should it be a surprise that China can be an empire?

This attempt to defend China continues in Sit Tsui, He Zhixiong and Yan Xiaohui’s contribution to the issue, which argues that “China has practiced financial containment and control of speculative capital for about forty years” and that this continues in the present, as “China seems to have learned historical lessons on restricting the barbaric expansion of capital and breaking the curse of finance.” Sit, He, and Yan try to point to what they view as regulation of the financial market to suggest that China is qualitatively different from the unfettered capitalistic excesses of the West, in which such “financial containment” is not practiced. 

Still, this effort is a rather laughable one. One of Sit, He, and Yan’s major examples to prove their point is how Alibaba’s IPO offering was halted at the last minute in November 2020, which the authors use to claim that even giants continue to be regulated by the Chinese state. There is little to no discussion of why the Chinese system of financial regulation went so off course as to allow Alibaba to grow to such a massive size to begin with, something that seems to suggest that financial containment practices are not exactly as effective or operative as Sit, He, and Yan believe. 

Alibaba founder and former chair Jack Ma. Photo credit: Foundations World Economic Forum/WikiCommons/CC

Tony Andréani, Rémy Herrera, and Zhiming Long’s contribution on China’s participation in international financial institutions aims to defend China’s global extension of its reach. For Andréani, Herrera, and Long, China’s participation in institutions that advance globalization are, in fact, counterintuitively aimed at “de-globalizing.” Thus, Andréani, Herrera, and Long seek to defend China’s New Silk Road, as well as Chinese development in Africa. 

Yet the claims in the article are backed up by little evidence, whether this be in the form of data or qualitative responses from countries in which China has development projects. Apart from one citation of data on the size of ASEAN economies, all of the piece’s citations are self-citations—with the exception of two citations of speeches by Xi Jinping. The majority of the piece’s argumentation follows from simply citing a speech by Xi in which he stated:

“Globalization is a double-edged sword.… The contradiction between capital and labor is accentuated.… The gaps between the rich and the poor, between the North and the South, are constantly widening.… The richest [elements] represent 1 percent of the world’s population, but have more wealth than the remaining 99 percent.”

All this is simply taken at face value. One generally wonders about leftists that apparently take the words of world leaders at face value, as similarly empty rhetoric is spewed by US president Joe Biden against financial inequality in recent times. But it would hardly behoove leftists to take the Biden administration’s words at face value. So why the blindness with regards to Xi Jinping?

Indeed, there seems to be a broader failure in Monthly Review’s pieces to see Chinese and US actions within the same frame. Tim Beal’s contribution on China’s relation to North Korea is wholly dismissive of the fact that the THAAD system was installed in South Korea to protect from Chinese and North Korean missile threats and instead claims that the purpose of the system is to “Enable the United States to detect missile launches from deep inside China and feed the information into the U.S. missile defense system. That, in turn, helps the United States to develop “a first strike capability against China.” 

Beal offers little other evidence for this claim, which seems to be aimed at absolving China and North Korea for any aggressive action directed at South Korea or Japan, putting the onus on the US as though it were the only aggressor. Certainly, one needs to view US rhetoric through a critical lens. Yet regional tensions are exacerbated by escalation between the US and China alike, rather than that one side is wholly free from guilt and the other is the only aggressor. Why might it not be that the THAAD has both a valid defensive purpose and an offensive purpose for the US, but only the latter, as Beal wants to claim?

In this light, the willingness to take Chinese state rhetoric at face value is a recurring problem throughout the Monthly Review issue. This can also be observed in Mark Tseng-Putterman’s contribution to the issue, in which Tseng-Putterman situates US aggression toward China in a larger history of US imperialism in the Asia Pacific. Tseng-Putterman dismisses contemporary claims of Chinese imperialism on the basis of how China has historically been colonized by imperialist powers and attempts to draw links between US imperialism in the Asia Pacific and Japanese imperialism in the first half of the 20th century, pointing to how the latter became incorporated into the former when the US sought to prop up Japan as a bulwark against other regional powers following World War II. 

Though not entirely incorrect on this point, Tseng-Putterman seems to be unable to see the parallels between Japanese empire and Chinese empire. In his view, apparently China’s past history of being colonized absolves it of being an imperialist power in the present. 

Chinese military parade. Photo credit: GovernmentZA/WikiCommons/CC

Of course, Japan’s borders were themselves forcibly opened up by western imperialism. A mere forty years or so years after this occurred in the wake of the 1853 Perry Expedition, Japan fought China in the Sino-Japanese War and secured its first overseas colony, Taiwan. Arguably, this historical trauma of facing down western imperialism is a key part of what led Japan to becoming an imperialist power itself. Being a formerly colonized country does not absolve one of the potential to become an imperialist power down the line; in fact, sometimes historical colonization is precisely the reason why nations pursue imperial ambitions later on in the hopes of avoiding any repeat of national humiliation. This response occurs through the view that national security can only be consolidated through becoming something on par with or similar to the western powers that one was once colonized by. Is this not contemporary China, as it was for Japan before it? 

The Qiao Collective’s contribution to the Monthly Review issue takes a different tack than the other pieces by asking the question, “Can the diaspora speak?” and discussing racism against Chinese overseas students in the US. Qiao is not wrong in pointing to the wave of racism against Chinese and Asians in the US after the COVID-19 outbreak, or how increased US-China tensions have put Chinese students in the crossfire. Like Tseng-Putterman, Qiao situates contemporary racism against Chinese students in the broader history of anti-Asian racism in the US. 

Qiao establishes a distinction between what they consider Chinese diaspora that have been co-opted by the US and Chinese in the US who are targeted by the state under the auspices of anti-communism. It is unsurprising that there is not much attention paid by Qiao toward ideological monitoring of Chinese students in the US by their fellow students, which is presumably dismissed out of hand as simply being Cold War rhetoric and anti-Chinese propaganda—Qiao would reject any more complex view of the diaspora that does not conform to their simple binary. That the Qiao Collective conceives of diaspora as existing only between the two poles of alignment with and opposition to China is indicative of Qiao’s Schmittian worldview and reflective of their diasporic ethno-nationalism. 

Qiao is right to speak of how the Other-ization of China is one of the contributing reasons for western aggression toward China and racism toward Chinese and other Asians in the US, if not the only reason. But ironically Qiao’s alignment with the western leftists that run Monthly Review is also founded on a romantic Other-ization that idealizes China as a technology of recognition that solely exists to be juxtaposed to the West, which appears to be Monthly Review’s solipsistic subject of concern. 

John Bellamy Foster’s contribution, which in many ways frames the other pieces in the issue, exemplifies this de-subjectification of China by western leftists. In Foster’s piece, China is only ever depicted as reacting to US aggression, completely overlooking the pattern of mutual escalation. US military threats against China, such as flybys or naval drilling, are brought up, but there is no mention of how China also carries out flybys and naval drilling in the Asia Pacific. Both sides may perceive themselves as primarily responding to the other, but both sides are caught in a pattern of tit-for-tat escalation, and Foster seems only to perceive China as responding to the US—never incidents in which China is the first actor. 

China is only ever a passive entity and victim in Foster’s framing, then, reacting to the US. Foster never describes any military actions by China, as any actions that Foster describes China taking against the US are confined to rhetoric. Moreover, Foster reacts against the international order set up by the US after World War II, but fails to discuss attempts by China to set itself up as offering an alternative to the US—which would in many ways be modeled after US dominance. Instead, attempts by China to set itself up as an alternative to the US are framed in a positive light in the issue by Andréani, Herrera, and Long, never mind that many such institutions for this purpose seem directly modeled after US-led institutions such as the IMF or World Bank. 

Quite laughably, for Foster: “Driven by this sovereign historical project, China has remained an enemy of imperialism and a strong, unswerving defender of the Westphalian system of state sovereignty,” and is only ever anti-imperialist. This hardly seems to be the case when it comes to Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. One person’s Westphalian respect for the sovereignty of states is someone’s else’s expansionism, apparently, depending on how you decide to draw your borders. 

Likewise, one notes that the contemporary PRC’s territorial claims are founded on the borders of the Qing dynasty. Presumably Foster believes that leftists should disregard calls for self-determination as articulated by Lenin, among others, and instead favor maintaining the borders of pre-modern empires and fuzzy historical claims regarding territorial sovereignty dating back to time immemorial. Indeed, for a self-proclaimed “eco-Marxist”, Foster takes rather seriously claims by Xi about “ecological civilization”, whatever that means exactly (When were Marxists so defensive of “civilization”, a word that should immediately raise red flags about ethno-nationalism, again?).

Foster is also dismissive of any events that depict China in a negative light, claiming that there is no proof of reeducation camps in Xinjiang and that forces in Hong Kong are only stirred up by the West in order to undermine China. Yet for Foster, who presumably has no knowledge of Chinese, out of 87 citations, 12 are from writings or speeches by Xi Jinping. These 12 citations are of 15 citations of Chinese individuals overall, one of which is Mao Zedong. Foster cites Wang Hui’s infamous “Revolutionary Personality” article positively—criticized as defending Xi Jinping’s cult of personality—and cites Max Blumenthal to deny any wrongdoing by China in Xinjiang. 

Chinese president Xi Jinping. Photo credit: Kremlin/Public Domain

Still, nothing really surprises about the Monthly Review. Leftists in Asia—particularly from places caught between the inter-imperial struggle of the US and China—should perhaps hardly expect anything from western leftists except insularity on a level entirely devoid from ground-level realities in Asia. Many western leftists seem precisely unable to move beyond navel-gazing usually based in their own white guilt or at least guilt as westerners, always centering the West as the only prime mover in the world, and apparently the only source of the world’s issues. 

Of course, this reflects a unipolar understanding of the world and a failure to grasp the complex dynamics that the rest of us deal with, not to mention something of a paradoxical savior complex that feeds off of diasporic ethno-nationalist caricatures of a supposed Oriental savior in need of saving. Such centering of the West probably stems from the greater desire by such leftists to performatively self-flagellate about their guilt as westerners than actually deal with the messy empirical reality of the non-West and see beyond the narcissistic gaze of misconstruing the West as the only source of imperial power that can or ever will exist.

In this, western leftists will align with Chinese diasporic ethno-nationalists whose politics consist primarily of romanticized projection onto an imagined homeland that hardly corresponds with reality, as well as Chinese left nationalists, even ethno-nationalists, whose rhetoric they would probably find repulsive if translated into a western equivalent. They may do this more often than they actually will align with critical leftists from China or parts of Asia wedged between the US and China. One has seen this for decades and one hardly expects to see change now. 

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