China

29
Jan

By Alain Badiou
24 January 2023
via Verso Blog

This article was originally published by L’Obs on 2 September 2022.

The current conjuncture demands rigorous analysis if we are to understand the political moment and develop a strategy to respond to it. Alain Badiou undertakes this task, offering thirteen theses on global politics today and suggesting an organizing strategy for the Left given those conditions.

Thesis 1. The global conjuncture is one of the territorial and ideological hegemony of liberal capitalism.Commentary. The obviousness and banality of this thesis dispense me from commenting.

Thesis 2. This hegemony is by no means in crisis, still less in a coma, but in a particularly intense and innovative sequence of its deployment.

Commentary. On the subject of the capitalist globalisation that is totally hegemonic today, there are two opposing positions that are equally false. The first is the conservative position: capitalism, especially combined with parliamentary ‘democracy’, is humanity’s definitive form of economic and social organisation. It is in fact the end of history, as the essayist Fukuyama once popularised. The second is the leftist position according to which capitalism has entered its final crisis, or is even already dead.

The first position is simply a repetition of the ideological process begun in the late 1970s by the renegade intellectuals from the ‘red years’ (1965-1975), which consisted in simply eliminating the communist hypothesis from the field of possibilities. This made it possible to simplify the dominant propaganda: there was no longer any need to praise the (dubious) merits of capitalism, but only to maintain that facts (the USSR, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, China, the Khmer Rouge, the Western communist parties, etc.) had shown that nothing else was possible except criminal ‘totalitarianism’.

Faced with this verdict of impossibility, the only response is to re-establish the communist hypothesis, assessed beyond the fragmentary experiments of the last century, in its possibility, its strength and its liberating capacity. This is what is happening and inevitably will happen, and what I am trying to do in this very text.

The scenarios of bloodless capitalism or dead capitalism base themselves on the financial crisis of 2008, on the inflationary monetary disorders brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, and on the countless episodes of corruption revealed daily. They conclude either that the moment is revolutionary, that all it takes is a strong push for the ‘system’ to collapse (classic leftism), or that all it takes is to step aside, to withdraw for example to the countryside and lead a sober life respectful of nature, to realise that we can then organise completely new ‘forms of life’, the destructive capitalist machine turning in a vacuum into its final nothingness (ecological Buddhism).

All of this has no connection whatsoever with reality.

Firstly, the crisis of 2008 was a classic crisis of overproduction (too many houses were built in the US and sold on credit to insolvent people), and, in due course, its propagation created the conditions for a new capitalist impetus, boosted by a strong sequence of concentration of capital, with the weak being washed away, the strong strengthened, and in passing – a very important gain – the ‘social legislation’ stemming from the end of the Second World War largely liquidated. Once this painful tidying up is done, ‘recovery’ is now in sight. Secondly, the extension of the capitalist grip to vast new territories, the intensive and extensive diversification of the world market, is far from complete. Almost all of Africa, a good part of Latin America, Eastern Europe, India are all ‘in transition’, either zones of plunder or countries ‘taking off’, where large-scale market implantation can and must follow the example of Japan or China.

The fact is that capitalism is corrupt in its essence. How can a collective logic whose only norms are ‘profit above all else’ and universal competition of all against all avoid widespread corruption? The recognised ‘cases’ of corruption are only side operations, either local purges for propagandist purposes or settling of scores between rival cliques.

Modern capitalism, that of the world market, which with its few centuries of existence is historically a recent social formation, has only just begun to conquer the planet, after a colonial sequence (from the sixteenth to the twentieth century) in which conquered territories were enslaved to the limited and protectionist market of a single country. Today, plundering is globalised, as is the proletariat, which now comes from every country in the world.

Thesis 3. However, three active contradictions are at work in this hegemony.

i) The extremely developed oligarchic dimension of the possession of capital leaves ever less room for the integration of new owners into this oligarchy. Hence the possibility of authoritarian sclerosis.

ii) The integration of financial and commercial circuits into a single world market is opposed by the maintenance, at the level of mass policing, of national forms that inevitably enter into rivalry. Hence the possibility of a planetary war resulting in one state that is clearly hegemonic, including over the world market.

iii) It is doubtful today whether capital, in its present line of development, can valorise the labour-power of the entire world population. Hence the risk that a mass of totally deprived and therefore politically dangerous people will form on a global scale.

Commentary.

i) We are now at a point where 264 people own the equivalent of what three billion others own – and the concentration continues. Here, in France, 10 per cent of the population own well over 50 per cent of the total wealth. These are concentrations of ownership with no stable precedent on a global scale. And they are far from complete. They have a monstrous side, which obviously does not guarantee them eternal duration, but is inherent to capitalist deployment, and even its main motor.

ii) The hegemony of the United States is increasingly being undermined. China and India between them have 40 per cent of the world’s workforce. This indicates a devastating deindustrialisation in the West. In fact, American workers now account for only 7 per cent of the global labour force, and Europe even less. The result of these contrasts is that the world order, still dominated for military and financial reasons by the USA, is seeing the emergence of rivals who want their share of sovereignty over the world market. Confrontations have already begun in the Middle East, Africa and the China seas. They will continue. War is the horizon of this situation, as the last century has shown, with two world wars and incessant colonial killings, and as the war in Ukraine confirms today.

iii) Already today there are probably between two and three billion people who are neither owners, landless peasants, petty-bourgeois employees or workers. They wander the world in search of a place to live, constituting a nomadic proletariat which, if politicised, would b

Thesis 4. In the last ten years, there have been numerous, and sometimes vigorous, movements of revolt against this or that aspect of the hegemony of liberal capitalism. But they have also been resolved without posing any major problem to the dominant capitalism.Commentary. These movements have been of four kinds.

i) Brief and localised riots. There have been large, spontaneous riots in the suburbs of major cities, for example London and Paris, usually following police killings of young people. These riots either lacked widespread support in a frightened public and were mercilessly suppressed, or were followed by vast ‘humanitarian’ mobilisations, focused on police violence, largely depoliticised in the sense that no mention was made of the precise nature of these exactions and the profit that bourgeois domination ultimately draws from them.

ii) Sustained uprisings, but without an organisational creation. Other movements, notably in the Arab world, have been socially much broader and lasted for many weeks. They took the canonical form of square occupations. They were generally quelled by the temptation of elections. The most typical case was that of Egypt: a very large-scale movement, with the negative unifying slogan ‘Mubarak out’ enjoying apparent success (Mubarak left power, was even arrested), the inability of the police for a long time to take over the square, the explicit unity of Coptic Christians and Muslims, and the apparent neutrality of the army. But, in the elections, naturally, it was the party with a presence in the popular masses – though not very present in the movement – that won, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. The most active part of the movement opposed this new government, thus opening the way to an intervention of the army, which put a general, El-Sisi, in power. He mercilessly repressed all opposition, first the Muslim Brotherhood, then the young revolutionaries, and in fact re-established the old regime in a rather worse form than before. The circular nature of this episode is particularly striking.

iii) Movements leading to the creation of a new political force. In some cases, the movement was able to create the conditions for the emergence of a new political force, different from the regular ones of parliamentarianism. This was the case with Syriza in Greece, where revolts were particularly numerous and harsh, and with Podemos in Spain. These forces have dissolved into the parliamentary consensus. In Greece, the Tsipras government surrendered without significant resistance to the injunctions of the European Commission and returned the country to the path of endless austerity. In Spain, Podemos has also become bogged down in the game of parliamentary combinations, whether governmental or oppositional. No trace of real politics has emerged from these organisational creations.

iv) Movements of fairly long duration, but with no notable positive effects. In some cases, apart from a few classic tactical episodes (such as the ‘takeover’ of classic demonstrations by groups equipped to confront the police for a few minutes), the absence of political innovation meant that on a global scale it was the figure of conservative reaction that was renewed. This was the case, for example, in the USA, where the dominant counter-effect of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ was the coming to power of Trump, and also in France, where the outcome of ‘Nuit debout’ was Macron. A little later, indeed, Macron was the sole target of the typically petty-bourgeois Gilets Jaunes movement. Like all such movements, whose leaders are all frankly hostile to the eradication of bourgeois property, and in fact want stronger state support for it, the result only affected state formalities, and its sole target was President Macron. And the magnificent result, worthy of the farces and traps that the parliamentary system reserves for its clients, was in the end the re-election of Macron.

Thesis 5. The cause of this impotence in the movements of this last decade is the absence of politics – even hostility to politics – in various forms, recognisable by a number of symptoms. Beneath these negative sentiments there is in fact a constant submission to electoral ritual, under the spurious name of ‘democracy’.

Commentary. Let us note, in particular, as signs of an extremely weak political subjectivity:

i) Exclusively negative unifying slogans: ‘against’ this or that, ‘Mubarak out’, ‘down with the 1% oligarchy’, ‘reject the labour law’, ‘no one likes the police’ etc.

ii) The absence of a prolonged temporality: both in terms of knowledge of the past, which is practically absent from the movements (apart from a few caricatures), and of which no inventive assessment is proposed other than a projection into the future, limited to abstract considerations on liberation or emancipation.

iii) A vocabulary largely borrowed from the adversary. This is above all the case with a particularly equivocal category such as ‘democracy’, or the use of the category of ‘life’, ‘our lives’, which is only an ineffective investment of existential categories in collective action.

iv) A blind cult of ‘novelty’ and a disregard for established truths. This point is a direct result of the commercial cult of the ‘novelty’ of products and a constant conviction that something is being ‘started’ which, in reality, has already happened many times. At the same time, it prevents us from learning the lessons of the past, from understanding the mechanism of structural repetition, and leads us to fall into the trap of false ‘modernities’.

v) An absurd time scale. This time scale, modelled on Marx’s money—commodities—money’ circuit, assumes that problems such as private property and the pathological concentration of wealth, which have been pending for millennia, can be dealt with or even resolved by a few weeks of ‘movement’. The refusal to consider that a good part of capitalist modernity is simply woven from a modern version of the triplet ‘family, private property, state’ established a few thousand years ago, as early as the Neolithic ‘revolution’. And that therefore communist logic, as far as the central problems that constitute it are concerned, is situated on a scale of centuries.

vi) A weak relationship to the state. What is at issue here is a constant underestimation of the resources of the state compared to those available to this or that ‘movement’, in terms of both armed force and the capacity for corruption. In particular, the effectiveness of ‘democratic’ corruption, whose symbol is electoral parliamentarianism, is underestimated, as is the extent of the ideological dominance of this corruption over the overwhelming majority of the population.

vii) A combination of disparate means without any assessment of their distant or near past. No conclusions are drawn that can be widely popularised from the methods that have been used since at least the ‘red years’ (1965-1975), or even for two centuries, such as factory occupations, trade-union strikes, legal demonstrations, the formation of groups to enable local confrontation with the police, the storming of buildings, the sequestration of bosses in factories, and so on. Nor from their static symmetries: for example, in squares occupied by crowds, long and repetitive hyper-democratic assemblies, where everyone is called on to speak for three minutes, whatever their ideas and linguistic resources, and where the ultimate stake envisaged is simply the repetition of this exercise.

Thesis 6. We must remember the most important experiences of the near past, and reflect on their failures.

Commentary. From the red years to today.

The commentary on Thesis 5 may well seem quite polemical, even pessimistic and depressing, especially for young people who can legitimately enthuse, for a time, about all those forms of action which I ask to be critically re-examined. These criticisms are understandable if we remember that, personally, in May ’68 and its aftermath, I experienced and participated enthusiastically in things of exactly the same order, and was able to follow them long enough to measure their weaknesses. I have the feeling that recent movements are exhausting themselves by repeating, under the mark of the new, well-known episodes of what can be called the ‘right’ of the May ’68 movement, whether this right comes from the classical left or from the anarchist ultra-left, which in its own way was already talking about ‘forms of life’, and whose militants we called ‘anarcho-desirers’.

There were in fact four distinct movements in 1968.

i) a revolt of student youth;

ii) a revolt of young workers in the large factories;

iii) a general strike by the trade unions attempting to control the two previous revolts;

iv) the emergence, often under the name of ‘Maoism’ – with several rival organisations – of an attempt at a new politics, the principle of which was to draw a unifying axis between the first two revolts by endowing them with an ideological and fighting force that seemed able to guarantee them a real political future. In fact, this lasted for at least a decade. The fact that it did not stabilise on a historical scale (which I readily acknowledge) should not mean that we repeat what happened then without even knowing that we are repeating it.

Let’s just remember that the June 1968 elections produced a majority so reactionary that it could be compared with the ‘blue horizon’ chamber at the end of the First World War. The end result of the May/June 2017 elections, with the crushing victory of Macron, an attested servant of globalised big capital, should make us reflect on what is repetitive in all this. All the more so as the same Macron was re-elected in 2022.

Thesis 7. The internal politics of a movement must have five characteristics, relating to slogans, strategy, vocabulary, the existence of a principle, and a clarified tactical vision.

Commentary.

i) The main slogans must be affirmative, offering a positive determination, and not be satisfied with complaint and denunciation. This is even so at the cost of internal division as soon as one goes beyond negative unity.

ii) The slogans must be strategically justified. This means: informed by knowledge of the previous stages of the problem the movement is addressing.

iii) The vocabulary used must be controlled and consistent. For example: ‘communism’ is today incompatible with ‘democracy’; ‘equality’ is incompatible with ‘liberty’; any positive use of an identitarian term, such as ‘French’, or ‘international community’, or ‘Islamist’ or ‘Europe’, must be proscribed, as well as terms of a psychological nature, such as ‘desire’, ‘life’, ‘person’, and any term linked to established state provisions, such as ‘citizen’, ‘elector’, and so on.

iv) A principle, what I call an ‘Idea’, must be constantly confronted with the situation, insofar as it locally carries a non-capitalist systemic possibility. Here we must quote Marx, as he defined the tasks of militants and their mode of presence in movements: ‘Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.’

v) Tactically, it is always necessary to bring the movement as close as possible to a body capable of coming together to effectively discuss its own perspective and that from which it illuminates and judges the situation.

Political activists, as Marx says, are part of the general movement, they do not separate themselves from it. They distinguish themselves solely by their ability to inscribe the movement in an overall point of view, to foresee from this what the next stage must be, making no any concession on these two points, even under the guise of unity, to the conservative conceptions which can perfectly well subjectively dominate even a major movement. The experience of revolutions shows that crucial political moments are in the form closest to a public meeting, where the decision to be taken is clarified by speakers who may also contradict one another.

Thesis 8. Politics gives the spirit of movements a specific duration, which should match the temporality of states, and not just be a negative episode in their domination. Its general definition is that it organises, among the various components of the people and on the largest possible scale, a discussion around slogans which must be those of permanent propaganda as well as of future movements. Politics provides the general framework for these discussions: it is the assertion that there are today two ways for the general organisation of humanity, the capitalist way and the communist way. The first is only the contemporary form of what has existed since the Neolithic revolution, a few thousand years ago. The second proposes a second global, systemic revolution in the future of humanity. It proposes to emerge from the Neolithic age.

Commentary. In this sense, politics consists in situating locally, through broad discussion, the slogan that crystallises the existence of these two roads in the current situation. Being local, this slogan can only come from the experience of the masses concerned. It is there that politics learns what can make the effective struggle for the communist road exist locally, whatever the means. From this point of view, the wellspring of politics is not right away antagonistic confrontation, but the continuous investigation, in situ, of the ideas, slogans and initiatives capable of bringing to life locally the existence of two roads, one of which is the conservation of what exists, the other its complete transformation according to egalitarian principles which the new slogan has to crystallise. The name of this activity is ‘mass work’. The essence of politics, outside of movement, is mass work.

Thesis 9. Politics is done with people from everywhere. It cannot submit to the various forms of social segregation organised by capitalism.

Commentary. This means, especially for intellectual youth, who have always played a crucial role in the birth of new politics, the need for a continuous journey towards other social strata, especially the most deprived, where the impact of capitalism is most devastating. In present conditions priority must be given, in our countries as well as on a world scale, to the vast nomadic proletariat, who, like the peasants of Auvergne or Brittany in the past, arrive in great waves, facing the worst risks, to try to survive as workers here, since they can no longer do so as landless peasants there. The method, in this case as in all others, is patient investigation on the spot: in markets, housing estates, hostels and factories, the organisation of meetings, even very small ones at the beginning, the fixing and dissemination of slogans, broadening the base of work, confrontation with the various local conservative forces, etc. This is exciting work, once you realise that the key is active stubbornness. An important step is to organise schools to spread knowledge of the global history of struggle between the two roads, its successes and its current impasses.

What was done by the organisations that arose for this purpose after May ’68 can and must be done again. We must reconstitute the political axis I mentioned, which is still today an axis between the youth movement, some intellectuals, and the nomadic proletariat. This is already being done here and there. It is the only properly political task of the moment.

What has changed in France is the deindustrialisation of the suburbs of the big cities. This provides the far right with its working-class support. It must be fought on the spot, by explaining why and how two generations of workers have been sacrificed in a few years, and by simultaneously investigating, as far as possible, the opposite process, namely the extremely violent industrialisation of Asia. Work with manual workers is always immediately international, even here. In this respect, it would be extremely interesting to produce and distribute a newspaper of the workers of the world.

Thesis 10. There is no real political organisation today. The task is therefore to see to the means of reconstituting it.

Commentary. An organisation is responsible for conducting surveys, synthesising mass work and the local slogans that have emerged from it, so as to place them in a global perspective, enriching the movements and monitoring their consequences over the long term. An organisation is judged not on its form and procedures, as one judges a state, but on its capacity to do what it is charged with. We can use a formula from Mao: such an organisation is one which can be said to ‘give back to the masses in a precise form what it has received from them in a still confused form’.

Thesis 11. The classical party form is defunct today because it defined itself, not by its capacity to do what Thesis 9 says, namely mass work, but by its claim to ‘represent’ the working class, or the proletariat.

Comment. We must break with the logic of representation in all its forms. The political organisation must have an instrumental definition, not a representative one. Besides, ‘representation’ means ‘identity of what is represented’. But identities must be excluded from the political field.

Thesis 12. As we have just seen, what defines politics is not the relationship to the state. In this sense, politics takes place ‘at a distance’ from the state. Strategically, however, it is necessary to break the state, because it is the universal guardian of the capitalist road, notably because it polices the right to private property of the means of production and exchange. As the Chinese revolutionaries said during the Cultural Revolution, we must ‘break with bourgeois right’. Therefore, political action towards the state is a mixture of distance and negativity. The aim is actually for the state to be increasingly surrounded by hostile opinion and political sites that have become alien to it.

Commentary. The historical record of this case is very complex. For example, the Russian Revolution of 1917 certainly combined several things, i.e. a broad hostility to the tsarist regime, including in the countryside because of the war, an intense and long-standing ideological preparation, especially in the intellectual strata, workers’ revolts leading to real mass organisations, called soviets, and soldiers’ uprisings, with the existence, thanks to the Bolsheviks, of a solid, diversified organisation, capable of holding meetings with orators who were first-rate in their conviction and their didactic talent. All of this took place with victorious insurrections and a terrible civil war that was finally won by the revolutionary camp, despite massive foreign intervention. The Chinese revolution followed a completely different course: a long march through the countryside, the formation of people’s assemblies, a real Red Army, the lasting occupation of a remote area in the north of the country, where agrarian and productive reform could be experimented with, at the same time as the army was being consolidated, the whole process lasting some thirty years. Moreover, instead of the Stalinist terror of the 1930s, there was a mass student and worker uprising in China against the aristocracy of the Communist Party. This unprecedented movement, called the Proletarian Cultural Revolution, is for us the latest example of a policy of direct confrontation with the figures of state power. None of this can be transposed to our situation. But one lesson runs through the whole adventure: the state, whatever its form, can in no way represent or define the politics of emancipation.

The complete dialectic of any true revolutionary politics has four terms:

i) The strategic idea of the struggle between two roads, communist and capitalist. This is what Mao called the ‘ideological preparation of opinion’, without which, he said, revolutionary politics is impossible.

ii) The local investment of this idea or principle by the political organisation, in the form of mass work. The decentralised circulation of everything that emerges from this work in terms of slogans and victorious practical experiences.

iii) Popular movements in the form of historical events, within which the political organisation works for both their negative unity and the refinement of their affirmative determination.

iv) The state whose power must be broken, either by confrontation or encirclement, if it is the power of the agents of capitalism. And, if it comes from the communist road, it must be destroyed, if necessary, by the revolutionary means that the Chinese Cultural Revolution attempted in a fatal disorder.

To invent in situ the contemporary disposition of these four terms is the problem of our conjuncture, simultaneously practical and theoretical.

 

Thesis 13. The situation of contemporary capitalism involves a kind of stalemate between the globalisation of the market and the still largely national character of the police and military control of populations. In other words, there is a gap between the economic disposition of things, which is global, and its necessary state protection, which remains national. The second aspect is the resurrection of imperialist rivalries in other forms. Despite this change of form, the risk of war is increasing. In fact, war is already present in large parts of the world. Future politics will also have the task, if it can, of preventing the outbreak of an all-out war, which this time could put the existence of humanity at stake. It can also be said that the historical choice is: either humanity breaks with the contemporary Neolithic age that is capitalism and initiates its communist phase on a global scale; or it remains in its Neolithic phase, and will be greatly exposed to perishing in a nuclear war.

Commentary. Today the great powers seek, on the one hand, to collaborate in the stability of world affairs, notably by combating protectionism, but on the other hand fight one another for hegemony. The result is the end of directly colonial practices, such as those of France or England in the nineteenth century, i.e. the military and administrative occupation of entire countries. The new practice is what I propose to call zoning: in entire zones (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Mali, Central Africa, Congo, and so on) states are undermined, annihilated, and the zone becomes a zone of plunder, open to armed gangs as well as all the capitalist predators of the planet. Alternatively, the state is made up of businessmen linked by a thousand ties to the big companies of the world market. Rivalries intertwine in vast territories, with constantly shifting power relations. Under these conditions, an uncontrolled military incident would be enough to bring us to the brink of war. The blocs are already drawn: the United States and its ‘Western-Japanese’ clique on one side, China and Russia on the other, nuclear weapons everywhere. We can only recall Lenin’s dictum: ‘Either revolution will prevent war, or war will provoke revolution.’

We could thus define the maximum ambition of future political work: to realise for the first time in history the first hypothesis, so that revolution will prevent war, rather than the second, i.e. that war will provoke revolution. It was this second hypothesis that materialised in Russia in the context of the First World War, and in China in the context of the Second. But at what a price! And with what long-term consequences!

We must hope, and we must act. Anyone, anywhere, can start to make real politics, in the sense presented in this text. And talk, in turn, to those around them about what they have done. This is how it all begins.

Translated by David Fernbach

Category : Capitalism | China | Marxism | Philosophy | Socialism | Theory | Blog
19
Nov

By Wang Wei

Qiushi Journal 
Updated: 2022-10-28

The Chinese civilization is one of the world’s four great ancient civilizations and the only one that has developed in an unbroken chain up to the present day. It thus holds a unique and important place in the history of human civilization. As President Xi Jinping has said, the origins of Chinese civilization are an important subject for Chinese scholars and an enduring focus for international researchers.

In the spring of 2002, a national-level project to trace the origins of the Chinese civilization was launched. Guided by Marxism, research focused on four ancient city ruins from between 3500 and 1500 BC—the Liangzhu site in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province; the Taosi site in Linfen, Shanxi Province; the Shimao site in Shenmu, Shaanxi Province; and the Erlitou site in Luoyang, Henan Province—as well as the ruins of regional centers along the Yellow, Yangtze, and Liaohe rivers. These sites best reflect the social development and building of central power in that period. Through large-scale archaeological excavations and surveys of settlement distribution in the surrounding areas, we collected information on every aspect of these sites. This information facilitated comprehensive cross-disciplinary research on the emergence, taking shape, and early development of the Chinese civilization from multiple perspectives and levels.

The research project aimed to answer several critical questions: First, when was the Chinese civilization formed, and how long is its history? Second, how did the Chinese civilization first emerge, take shape, and develop? And how did the trend toward a unified whole led by the dynasties on the Central Plains arise, given the Chinese civilization’s diverse sources of origin? Third, why did the Chinese civilization follow a path featuring diversity amidst unity, continuous history, and unbroken development? Fourth, what characteristics define the Chinese civilization’s emergence, taking shape, and development? And where does the Chinese civilization stand in world civilizational history?

After 20 years of work, the project to trace the origins of the Chinese civilization has scored impressive achievements.

Putting forward a Chinese approach to defining civilization and setting criteria for a society’s entry into civilization

A Chinese approach to defining civilization

There is considerable debate among scholars in China and abroad about defining civilization and other related concepts. From a historical materialist point of view, we proposed that civilization is an advanced stage of human cultural and social development. As a result of the development of productive forces, this stage gives rise to the social division of labor and social stratification, which produce classes, kingship, and states.

Project researchers regard the emergence of a civilization and the shaping of a civilization as distinct albeit interconnected. They constitute separate stages in the genesis and formation of a civilization, in which a quantity of civilizational factors first accumulates before a qualitative social change occurs. Specifically, the emergence of a civilization refers to a prehistoric period in which civilizational factors were first nurtured, as productive forces underwent considerable development, material and spiritual life was steadily enriched, and a division between mental and manual labor emerged, along with a social hierarchy.

By a civilization taking shape it refers to a stage in which material, spiritual, and cultural institutions advance considerably. Social stratification intensifies, giving rise to classes. The social hierarchy becomes institutionalized, and people’s social conduct becomes standardized to create a system of rites. A supreme ruler or king emerges, monopolizing power over military command and religious and sacrificial ceremonies. A body that enforces public power known as the state emerges, exercising the main function of social management. The emergence of a state symbolizes that a civilization has taken shape.

Criteria for determining a society’s entry into civilization

Based on the characteristics of the Mesopotamian and ancient Egyptian civilizations, international scholars generally considered writing, metallurgy, and cities as the three basic elements of a civilization. This standard would mean that the Chinese civilization has a history of just 3,300 years.

However, studies around the world have shown that several of the world’s early civilizations did not conform to this “three-basic element” criterion. For example, the Mayan civilization in Central America did not have metallurgy, while the Inca civilization in South America lacked a writing system. The patterns on the seals of the Harappan civilization in the Indus Valley were also not recognized as writing. As more archaeological discoveries were made and research advanced, however, the international academic community generally came to accept that various parts of the world should set their own standards for defining a civilization based on the characteristics that distinguished the development of their ancient societies.

Guided by Marxist theory, Chinese scholars have used historical documents and ancient legends as references. More importantly, we have a rich trove of archaeological materials obtained over the course of a century to shed light on the profound historical and cultural accumulation of the Chinese civilization and the unique path of development it has traveled. Chinese scholars, therefore, are in a better position to offer their definitions for civilization. According to Engels’ view that “the central link in civilized society is the state,” the project to trace the origins of the Chinese civilization put forward the following criteria to define the entry of a civilization: first, development of production, population increase, and the appearance of cities; second, a social division of labor, social stratification, and the emergence of classes; third, the emergence of kingship and states.

Over 5,000 years ago, agriculture developed in various regions in China, the population increased, and regional centers gradually grew into large cities. Advanced handicrafts, such as jade, turquoise vessels, fine pottery, and lacquerware production were specialized and under the control of the ruling class. All regions saw the emergence of a class that had extricated itself from physical labor and became specialized in managing social affairs. There was a serious divide between rich and poor, creating different classes. Kings emerged to assume military and religious power, and early states appeared in which governments were formed under the control of kings to exercise state power through establishing social norms and resorting to violence. Cities had high-grade buildings such as palaces for kings, high-grade tombs for deceased kings and members of the ruling class, and ceremonial vessels and systems to emphasize the status of the ruling class. Slavery was practiced, and people were killed and buried as sacrifices for the deceased nobles or when laying the foundations of palaces.

These discoveries by Chinese archaeologists provide ample material evidence to prove that China’s entry into civilization had its own distinctive characteristics. The level of productive development revealed by these materials demonstrates that the surplus labor of the time was enough to support institutions of public power, thus enabling a portion of the population to devote themselves to management and spiritual affairs away from production.

The above-mentioned criteria can also be applied to other civilizations. Although all civilizations are materially and spiritually distinctive, they share similarities in how institutions of royal power and states emerge, differing only in how royal power is subsequently manifested and the forms states take. In China, power was displayed through exquisite jade ceremonial vessels, bronze ceremonial vessels, large palaces made of wood and earth, and tombs imitating architecture on the ground. In Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, gold, precious stones, magnificent stone temples, pyramids, and large burial chambers were used for this purpose.

图片6_副本.png

Representative artifacts excavated from large secondary burial tombs in the northern section of the Gangshang ruins in Tengzhou, Shandong Province. The site was selected as one of China’s top 10 archaeological discoveries in 2021.

XINHUA / PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE NATIONAL CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION

Establishing how the Chinese civilization emerged, took shape, and developed in the early stages and providing material evidence for its over 5,000 years of history

Research on the emergence, taking shape, and early development of the Chinese civilization, and on relevant background and reasons, has yielded the following conclusions: the foundations of the Chinese civilization were laid 10,000 years ago (8000 BC); civilization first emerged 8,000 years ago (6000 BC); its development accelerated 6,000 years ago (4000 BC); it entered into the stage of civilizational society more than 5,000 years ago (3000 BC); the Central Plains emerged as a powerful region 4,300 years ago (2200 BC); the first dynasty was founded 4,000 years ago (2000 BC); power held by royal families was consolidated 3,000 years ago (1000 BC); and a unified multi-ethnic state was created 2,200 years ago (221 BC).

Ten thousand years ago: laying the foundations

Around 11,000 years ago, global climate warming catalyzed the beginning of agriculture in East and West Asia. Then 10,000 years ago, people domesticated millet—the Setaria italica and Panicum miliaceum species—in northern China, and rice began to be cultivated in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Cultivated rice, pottery, and stone tools have been excavated from the Shangshan site in Pujiang County, Zhejiang Province. Our ancestors in northern China and the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River also began making stone tools and pottery. The emergence of agriculture led to the creation of small village settlements in various places, thus laying the foundations for the creation of a civilization.

Eight thousand years ago: the emergence of a civilization

A period of great climate warming occurred between 8,000 and 6,000 years ago. Paleoenvironmental studies have revealed that the climate of the Yellow River Basin at the time was similar to the climate of today’s Yangtze River Basin, and that of the Yangtze River Basin was similar to today’s southern China. The warm and humid climate enabled rice farming to spread northward to the lower reaches of the Huaihe River, while millet farming became popular along the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River and in the north and south of the Yanshan Mountains. Stone and bone shovels unearthed at ancient sites indicate that slash-and-burn agriculture had already given way to settled farming. Agriculture during this period led to population growth, an increase in the number of villages, the development of handicrafts, and social progress. Inhabitants of the Jiahu site in Wuyang County, Henan Province, located on the upper reaches of the Huaihe River, cultivated rice, raised pigs, made wine and turquoise utensils, and invented a bone flute with seven finger holes. At Jiahu and Xinglongwa, located in Aohan Banner, Inner Mongolia, as well as other sites, a small number of large-scale tombs containing jade or turquoise vessels have been discovered, which suggests that society had begun to stratify, paving the way for the rise of a civilization.

Six thousand years ago: accelerated development

Around 6,000 years ago, the rise of the Chinese civilization began to pick up speed. Millet cultivation techniques spread from the Yellow River Basin to the Yangtze River Basin, and rice cultivation spread north to the Hanshui River Basin and the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. Handicraft industries in various places also made striking progress, as fine pottery with a solid texture and a smooth surface appeared. The unearthing of four stone silkworm chrysalises dating back 6,000 years to an early settlement of the Yangshao Culture in Shicun Village, Xiaxian County, Shanxi Province, has led excavators to conclude that sericulture and silk reeling had already been invented by that time. People’s spiritual life was also steadily enriched. In an early burial tomb at a Yangshao Culture site in Xishuipo, Puyang City, Henan Province, the remains of the occupant were flanked on either side by mosaics of a dragon and a tiger made from a large number of clamshells. Painted pottery was also popular in China’s central and eastern regions, and rapid progress was made in jade craft, lacquer painting, and architecture.

Some important changes occurred in society in this period. First, the population increased significantly. The number of settlements multiplied, with clusters composed of dozens of villages found in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, and the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Second, central settlements began to appear. In the Zhudingyuan area in Lingbao City, Henan Province, several large settlements with a scale of up to one million square meters were discovered. Third, wars began to occur. Some large and medium-sized settlements were surrounded by trenches more than 10 meters wide and several meters deep, which were evidently used for defense. Stone axes were also found in the tombs of some adult males. Fourth, social stratification intensified, and a ruling class began to emerge. However, this stage still constituted an accelerated process in the emergence of a civilization; states had not yet been formed, and society had not entered into a civilization.

Five thousand years ago: entry into civilization

The period from 5,500 to 5,000 years ago was critical in the history of the Chinese civilization, as areas along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River successively entered into a civilizational stage.

In the lower Yangtze River region, plowing and large-scale rice fields appeared around 5,300 years ago. Fields and irrigation ditches were organized in regular patterns, and rice farming techniques matured. Archaeologists have discovered large-scale water management systems around the site of the ancient Liangzhu city, along with mounds of 200,000 kilograms of carbonized rice on the south side of the Mojiaoshan site in the heart of Liangzhu city. These discoveries demonstrate that the development of farming and the mastery of grain storage were matters of great importance for Liangzhu. Recent discoveries at the Shi’ao and Maoshan sites in Zhejiang Province dating to the Liangzhu period reveal a checkerboard pattern of expansive fields lined with ridges made from tree branches, bamboo, and disused canoes. Waterways, irrigation holes, and drainage channels were all well-planned. Prehistoric paddies and farming systems discovered quite far from Liangzhu attest to the astounding scale of rice agriculture in the early stage of Liangzhu and the strength of its economy. Such discoveries show that at Liangzhu, an early state was built upon a foundation of religious, political, economic, and military development.

During this period, technologically advanced handicrafts such as fine jade, pottery, lacquerware, and turquoise ornaments appeared in numerous places. Jade cong—cylindrical tube ornaments—representing the Liangzhu Culture were engraved with intricate animal face patterns. People in the lower reaches of the Yellow River could make what is referred to as “eggshell-thin” ceramics with a thickness of less than one millimeter. The technical complexity of these products indicates that artisanal families with specialized skills had emerged by that time. Specialization in advanced handicrafts is an important sign of the social division of labor.

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The excavation site on the palace complex platform at the Shimao ruins in the city of Shenmu, Shaanxi Province. (File photo) XINHUA

Another sign of social development during this period was the emergence of ceremonial instruments and the initial formation of ritual systems. Jade, lacquerware, and exquisite pottery vessels were excavated from high-grade burial tombs in various places. This shows that local ruling classes controlled the production and distribution of valuable objects. They created a hierarchy through a ritual system that was based on technically advanced and highly prized ritual objects and used tomb size to indicate the status of the deceased.

Around 5,300 years ago, central cities and primitive religious shrines of more than a million square meters were built in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, and the Xiliao River Basin. The ancient city of Liangzhu, a sprawling metropolis in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, had inner and outer sections of nearly 3 million square meters and 6.3 million square meters, respectively. It was the largest city anywhere in the world at that time. To protect it from mountain floods, more than 10 kilometers of low and high dams were built north of the city. This was the largest water control system in the world during this period and reflected the ability of the Liangzhu rulers to organize large-scale public construction projects.

Class stratification accelerated in step with the emergence of early high-level cities. Large high-grade buildings covering hundreds and even thousands of square meters, and large tombs containing more than a hundred or even several hundred pieces of exquisite objects pose a striking contrast to the modest houses and small-scale tombs of ordinary members of society, and illustrate the vast social wealth enjoyed by the ruling class.

In almost all regions, large tombs with elaborate weapons in the form of jade axes began to appear in this period. Burial tombs at the Liangzhu sites of Fanshan and Yaoshan contained jade axes with wooden handles, possibly serving as symbols of military power. In recently discovered tombs at the Gangshang site in Tengzhou City, Shandong Province, the highest-ranking male nobles were generally buried with one large and one small jade axe. These males are likely to have been kings with command over the military. As the ruling class accumulated authority based on military power, clan leaders became kings who exercised total power. This period also saw an increase in war and violence. Human skeletons scattered in garbage dumps, forming the foundations of large buildings, and buried in large tombs as sacrifices indicate that some people began to enslave others.

Four thousand and three hundred years ago: the rise of the Central Plains

Around 4,300 years ago, a shift occurred in the civilization process in various parts of China. An important upshot of this was the rise of the Central Plains. The period from 4,300 to 4,100 years ago witnessed significant climate change, marked by abnormal temperatures, erratic rainfall, and frequent flooding, greatly influencing the progress of civilization in all regions. The civilization along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River declined, while that in the middle reaches of the Yellow River surged ahead. Powerful groups in the middle reaches of the Yellow River gradually became stronger than other groups around them, and two super-large settlements appeared in succession—Taosi in Shanxi and Shimao in Shaanxi.

The Taosi site covering an area of 2.8 million square meters is about 4,300 to 4,000 years old. The area with high-grade buildings features an 8,000-square-meter rammed-earth platform, buildings of terracotta tiles, painted walls, and decorative engravings. Taosi was thus home to the first palace in the middle reaches of the Yellow River. Nearly 100 items have been unearthed from burial tombs, including drums covered with alligator skins, stone chimes, jade axes, and a large ceramic tray with painted dragon patterns. The remnants of a semi-circular platform were also uncovered at the Taosi site, which astronomers believe to be an observatory for tracking celestial phenomena and determining important agricultural dates and seasons such as the spring equinox, autumn equinox, summer solstice, and winter solstice. This is consistent with the “Canon of Yao” in The Book of History. It describes how King Yao assigned astronomic officers to observe celestial phenomena and tell the divide of the seasons. The time, location, scale, and level of the Taosi site are relatively consistent with the literature describing King Yao’s capital of Pingyang.

A mountainous city built of stone blocks, Shimao was discovered 10 years ago. It is between 4,100 and 3,900 years old and has an area of four million square meters. The site is composed of an outer and inner city, as well as an imperial complex, and has various defensive facilities. The city’s heart consists of a platform dozens of meters in height, believed to be the foundation of a palace complex. The large palace on the platform covers thousands of square meters. There are also stone blocks and pillars carved with images of animals and their faces on the platform. Numerous ceramic eagles of over 50 centimeters to 1 meter in height were also excavated from the platform and are thought to be related to beliefs and worship. Shimao strongly resembles a military fortress. In the city, several sacrificial pits containing young female skulls were discovered. These findings show that just before the founding of the Xia Dynasty (2070–1600 BC), class divisions were particularly pronounced in northern Shaanxi, and a state ruled by a king with great military power had emerged.

Four thousand years ago: dynastic establishment

Around 4,000 years ago, the Xia Dynasty was founded. In the area centered on the southeastern foothills of Songshan Mountain in Henan Province, more than 10 large cities had appeared. Of these, the Wangchenggang site in Dengfeng City is particularly impressive, with a set of corresponding large and small inner and outer cities. The area had been known as Yangcheng ever since the start of the Warring States Period (475–221 BC). At the ruins of Wadian in Yuzhou City, Henan, which belong to the same period, various traces of sacrifices, including human and animal remains, have been identified on the large rammed-earth platform. The discoveries signal the start of a new stage for the Chinese civilization centered on the Central Plains. The “nine administrative districts” referred to in the “Tribute of Yu,” a chapter in The Book of History covered northern, central, and eastern China, indicating that at the founding of the Xia Dynasty, the power group along the middle reaches of the Yellow River extended its vision to the lower reaches of Yellow River and as far as the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. After roughly 200 years of development, during its later stage, the Xia Dynasty continued to accumulate strength, thus gradually giving rise to the leading position of the Central Plains, which exercised an influence that was unprecedented in scope. This is reflected in the Erlitou ruins of Luoyang City in Henan Province.

The Erlitou site covers an area of more than three million square meters and is between 3,800 and 3,500 years old. It is the largest city site in China from that period. Records refer to the Yi-Luo River Basin, where the Erlitou site is located, as the central region of the Xia Dynasty. The golden age of the Erlitou Culture occurred during the late Xia Dynasty just before the founding of the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC). The influence of the Erlitou Culture was unprecedented, with its ritual vessels and ceremonial systems, represented by jade yazhang, a type of ceremonial blade, spreading to the vast surrounding areas. The set of bronze and jade ceremonial vessels used by the Erlitou Culture was inherited in full by the Shang Dynasty.

In the lead-up to the founding of the Shang Dynasty, the Xia Dynasty was the only powerful political entity in the Songshan Mountain region where the Erlitou Culture was based. This gives us ample reason to conclude that Erlitou was most likely the capital of the late Xia Dynasty. The existence of the Xia Dynasty has thus not only been richly documented in literature since pre-Qin period but also proven by archaeological findings.

The Shang Dynasty inherited the ritual system pioneered by the Xia Dynasty. Political, economic, cultural, and social development continued, and a mature writing system, represented by the oracle-bone script, took shape. Metallurgy and the ritual system spread to a much wider area. Oracle-bone inscriptions show that the Shang king was the country’s supreme ruler, under whom a complete administrative structure existed, exercising direct control over the immediate hinterlands and indirect control over loyal vassal states. The political power and cultural influence of the Shang Dynasty stretched from the coast in the east to Longshan Mountain in the west, beyond the Yangtze and Hanshui rivers in the south, and as far as the Yanshan Mountain range in the north. Bronze ceremonial vessels belonging to the Shang system have been excavated across a vast area, demonstrating that the Shang Dynasty played a leading role in the evolution of the Chinese civilization and the development of culture and society in many places.

Three thousand years ago: the consolidation of royal power

In the first years of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BC), the king of Zhou founded a feudal state by granting noble titles to relatives and officials and allowing them to establish vassal states, thus creating a stable rule over a vast area outside the immediate hinterlands of the capital. Based on the ritual systems of the Xia and Shang, the Zhou Dynasty developed a more advanced ritual system. It instituted a ceremonial system composed of different types and quantities of bronzeware, establishing a clear hierarchy. This hierarchy was continuously strengthened during the Western Zhou and gradually extended to all aspects of clothing, food, housing, and transportation. Institutional differences even governed garment colors, clothing styles, jade ornaments, horse-drawn carriages, and types and quantities of chimes and other musical instruments. The Western Zhou Dynasty was a critical period in the course of the Chinese civilization, characterized by a feudal system, patriarchal clan system, and system of music and rites. Consisting of many vassals with the Zhou king at the core, the state structure further strengthened the centralized power system developed during the Xia and Shang dynasties and laid a firm foundation for the founding of a unified multi-ethnic country during the dynasties of Qin (221–207 BC) and Han (206 BC–220 AD).

Two thousand and two hundred years ago: the formation of a unified multi-ethnic country 

This refers to the unification of China by the First Emperor of Qin in 221 BC based on an administrative system of prefectures and counties and a unified system of laws. Thus, China entered the civilization stage as a unified state, marking a new phase of developing a unified multi-ethnic country.

Historical insights from the development of the Chinese civilization 

The integration of diverse elements is an inexhaustible source of vitality for the Chinese civilization. 

Looking at the early evolution of the Chinese civilization, we can see the rich and varied nature of the cultures in the various regions of China. The cultures of the middle reaches of the Yellow River openly absorbed a diverse range of civilizational factors, and eventually integrated with the cultures of other regions. The cultures of all regions in China positively contributed to the formation of the Chinese civilization. The convergence and integration of various civilizations filled the Chinese civilization with vitality and enabled it to develop sustainably.

Openness, inclusiveness, exchange, and mutual learning are the driving forces for the development of civilization. 

The Chinese civilization has actively sought to learn from and absorb the achievements of other civilizations and has made innovations accordingly. Even in prehistoric times, exchanges were widespread and unfolded across regional and ethnic lines. Such exchanges documented a process of mutual learning between cultures and promoted the development of civilization. Exchanges and mutual learning have been crucial to the enduring prosperity of the Chinese civilization and are vital ingredients in its distinctive charm. Only by being open and inclusive and drawing inspiration from diverse sources can we ensure that the Chinese civilization maintains its liveliness and enjoys lasting vitality.

Cultural soft power is a proven way for the creativity and influence of the Chinese civilization. 

The process of refining advanced cultural concepts continued throughout the Xia, Shang, and Zhou civilizations, eventually giving rise to a set of mainstream values with rites as the key tenet. This profound concept exerted extensive influence, leading to the development of a civilization in the vast surrounding regions. Following the Qin and Han dynasties, the concept of rites was carried forward and further promoted and enriched to become a core value of the Chinese civilization. In addition, through exchanges and mutual learning, it spread to surrounding countries and regions and became an important concept for Eastern civilization.

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Key artifacts from the collection of the Erlitou Site Museum of the Xia Capital:

1) bronze wine container; 2) bronze tripod vessel with lattice pattern; 3) turquoise-inlaid bronze plate with an animal mask design; 4) dragon-shaped turquoise object; 5) jade knife with seven holes; 6) yazhang or ceremonial blade.

PROVIDED BY THE ERLITOU SITE MUSEUM OF THE XIA CAPITAL

The Chinese civilization emerged, took shape, and achieved early development largely in step with the other three major ancient civilizations of the world, and its achievements are on par with theirs. 

Agriculture emerged in China around 10,000 years ago, and the Chinese civilization began to take shape over 5,000 years ago, which largely coincides with the appearance of agriculture and the rise of civilizations in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. More than 3,000 years ago, the Zhou Dynasty built the largest government of that time through a feudal system. During the golden age of the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC) when numerous schools of thought flourished in China around 2,600 years ago, the Axial Age of humanistic enlightenment played out in ancient Greece and India. Millet and rice farming, jade manufacturing, and silk-making embody our Chinese ancestors’ wisdom and creativity and represent important contributions to human civilization. The formation of the Chinese civilization was marked by myriad trials such as climate disruptions and social turmoil. Yet our forebears courageously overcame all difficulties and obstacles in a spirit of self-reliance and self-improvement and finally completed the creation of our great civilization, which took its place among the four great ancient civilizations. This development process and the achievements it has produced constitute the source of our cultural self-confidence today. The Chinese civilization has stood and will always stand tall among the world’s civilizations.

National unity is an aspiration of the people and the foundation of China’s strength and prosperity. 

The development of the Chinese civilization witnessed wars, numerous competing powers, and breakaway vassals. Yet under the guidance of a unified core and through the development of productive forces and social progress, a unified nation was ultimately established under the Qin and Han dynasties. Since then, valuing unity and seeking great harmony, both as ideas and practices, have strongly appealed to the Chinese nation and permeated its thinking. This concept has sustained the Chinese nation’s unity, guided its identity, and forged its unique character. History shows that national unity is not only an essential attribute of the Chinese civilization but a fundamental guarantee for its continuity. With national unity, ethnic solidarity, and social stability, the Chinese civilization is sure to attain even greater achievements.

The Chinese civilization has, like all civilizations of the world, traveled a distinct path of development and created a unique heritage.

The cradle of the Chinese civilization comprised a vast region with diverse environments. As a result, the Chinese civilization underwent a unique development process, which originated at multiple points and featured cultural collision, exchange, and integration. This grand process ultimately produced a system that unified the entire country under one ruler and fostered the political ideal of great harmony. A civilization led by a central core and characterized by unity amidst diversity thus began to develop. As such, the development of the Chinese civilization also constituted a process of creating a unified multi-ethnic country. This process endowed the Chinese civilization with inexhaustible vitality and turned the Chinese nation into an indivisible community. After the formation of a unified multi-ethnic state, national unity became the highest value and ideal of the Chinese people. The Chinese civilization developed a unique economic, political, and cultural system with agriculture as the foundation, a patriarchal clan system to regulate social relations, a social hierarchy based on a ritual system, virtue as the basis for human relations, and the concept of unity between humans and nature in regard to man’s relations with nature. This process proves that civilizations have different paths of development. It shows that every civilization is unique, should be appreciated in its own right, and can flourish side by side. This is the source of China’s confidence in its own path.

 

Wang Wei is Academician of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Director of the CASS Academic Division of History, a visiting researcher at the Research Center for Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and chief expert on the first to fourth phases of the Chinese Civilization Origins Project. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 14, 2022)

Category : China | Marxism | Blog
21
Oct















Grey Eminence, or Theory at the Top

By N. S. Lyons
Palladium
October 2021

One day in August 2021, Zhao Wei disappeared. For one of China’s best-known actresses to physically vanish from public view would have been enough to cause a stir on its own. But Zhao’s disappearing act was far more thorough: overnight, she was erased from the internet. Her Weibo social media page, with its 86 million followers, went offline, as did fan sites dedicated to her. Searches for her many films and television shows returned no results on streaming sites. Zhao’s name was scrubbed from the credits of projects she had appeared in or directed, replaced with a blank space. Online discussions uttering her name were censored. Suddenly, little trace remained that the 45-year-old celebrity had ever existed.

She wasn’t alone. Other Chinese entertainers also began to vanish as Chinese government regulators announced a “heightened crackdown” intended to dispense with “vulgar internet celebrities” promoting lascivious lifestyles and to “resolve the problem of chaos” created by online fandom culture. Those imitating the effeminate or androgynous aesthetics of Korean boyband stars—colorfully referred to as “xiao xian rou,” or “little fresh meat”—were next to go, with the government vowing to “resolutely put an end to sissy men” appearing on the screens of China’s impressionable youth.

Zhao and her unfortunate compatriots in the entertainment industry were caught up in something far larger than themselves: a sudden wave of new government policies that are currently upending Chinese life in what state media has characterized as a “profound transformation” of the country. Officially referred to as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Common Prosperity” campaign, this transformation is proceeding along two parallel lines: a vast regulatory crackdown roiling the private sector economy and a broader moralistic effort to reengineer Chinese culture from the top down.

But why is this “profound transformation” happening? And why now? Most analysis has focused on one man: Xi and his seemingly endless personal obsession with political control. The overlooked answer, however, is that this is indeed the culmination of decades of thinking and planning by a very powerful man—but that man is not Xi Jinping.

The Grey Eminence

Wang Huning much prefers the shadows to the limelight. An insomniac and workaholic, former friends and colleagues describe the bespectacled, soft-spoken political theorist as introverted and obsessively discreet. It took former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s repeated entreaties to convince the brilliant then-young academic—who spoke wistfully of following the traditional path of a Confucian scholar, aloof from politics—to give up academia in the early 1990s and join the Chinese Communist Party regime instead. When he finally did so, Wang cut off nearly all contact with his former connections, stopped publishing and speaking publicly, and implemented a strict policy of never speaking to foreigners at all. Behind this veil of carefully cultivated opacity, it’s unsurprising that so few people in the West know of Wang, let alone know him personally.

Yet Wang Huning is arguably the single most influential “public intellectual” alive today.

A member of the CCP’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, he is China’s top ideological theorist, quietly credited as being the “ideas man” behind each of Xi’s signature political concepts, including the “China Dream,” the anti-corruption campaign, the Belt and Road Initiative, a more assertive foreign policy, and even “Xi Jinping Thought.” Scrutinize any photograph of Xi on an important trip or at a key meeting and one is likely to spot Wang there in the background, never far from the leader’s side.

Wang has thus earned comparisons to famous figures of Chinese history like Zhuge Liang and Han Fei (historians dub the latter “China’s Machiavelli”) who similarly served behind the throne as powerful strategic advisers and consiglieres—a position referred to in Chinese literature as dishi: “Emperor’s Teacher.” Such a figure is just as readily recognizable in the West as an éminence grise (“grey eminence”), in the tradition of Tremblay, Talleyrand, Metternich, Kissinger, or Vladimir Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov.

But what is singularly remarkable about Wang is that he’s managed to serve in this role of court philosopher to not just one, but all three of China’s previous top leaders, including as the pen behind Jiang Zemin’s signature “Three Represents” policy and Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious Society.”

In the brutally cutthroat world of CCP factional politics, this is an unprecedented feat. Wang was recruited into the party by Jiang’s “Shanghai Gang,” a rival faction that Xi worked to ruthlessly purge after coming to power in 2012; many prominent members, like former security chief Zhou Yongkang and former vice security minister Sun Lijun, have ended up in prison. Meanwhile, Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League Faction has also been heavily marginalized as Xi’s faction has consolidated control. Yet Wang Huning remains. More than any other, it is this fact that reveals the depth of his impeccable political cunning.

And the fingerprints of China’s Grey Eminence on the Common Prosperity campaign are unmistakable. While it’s hard to be certain what Wang really believes today inside his black box, he was once an immensely prolific author, publishing nearly 20 books along with numerous essays. And the obvious continuity between the thought in those works and what’s happening in China today says something fascinating about how Beijing has come to perceive the world through the eyes of Wang Huning.

Cultural Competence

While other Chinese teenagers spent the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) “sent down to the countryside” to dig ditches and work on farms, Wang Huning studied French at an elite foreign-language training school near his hometown of Shanghai, spending his days reading banned foreign literary classics secured for him by his teachers. Born in 1955 to a revolutionary family from Shandong, he was a sickly, bookish youth; this, along with his family’s connections, seems to have secured him a pass from hard labor.

When China’s shuttered universities reopened in 1978, following the commencement of “reform and opening” by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, Wang was among the first to take the restored national university entrance exam, competing with millions for a chance to return to higher learning. He passed so spectacularly that Shanghai’s Fudan University, one of China’s top institutions, admitted him into its prestigious international politics master’s program despite having never completed a bachelor’s degree.

The thesis work he completed at Fudan, which would become his first book, traced the development of the Western concept of national sovereignty from antiquity to the present day—including from Gilgamesh through Socrates, Aristotle, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hegel, and Marx—and contrasted it with Chinese conceptions of the idea. The work would become the foundation for many of his future theories of the nation-state and international relations.

But Wang was also beginning to pick up the strands of what would become another core thread of his life’s work: the necessary centrality of culture, tradition, and value structures to political stability.

Wang elaborated on these ideas in a 1988 essay, “The Structure of China’s Changing Political Culture,” which would become one of his most cited works. In it, he argued that the CCP must urgently consider how society’s “software” (culture, values, attitudes) shapes political destiny as much as its “hardware” (economics, systems, institutions). While seemingly a straightforward idea, this was notably a daring break from the materialism of orthodox Marxism.

Examining China in the midst of Deng’s rapid opening to the world, Wang perceived a country “in a state of transformation” from “an economy of production to an economy of consumption,” while evolving “from a spiritually oriented culture to a materially oriented culture,” and “from a collectivist culture to an individualistic culture.”

Meanwhile, he believed that the modernization of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was effectively leaving China without any real cultural direction at all. “There are no core values in China’s most recent structure,” he warned. This could serve only to dissolve societal and political cohesion.

That, he said, was untenable. Warning that “the components of the political culture shaped by the Cultural Revolution came to be divorced from the source that gave birth to this culture, as well as from social demands, social values, and social relations”—and thus “the results of the adoption of Marxism were not always positive”—he argued that, “Since 1949, we have criticized the core values of the classical and modern structures, but have not paid enough attention to shaping our own core values.” Therefore: “we must create core values.” Ideally, he concluded, “We must combine the flexibility of [China’s] traditional values with the modern spirit [both Western and Marxist].”

But at this point, like many during those heady years of reform and opening, he remained hopeful that liberalism could play a positive role in China, writing that his recommendations could allow “the components of the modern structure that embody the spirit of modern democracy and humanism [to] find the support they need to take root and grow.”

That would soon change.

A Dark Vision

Also in 1988, Wang—having risen with unprecedented speed to become Fudan’s youngest full professor at age 30—won a coveted scholarship (facilitated by the American Political Science Association) to spend six months in the United States as a visiting scholar. Profoundly curious about America, Wang took full advantage, wandering about the country like a sort of latter-day Chinese Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities.

What he found deeply disturbed him, permanently shifting his view of the West and the consequences of its ideas.

Wang recorded his observations in a memoir that would become his most famous work: the 1991 book America Against America. In it, he marvels at homeless encampments in the streets of Washington DC, out-of-control drug crime in poor black neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco, and corporations that seemed to have fused themselves to and taken over responsibilities of government. Eventually, he concludes that America faces an “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” produced by its societal contradictions, including between rich and poor, white and black, democratic and oligarchic power, egalitarianism and class privilege, individual rights and collective responsibilities, cultural traditions and the solvent of liquid modernity.

But while Americans can, he says, perceive that they are faced with “intricate social and cultural problems,” they “tend to think of them as scientific and technological problems” to be solved separately. This gets them nowhere, he argues, because their problems are in fact all inextricably interlinked and have the same root cause: a radical, nihilistic individualism at the heart of modern American liberalism.

“The real cell of society in the United States is the individual,” he finds. This is so because the cell most foundational (per Aristotle) to society, “the family, has disintegrated.” Meanwhile, in the American system, “everything has a dual nature, and the glamour of high commodification abounds. Human flesh, sex, knowledge, politics, power, and law can all become the target of commodification.” This “commodification, in many ways, corrupts society and leads to a number of serious social problems.” In the end, “the American economic system has created human loneliness” as its foremost product, along with spectacular inequality. As a result, “nihilism has become the American way, which is a fatal shock to cultural development and the American spirit.”

Moreover, he says that the “American spirit is facing serious challenges” from new ideational competitors. Reflecting on the universities he visited and quoting approvingly from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, he notes a growing tension between Enlightenment liberal rationalism and a “younger generation [that] is ignorant of traditional Western values” and actively rejects its cultural inheritance. “If the value system collapses,” he wonders, “how can the social system be sustained?”

Ultimately, he argues, when faced with critical social issues like drug addiction, America’s atomized, deracinated, and dispirited society has found itself with “an insurmountable problem” because it no longer has any coherent conceptual grounds from which to mount any resistance.

Once idealistic about America, at the start of 1989 the young Wang returned to China and, promoted to Dean of Fudan’s International Politics Department, became a leading opponent of liberalization.

He began to argue that China had to resist global liberal influence and become a culturally unified and self-confident nation governed by a strong, centralized party-state. He would develop these ideas into what has become known as China’s “Neo-Authoritarian” movement—though Wang never used the term, identifying himself with China’s “Neo-Conservatives.” This reflected his desire to blend Marxist socialism with traditional Chinese Confucian values and Legalist political thought, maximalist Western ideas of state sovereignty and power, and nationalism in order to synthesize a new basis for long-term stability and growth immune to Western liberalism.

“He was most concerned with the question of how to manage China,” one former Fudan student recalls. “He was suggesting that a strong, centralized state is necessary to hold this society together. He spent every night in his office and didn’t do anything else.”

Wang’s timing couldn’t have been more auspicious. Only months after his return, China’s own emerging contradictions exploded into view in the form of student protests in Tiananmen Square. After PLA tanks crushed the dreams of liberal democracy sprouting in China, CCP leadership began searching desperately for a new political model on which to secure the regime. They soon turned to Wang Huning.

When Wang won national acclaim by leading a university debate team to victory in an international competition in Singapore in 1993, he caught the attention of Jiang Zemin, who had become party leader after Tiananmen. Wang, having defeated National Taiwan University by arguing that human nature is inherently evil, foreshadowed that, “While Western modern civilization can bring material prosperity, it doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement in character.” Jiang plucked him from the university and, at the age of 40, he was granted a leadership position in the CCP’s secretive Central Policy Research Office, putting him on an inside track into the highest echelons of power.

Wang Huning’s Nightmare

From the smug point of view of millions who now inhabit the Chinese internet, Wang’s dark vision of American dissolution was nothing less than prophetic. When they look to the U.S., they no longer see a beacon of liberal democracy standing as an admired symbol of a better future. That was the impression of those who created the famous “Goddess of Democracy,” with her paper-mâché torch held aloft before the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Instead, they see Wang’s America: deindustrialization, rural decay, over-financialization, out of control asset prices, and the emergence of a self-perpetuating rentier elite; powerful tech monopolies able to crush any upstart competitors operating effectively beyond the scope of government; immense economic inequality, chronic unemployment, addiction, homelessness, and crime; cultural chaos, historical nihilism, family breakdown, and plunging fertility rates; societal despair, spiritual malaise, social isolation, and skyrocketing rates of mental health issues; a loss of national unity and purpose in the face of decadence and barely concealed self-loathing; vast internal divisions, racial tensions, riots, political violence, and a country that increasingly seems close to coming apart.

As a tumultuous 2020 roiled American politics, Chinese people began turning to Wang’s America Against America for answers. And when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, the book flew off the shelves. Out-of-print copies began selling for as much as $2,500 on Chinese e-commerce sites.

But Wang is unlikely to be savoring the acclaim, because his worst fear has become reality: the “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” he identified in America seems to have successfully jumped the Pacific. Despite all his and Xi’s success in draconian suppression of political liberalism, many of the same problems Wang observed in America have nonetheless emerged to ravage China over the last decade as the country progressively embraced a more neoliberal capitalist economic model.

“Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” has rapidly transformed China into one of the most economically unequal societies on earth. It now boasts a Gini Coefficient of, officially, around 0.47, worse than the U.S.’s 0.41. The wealthiest 1% of the population now holds around 31% of the country’s wealth (not far behind the 35% in the U.S.). But most people in China remain relatively poor: some 600 million still subsist on a monthly income of less than 1,000 yuan ($155) a month.

Meanwhile, Chinese tech giants have established monopoly positions even more robust than their U.S. counterparts, often with market shares nearing 90%. Corporate employment frequently features an exhausting “996” (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) schedule. Others labor among struggling legions trapped by up-front debts in the vast system of modern-day indentured servitude that is the Chinese “gig economy.” Up to 400 million Chinese are forecast to enjoy the liberation of such “self-employment” by 2036, according to Alibaba.

The job market for China’s ever-expanding pool of university graduates is so competitive that “graduation equals unemployment” is a societal meme (the two words share a common Chinese character). And as young people have flocked to urban metropoles to search for employment, rural regions have been drained and left to decay, while centuries of communal extended family life have been upended in a generation, leaving the elderly to rely on the state for marginal care. In the cities, young people have been priced out of the property market by a red-hot asset bubble.

Meanwhile, contrary to trite Western assumptions of an inherently communal Chinese culture, the sense of atomization and low social trust in China has become so acute that it’s led to periodic bouts of anguished societal soul-searching after oddly regular instances in which injured individuals have been left to die on the street by passers-by habitually distrustful of being scammed.

Feeling alone and unable to get ahead in a ruthlessly consumerist society, Chinese youth increasingly describe existing in a state of nihilistic despair encapsulated by the online slang term neijuan (“involution”), which describes a “turning inward” by individuals and society due to a prevalent sense of being stuck in a draining rat race where everyone inevitably loses. This despair has manifested itself in a movement known as tangping, or “lying flat,” in which people attempt to escape that rat race by doing the absolute bare minimum amount of work required to live, becoming modern ascetics.

In this environment, China’s fertility rate has collapsed to 1.3 children per woman as of 2020—below Japan and above only South Korea as the lowest in the world—plunging its economic future into crisis. Ending family size limits and government attempts to persuade families to have more children have been met with incredulity and ridicule by Chinese young people as being “totally out of touch” with economic and social reality. “Do they not yet know that most young people are exhausted just supporting themselves?” asked one typically viral post on social media. It’s true that, given China’s cut-throat education system, raising even one child costs a huge sum: estimates range between $30,000 (about seven times the annual salary of the average citizen) and $115,000, depending on location.

But even those Chinese youth who could afford to have kids have found they enjoy a new lifestyle: the coveted DINK (“Double Income, No Kids”) life, in which well-educated young couples (married or not) spend all that extra cash on themselves. As one thoroughly liberated 27-year-old man with a vasectomy once explained to The New York Times: “For our generation, children aren’t a necessity…Now we can live without any burdens. So why not invest our spiritual and economic resources on our own lives?”

So while Americans have today given up the old dream of liberalizing China, they should maybe look a little closer. It’s true that China never remotely liberalized—if you consider liberalism to be all about democratic elections, a free press, and respect for human rights. But many political thinkers would argue there is more to a comprehensive definition of modern liberalism than that. Instead, they would identify liberalism’s essential telos as being the liberation of the individual from all limiting ties of place, tradition, religion, associations, and relationships, along with all the material limits of nature, in pursuit of the radical autonomy of the modern “consumer.”

From this perspective, China has been thoroughly liberalized, and the picture of what’s happening to Chinese society begins to look far more like Wang’s nightmare of a liberal culture consumed by nihilistic individualism and commodification.

The Grand Experiment

It is in this context that Wang Huning appears to have won a long-running debate within the Chinese system about what’s now required for the People’s Republic of China to endure. The era of tolerance for unfettered economic and cultural liberalism in China is over.

According to a leaked account by one of his old friends, Xi has found himself, like Wang, “repulsed by the all-encompassing commercialization of Chinese society, with its attendant nouveaux riches, official corruption, loss of values, dignity, and self-respect, and such ‘moral evils’ as drugs and prostitution.” Wang has now seemingly convinced Xi that they have no choice but to take drastic action to head off existential threats to social order being generated by Western-style economic and cultural liberal-capitalism—threats nearly identical to those that scourge the U.S.

This intervention has taken the form of the Common Prosperity campaign, with Xi declaring in January that “We absolutely must not allow the gap between rich and poor to get wider,” and warning that “achieving common prosperity is not only an economic issue, but also a major political issue related to the party’s governing foundations.”

This is why anti-monopoly investigations have hit China’s top technology firms with billions of dollars in fines and forced restructurings and strict new data rules have curtailed China’s internet and social media companies. It’s why record-breaking IPOs have been put on hold and corporations ordered to improve labor conditions, with “996” overtime requirements made illegal and pay raised for gig workers. It’s why the government killed off the private tutoring sector overnight and capped property rental price increases. It’s why the government has announced “excessively high incomes” are to be “adjusted.”

And it’s why celebrities like Zhao Wei have been disappearing, why Chinese minors have been banned from playing the “spiritual opium” of video games for more than three hours per week, why LGBT groups have been scrubbed from the internet, and why abortion restrictions have been significantly tightened. As one nationalist article promoted across state media explained, if the liberal West’s “tittytainment strategy” is allowed to succeed in causing China’s “young generation lose their toughness and virility then we will fall…just like the Soviet Union did.” The purpose of Xi’s “profound transformation” is to ensure that “the cultural market will no longer be a paradise for sissy stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be in a position of worshipping Western culture.”

In the end, the campaign represents Wang Huning’s triumph and his terror. It’s thirty years of his thought on culture made manifest in policy.

On one hand, it is worth viewing honestly the level of economic, technological, cultural, and political upheaval the West is currently experiencing and considering whether he may have accurately diagnosed a common undercurrent spreading through our globalized world. On the other, the odds that his gambit to engineer new societal values can succeed seems doubtful, considering the many failures of history’s other would-be “engineers of the soul.”

The best simple proxy to measure this effort in coming years is likely to be demographics. For reasons not entirely clear, many countries around the world now face the same challenge: fertility rates that have fallen below the replacement rate as they’ve developed into advanced economies. This has occurred across a diverse array of political systems, and shows little sign of moderating. Besides immigration, a wide range of policies have now been tried in attempts to raise birth rates, from increased public funding of childcare services to “pro-natal” tax credits for families with children. None have been consistently successful, sparking anguished debate in some quarters on whether losing the will to survive and reproduce is simply a fundamental factor of modernity. But if any country can succeed in reversing this trend, no matter the brute-force effort required, it is likely to be China.

Either way, our world is witnessing a grand experiment that’s now underway: China and the West, facing very similar societal problems, have now, thanks to Wang Huning, embarked on radically different approaches to addressing them. And with China increasingly challenging the United States for a position of global geopolitical and ideological leadership, the conclusion of this experiment could very well shape the global future of governance for the century ahead.

N.S. Lyons is an analyst and writer living and working in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Upheaval.

Category : China | Cold War | Marxism | Blog
7
Oct

 

Friends of Socialist China
October 6, 2021

We are republishing this insightful article in LA Progressive by Dee Knight (member of the DSA International Committee) comparing human and democratic rights in the US and China, and challenging the lazy, Eurocentric assumptions that China is ‘authoritarian’ and that the only valid system of governance is Western capitalist democracy.

The leaders of the USA and China faced off at the United Nations General Assembly in late September, in a dramatic verbal conflict over peace, democracy, and human values. Biden said “The authoritarians of the world, they seek to proclaim the end of the age of democracy, but they’re wrong.” He added that the U.S. will “oppose attempts by stronger countries to dominate weaker ones, whether through changes to territory by force, economic coercion, technological exploitation or disinformation… But we’re not seeking a new Cold War or a separation of the world into rigid blocs…”

The UN delegates listened as Biden proclaimed the United States “is not at war” for the first time in two decades – weeks after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. He did not mention continued U.S. military occupations in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia – all of which have been deemed failures – or U.S. military presence in at least thirteen other African countries and hundreds of bases across the globe.

Biden also offered no explanation for the recent agreement with Australia and the United Kingdom to develop and deploy nuclear submarines in the Indo-Pacific region, or the “Quad” alliance with Japan, South Korea and India to threaten China with war ships and nuclear missiles. The question of U.S. sanctions against targeted enemies across the globe also was not mentioned. Neither were the activities of the National Endowment for Democracy and the Alliance for Progress to try to control internal affairs in numerous countries, including China.

Xi Jinping responded that “China has never and will never invade or bully others to seek hegemony… A world of peace and development should embrace civilizations of various forms and must accommodate diverse paths to modernization. One country’s success does not have to mean another country’s failure,” Xi continued. “The world is big enough to accommodate common development progress of all countries.”

Xi emphasized that “Democracy is not a special right reserved for any individual country but a right for the people of all countries to enjoy.”

The U.S. president did not mention his difficulties getting bills through Congress to upgrade the country’s infrastructure and provide improved basic services to people – services like health care, child care, housing and education, which are guaranteed in China, often free or at minimal cost. The “Build Back Better” bills are supported by a decisive majority of the U.S. population, but are fiercely opposed by recalcitrant right-wingers in Congress, along with “moderate” Democrats beholden to big oil and big pharma. These bills – dubbed “enormous” and unaffordable by Congressional opponents – pale in cost when compared with the military budget. At $743 billion for one year, while the infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills are for ten years, the military budget is nearly double their total for each year. (This doesn’t include military-related items, such as intelligence and veterans’ services, which bring the annual military total up above a trillion.)

An effort to pare off just ten percent of the military budget was crushed in Congress in September: a sign of the political power of the military-industrial complex, which combines with big oil, big pharma, big banks and insurance companies to dominate the U.S. political process. These same forces are helping right-wingers in both Congress and many states to quash voting rights, reversing the historic gains of the mid-century Civil Rights movement.

While the U.S. economy struggles to recover, levels of inequality reach historic proportions, and the political system is ever more polarized, Xi could point to China’s success in helping 800 million people lift themselves out of extreme poverty. A recent report noted that “In 2019, as China entered the last stages of its poverty eradication scheme, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, ‘Every time I visit China, I am stunned by the speed of change and progress. You have created one of the most dynamic economies in the world, while helping more than 800 million people to lift themselves out of poverty – the greatest anti-poverty achievement in history’.”

Average wages for urban workers in China doubled between 2010 and 2020.”>China’s economic success – growing at an average rate of 9.5 percent per year, growing in size by almost 35 times (according to China’s Great Road, by John Ross), building railroads, highways, subways, even entire cities, to become the second largest economy in the world – didn’t happen without strain. Inequality increased, and some worried that the new “market socialism” was a lot like capitalism. The poverty eradication campaign was essential, just as efforts to restrain big capitalists were as well. These efforts were possible in large part due to the Chinese approach to democracy. As Xi said:

What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life… The needs to be met for the people to live better lives are increasingly broad. Not only have their material and cultural needs grown; their demands for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security, and a better environment are increasing.

How China’s leaders intervened is an illustration of China’s democratic path. A report from Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation finds over 90% of the Chinese people like their government, and “rate it as more capable and effective than ever before. Interestingly, more marginalized groups in poorer, inland regions are actually comparatively more likely to report increases in satisfaction.” It says Chinese people’s attitudes “appear to respond to real changes in their material well-being.”

This contrasts with people’s attitudes in the United States, which are polarized politically, racially, and economically. Public trust in the U.S. government is in crisis. There are very real human rights concerns, with police killings, homelessness and mass incarceration at pandemic proportions. A new report says police killings in the U.S. have been undercounted by more than half during the past four decades. Of nearly 31,000 people killed by police during that period, more than 17,000 were unaccounted for in official statistics. Black people were 3.5 times as likely to be killed by the police as white people. Latinx and indigenous people also suffered higher rates of fatal police violence than white people.

Chinese democracy
The Chinese revolution itself was fundamentally democratic – abolishing feudalistic hierarchy and privilege, equalizing gender differences, and enabling poor workers and farmers to be involved in national administration. The Ash Center study includes an important essay, “Democracy in China: Challenge or Opportunity?” by Yu Keping, director of the China Center for Comparative Politics and Economics. Yu Keping says “Western scholars use their democratic standards, such as a multi-party system, universal suffrage, and checks and balances, to evaluate Chinese political development,… and conclude that Chinese reform is more economic than political.” This, he says, is an unnecessary bias and misunderstanding.

The basics of Chinese democracy are people’s congresses at local, provincial and national levels. A Global Times report says “according to the State Council, ‘Deputies to the people’s congresses of cities not divided into districts, municipal districts, counties, autonomous counties, townships, ethnic minority townships and towns are elected directly by their constituencies. Deputies to the NPC [National People’s Congress] and the people’s congresses of the provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the Central Government, cities divided into districts, and autonomous prefectures are elected by the people’s congresses at the next lower level.’ These elections are all competitive.”

There are also regular consultations between government officials and the people at all levels. Key principles are “people-oriented government, human rights, private property, rule of law, civil society, harmonious society, government innovation, and good governance,” Yu Keping wrote.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is at the core of all this. Its 95 million members make it a preponderant factor in Chinese society. There are eight non-communist political parties, with which the CCP consults regularly. But CCP members lead society. The guiding slogan is “serve the people.” The story of the poverty eradication campaign provides a good example:

The targeted phase of poverty alleviation required building relationships and trust between the Party and the people in the countryside as well as strengthening Party organization at the grassroots level. Party secretaries [were] assigned to oversee the task of poverty alleviation across five levels of government, from the province, city, county, and township, down to the village… Three million carefully selected cadres were dispatched to poor villages, forming 255,000 teams that reside there. Living in humble conditions for generally one to three years at a time, the teams worked alongside poor peasants, local officials, and volunteers until each household was lifted out of poverty. In this process, many cadres were unable to return home to visit families for long stretches of time; some fell ill in the harsh natural conditions of rural areas and more than 1,800 Party members and officials lost their lives in the fight against poverty. The first teams were dispatched in 2013; by 2015, all poor villages had a resident team, and every poor household had an assigned cadre to help in the process of being lifted, and more importantly, of lifting themselves out of poverty. At the end of 2020, the goal of eliminating extreme poverty was reached.

The study says the “cadres and officials who have mobilized in the countryside have been essential in building public support for and confidence in the Party and the government.”

The government’s effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic continued to build public support. Shortly after Wuhan emerged from the COVID-19 lockdown, York University Professor Cary Woo led a survey of 19,816 people across 31 provinces and administrative regions. Published in the Washington Post, the study found that 49 percent of respondents became more trusting of the government following its response to the pandemic, and overall trust increased to 98 percent at the national level and 91 percent at the township level.

“The Chinese way of political development,” Yu Keping says, “is extremely different from the Western democratic tradition… Consequently, it is almost dead-end to explain the Chinese way of democratic politics through using existing Western democratic theories.” Democracy means “government by the people,” the professor says. So “the fundamental criteria to judge whether a country is a ‘democracy’ or not is government’s responsiveness to its citizens… As long as a country has formal institutions to guarantee that government policies can effectively reflect the public’s opinions, that citizens can participate in political life, and the incumbent political regime has to respond to people’s interests, it can be considered democratic regardless of the particular party systems, election procedures, or power separation mechanisms.”

Western Challenges
Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted in 2019 that “We lied, we cheated, we stole… It’s part of the glory of the American experiment.” Pompeo’s claims that the Chinese Communist Party is “the greatest danger” to democracy in the world, and that China’s to blame for the COVID-19 pandemic have served to discredit the U.S. position rather than strengthen it. Biden, Secretary of State Blinken and most in Congress, to their shame, are continuing Pompeo’s infamous campaign. Despite hundreds of millions of U.S. funds to support protests in Hong Kong, that effort has fizzled. Hong Kong ranks in the top three on the Fraser Human Freedoms Index, while the U.S. is in 17th place. (An earlier LA Progressive article provides additional information.)

Regarding claims of “genocide” in Xinjiang, Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs, a special advisor to the UN Secretary General, says “The US government has offered no proof, and unless it can, the State Department should withdraw the charge.” Code Pink webinars have demolished U.S. anti-China claims. Using these lies and false accusations, the U.S. has imposed sanctions and launched an international boycott of products made in Xinjiang. The main result has been to hurt the people of Xinjiang. But the smear campaign has also confused many progressives and so-called “leftists” in the U.S., who have fallen victim to the continued repetition of these lies in the mainstream media.

China has answered the U.S. slander campaign with claims of its own. In late September it called on the UN Human Rights Council to “work to eliminate the negative impacts of colonialism on people around the world.” The statement, issued with 21 other countries, said “Economic exploitation, inequality, racism, violations of indigenous peoples’ rights, modern slavery, armed conflicts and damage to cultural heritage are among the legacies of colonial repression.” In a separate statement, China “called for nations that have conducted illegal military interventions to pay reparations. Without naming any states, he pointed out that such action had severe consequences for social and economic development.”

“A democratic system is a marriage of universality and particularity,” Professor Keping says. “We cannot make arbitrary conclusions that democracy has only one model merely based on the assumption that democracy is a universal value and has common features… The nature of democracy is government by the people or ‘people become their own masters,’ which is reflected in a series of institutions and mechanisms that guarantee the citizens’ democratic rights… Chinese democracy, growing out of Chinese tradition and society, will not only bring good fortune to the Chinese people, but also contribute greatly to the advancement of democratic theory and practice for all mankind.”

Category : China | Democracy | Blog
15
Jun


By Xuan Tan
People’s Daily
June 07, 2021

General Secretary Xi Jinping profoundly pointed out at the Party History Study and Education Mobilization Conference that the belief in communism and the belief in socialism with Chinese characteristics is the political soul of the Communists and the spiritual pillar for the Communists to withstand any test. He emphasized the centuries of the party. The course of struggle and great achievements are the most solid foundation for us to strengthen our confidence in road, theory, system, and culture. The words of the general secretary are loud, firm and heroic, deeply revealing the inner relationship between socialism and communism, and a century of struggle and struggle, and demonstrates the perseverance and perseverance of the Chinese Communists to advance along the only correct path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Over the course of a hundred years, many people and things are still vivid, and many shouts and singing are still in my ears. After going through the wind, frost, snow and rain, and creating miracles on earth, we have the obligation to comfort the martyrs with victory: Socialism has not failed China! We have the responsibility to let history tell the future: socialism will not fail China!

One

The accidents of history often carry certainty. In the 1840s, ancient China was opened by the powerful ships and guns of the great powers, and China’s destiny has since entered an unprecedentedly miserable situation. In almost the same era, in Europe where capitalism was in the ascendant, Marx and Engels began their great explorations of scientific socialism and the cause of human liberation and progress.

After the Opium War, China was poor, weak, and at the mercy of others. “Forty million people shed tears, where is China in the End of the World”. This poem by Tan Sitong is full of blood and tears and hesitation. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, the Reform Movement of 1898, the Boxer Movement, the Revolution of 1911… the Chinese struggled in the dark to find a way to save the nation and survive; reformism, liberalism, social Darwinism, anarchism, pragmatism… all kinds of Western theories and doctrines have been Introduce as a prescription to strengthen the country and enrich the people. I have tried every plan, but they have repeatedly come to nothing. Every road was explored, but he was battered. “Countless heads and blood, poorly bought fake republics.” Great powers were rampant, warlords fought, and the people were in dire straits. The First World War pierced the seemingly beautiful illusion of capitalist civilization. Countless people with lofty ideals use their lives and souls to ask questions again and again: Where is the way out for China? Where is the hope of the nation?

The blast of the October Revolution brought Marxism-Leninism to China. This is a great historical agreement, this is a solemn historical promise! The shackles of feudal society for thousands of years are too tight, and the old cannot be replaced without a thorough social transformation. The oppression imposed by imperialism on the Chinese is too heavy, and it cannot be resisted without the mighty power of mobilizing tens of thousands of toiling people.

Li Dazhao praised: “The alarm bell of humanity is ringing! The dawn of freedom is here! Try to see the future of the world, it must be the world of red flag!” Chen Duxiu declared: “The political revolution in France in the eighteenth century, and the social revolution in Russia in the twentieth century. People are all swearing at them; but later historians will regard them as the key to the change and evolution of human society.” The young Mao Zedong exclaimed: “The time has come! The tide of the world is getting more urgent! Dongting The gate of the lake moved and opened! The mighty new thoughts have surged on both sides of the Xiangjiang River!”

In 1920, when it was warm and cold, the 29-year-old Chen Wangdao spent two months in the firewood room in his hometown of Yiwu, Zhejiang, and forgot to eat and sleep for two months. For the first time, he translated the “Communist Manifesto” completely, and the first 1,000 copies were sold out immediately. By 1926, it was reprinted and republished 17 times. The advanced and unyielding Chinese have chosen Marxism as the way to save the country and the people after repeated comparisons and repetitions, as their unswerving ambition.

In July 1921, the Communist Party of China, a political party with Marxism as its guiding ideology and communism as its goal, was born, with faith, entrustment and dreams in mind, resolutely in the rising sun of Shanghai Shikumen and the blue waves of Nanhu Lake in Jiaxing set sail. Since then, the fire of socialism has been ignited in the East, and China, once troubled and hopeless, has a direction!

Two

After the failure of the Great Revolution, the Communist Party member Xia Minghan was arrested in Hankou and wrote a farewell to his wife before his heroic death: “Tossing his head and shed blood, Minghan has long been taken care of. Everyone needs what he needs, and the revolutionary cause will be passed on from generation to generation. Hong Zhu Keep the thoughts of each other, and the red cloud hopes for perfection. Persevere in the revolution and follow my will and vowed to pass on the truth to the world.” In those stormy years, like Xia Minghan, he did not regret nine deaths for his communist belief and firmly believed in the revolutionary ideals. There are more than tens of thousands of martyrs who have realized it. Once they recognized their beliefs and doctrines, they never hesitated or wavered, and did not hesitate to water the “communist blossoms” with youth and blood. continue

Category : Capitalism | China | Socialism | Blog
24
Mar

Comic on “The Opium Ban in China” from the weekly De Amsterdammer, December 2 1906

Toward an Understanding of China’s Historical Political Economy and Its Relationship to Contemporary China

By Ken Hammond
MROnline

March 3, 2021 – The contemporary political economy of the People’s Republic of China, the nature of the Chinese system, has been the subject of much discussion and debate in mainstream academic, media, and political circles, as well as on the left.1 Since the end of the 1970s, China has pursued policies of “reform and opening” (gaige kaifang,) to develop its economy, a process that has resulted in the massive growth of production, China’s emergence as a major player in global trade, and the lifting of around 800 million people out of poverty, while at the same time generating serious problems of inequality, corruption, and environmental stress. At the heart of this project has been the decision by the Communist Party, originally under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping, then carrying on through successive changes of leadership, to use the mechanisms of the marketplace to develop the productive economy. How should this situation be characterized? Is it capitalism, state capitalism, market socialism?2

One can only make sense of contemporary China with a clear understanding of the country’s economic history.3 A historical materialist analysis of the nature of China’s political economic order over the course of history, especially the last thousand years, can illuminate critical aspects of the present. A serious engagement with the complexities of China’s historical economic systems must take into account knowledge about the Chinese past that was not available to Karl Marx, allowing us to go beyond the vagaries of the Asiatic mode of production and transcend the limitations of earlier theorizations of the “sprouts of capitalism” (ziben zhuyi de mengya) by historians in China in the 1950s and ’60s.4 Applying categories and modes of analysis derived from Marx’s Capital and other writings to the understanding of China’s early modern history and exploring the relevance of that history to contemporary China are the main tasks of this essay.

From the period of the Tang-Song transition, roughly the ninth and tenth centuries, China developed a commercial capitalist economy that encompassed a largely urban manufacturing sector and also reshaped agricultural production in much of the empire. A ruling class evolved that was a hybrid of the long-established landowning elite and the early modern commercial stratum, which managed the economic affairs of the country through a blend of private agency and the operations of the imperial state. Through much of China’s imperial past, the state maintained a complex, not always consistent, role in economic affairs, seeking both to support the livelihood of the people, promote prosperity, constrain the pursuit of private profit, and regulate the functions of markets. This historical relationship has inflected the developmental itinerary of the country and is reflected in the deployment of the theory and practice of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and the “socialist market economy.”

II
China’s recorded history goes back more than 3,200 years and can be usefully divided into four major periods: (1) antiquity, from the beginning to the end of the third century BCE; (2) the middle period, from the second century BCE to the tenth century CE; (3) the early modern period, from the tenth through the eighteenth centuries; and (4) modern China, from the end of the eighteenth century to the present.5 Throughout antiquity, China was ruled by an elite of warriors who controlled the land, collecting tribute from their subjects. Economic activity was largely locally self-sufficient, with a small layer of high-value elite trade centered on the royal court(s). Over time, a professional administrative elite developed, often referred to as the literati because of their mastery of the written records of history and their shared literary culture. These administrative officials were often rewarded with grants of land, and over time these became hereditary property, though the sovereign always retained ultimate ownership.6

The middle period began with the unification of the empire and the consolidation of the imperial system under the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). During this period, private ownership of land became a practical reality, while in theory the empire continued to belong to the ruler, now the emperor. Many officials in government service built up significant land holdings, while other great families emerged based on their local acquisition of agricultural assets. This was a complex, long-term process, with large landed estates forming by the later Han, which became the underpinning for the political influence of the landowning class. Over the centuries of the middle period, China developed an aristocratic elite, with quasi-official status and a strong transmission of wealth across generations. China went through periods of internal division after the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220, and then renewed imperial unification under the Sui and Tang dynasties (589–618 and 618–907, respectively). Recruitment for service in the imperial government, which was largely pursued through a process of recommendation by serving officials, allowed established families to place their sons in careers in official life and perpetuate the power of the elite. This aristocratic class effectively dominated the state, which served to promote and protect its interests.7

Alongside the estates of the great families there was a sector of agricultural production organized around small holders, managed through a system of land tenure maintained by the imperial state, which regularly redistributed land to male heads of village households who, in turn, were taxed in grain and cloth products. The system varied in its specifics in different parts of the empire but was a clear example of state oversight and management of economic activity. This oversight also extended to urban centers and markets. Imperial law restricted the number and location of markets and established strict controls over their operations. This blend of aristocratic estates, state-managed distribution of small holdings, and tightly regulated urban markets was not in any sense feudal in its economic or political organization and functioning.8

By the ninth century, changes began to emerge in China’s cities and countryside. The Tang dynasty had been deeply shaken by the An Lushan Rebellion in 755–63, and the long-established aristocracy began to decline. But even before this, the very success of the imperial system of economic management had given rise to contradictions within the economy. Its potential for growth and development exceeded the parameters of state oversight, and new forces began to push beyond the regulations of the government. The power of the dominant elite and the control of urban space by official overseers weakened. Markets began to spread outside areas that had been designated and monitored by the state and to become more integrated into residential areas. Private ownership of farmland expanded beyond the great estates and the land subject to government distribution. The imperial court maintained a role in the production and distribution of certain key commodities through government monopolies, a practice that had its roots centuries earlier in the Han dynasty. But the overall role of the state in economic affairs declined, just as the class basis of imperial rule was itself dramatically altered.

In the later ninth century, further rebellions destroyed much of the elite’s wealth and the institutional infrastructure that had legitimized and maintained its power and prestige. Rebellious peasants attacked the estates of the wealthy, killed many members of the elite, and burned the documents that validated their status and power. The fall of the Tang in 907 led to the chaos of the Five Dynasties and Sixteen Kingdoms, with small regional states contending for power through chronic warfare and further destruction, until the Zhao brothers established the Song dynasty in 960 and reunified the empire over the ensuing decade. The warfare of this age of transition cleared the way for the further transformation of China’s economic and political order. The old aristocracy was gone, but the ownership of land and the control of agricultural production was still the primary mode of wealth accumulation.9

As the Song dynasty (960–1279) consolidated its power, a new elite emerged, formally based on the attainment of merit through education, but practically grounded in the riches produced on their estates. These provided the resources to support the education of sons in the Confucian classical traditions that formed the basis of the imperial civil examination system, which became the main vector for entry into service in the bureaucratic administration of the empire. Not all landowning families produced examination graduates or government officials. The class of landed wealth was more extensive than the group of literati who staffed the imperial state, and relations between members of this class in their capacity as local elites or as representatives of imperial power could be complex. This larger class is often referred to as the gentry, and the overall landowning class may be designated, perhaps somewhat awkwardly, the literati/gentry.10

This reconfiguration of the landholding elite took place in tandem with the further development of a commercial economy in China. Markets proliferated, woven together by networks of long-distance trade spanning the empire and linking up with larger global systems. New forms of capital valorization and accumulation took shape within an increasingly monetized economy. Division of labor both within productive enterprises and on a regional geographic basis, as well as ongoing technological innovation, drove enhancements in productivity. New developments in banking and financial operations facilitated the mobilization and allocation of capital.11 This is the key to understanding the early modern period that began in the ninth and tenth centuries and continued, with dramatic advances and retreats, throughout the following eight hundred years, across several dynastic transitions, down to the beginning of the modern era at the turn of the nineteenth century. It is the emergence of China’s early modern capitalist commercial economy and its development over the following years that must be understood to enable a better comprehension of China’s recent pursuit of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” continue

Category : Capitalism | China | Blog
13
Dec

Limitations and Problems of the Western Doctrine

By Ai Silin & Qu Weijie
Marxism and Reality, No 3, 2020

Abstract: The slogan “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” put forward by Western liberal scholars contradicts the principle of non-interference as stipulated in the Charter of the United Nations. The Western conception of human rights includes two main justification methods—naturalism and bottom-lineism, but neither of them can substantively justify the universality of human rights going beyond reality. This also determines that the relationship between sovereignty and human rights is not an “either-or” one, but a dialectical and mutually reinforcing one. Human rights cannot be fundamentally guaranteed without the support of national sovereignty. The culture-centric mentality implied by the doctrine that human rights are superior to national sovereignty is not conducive to international cooperation. Only by engaging in dialogue in a non-coercive, inclusive, and equitable manner would it be possible to reach a bottom-line consensus that would be widely accepted by the international community.

Since the late 20th century, and particularly since the Kosovo War in 1999 and Iraq War in 2003, Western powers have advocated the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” to legitimize starting a series of regional wars. However, the concept which lies behind this theory conflicts with a series of principles of international law as stipulated in the Charter of the United Nations, such as the principles of the sovereign equality of states and non-interference in internal affairs. According to Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher, “This prohibition of intervention is indeed reaffirmed by the UN Charter; but from the beginning it stood in tension with the development of the international protection of human rights.”[1] This paper attempts to review the relationship between national sovereignty and human rights based on a critical reflection on the Western concept of human rights.

I. Two Ways to Justify the Western Concept of Human Rights: Naturalism and Minimalism

It is generally believed that the universalist concept of human rights has its origins rooted in the modern Western concept of natural rights. It must first be clarified, however, that no consensus has thus far been reached in Western political academia about how the concept of “right” first came into being. Probing into the evolution of the concept of “right”, Richard Dagger wrote that the English word “right” comes from the Latin word “rectus” (meaning “straight”), which in turn can be traced to “orek-tos” (“straight, upright”) in Greek.[2] At the beginning, therefore, the word “right” presumably did not indicate “a justified claim or entitlement, or the freedom to do something” in its modern sense, and the concept of right in a political sense did not emerge in the West until the late Middle Ages as the idea of “natural rights” took shape. Western political scholars such as Charles Beitz and James Griffin who were committed to studying human rights believed that despite the differences in connotation between the concepts of human rights and natural rights, from a historical perspective, the origin of the modern Western concept of human rights is closely linked with the theory of natural rights, which in turn is directly related to the natural law theory established by Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages. The influence of modern natural science and the Enlightenment Movement, however, led the natural law theory to gradually give way to Enlightenment rationalism, thus divorcing the theological elements from the concept of natural rights. From this point, the individual awareness in line with the nature secured its fundamental status in practical philosophy, and the secular concept of “human rights” emerged in the late 18th century. According to Beitz, “the most broadly influential contribution of the natural rights tradition to contemporary thought about human rights is the idea that human rights belong to persons ‘as such’ or ‘simply in virtue of their humanity’.”[3] Such justification for human rights is referred by Beitz as “naturalist” view on human rights, which is one of the most common ways to justify human rights. Its core argument is that the concept of human nature is regarded as evidence of the universality of human rights, while human nature is in itself in conformity with the nature. “Not as something evolving in the course of history, but posited by nature, because for them this individual was the natural individual, according to their idea of human nature.”[4] In the modern Western tradition of metaphysics, such an individual in conformity with the nature may either be presumed as a Kantian rational being or an experimentalist aggregate of feelings. Whichever presumption is made, the “demystified” concept of human rights attempts to justify its universalist appeal by naturalist theories.

However, the biggest weakness of the naturalist theory is that it neglects the historical aspect of mankind. To ensure the prioritization of individual rights, an individual is ridded of his social identity such as roles and status, and is translated into a moral agent in a metaphysical sense. Marx made the lucid statement that the concept of moral agent as constructed by modern Western philosophers was but a product of disintegration of feudal society and maturity of the civil society. Elaborating human rights from the perspective of an abstract and naturalist human nature has abducted human rights evolution from its historical dimension, and the understanding of rights thereof is non-historical. In fact, the emergence and application of the concept of human rights are inevitably based on certain social practices and historical conditions, and shall undergo changes correspondingly with changes in such social practice and historical conditions. The connotation and denotation of this concept remains in dynamic evolution, in which sense the naturalist view will inevitably be challenged by historicism. From a historicist perspective, political or moral concepts are neither inherent nor created at the discretion of any person; instead, any concept is a product of history and depends on certain social practice and objective historical conditions as a foundation. So is the case with the concept of human rights, which has evolved over a long history rather than remaining unchanged, As early as during the Enlightenment Movement, certain Western thinkers and statesmen made the statement that “all men are born equal”. However, this slogan is just a promissory note that cannot be cashed immediately as U.S. sociologist Robert N. Bellah argued.[5] Women were not granted the right to vote or to stand in elections until the 1920s, and the rights of African Americans were not sufficiently protected until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Even today, various social classes and groups in the West remain troubled by identity and economic gaps.

The naturalist concept of human rights can be viewed as a “top-down”[6] approach according to Griffin, i.e. deduction of human rights based on one or multiple abstract principles, and it is exclusively built on the metaphysical concept of “man himself” or “human nature”. In fact, the evolution of human rights indicates that human nature, whether deemed a factual or normative being, is not a sufficient condition of human rights. The factual concept of human nature of the normative concept of personality itself does not naturally and logically lead to the deduction of a set of concepts of plural rights. Instead, our understanding of modern concept of human rights depends more on a “bottom-up” approach: approaching the human rights theory from widely used concept of human rights in actual social interactions. Through investigation into various types of human rights, political theorists attempt to find a consensus from all known concepts of human rights that is universally accepted by all nations. The bottom-up approach differs from the top-down approach in that the former acknowledges in the first place that different lists of rights may be categorized as human rights by different thinkers, who may interpret and understand the same right in different ways. Charles Taylor believed that human rights consist of norms of conduct and underlying justification, the former referring to various rights stipulated in national laws and international conventions, and the latter referring to philosophical views on human nature and society from a metaphysical perspective that constitute the philosophical basis of the norms of conduct related to human rights. For Taylor, people with different cultural backgrounds may vary in the deep underlying justification of human rights, which, however, does not impede us from seeking consensus on the level of norms of conduct through dialogues and communication. Such consensus, similar with “overlapping consensus” suggested by John Rawls, is a minimum consensus acceptable by all parties. Taylor further pointed out that “one can presumably find in all cultures condemnations of genocide, murder, torture, and slavery”[7]. According to Taylor, such norms of conduct are deemed overlapping consensus in a culturally diversified world. This concept of human rights can be defined as minimalism. In the West, Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian scholar of political science, is one of the first advocates of the minimalist theory of human rights, which he believes is tantamount to the “negative freedom” defined by Isaiah Berlin that protects individuals from physical harm.[8] Likewise, Western political scholars such as Michael Walzer, David Miller and Joshua Cohen all advocate minimalism of human rights, albeit to various degrees. Walzer proposes a set of “negative injunctions” that rules against murder, deceit, torture, oppression, etc.[9] as minimal morality for all societies.

A Kantian question is: how does the consensus in minimalism become possible? Is it possible to reach some degree of consensus in a non-coercive approach and come up with a list of human rights universally acknowledged by all countries? Many western scholars on human rights are optimistic, such as Griffin emphasizing that “We now, in these cosmopolitan times, tend to exaggerate the differences between societies.”[10] Empirical observations show that people in different countries may differ in religions, world outlooks, set of values and lifestyles, yet certain fundamental preconditions apply to all humans, as no one would deny the value of food, health and security in life, which may be translated into corresponding appeals for rights and summarize a minimalist list of human rights. Borrowing Walzer’s theory, this would be a “thin” list of human rights whose underlying justification does not build on “thick” and profound metaphysical or religious resources; instead, it proceeds from indisputable human needs or interests. In a world of complexity and diversity, many Western philosophers have come to realize that a “thick” list of human rights would unlikely be universally accepted unless by means of coercion or even violence. Yet obtaining a list of human rights by such means is in itself a violation and disrespect of human rights. It is therefore obvious that the minimalism of human rights with empiricism as the basic methodology conforms to our empirical observation. Problems arise, however, from empirical induction, and disputes over the contents of such a minimalist list of human rights have never ceased between countries and regions. Besides, the multitude of political, economic and social rights stipulated by various conventions on human rights are absent from the “thin” list of human rights as many of these economic and social rights rely on enormous public spending, and cashing these “checks” of pledged rights may incur an unaffordable cost on some developing countries.

The viewpoint that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” is unlikely to constitute a minimal consensus among all countries on the human rights issue since minimalism requires overlapping consensus based on equal dialogue. As behind the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” lurks a unilateralist and interventionist approach in international affairs, which is unacceptable for other countries advocating equality of national sovereignty.

II. Boundaries of Humanitarian Intervention and Its Subsequent Problems

It was not until after WWII that a modern and secularized concept of human rights became globally influential. Traumatized by the unprecedented calamity of Fascism preying on all nations, and in particular the holocaust by Nazi Germany, many argued that a prospective international political theory shall be advocated to safeguard human rights. In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sought to provide a generic and normative foundation to safeguard human rights worldwide by listing a series of rights that all shall be entitled to. It was in this very context that “human rights diplomacy” practiced by Western countries started to gain momentum across the world, and wars were started in the name of “humanitarian intervention”, which consisted a major challenge to the concept of human rights in classical international law. So, does safeguarding human rights necessarily require a thorough abolishment of non-intervention principle within international law?

To answer this question, Western political philosophers advocating minimalist human rights argue that approving humanitarian intervention does not mean abandoning the non-intervention principle in international relations, but rather “becoming aware of particular exceptional situations” which constitute the scope and boundaries of humanitarian intervention. Walzer was one of the first Western political philosophers that expounded on humanitarian intervention whose basic viewpoint grounded upon “the norm is not to intervene in other people’s countries; the norm is self-determination”.[11] In normal situations, the principle of non-intervention shall apply in international affairs; however, humanitarian intervention is justified when it is response to acts “that shock the moral conscience of mankind”[12] and no local political organization possess the means to end the status quo. Therefore, failure in exercising sovereignty is an essential condition for the deposal of a sovereign state; while a second essential condition is the occurrence of “exceptional situation” that shock the moral conscience of mankind. Therefore, justified humanitarian intervention is essentially negative with a very narrow scope of applicability. According to David Miller, the non-intervention principle would be set aside provided that the international community reaches a universal consensus on whether the human rights violation has gone beyond the boundary of tolerance. At present, “such agreement exists in the case of genocide”[13] where the victims are deprived of all means of resistance without foreign aid. In such a case, the non-intervention principle of the international law is temporarily disabled and the boundary of national sovereignty broken, and intervention by other countries is justified. This indicates that a rather high threshold for the execution of humanitarian intervention is defined by minimalist human rights theory.

Another crucial question is: is “regime transformation” included in the “exceptional cases” where humanitarian intervention applies? Some advocates of “human rights first” argue that in order to prevent or avoid humanitarian disasters, it is necessary to transform the regime of certain countries by military means into a regime in conformity with Western liberalist democratic institutions. For them, humanitarian intervention is of a hysteretic nature and represents a negative and passive response; to eradicate the possibility of humanitarian disasters, regime transformation must be executed in countries where such disasters are possible to mold them with Western democracy. In other words, do political and military actions aiming at regime transformation deserve the name of humanitarian intervention or constitute a legitimate reason of humanitarian intervention? Walzer emphasized that democracy and rule of law of a country does not provide a legitimate ground for intervening with its internal affairs, nor is democracy of the political system a precondition for intervention; the key, instead, is whether the sovereignty is in severely conflict with human rights, and the only purpose of such intervention should be putting an end to violence. Therefore, “humanitarian interventions are not justified for the sake of democracy or free enterprise or economic justice or voluntary association or any other of the social practices and arrangements that we might hope for or even call for in other people’s countries”.[14] Every country has its own historical traditions, values and cultural beliefs, and one cannot truly understand the emergence, evolution and operation of political systems without being personally immersed in these specific cultural tradition resources. Regime transformation in the name of humanitarian intervention reflects a cultural centralism, which, in any form or type, would be refuted by cultural pluralism from a theoretical perspective in a world highlighting cultural diversity. In its very essence, an institutional and cultural superiority lurks behind cultural centralism in violation of the liberalist morality of equality and mutual respect. The theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” constitutes a violation of basic liberalist moral principles such as equality, respect and pluralism, and is, therefore, a self-negation of the theory.

The minimalist theory of human rights is only in favor of humanitarian intervention under exceptional circumstances; however, as Walzer put it, since the Spanish conquest of Mexico with the pretext of putting an end to Aztec human sacrifices, the so-called humanitarian intervention in most cases has been risible. Even in a morally justifiable intervention, the country initiating such intervention might have a political agenda in mind apart from humanitarian aid, for example, seeking regional political hegemony in the name of humanitarian intervention. The absence of pure humanitarian intervention in reality is the essential theoretical dilemma of humanitarian intervention. Walzer distinguished between two types of humanitarian interventions: pure humanitarian intervention and humanitarian intervention with mixed motives, the former purely aiming at saving lives, while the latter referring to mixed cases where the humanitarian motive, among other considerations of political and economic interests, is one among several reasons for military intervention. There are few genuine cases of military intervention in which their purpose was purely humanitarian; although military powers play a crucial role in international political arena, states do not send their soldiers into other states, it seems, only in order to save lives. As Jürgen Habermas noted, “the program of human rights consists in its imperialist misuse”[15] when human rights politics is reduced to an ideological tool manipulated by major powers to cover up their political interests. Therefore, entering a country by military means always sounds an alarm, and reality has sufficiently proved that interventionism tends to end up in failure. Both the Iraq War in 2003 and Libyan War in 2011 started in the ideological frame of unilateralism and interventionism deviated from the tracks presumed by Western countries, as neither country has an effective human rights protection mechanism put in place, or achieved post-war reconstruction for a thriving economy and stable society; on the contrary, both countries are plunged into prolonged turmoil. Interventionism has produced large number of refugees in West Asia and North Africa, who are deprived of both human rights and national sovereignty by the intervention of external forces.

III. Re-examination of the Relationship Between Human Rights and National Sovereignty

The theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” reflects the belief that individual rights and freedom are of a higher priority than national sovereignty, and that the respect and protection of human rights constitutes the moral foundation of legitimacy of national sovereignty. Again, “individual” here is a metaphysical presupposition, where individuals are viewed as atomic, independent moral agents entitled to the identical plural rights regardless of all identity markers such as nationality, ethnic background, culture and faith, as well as all social relations. Therefore from the perspective of philosophical foundation, the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” relies on ontology where “the individual comes first, and society comes second”, on which critical reflections can be initiated in the following three aspects.

First is the Marxist rebuttal of the metaphysical presupposition of the individual. Marx criticized such an atomic individual as “an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community”[16]. Human rights are thus established on the isolation rather than coalition of individuals. Isolation here refers to clear boundaries between one another that distinguish “me” from “him”. Taking property rights as an example, private property rights are defined as the possession and use of one’s own property without intervention from others, hence the existence of others is regarded as a restriction on individual rights rather than an essential element of materializing one’s individual rights. For Marx, human beings are a species being rather than enclosed and estranged “monad”. For an individual, society is a constitutive being—constituting the identity and main source of social relations of an individual—rather than a dissident being, The notion that an individual is an atomized being free of all historical traditions and social relations is but a philosophical fiction which in reality is untenable. An individual is an individual in reality, and the question of individual identity will not dispel by itself; therefore the “cosmopolitan citizen” imagined by liberalists is but a castle in the air. When one claims to be a “cosmopolitan citizen”, he/she would inevitably be questioned on his/her nationality, ethnic background, faith, etc., therefore voiding the claim of being cosmopolitan citizen. The existence of community (Gemeinschaft) makes identity possible for an individual, and all individuals in turn find themselves in existing political and cultural communities.

Second, the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” fails to dialectically acknowledge the mutual complementarity between individual rights and national sovereignty. In fact, human rights and national sovereignty are in a dialectic and mutually complementary relationship rather than a dualistic one, and there would be no guarantee of human rights without national sovereignty. A review of the theoretical origins of Western political philosophy shows that despite the differences in their philosophical origins, the thriving development of both notions is closely related to the theory of social contract. The purpose of reaching a social contract is to ensure effective fulfillment of individual rights, which in turn relies on the sovereign authority constituted through social contract signed by the people. The principle of people’s sovereignty reveals that sovereignty is essentially constituted by the common will of all people in a political community and has, therefore, a view to safeguard public interests that are relevant to all people. Thomas Hobbes made it clear that the purpose of sovereignty is not only procuration of the safety of the people, but also guarantee that every individual subject to the sovereign be granted “all other Contentments of life, which every man by lawfull Industry, without danger, or hurt to the Common-wealth, shall acquire to himselfe”.[17] In other words, the theoretical constitution of the social contract reminds us that national sovereignty should not be severed from human rights. Should no guarantee be needed for the fulfillment of rights, the purpose of the constitution of social contract would be somewhat suspicious: since an individual has already possessed and fulfilled his/her rights, what is meaningful about sovereignty authority? Subjecting an individual under the sovereignty through social contract itself indicates that the fulfillment of human rights require a corresponding institution that materializes and safeguards human rights.

A functionalist opinion holds it that sovereignty authority will be weakened as globalization deepens. Globalization has given rise to massive flows of commodities, services, capital and workforce, delivering a heavy impact on the established lifestyles and ideologies of various countries; meanwhile, human beings are facing mounting global challenges from tackling the climate change to anti-terrorism and addressing regional security concerns, which is beyond the means of any single country. Common interests and community of destiny are therefore constructed for all countries by such reality. According to Jürgen Habermas, “this conception encounters difficulties in a highly interdependent global society.”[18] Such a functionalist view is undoubtedly based on the reality of economic globalization yet its conclusion is open to debate. In reality, from a realistic perspective, there is no global political institution whose legitimacy is universally acknowledged that is able to practically defend all rights, and nation states remain the dominant institution to safeguard human rights. Overriding the boundaries of sovereign states would likely fail to secure human rights and even cause greater harm to the human rights of other nations. Furthermore, as the US President Donald Trump openly declared “make America great again” as the guiding program of his administration, this slogan in itself indicates bitter controversies over the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” within the Western society itself. Opposite to what liberalist philosophers advocating universalism of human rights have presumed, localizationist and nationalist narratives are still exerting their far-reaching influence on the Western society.

Lastly, the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” ensconces the hypothesis that the contemporary Western political and legal systems are more effective in defending human rights, and that the institutional pattern of developed countries in the Western hemisphere is the only right option for the development model of modern countries, behind which lies, undoubtedly, the mindset of Euro-American cultural centrism, which is powerfully challenged by the rise of cultural pluralism that calls for inclusiveness and mutual respect in addressing cultural differences, and pursues diversity rather than singularity. Confronting Euro-American cultural centrism, S.N. Eisenstadt and Taylor both advocated the concept of “pluralistic modernity”, emphasizing that various modern cultural patterns exist among different countries, that the Western culture is merely one component of the world’s pluralistic cultural system and that Europe is but a “provincializing Europe”[19]. As mentioned above, the modern concept of human rights in the West is a universalist value proposition based on so-called universal human nature or humanity. Yet, Alasdair MacIntyre was precise to the point as he commented on David Hume’s moral philosophy that “the appeal to a universal verdict by mankind turns out to be the mask worn by an appeal to those who physiologically and socially share Hume’s attitudes and Weltanschauung.”[20] To say the least, the fact that universalist value appeal is a typical feature of the Western culture does not necessarily eclipse the cultures of other countries or regions which are also entitled to appeal for universalization, as universality is not exclusively reserved for the Western cultural pattern. In summary, based on the normative requirements for inclusiveness and equality, Western cultural values cannot be taken indiscriminately as the standard against which value appeals in other cultures are measured. The theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” is detrimental for international cooperation on an equal footing, as the cultural centrism behind it jeopardizes, rather than facilitates, the consensus on human rights. Only through joint participation in dialogues with a non-coercive, open and inclusive attitude will a minimal consensus acceptable to all stakeholders be possible.

(Ai Silin: Professor; Dean of School of Marxism, Tsinghua University; Changjiang distinguished professor, Ministry of Education.

Qu Weijie: Associate Professor, School of Marxism, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.)

This paper was first published in Marxism and Reality, No 3, 2020 in Beijing, China.

* This paper was first published in Marxism and Reality, No 3, 2020 in Beijing, China.

[1] Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other, edited by Ciaran Cronin and Pablo De Greiff. The MIT Press, 1998, p. 147.

[2] Terence Ball et. al. (ed.) Political Innovation and Conceptual Change, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 293.

[3] Charles R. Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights, Oxford University Press, 2009, p.59.

[4] Karl Marx, Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58, “Introduction”, Marx & Engels Collected Works. Vol. 28, Lawrence & Wishart , 1986, p. 18.

[5] Robert Bellah, What Changes Very Fast and What Doesn’t Change: Explosive Modernity and Abiding Truth, Journal of Peking University (Philosophy and Social Sciences, 2012 Vol. 1.

[6] James Griffin, On Human Rights, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.29.

[7] Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 106.

[8] Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 173.

[9] Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, University of Notre Dame, 1994, p. 10.

[10] James Griffin, On Human Rights, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.138.

[11] Michael Walzer, Arguing About War, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 81.

[12] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, Basic Books, 2006, p. 107.

[13] Lukas H. Meyer (ed.) Legitimacy, Justice and Public International Law, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 249.

[14] Michael Walzer, Arguing About War, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 69.

[15] Jürgen Habermas, The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights, Metaphilosophy, Vol. 41, No. 4, July 2010, p. 477.

[16] Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question,1844, Marx & Engels Collected Works. Vol. 3, Lawrence & Wishart , 1975, p. 164.

[17] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 258.

[18] Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, Translated by Ciaran Cronin, Polity Press, 2008, p. 320.

[19] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, Duke University Press, 2004. p. 196.

[20] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 2007, p. 231.

Category : China | Democracy | Philosophy | Theory | Blog
24
Jun

 

How Hegemony Ends: The Unraveling of American Power

By Alexander Cooley and Daniel H. Nexon
Foreign Affairs July/August 2020

Multiple signs point to a crisis in global order. The uncoordinated international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic downturns, the resurgence of nationalist politics, and the hardening of state borders all seem to herald the emergence of a less cooperative and more fragile international system. According to many observers, these developments underscore the dangers of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America first” policies and his retreat from global leadership.

Even before the pandemic, Trump routinely criticized the value of alliances and institutions such as NATO, supported the breakup of the European Union, withdrew from a host of international agreements and organizations, and pandered to autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He has questioned the merits of placing liberal values such as democracy and human rights at the heart of foreign policy. Trump’s clear preference for zero-sum, transactional politics further supports the notion that the United States is abandoning its commitment to promoting a liberal international order.

Some analysts believe that the United States can still turn this around, by restoring the strategies by which it, from the end of World War II to the aftermath of the Cold War, built and sustained a successful international order. If a post-Trump United States could reclaim the responsibilities of global power, then this era—including the pandemic that will define it—could stand as a temporary aberration rather than a step on the way to permanent disarray.

After all, predictions of American decline and a shift in international order are far from new—and they have been consistently wrong. In the middle of the 1980s, many analysts believed that U.S. leadership was on the way out. The Bretton Woods system had collapsed in the 1970s; the United States faced increasing competition from European and East Asian economies, notably West Germany and Japan; and the Soviet Union looked like an enduring feature of world politics. By the end of 1991, however, the Soviet Union had formally dissolved, Japan was entering its “lost decade” of economic stagnation, and the expensive task of integration consumed a reunified Germany. The United States experienced a decade of booming technological innovation and unexpectedly high economic growth. The result was what many hailed as a “unipolar moment” of American hegemony.

But this time really is different. The very forces that made U.S. hegemony so durable before are today driving its dissolution. Three developments enabled the post–Cold War U.S.-led order. First, with the defeat of communism, the United States faced no major global ideological project that could rival its own. Second, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its accompanying infrastructure of institutions and partnerships, weaker states lacked significant alternatives to the United States and its Western allies when it came to securing military, economic, and political support. And third, transnational activists and movements were spreading liberal values and norms that bolstered the liberal order.

Today, those same dynamics have turned against the United States: a vicious cycle that erodes U.S. power has replaced the virtuous cycles that once reinforced it. With the rise of great powers such as China and Russia, autocratic and illiberal projects rival the U.S.-led liberal international system. Developing countries—and even many developed ones—can seek alternative patrons rather than remain dependent on Western largess and support. And illiberal, often right-wing transnational networks are pressing against the norms and pieties of the liberal international order that once seemed so implacable. In short, U.S. global leadership is not simply in retreat; it is unraveling. And the decline is not cyclical but permanent.

THE VANISHING UNIPOLAR MOMENT

It may seem strange to talk of permanent decline when the United States spends more on its military than its next seven rivals combined and maintains an unparalleled network of overseas military bases. Military power played an important role in creating and maintaining U.S. preeminence in the 1990s and early years of this century; no other country could extend credible security guarantees across the entire international system. But U.S. military dominance was less a function of defense budgets—in real terms, U.S. military spending decreased during the 1990s and only ballooned after the September 11 attacks—than of several other factors: the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a competitor, the growing technological advantage enjoyed by the U.S. military, and the willingness of most of the world’s second-tier powers to rely on the United States rather than build up their own military forces. If the emergence of the United States as a unipolar power was mostly contingent on the dissolution of the Soviet Union, then the continuation of that unipolarity through the subsequent decade stemmed from the fact that Asian and European allies were content to subscribe to U.S. hegemony. continue

Category : China | Fascism | Globalization | Hegemony | Rightwing Populism | Russia | USSR | Blog
29
Dec

‘State Capitalism’? Or Socialist Market Economy? Which Shoe Fits Whom?

Qiushi Magazine
CCP Central Committee Fall 2018

The United States equates China’s economy with “state capitalism”, saying socialist market economy is not real market economy but state-led protectionist and mercantilist economy, which, it claims justifies the imposition of high tariffs on Chinese goods.

This is not the first time a Western country has labeled China’s economic model as “state capitalism”. Some people are re-circulating the term in the West now to hide the real reason why the US has resorted to trade protectionism and imposed high tariffs on Chinese imports, namely, their concern over China’s development road and economic system.

The US is a self-proclaimed representative of free market economy and free market capitalism, but the government’s role has been particularly important in its economic development. Let us not forget, the US has resorted to protectionism from its founding to the end of World War II.

Using free market as a ploy to make profits

In the postwar period, too, the US administration has intervened in the economy to fulfill its self-interests even while promoting trade liberalization, as Keynesianism came to play the dominant role in US economic policymaking. For example, the US’ total government spending increased from 26.8 percent of GDP in 1960 to 41.3 percent in 2010, and the number of its government employees increased from more than 4 million in 1940 to more than 22 million in 2010.

Some experts on innovation say, despite advocating “small government” and “free market”, the US has been running massive public investment programs in technology and innovation for decades, which have brought the US great economic benefits. In fact, the US government has always been a central driver of innovation-led growth, from internet to biotechnology and even shale gas development. After the outbreak of the 2008 global financial crisis, the US once again resorted to state interventionism, and introduced huge financial rescue and fiscal stimulus packages to stabilize its economy. continue

Category : Capitalism | China | Keynes | Marxism | Socialism | Theory | Blog
2
Oct

TWO REVOLUTIONS

Rough Notes

By Perry Anderson
New Left Review 118
July-August 2019

If the twentieth century was dominated, more than by any other single event, by the trajectory of the Russian Revolution, the twenty-first will be shaped by the outcome of the Chinese Revolution. The Soviet state, born of the First World War, victor in the Second, defeated in the cold replica of a Third, dissolved after seven decades with scarcely a shot, as swiftly as it had once arisen. What has remained is a Russia lesser in size than the Enlightenment once knew, with under half the population of the USSR, restored to a capitalism now more dependent on the export of raw materials than in the last days of Tsarism. While future reversals are not to be excluded, for the moment what has survived of the October rising, in any positive sense, looks small. Its most lasting achievement, huge enough, was negative: the defeat of Nazism, which no other European regime could have encompassed. That, at any rate, would be a common judgement today.

The outcome of the Chinese Revolution offers an arresting contrast. As it enters its seventh decade, the People’s Republic is an engine of the world economy, the largest exporter at once to the EU, Japan and the United States; the largest holder of foreign-exchange reserves on earth; for a quarter of a century posting the fastest growth rates in per capita income, for the largest population, ever recorded. Its big cities are without rival for commercial and architectural ambition, its goods sold everywhere. Its builders, prospectors and diplomats criss-cross the globe in search of further opportunities and influence. Courted by former foes and friends alike, for the first time in its history the Middle Kingdom has become a true world power, whose presence reaches into every continent. With the fall of the ussr, no formula to describe the turn of events it signified became so canonized as ‘the collapse of communism’. Twenty years later that looks a touch Eurocentric. Viewed in one light, communism has not just survived, but become the success story of the age. In the character and scale of that achievement, of course, there is more than one—bitter—irony. But of the difference between the fate of the revolutions in China and Russia, there can be little doubt.

Where does the explanation of this contrast lie? Despite the world-historical gravamen of the question, it has not been much discussed. At issue, of course, is not just a comparison of two similar but distinct upheavals, otherwise unrelated in their different settings, as in the once familiar pairing of 1789 and 1917. The Chinese Revolution grew directly out of the Russian Revolution, and remained connected with it, as inspiration or admonition, down to their common moment of truth at the end of the eighties. The two experiences were not independent of each other, but formed a consciously ordinal sequence. footnote1 That tie enters into any consideration of their differing outcomes. To explain these, in turn, involves reflection at a number of levels. Four of these will be distinguished here. Firstly, how far did the subjective political agencies of the two revolutions—that is, the respective parties in each country, and the strategies they pursued—differ? Secondly, what were the objective starting-points—socio-economic and other conditions—from which each ruling party set out on its course of reform? Thirdly, what were the effective consequences of the policies they adopted? Fourthly, which legacies in the longue durée of the history of the two societies can be regarded as underlying determinants of the ultimate outcome of revolutions and reforms alike? Since the PRC has outlived the USSR, and its future poses perhaps the central conundrum of world politics, the organizing focus of what follows will be China, as seen in the Russian mirror—not the only relevant one, as will become clear, but an ineludable condition of the rest.

1. Matrices

The October Revolution, famously, was a swift urban insurrection that seized power in Russia’s major cities in a matter of days. The speed of its overthrow of the Provisional Government was matched by the crystallization of the Party that accomplished it. The Bolsheviks, numbering no more than 24,000 in January 1917, on the eve of the abdication of Nicholas ii, had mushroomed to somewhere over 200,000 when they toppled Kerensky’s regime nine months later. Their social base lay in the young Russian working class, which comprised less than 3 per cent of the population. They had no presence in the countryside, where over 80 per cent of the population lived, having never thought to organize among the peasantry—any more than had the Social Revolutionaries, though the srs enjoyed an overwhelming rural following in 1917. Such rapid victory, from a still narrow ledge of support, was rendered possible by the shattering of the Tsarist state by German hammer-blows in the First World War—military failure detonating mutinies that dissolved its repressive apparatus, the February Revolution leaving only the shakiest lean-to of a successor authority.

But if power was taken easily in this vacuum, it proved hard to hold. Vast tracts of territory fell to German occupation. Once Germany was itself defeated in 1918, ten different expeditionary forces—American, British, Canadian, Serb, Finnish, Romanian, Turkish, Greek, French, Japanese—were dispatched to help White armies crush the new regime in a bitter Civil War that lasted till 1920. At the end of it, completing the destruction wrought in the World War, Russia was in ruins: famine in the villages, factories abandoned in the towns, the working class pulverized by the fighting and de-industrialization of the country. Lenin’s Party, its social base disintegrated or absorbed into the structures of the new state, was left an isolated apparatus of power suspended over a devastated landscape: its rule now associated with the miseries of domestic war rather than the gifts of peace and land delivered after October.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that, by a supreme effort, it brought into being covered the larger part of the former Russian empire. But, the first modern state in history to reject any territorial definition, the emergent ussr laid no claim to patriotic pride or national construction. Its appeal was international: to the solidarity of the labour movement across the world. Having taken power in a huge backward country, whose economy was overwhelmingly agrarian and population largely illiterate, the Bolsheviks counted on revolutions in the more developed, industrial lands of Europe to rescue them from the predicament of a radical commitment to socialism in a society without the preconditions of any coherent capitalism. A gamble the beleaguered rulers soon lost, it meant nothing to the mass of the ruled from the start. The Soviet Party would have to hold out on its own, attempting to move as far as it could towards another form of society, without much support at home or any assistance from abroad.

2

The Chinese Revolution, although it was inspired by the Russian, inverted virtually all its terms. The CCP, created in 1921, still had less than a thousand members four years later, when it started to become for the first time a significant force, born of the explosion of working-class militancy in coastal cities with the May 30th movement of 1925, and aided by the vital role of Soviet advisers and supplies in the fledgling GMD regime led by Sun Yat-sen in Canton. Between that founding moment and the Communist conquest of power across China lay struggles that extended through a quarter of a century. Its milestones are well known—the Northern Expedition of 1926, joining Nationalists and Communists against the leading warlord regimes; the massacre of Communists by Chiang Kai-shek in Shanghai in 1927; the ensuing White Terror; the establishment of the Jiangxi Soviet in 1931, and the five annihilation campaigns waged against it by the gmd; the Long March of the Red Army to Yan’an in 1934–35, and the creation of Border Regions ruled by the ccp in the north-west; the United Front again with the gmd against Japanese invasion in 1937–45; and the final civil war of 1946–49, in which the PLA swept the country. continue

Category : China | Socialism | USSR | Blog