by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: C.K. Koay/Flickr/CC

SEVERAL RECENT TALKS further demonstrate western leftists’ failure to understand China. This occurs not only in terms of romanticization of China in juxtaposition to the US and other western powers, but with regards to the view that China is genuinely committed to a project of realizing domestic social equality.

The DSA International Committee recently held a panel on the subject of the “new Cold War.” This event, which was held on September 20th and livestreamed, shared two speakers with the “China and the Left” conference that had taken place on September 18th in New York City organized by the Qiao Collective, People’s Forum, and Code Pink, these being Vijay Prashad and Tings Chak. Other speakers were economist Richard Wolff and DSA member Grayson Lanza. The People’s Forum and Prashad’s Tricontinental Institute are recently in the news after the revelation that each organization received over 12 million USD, funneled through Goldman Sachs. 

Prashad’s talk proved more focused than his free-ranging comments at the People’s Forum event, Prashad outlining what he viewed as the US ramping up aggression against China. Prashad gave an overview of the history of the Cold War, where he framed the US as the master manipulator that had turned the Soviet Union and China against each other in order to maintain global power, something orchestrated by Henry Kissinger. 

The DSA International Committee event in question

Indeed, Prashad’s narrative of the Cold War, then, attributed almost all agency to the US, as though the US had never considered the USSR and China as genuine threats but had simply outmaneuvered both, and pitted them against each other in order to maintain dominance—always being in control of the situation. As such, Prashad suggested that China was justified in terms of geopolitical maneuvers aimed at ensuring its security given the threat of the US, never mind that countries located near China are wary of Chinese expansionism. Prashad further attributed most regional protests that had taken place in Asia in the past few years to US manipulation aimed at containing China; these comments including Prashad describing the Milk Tea Alliance as though it were a military alliance formed by the US. 

Tings Chak’s presentation was the same talk as her presentation at the “China and the Left” conference. As with before, Chak seemed to genuinely believe that the Chinese government had eradicated all poverty within its borders and that this was realized through such innovative and revolutionary means such as… conducting surveys and fieldwork. Chak attributed unique innovations to China in terms of rather basic and standard means of gathering data that any government conducts and seemed to think it some particular and unique development of China to focus on land reform, promote education, and seek to address economic inequality. 

Richard Wolff’s presentation, too, proved weak. Wolff argued that China’s strong GDP growth proved that the state had mastered the economy and realized something qualitatively different than the US. Nowhere did Wolff note that China’s strong GDP growth may be due to uneven development, nor did Wolff anywhere have any explanation as to why China’s GDP growth was slowing before the COVID-19 pandemic—one also notes that as development in China catches up to other parts of the world, it is improbable that GDP growth would remain so high, the centrality of GDP being an artifact of capitalism’s focus on continual growth and expansion over all other metrics. Wolff seems to rather blindly accept GDP as an accurate metric of China’s economy here, however, something rather odd for a self-proclaimed “Marxian economist.” 

Wolff also did not discuss the fact that if one takes into account how much larger China’s population is than the US, China is actually a very inefficient economy, only discussing China’s economy in growth-oriented terms—blinded by the large numbers, apparently. One notes how leftists historically also argued that the Soviet Union had mastered the economy during the first Cold War and attributed this to its fundamentally different system of government, papering over large fault-lines that became clear after the Soviet Union collapsed. Wolff was recapitulating similar thoughts, probably because China’s growth numbers look better to him in comparison to the US. 

Grayson Lanza’s presentation focused on US policy that he asserted was aimed to ramp up tensions against such, including ramping up anti-China sentiment and conducting organized witch-hunts against Chinese in the US. Indeed, while there has been anti-Chinese sentiment in the US and persecution of Chinese government workers through the China Initiative, one notes that Lanza continued the same tendency seen in Prashad of exaggerating US agency in the Asia Pacific and denying agency to any other actors. For instance, Lanza proposed that the US increasing support for Taiwan and Japan was because they are “the main actors of US policy in the region”, rather than the US being the main actor of US policy in the region. The US trying to push for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations from which it is excluded, such as the World Health Organization or the International Civil Aviation Organization—global health and aviation safety bodies—was only to try and bully China. 

From this, then, one can draw out the tendency of tankies to exaggerate US agency elsewhere in the world, denying agency to any actors caught between the US and China. To this extent, it may not be surprising that the DSA would recently vote down condemning the recent dissolution of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, apparently with the view that the independent trade union was an agent of US interests for accepting NED money. Namely, in their inability to see any actors in the world as having agency except for the US, this causes them to exaggerate the degree to which any force that has links—however minor with the US—are agents of US state interests. 

All of these remarks evidence a highly insular worldview in which the rest of the world is only understood in terms of how the US acts upon it—Democratic Socialists of America, indeed. So much for internationalism from what has become the largest leftist organization to emerge in the US in decades, following the explosive growth in membership post-Sanders for an organization originally formed in the 1980s. 

Nevertheless, from Wolff’s arguments, one can also draw out a thread in the thinking of many western leftists on China. This would be the view that the CCP will be pushed toward realizing social equality in China because the CCP has founded its political legitimacy on the promise of equality—and so, for its own interests, it will try to promote social equality in China. Or, as Wolff argued it, the CCP realized that social equality would be a greater driver of economic development. 

David Harvey’s recent podcast

This line of argument can be seen in a recent podcast by David Harvey on China released on ROAR Magazine. No longer does Harvey see China as neoliberal, but he sees the state as being driven to reign in elites because of its interest in maintaining power. While this could be argued, Harvey then makes a leap into absurdity and claims that because the state is reigning in elites that may threaten it, it will then act to promote social equality—rather than simply hope to monopolize privilege in its hands. 

Harvey then claims that because the rhetoric of equality is still deeply present in society, the CCP must then realize a society heretofore never seen on earth, inclusive of starting “Common Prosperity Zones” in China with greater equality similar to how in the past special economic zones in which the rules of capitalism applied were introduced as part of the reform and opening up period. As ridiculous as it may sound, this is Harvey’s explanation for the effective purge of Jack Ma, that Alibaba happened to be located in one of these new utopian zones of equality. 

One notes that Harvey’s argument essentially is based on the view that the CCP has some sort of intrinsic drive toward furthering socioeconomic equality and blind faith in the party to do so. Harvey takes seriously the rhetoric by the CCP that it will realize socialism by 2049, claiming that because the CCP views the “realm of necessity” as taken care of, now it intends to push toward socioeconomic equality. But Harvey’s discussion of China revolves around this blind faith in the CCP to carry out the historical task that Harvey sees for it, rather than any discussion of the larger socioeconomic dynamics of today’s China, or the conditions of actual life for individuals living in China.

All this goes to show, then, to what extent China is a fanciful land for ideals to be projected onto for many western leftists. Such leftists may lash out at Orientalism as a driver of the “new Cold War,” but if that is the case, so, too, does it apply to their views of China. 

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