by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Date20221127/WikiCommons/CC0
IT WAS ONLY a matter of time until tankies–leftist apologists for authoritarian regimes such as China or Russia–weighed in on the current protests in China. The most recent example of this in Anglophone discourse may be Tricontinental Institute researcher and Dongsheng News collective Tings Chak’s appearance yesterday on Breakthrough News’ “The Socialist Program.” The program was hosted by Brian Becker, founder of the ANSWER Coalition and one of the founders of the PSL.
Before Chak’s appearance on “The Socialist Program,” English-language tankies had been unusually quiet on the protests in China. Namely, state-run media outlets had not made much in the way of concrete statements on the protests, suggesting that Chinese authorities were still considering options, as well as what line to take. This points to the extent tankies look to state-run outlets to indicate the line of argumentation they should take.
What perhaps stood out most about Chak’s comments was their disconnect from reality, though Chak is apparently a resident of Beijing and previously lived in Shanghai. The recent protests have gathered attention because of the fact that they may be the largest protests in China in decades.
The program in question
For Chak, however, these are protests of mere “hundreds” in a smattering of cities. Chak was dismissive of that the protests are mostly young people and claimed that western media had simply magnified a small set of protests out of its fixation on regime change in China. That the protesters are young people in their twenties, Chak states, shows why they cannot be considered a “litmus test” or “pulse” of what Chinese society feels as a whole–never mind that Chak would scarcely be saying this of youth-led protests in the US such as Black Lives Matter.
To bolster her claims about how apparently ordinary and not extraordinary protests have been honed in on by western media, Chak cites a 2010 study that suggests 180,000 protests occur in China annually. But rather than this represents discontent, Chak offers the rather convoluted logic that protests simply “have a different sort of function than in non-socialist societies.” Occam’s razor, anyone? Perhaps a protest is simply a protest is a protest.
This was such a brilliant video I subtitled it so more people can watch it. Beijing students’ response last night to accusations that there are ‘foreign forces’ at play in this weekend’s protests
‘The foreign forces you are talking about – are they Marx and Engels?’ https://t.co/umdFaVhz2s pic.twitter.com/RoohkFaZgE
— Cindy Yu (@CindyXiaodanYu) November 28, 2022
Moreover, Chak suggests that protestors have unclear demands, as reflected in their using blank A4 papers as the symbol of their movement. Of course, in reality, this is a response to the targeting of political expression in China and a humorous remark on that the demands of protests are so well-known that a blank sheet of paper suffices to show what they are about. Nevertheless, Chak tries to use this to dismiss the protests.
Chak and Becker draw equivalences with protests in western societies, suggesting that few international media outlets would suggest that demonstrations against COVID policies in the US are aimed at overthrowing the government. But, of course, were lockdown measures in the US so severe that individuals were chained within their homes and died from fires, as occurred in the Urumqi blaze that prompted the present protests? Becker at one point even suggests that people in China may only be experiencing COVID for the first time because they have mostly been kept free of it thanks to the stewardship of the CCP and so may be overreacting. This proves callous logic, if anything.
The Qiao Collective has taken a similar line of argumentation, claiming as of late that the Chinese government has been more responsive to protests than any western government. Yet the Chinese government was willing to keep entire cities under lockdown, in spite of food shortages, while western politicians did not even want to force their constituents to wear masks. This more broadly points to the false equivalences drawn by tankies, in suggesting that lockdowns in China are more or less the same as lockdowns in the US, as well as how the US colors their political imagination of the world over.
The irony about coverage of the protests in China is that in the last week, Chinese officials have been more responsive to public concerns of pandemic policy than the US or UK have been over three years.
Yet you won’t hear about these dynamic changes in headlines. pic.twitter.com/KPc3uJOzn8
— Qiao Collective (@qiaocollective) November 30, 2022
For Chak and Becker, then, an apparently small protest has simply been magnified by western media. Chak claims that western media did not report on farmers’ protests in India involving hundreds of millions or protests against corrupt banks in Zhengzhou–never mind that these were reported on and the latter was suppressed by the state–to suggest that they are merely magnifying the current set of protests. All this is merely a conspiracy by western media. Becker further draws comparison to Tiananmen Square to suggest the misleading nature of western reporting, bringing up that western media at the time claimed that some troops had defected to the students when this was not true–though, in reality, some troops did refuse to fire on the students.
Still, Chak and Becker present a rather inconsistent view of China’s handling of COVID-19 in the program. They claim in their comments that China experienced a mere 5,000 deaths from COVID-19 compared to 1.9 million deaths in the US–never acknowledging the possibility that China might downplay the actual number of deaths in official statistics.
The two acknowledge that ICU capacity is low compared to the US, suggesting that this returns to China’s status as a developing country. Likewise, they acknowledge that there may be issues with the implementation of COVID policy at the local level, pinning blame on local governments, and argue that there are issues with carrying out COVID policy in as large a country as China. These are raised as reasons why there might be some dissent in China–though still suggesting on the whole that China did better than the US.
But it proves ironic that Chak presents concessions made to date by the Chinese authorities to protestors, such as promising to relax some measures or speed up vaccination, as a sign of how the government was always “dynamic” in its COVID-19 policy, adjusting measures due to circumstances, and listening to the voices of the people. Here, Chak would be conflating cause and effect, seeing as this only took place due to the protests.
Chak cites vaccination rates in China to show its superior record to the US, while also drawing on culturalist argumentation regarding esteem for the elderly as part of traditional Chinese culture to assert that China takes care of elderly individuals vulnerable to COVID-19. On the other hand, she fails to discuss low rates of vaccination among the elderly and the lower efficacy of Chinese vaccines. Nor does Chak discuss how the Chinese government refused to import more effective foreign vaccines because of vaccine nationalism aimed at touting Chinese vaccines as superior in the face of scientific evidence. Again, Chak brings up China’s lower ICU capacity to defend China’s status as a developing country even as she touts China’s supremacy, but this should raise questions as to why China has not sought to build up its medical capacity with the time bought by COVID-zero.
ok I said we shouldn’t be obsessed with 1989 comparisons and see 2022 in its own terms
but the “it’s my duty” inspiration is just beautiful❤️ pic.twitter.com/wOvowBFT1a
— Chenchen Zhang 🤦🏻♀️ (@chenchenzh) November 30, 2022
Chak suggests that the Chinese government should simply emphasize COVID-zero indefinitely and claims that it is putting people before profits with its actions. Chak even positively cites a report from the Zhejiang government as showing the Chinese government’s care of the people, never mind that the report precisely gained attention because of its apparent break from the party line.
Indeed, what emerges from Chak’s comments is that it is not so easy for her and other tankies to dismiss the protests, even when she claims these are protests of only several hundred. Chak also cannot fully dismiss the obvious elements of capitalist exploitation in China–when the conversation turns toward discussing the lockdowns in Zhengzhou at FoxConn factories, Chak tries to redirect blame away from the Chinese government and towards “multinationals” as FoxConn. Of course, here, FoxConn–a Taiwanese company–is conveniently a “multinational” foreign company and not a Chinese company. Nor does Chak seem willing to acknowledge that FoxConn’s operations in China only take place through cooperation with the party-state, claiming that this is the fate of the developing world, to be exploited by the international world, and that they have no other way out. So much for agency by China.
The start of the 20th National Congress. Photo credit: China News Service/CC BY 3.0
Chak, then, awkwardly tries to assert the Chinese system as superior to the western system while masking over the self-evident nature of capitalist exploitation in China. Perhaps most hilarious of all, the program closes on the point of China’s 20th National Congress, with Chak passing over any talk about former president Hu Jintao’s dramatic removal from the Congress or Xi’s confirmation for a third term, claiming that the 20th National Congress was self-critical in tenor.
But one expects tankies to continue to do their worst. When the tanks come–if, God forbid, they do–we all know which side they still stand on. When and if that occurs, their logic will just as quickly conform to whichever justification the government uses for repression.