by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Palácio do Planalto/Flickr/CC
THE QIAO COLLECTIVE, Monthly Review, and People’s Forum came together to hold a conference on the topic of “China and the Left” on September 18th in New York City, an event featuring such luminaries of the tankie left ranging from Max Ajl to Mark Tseng Putterman and Vijay Prashad. Reportedly around 150 were in attendance, though many hundreds more attended online by livestream, and videos of the event accumulated thousands of views in the days afterward.
Surprising nobody, the event mostly consisted of uncritical apologia for the Chinese state—however, the mental gymnastics on display are worth remarking on. Ultimately, the depiction of China by the event’s speakers will still be persuasive to members of the western Left who know little about China and for whom China is little more than a faraway land to projected one’s romanticized hopes onto, something reflected in how little most speakers seemed to know about the world’s most populous nation. All this reflects the poverty of much of the western Left’s knowledge of anything outside of western contexts and their projection of readymade frameworks onto any and all non-western contexts—in which they seem unable to see beyond their own Euro-American-centric worldview, failing to grasp the rather basic idea that there can be any empire in the world outside of US empire.
Indeed, the utter hilarity of the event should be clear at a glance from the fact Obama “Hope” poster-style t-shirts with an image of Xi Jinping were on sale. Apart from making one wonder how exactly self-proclaimed Marxists could be so sold on the personality cults surrounding Great Men of History, this fandom indicates that the conference participants’ imagined China bears no resemblance to the US—except, evidently, actions that would otherwise be criticized if done by the US are justified on purportedly leftist grounds when done by China. The speakers at the event seemed unable to point to examples of convergent behavior between the US and China, seeing the world instead in a highly dichotomous, Manichaean lens. Some speakers went so far as to veer into bizarre COVID-related pseudoscience underwritten by Chinese nationalism, as in claims that traditional Chinese medicine proved 90% effective in treating COVID-19.
From the China and the Left Conference this last weekend pic.twitter.com/9KUeZDk5z0
— Southern Marxist (@SouthernMarxist) September 20, 2021
The shirt in question
The framing of the event as a reaction to the “new Cold War” pushed for by the US is ironic, then, in how this rehashes old tropes. Clearly, the reaction of some elements of the western Left to the “new Cold War” is to fall into the same logical pitfalls that mired much of the western Left in uncritical apologia for the Soviet Union during the first Cold War, inclusive of whitewashing the Soviet Union’s authoritarianism, or viewing it as qualitatively different to western capitalism—all this despite the fact that China is firmly integrated into the world capitalist system in a way that the Soviet Union was not. The wave of contemporary anti-Asian racism in the US is leveraged to bolster this narrative, opportunistically hoping to channel efforts to stand up against racism to bolster Chinese nationalism. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
“(Semi-)Peripheral” China as Virtue Alibi, and Other Specious Claims
THE FIRST PANEL was entitled “Chinese Development in Global Perspective”. The first speaker was Barry Sautman, who dismissed accusations that China could be a colonial power toward Uyghurs and Tibetans or countries or territories in China’s vicinity because China was still a manufacturing power. As such, for Sautman, China was still firmly on the “periphery”—by dint of it being the “world’s factory.” Apparently, China could not be a “center” or an empire because of its large manufacturing base.
The ludicrous nature of Sautman’s claims should be self-evident from the fact that Britain was a manufacturing power during Marx’s time, yet still reigned over an empire so vast that “the sun never set in the British empire.” So too with the US empire during its postwar manufacturing heyday. Ironically, considering that the last two great historical empires were also great manufacturing powers, it might have made more sense to claim this status as a reason for why China is an empire. Sautman went on to claim that China could not be neocolonial, if not directly colonial, because China needs countries it has infrastructure development deals with more than they need it. But if one accepts this claim, no country could ever really be said to be colonial either; no country is ever in need of the colonizing force more than the colonizer needs the colony.
For Sautman, the notion that China was colonial was ludicrous because racism had to be involved in colonialism and he did not view China as racist. Far be it for him, a white man, to understand racial formations of Han supremacy in China. If he wanted to take seriously evidence contrary to his claim, Sautman could simply view any of the many “ethnic minority films” produced by China over the past seventy years to find that the claim that Han Chinese are not racist toward non-Han residents of China is false.
Either way, this view of an absolute divide between “periphery” and “core” was shared by many of the speakers at the event, with little understanding of how a “periphery” could eventually become a core.
Video recording of the “Chinese Development in Global Perspective” panel
Sautman’s co-presenter, Yan Hairong, spoke next. Yan’s justification as to why China could not be considered a core and had to be thought of as a semi-periphery was because China had only one well-known international brand, which was Huawei. For Yan, China could and only ever would be a country that is part of a periphery—having never apparently heard of formerly colonized countries or countries historically part of the periphery rising up to become imperial powers in their own right. Examples include the US, but also Japan—with the Japanese empire casting a long shadow over the first half of the 20th century in Asia.
Yan otherwise claimed that Chinese elites differed fundamentally from western elites, in that they did not simply advocate for the free market and did not always push for reducing the size of state intervention in the economy. Yan seems not to have noticed criticisms of the state by Chinese elites such as Jack Ma, which was what resulted in Ma’s fall from grace, or ever accounted for the possibility that Chinese elites might not be more virtuous than western elites, per se, but have adopted a strategy of benefiting from state backing when necessary.
Apparently, Yan has also failed to note that western elites, too, benefit from state intervention in the economy, as seen in federal bailouts for banks and large corporations in the past decades of financial crisis. To this end, Yan further claimed that Chinese companies differed from western companies in that they did not withdraw from Zambia when western firms did, arguing that this was a sign of their commitment to Zambia—it seemingly never occurring to her that Chinese companies might again not be inherently more virtuous than western companies, but merely have a different strategy for financial success.
Yan stated: “China rules nowhere: there are no examples of Chinese economic domination and subordination or determinative political influence.” Yan might claim that Chinese sovereignty did not affect places outside of China, but it is readily apparent that this is not the case—the main political cleavage in both Hong Kong and Taiwan is between pro-self-determination and pro-unification political forces. Likewise, China has also made recognition of Taiwan into a sine qua non issue for countries that currently recognize Taiwan, including threatening to withhold vaccines from countries over their stance on Taiwan.
Yan claimed that Chinese socialist legacies still exist in China and hence China could never become a colonial power. She went on to state that “Chinese ‘neocolonialism’ is an example of the US applying to countries a term better applied to itself”. Yan did not touch on the fact that both countries might be neocolonial.
Tings Chak’s presentation, however, quickly showed that Sautman and Yan’s presentation was at least comparatively coherent. Whereas Sautman and Yan provided some data to back their arguments, Chak’s presentation was almost entirely dependent on anecdotal evidence. Chak took seriously the claim that China had abolished all extreme poverty in its borders and proved remarkably impressed by rather basic facts about China, such as the Chinese government dispatching officials to the countryside, never mind that most governments periodically assign officials to rural areas.
Otherwise, Chak seemed highly nostalgic for Cultural Revolution-style mass line practices, believing that these practices still took place in China today. Ironically, many Chinese nationalist leftists view the Deng era as an aberration from Maoist principles that they called for a return to, but Chak was the first of many presenters at the conference who were unusually positive about Deng.
Max Ajl followed, giving a presentation arguing that Chinese Maoism was a significant influence on Arab theories of self-reliance. Ajl claimed that “China allowed people to grasp the idea of a more decentralized administration of society”. This is a rather strange claim since, again, most contemporary Maoists view the centralization of state power over the economy as what prevented China from falling victim to capitalist excesses, rather than some view of China as having been autonomously decentralized in some vaguely anarchist fashion. Ajl also claimed that China was “unique for subjecting judgments on external relations to judgments based on internal values” and that this is something Arab thinkers learned from China, though it should go without saying most states make judgments based on their internal determinations.
Even so, it was with the last presenter on the first panel, Sit Tsui, that the “China and the Left” conference truly began to go off the deep end. Sit Tsui stated that, despite the fact that the largest four banks in the world by total assets are Chinese government-owned, this was not a sign of the financialization of China. On the contrary, Sit asserted that because they were state-owned, these were, in fact, people-owned banks.
Sit seemed to believe that all land in China is collectively owned. While this may be so legally and in theory, it is hardly the case in practice, which is readily apparent when considering the many “nail house” evictions that have taken place in China in past decades, or the Wukan protests that began after land owned by rural residents of Wukan was sold without their permission by local authorities. Furthermore, Sit pointed to the Chinese government halting Alibaba’s IPO at the last minute as an example of “financial containment” practices at work in China though, of course, this positive appraisal hardly explains how Alibaba grew to be so big to begin with.
When discussing China’s response to COVID-19, Sit then made the rather remarkable claim that traditional Chinese medicine was 90% effective in treating COVID-19, and that the reason why the Chinese authorities had not approved traditional Chinese medicine for COVID-19 treatment was that they hoped to keep these services cheap. Indeed, one generally imagines that a challenge faced by the Chinese government in the fight against COVID-19 was persuading people who exclusively believed in the power of traditional Chinese medicine over vaccines to be vaccinated, no different than vaccine skepticism in favor of the belief in homeopathic cures in western contexts. Yet here we saw Sit dispensing nationalist claims about the superiority of traditional Chinese medicine to supposedly “western” science, something she claimed could combat the “colonization of medical knowledge.” Ironic.
Asymmetrical Analysis and the Defense of China
THE FOLLOWING TALK, which took place after an hour-long break for lunch, was a keynote by Michelle of the Qiao Collective. The keynote summed up much of the broader aspirations of the conference by asserting that the US was involved in “hybrid warfare” against China—such as circulating disinformation about “supposed whistleblowers” in China regarding COVID-19 or the Hong Kong protests—and that the US-China trade war could be situated in a long pattern of western aggression toward China dating back to the Opium Wars.
In this presentation, several gaping historical errors were evident, including the claim that the US “annexed the island of Formosa” after World War II, Formosa referring to Taiwan. Apart from the hilarity of using the Portuguese colonial name for Taiwan to avoid referring to Taiwan directly, this never historically occurred. For one, China currently claims that the US stationing troops in Taiwan in establishing, say, a US base in Taiwan, would be seen as an act of war. But this would likely have already occurred if Taiwan had been annexed by the US. Though Taiwan is indeed a client state of the US, the US does not claim sovereignty over Taiwan, nor does China take the view that the US claims sovereignty over Taiwan.
Video recording of the “The US Hybrid War on China” panel
Michelle argued that China had built an economic system capable of resisting domination, despite the obvious fact that China sells its economic and manufacturing output to the US and western countries, and the US and China are economically interdependent at present. To this extent, Michelle claimed that it was the US that was engaged in unilateral aggression toward China, such as pushing for the installation of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea—failing to bring up that the antimissile system is in theory supposed to defend from missile attacks from China or North Korea.
As with other speakers, Michelle seemed unable to acknowledge the possibility of tit-for-tat escalation occurring between both the US and China, with both countries contributing to tensions. Likewise, Michelle lashed out during her talk against leftists that called for nuance on the issue, or otherwise argued that both sides were at fault, claiming that this was simply repeating US State Department talking points.
However, when exactly has the US State Department claimed that both the US and China were both contributing to tensions, rather than attributing this to only China? On the contrary, it is Michelle’s comments that are a precise mirror reflection of the US State Department’s talking points with the revision of attributing blame solely to the US, whereas the US State Department attributes blame to only China. “Nuancing”, claimed Michelle, only sought to advance war, never mind that her comments were in themselves reflective of a Manichean worldview.
More reasonably, Michelle touched upon incidents of individuals of Chinese descent targeted by the US government through efforts such as the China Initiative. Nonetheless, Michelle sought to steer this observation toward claims of Chinese superiority, stating “We, in the imperial core, are the unfree ones,” claiming that the US’s failure to control COVID-19 was a form of genocide. Never mind that “genocide” has a specific meaning and does not simply refer to mass death, one need only note the contemporary ethnic cleansing of Uyghurs in Xinjiang through reeducation camps to wonder how Michelle’s moral indictment of US genocide is anything other than a rhetorical diversion tactic. Furthermore, while Michelle claimed that the west was projecting its own boogieman onto China, one need only note that Michelle and other Qiao Collective member’s views of China betray a pernicious form of diasporic projection onto China. At the same time, Michelle would not be the only speaker at the conference to cite the US’s failures in managing COVID-19 as an example of the superiority of the Chinese system.
Muddled Political Economy and Blind Faith in the Eternal Persistence of Socialist Legacies
THE THIRD PANEL at the conference, then, was “Political Economies of Chinese Socialism”, with Chris Matlhako, Elias Khalil Jabbour, Zhun Xu, and Bikrum Gill.
Bikrum Gill’s talk proved laughable, with Gill claiming that China had “violated a fundamental law of imperialism” by implementing land redistribution policies. Gill claimed that this move violates the fundamental logic of private property rights at the heart of western capitalism, and hence China has been framed as fundamentally irrational by the West due to its willingness to defy property rights.
Of course, Gill seems ignorant of the numerous examples of land reform that took place in what were clearly capitalist nation-states such as Taiwan. Moreover, Gill seemed to view land reform as an exclusive development of the Chinese Revolution, perhaps not aware of how this had taken place previously in the Soviet Union and how Chinese land reform was modeled after the Soviet Union.
Video recording of the “Political Economies of Chinese Socialism” panel
Other comments by Gill were rather nonsensical, such as claiming that the Long March was “central to addressing the anti-Chinese Orientalist foundations of the capitalist order”; that Chinese peasants learned firsthand about imperialism from the Long March. Yet the Long March was, in fact, primarily carried out because Mao’s forces were fleeing from the KMT, another Chinese political force. Citing Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing—a man famous for his knowledge of Chinese and who has, in any case, been dead for over a decade—Gill brought up the example of Toyota wanting to enter China rather than China approaching Toyota as an example of China’s economic successes, apparently not realizing a capitalist company might have economic incentive to enter China to take advantage of its cheap manufacturing, poor labor protections, and because of its large market. Gill claimed this observation demonstrates that China has subsumed capitalist logic under socialism rather than simply indicating how China is attractive for capitalists. Occam’s Razor, QED.
Gill defended the build-up of China’s military, stating that “the moment of independence invites the moment of recolonization”, while also claiming that China resisted western domination because it retained control of the land. Indeed, this fixation on the ownership of the land as what allows for China to resist western domination, and, furthermore, this emphasis on land ownership being a unique innovation of China, was a recurrent trope among speakers at the “China and the Left” conference—though again, the land ownership practices that Gill describes are hardly what plays out in practice in China. Similarly, Gill argued that African states should learn how to engage with the global capitalist market from China. Perhaps he means to suggest that African countries should open themselves up to large factories producing goods for western economies in which workers routinely throw themselves off of roofs.
Zhun Xu, speaking next, proved the odd man out at the conference. Make no mistake, despite appearing on events by the Critical China Scholars in the past, Xu claimed that the emergence of the Qiao Collective was a “ray of hope” in dark times. However, unlike the other speakers—probably due to the fact that he is, in fact, an actual Chinese left nationalist who is not diaspora—Xu framed the 1970s as the reintegration of China into world capitalism.
Xu allowed for the possibility that the Deng period had been an aberration, whereas other speakers at the conference framed the opening up and reform period as simply another step on China’s glorious path toward socialist liberation, contiguous with previous periods. Among other things, Xu brought up how workers had lost their lifetime employment and other benefits following the Deng era reforms, whereas Chak and other previous speakers spoke only of the benefits of the Deng period in lifting individuals out of poverty.
But Xu’s argumentation was, too, fundamentally based on an appeal to unrelenting faith in some unwavering, immortal essence of Chinese socialism that would never be erased, regardless of the twists and turns of history. Xu claimed that, while the influence of Chinese elites was stronger than ever, the existence of the Chinese Communist Party proved a check on their power—scarcely allowing for the possibility that the party had become an institution by and for elites aimed at expanding and preserving their own power. Those attuned to this point have nicknamed the Chinese Communist Party the “Zhao family”, referring to the Zhao family of elites from Chinese leftist writer Lu Xun’s “The True Story of Ah Q.” One needs only to note the collective wealth of CCP members, as well as how many of their children are now western-educated elites.
Xu claimed that because of this historical legacy of Maoism, Chinese society would continue to produce more leftists who would resist capitalism. But contrary to Xu’s claim, one notes the arrests of student Maoists in past years for their participation in labor protests such as the state-suppressed Jasic struggle. Xu also made the bizarre claim that the Chinese government had been more progressive in the last two years, at least in terms of rhetoric, never mind the crackdown on labor activists, feminist groups, LGBTQ activists, or even representations of “feminine men” in media, to name just a few instances in recent memory. When asked about China’s crackdown on tech companies, Xu claimed that these crackdowns were in line with the Chinese government’s Five-Year Plan aimed at increasing labor protections, providing for greater income distribution, and cited a speech by Xi Jinping to claim that the state was protecting workers, never mind how frequent labor unrest across China continues to be unresolved.
After Xu, Elias Khalil Jabbour spoke on “The (New) Projectment Economy as a Higher Stage of Development of Chinese Market Socialism”. Jabbour’s presentation, which was relatively incoherent by the already low standards of the conference, claimed that, even if “embryonic,” China “constitutes the most advanced social engineering of our time”.
Jabbour argued that China has created a new socioeconomic formation called market socialism, which refers to the claim that “Socialism has reinvented itself through market institutions.” Of course, one notes that this has also been said about “The Third Way,” “Social Democracy”, the “mixed economy”, and other socioeconomic configurations throughout history. Jabbour made the odd claim that accumulation did not take place in China’s private sector and that the private sector was dependent on the state—as with Sit Tsui, Jabbour failed to note how the private sector in western contexts has counted on bailouts from the state.
Broadly speaking, many of the speakers at the “China and Left” conference seemed to only ever view the state as fundamentally opposed to the free market, failing to note how despite their neoliberal self-understanding, capitalists often bank on the state to bail them out when necessary. “[T]he modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, as Marx stated more than a century ago. Bizarrely, Jabbour claimed that regulation of the wealthy was only possible through a socialist state such as China’s, though one notes that premodern empire also sought to keep wealthy elites in line to prevent them from challenging the monarchy—and so keeping wealthy elites in line hardly seems specific to Chinese socialism or whatnot.
The next two speakers at the conference represented South Africa and Venezuela. While Chris Matlhako, the deputy secretary-general of the South African Communist Party, was part of the panel with Jabbour, Gill, and Xu, he spoke primarily of good relations between South Africa and China, dismissing claims that China was only interested in Africa for resources, and touting aid from China including vaccines. Laura Franco, representing the Simon Bolivar Institute of Venezuela, also touted good ties between Venezuela and China.
Projecting the Dynamics of US Society onto the World At Large vis-a-vis Anti-Asian Racism
ROBERT LEE, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Madison Tang, and Sheila Xiao spoke on the third panel of the conference, which was titled “Yellow Peril, Red Scare: Orientalism, Anti-Asian Racism, New Cold War on China”.
The first speaker on the panel was Dunbar-Ortiz, who situated the Atlanta shootings in a broader history of racism by the West against Asians, going back to Marco Polo’s fears of China rising up to conquer Europe. Dunbar-Ortiz also claimed that the American founding fathers were obsessed with China and so pushed to the Pacific Ocean in order to conduct trade with China. Otherwise, Dunbar-Ortiz brought up the Chinese Exclusion Act, the notion of Asian despotism, white organized labor’s fears about Chinese immigrants, and caps imposed on the number of Chinese immigrants.
Robert Lee’s presentation primarily consisted of showing a map project that he and other researchers had worked on, mapping incidents of violence against Asians in the US and connecting them to histories of US imperial violence in the Asia Pacific. Lee drew links between violence on US military bases across the Asia Pacific, including sexual violence against female residents near bases, and prevailing cultural attitudes that allowed for violence against Asians in the US such as the Atlanta shootings, offering a transnational historicization of anti-Asian violence that complements other documenting projects such as those by Stop AAPI Hate.
Video recording of the “Yellow Peril, Red Scare” panel
Madison Tang of Code Pink brought this discussion into context around what was again termed the US’s “hybrid war” against China. Tang claimed that China’s hard-earned rise challenges western imperialism, hence the attempt to put down China, as well as leading to the scapegoating and demonization of East and Southeast Asians in the US for domestic issues. Tang claimed that the moment of first encounter between Europe and China first led to envy from Europeans, which quickly turned to hate, and that this is also true of current US-China tensions.
Sheila Xiao of Pivot to Peace, then, completed this trajectory by claiming that this demonization was aimed at ramping up for war against China, arguing that the US had surrounded China with bases in preparation. Xiao claimed that there were six major myths that had to be debunked when it came to the US’s efforts at circulating disinformation to prepare for war: 1) That Hong Kong has had its freedom stripped from it, 2) That there are people in western China subject to genocide, 3) That the people of Tibet have been denied the right to be free, 4) That Taiwan is an independent country, 5) That China is a police state, and 6) That China is an imperial power bullying its neighbors.
Notably, when discussing “Xinjiang,” Xiao referred to the Special Autonomous Region as “Xinjing,” not even knowing how to pronounce the name of the region in Mandarin or English apparently. By contrast, Xiao claimed there was a need to counteract propaganda by “corporate media” and that the US needed to be shown the truth about China “and all its advances”—as though this were some kind of civilizing message, or the mirror image of how US Cold War propaganda sought to extoll the benefits of the American way of life internationally.
As such, sounding rather Marxist-Leninist, Xiao stated that power is “in and among the people, but they must be educated” (emphasis mine). Unsurprisingly, Xiao proved rather ignorant of the history of colonization directed toward Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, or Hong Kong—”Xinjiang,” for one, literally means “new frontier”, something directly reflective of Chinese settler colonialism.
One notes how Dunbar-Ortiz, Lee, and Tang’s argument aims to transhistoricize US-China antagonisms vis-a-vis anti-Asian hate, which also serves the purpose of placing Asians at the center of American history from its founding as some kind of excluded Other. Though the presentations bring up considerations about anti-Asian hate domestically and abroad in the US worth reflecting on, this line of argumentation is quite easily appropriated into a form of diasporic nationalism, that attempts to get around a sense of ressentiment toward American society by centering Asians at the heart of US history as its main historical victims—a narrative that fails to, on the contrary, center Indigenous oppression at the heart of US history in the interests of a self-victimization narrative for the diaspora members of the panel, among other issues.
And, consequently, this view cannot separate recent anti-Asian racism from US-China antagonisms. It is key to note that anti-Asian racism predates when China became a geopolitical and economic threat to the US and was not always coextensive with it. Moreover, one notes that, per the concept of the Thucydides Trap, the US might oppose any rising geopolitical power as a possible threat—regardless of what ethnic background that this rival power’s citizens were or what the history of immigrants from that country in the US was. It so happens that China is a rising power in the twenty-first century and there has been a long history of racism against Chinese and other Asians in Euro-American history. And it is correct that there is a clear racial element to US-China antagonisms, as observed in the China Initiative. But it is not as though the US is only driven to oppose China because of racism.
On this point, the rivalry between the US and Soviet Union that characterized the 20th century is worth keeping in mind. A telling lacuna is the lack of discussion of the Pacific War from panelists who are, after all, mostly Chinese diaspora. “China and the Left” participants would likely view China’s war against Japan as a justified response to the Japanese empire and may perhaps view contemporary territorial conflicts with Japan as justified, too, because of this history. Yet while Japanese internment during World War II was brought up as another example of anti-Asian racism in US history—and rightly so—would they argue that the US only went to war with the Japanese empire because of anti-Asian racism?
Other lacunae were visible. During the panel, Lee was quite right to draw connections between violence against individuals, particularly women, living around US army bases in Asia, as culturally linked to anti-Asian violence in the US. At the same time, the panel entirely passed over Han violence against Uyghur women, including sending Han men to live with Uyghur women whose husbands have been sent to internment camps—often sleeping in the same beds—not to mention violence in those camps themselves. This belies a more general issue with the panel that projected the dynamics of US society onto the rest of the world—Han are, of course, the majority in China, and not a minority, as in the US. More specifically, Han settler colonialism in China’s western regions should draw parallel to the US’s own history of settler colonialism, but this comparison never came up for panelists.
Lastly, it was a telling moment that while during the Q&A for the panel, the panelists were asked about the economic interrelation of the US and China during the “new Cold War”, as compared to the previous Cold War, but none of them seemed to be able to answer the question.
The Splinter in Your Eye is the Best Mirror
THE FINAL PANEL of the conference was entitled “The Stakes of Critique: On the Western Left and Discursive Framings of China” with speakers being Radhika Desai, Pawel Wargan, Mark Tseng-Putterman, and Manu Karuka.
Manu Karuka, whose talk was titled “Take the Splinter from Your Eye: the U.S. Charges Genocide”, was the first speaker. Karuka’s tack was mostly genocide denial, claiming that the US was only accusing China of genocide in Xinjiang in order to ramp up tensions for war, while claiming the same about the US playing up the possibility of clashes between China and India and Taiwan. Karuka seemed blissfully unaware of China-India border conflicts that have left dozens dead in recent memory—something neither government has denied. This proves rather odd given that Karuka is part of a cohort of up-and-coming scholars of South Asian descent in Asian American studies though, again, knowledge of Asia America does not mean that knowledge of contemporary Asia automatically follows.
Likewise, while Karuka claimed that the US was trivializing the charge of genocide given the history of ethnic cleansing in the US directed against Native Americans, it seemed to have scarcely crossed his mind that both the US and China could be guilty of genocide, not just one or the other. It is hardly as though there has only ever been one colonial or genocidal power in history at the same time, after all.
Video recording of the “The Stakes of Critique” panel
Karuka claimed that China’s COVID-zero approach to fighting the coronavirus was a sign of the superiority of the Chinese system, though again, there are capitalist nations such as Taiwan that have also pursued COVID-zero approaches to great success using more or less the same strategies. Along with Jabbour’s comments about land reform, many panelists at the “China and the Left” conference seemed all too happy to attribute unique advances to Chinese socialism, even when capitalist nation-states had done the same elsewhere—just they were unaware of that.
Tseng Putterman was the following speaker. Tseng Putterman claimed that the US viewed Guam, Hawai’i, and Palau as potential collateral damage in the event of conflict with China, Tseng Putterman blithely passing over that China has released propaganda videos showing an attack on Guam. Tseng Putterman claimed that the US-China trade war continued the Open Door Policy and was attempting to force open China’s borders to allow for access to its markets—never mind that the US-China trade war can take place precisely because of the fundamental interrelation of the US and Chinese economies. US tariffs on China tax Chinese goods entering the US—so as to affect Chinese profit—rather than being some form of economic sanction against China, as Tseng Putterman seems to think.
Tseng Putterman brought up the involvement of US troops in putting down the Boxer Rebellion, while also citing that an underlying issue of the Boston Tea Party was access to the Chinese tea market. This again continued the tendency by speakers to have a transhistorical narrative of US-China tensions in light of present tensions.
Tseng Putterman also brought up the US empire using Asia Pacific island chains as stepping stones to China, claiming that this hurt Indigenous sovereignty. But correspondingly, he did not bring up China’s treatment of “ethnic minorities” in its borders, China claims of sovereignty over Taiwan in denial of Taiwanese Indigenous sovereignty, or China’s own willingness to treat island chains as collateral damage.
Tseng took the opportunity to lash out at aspects of the Left that view Chinese as simply being passive victims to be saved. While rightly bringing up instances in which the US has targeted Chinese on the basis of ethnicity, Tseng Putterman instead made the claim that Chinese were revolutionary subjects rather than victims. And, as with others in the conference, Tseng Putterman claimed that to criticize China and not stand with it was to side with the US, denying the possibility of being critical of both.
Of course, what Tseng Putterman fails to note is that, like every other member of the human species, Chinese are caught somewhere in the spectrum being passive victims of capitalism and revolutionary subjects against it. Apparently, the Chinese alone are the Elect and Saved in Tseng Putterman’s worldview, while the rest of us are not worthy.
Subsequently, Desai’s contributions to the panel primarily consisted of rehashed Stalinism. Desai claimed that anti-imperial struggles have pushed back imperialism since the 1940s, but that most Marxists had forgotten to unify anti-capitalism with anti-imperialism, labeling Marxists critical of China as having accepted imperialism as a condition of socialism.
Indeed, Desai seemed to be unable to accept that it is possible to be critical of China without justifying US empire—that both can be criticized. Desai’s arguments were otherwise aimed at defending China’s integration into the world market, claiming that this was “combined development” and that most Marxists had failed to be attentive to “combined development,” only paying attention to “uneven development.”
Desai sought to uphold Third Worldism, claiming that revolution would not happen in the imperial center—though one should remember that Marx believed that revolution would begin in the advanced capitalist countries. Yet paradoxically, Desai touted the economic productivity of China to the West as specific to “socialism”, while never bringing up the famines that occurred in China or, for that matter, the Soviet Union, as a result of the Five Year Plans and Great Leap Forward. In a truly ironic moment, Desai then defended Chinese investment banks as apparently leftist and somehow different from western investment banks, as changing the world in a revolutionary manner. Yes, the revolutionary vanguard of the Left: the people’s investment banks.
Either way, the weakest contribution of all to the panel—and possibly the worst talk in the entire conference—was from Pawel Wargan, the coordinator of the international secretariat of the Progressive International. Wargan’s comments consisted of rambling personal reflections about knowing very little about the socialist history of his native Poland, but hearing of individuals older than him having nostalgia for the period. Wargan then drew an analogy between the history of socialist Poland and that of China, as two things he did not know very much about, and praised China as lifting 800 million people out of poverty.
Wargan then dismissed “ghost cities” or “the social credit system” in China as myths fomented by western imperialism—while the latter is exaggerated, the former exists and Wargan would know this if he had ever traveled to China outside of major metropoles—if he has been there at all. Wargan should have also known the falsity of the claim that there is no poverty in China had he simply stepped into any Chinese city and wandered off the beaten path, as with any of these speakers.
It proves ironic that Wargan’s talk primarily argued that, since he did not know very much about the country of his birth, as a response he would instead try to project his longed-for ideals onto a different country that he knew even less about. And this was a form of projection in which he failed to speak to actual natives, but instead primarily gained his understanding of China from diaspora nationalists with a similar sense of projection.
Wargan also went on to argue that—despite being the coordinator of a group with the word “International” in its name—that as a western leftist his primary obligation was to challenge western imperialism. Wargan stated, “Will I learn from the model that succeeded? Or will I learn from the model that failed?”, touting China as having become a space-faring society in one generation—but of course, so, too, of the United States. It scarcely occurred to Wargan that both may have failed.
Indeed, I once informed leaders of the Progressive International—which rather awkwardly includes New Bloom, Lausan, and Qiao Collective alike—that as a basic rule of thumb, an international should not include members who wish death and destruction on other members as Qiao Collective does on Hong Kong and Taiwan, and that the Progressive International should consult with its existing members more knowledgeable about regional specificities before admitting new members who may have rather questionable politics. This rather basic suggestion has been completely ignored by the Progressive International leadership, who at the start of the venture did not seem to know of any groups in Asia. A list sent by the author of groups to possibly reach out to was ignored in favor of admitting the Qiao Collective.
Closing on the Note of Personality Cult Apologism
MOVING ON, the conference closed with a keynote by Vijay Prashad. Prashad’s talk, which had a humorous tone and otherwise moved from point to point, claimed that the US had chosen to destroy the world after 9/11 and that the US was the greatest violator of international law. For a purported leftist, Prashad continuously attempted to cite UN standards as signs of how the US violates international law, never mind that international law is simply written by and for bourgeois states—an underlying substrate of the conference is how many of the participants have rather liberal worldviews, except for that they see China as justified in carrying out actions that they would criticize if carried out by the US.
Prashad claimed that Americans, including leftists, had no right to do anything and claimed that “It’s only a terrorist attack when white supremacy is poked in the eye,” referring to 9/11. Prashad said that no self-respecting left force should be co-opted into US war efforts—and, indeed, except for the fact that Prashad’s view of being co-opted into the US war effort seemed to include any force that is also critical of China. As such, Prashad scoffed at Joe Biden commenting, “Why should anyone take Joe Biden seriously?”. But Prashad otherwise seemed to be rather happy to take Xi Jinping at face value.
Video recording of Prashad’s talk
Prashad brought up Wang Hui’s “Revolutionary Personality” essay, criticized by Chinese commentators as justifying Xi Jinping’s cult of personality, in highly praiseworthy terms though he did not touch on points specific to the essay. Instead, Prashad more generally discussed the New Left’s interest in the “Chongqing Model” and the revival of Mao-era slogans, claiming that Xi Jinping learned from this, while dismissing any discussion of Bo Xilai’s corruption and personal extravagances as irrelevant. Prashad similarly cited Wang Hui’s monumental four-volume history of Chinese thought as a leftist attempt to break out of China’s ideological impasse, rather than an effort at cementing Chinese cultural nationalism.
Strangely enough, after so much praise for Wang Hui, Prashad quoted Engels that “Socialism is the hero of zig-zags” to defend the turn toward the market economy under Deng Xiaoping. This praise is despite the fact Wang was a noted critic of the free market reforms under Deng. As with other speakers, Prashad went on to cite China’s successes fighting COVID-19 as a sign of the superiority of the Chinese system. Again, capitalist examples of countries that did well in containing COVID-19 generally adopted similar measures to China—showing that the effectiveness of such public health measures is not bound up with socioeconomic model.
First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: The Re-Emergence of Tankie Thought Between the Original Cold War and the “New Cold War”
IN CONCLUSION, one can point to a number of recurrent tropes through the conference. In addition to COVID-19 containment being continually cited as evidence for the superiority of the Chinese system, anti-Asian racism was consistently situated at the heart of American history as a way to center present US-China tensions as part of a world historical struggle. It comes as no surprise that the framing of China as “ecological civilization” also came up a number of times, with the two notions dovetailing neatly, never mind why Marxists should be discussing fundamentally modern nation-states in highly nationalistic civilizational terms. And, more generally, many panelists also seemed rather ignorant about world history, attributing what they saw as unique advances such as land reform to Chinese socialism.
Panelists largely viewed China as having had a continuous socialist project since the 1949 revolution, with no aberrations after the Deng period, despite that this differs from many Chinese Maoists’ understanding of the Deng period. Most seemed utterly unaware of present events in China, instead viewing China only through the lens of being a socialist utopia.
For the participants of the “China and the Left” conference, to criticize China in any terms, then, was to side with the US. China was only ever seen as a periphery and never as a core in its own right, never mind that—as argued in the work of James Scott and others—peoples in Southeast Asia have been resisting the imperial “core” of China for millennia. This framing of China as periphery, then, belies the western-centric views of the conference in that China could not be seen as a core to those on its periphery, but only as a “periphery” relative to the west.
Such views should warrant little surprise from the tankie left. Despite that these views prove easy to debunk, it will not be surprising if they gain traction among western leftists unable to see outside of their own insularity, whose views of anywhere in the world outside of the West are based on projection more than anything else. After all, this romanticization of “actually existing socialism” has occurred before—the phenomenon of tankies originates in the first Cold War and so it should not be surprising that the second Cold War has also seen the emergence of a new generation of tankies.
So, then, are the same old tankie tropes previously applied to the Soviet Union trotted out and applied to China. Indeed, for Prashad and the other speakers on the conference, while the history of socialism may be that of zig-zags, apparently it is also that of the endless recurrence of the same when it comes to warmed-over tankie thought. Such thought counts among the historical detritus of the long 20th century and should have been buried with it. But first as tragedy, then as farce, as Marx said.