A hypothesis for discussion

The hypothesis is as follows: The Chinese Communist Party is still engaged in a recognizably communist project and meeting with success in some respects, perhaps most notably on ecological matters. Hence, those on the left should seriously consider supporting China and holding it up as a model.

What do you think?

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27 Responses to “A hypothesis for discussion”

  1. Daniel Silliman Says:

    Is there a distinction being made here between the party and the country as under the direction of the party? Or am I reading that stupidly?

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m not sure how useful that distinction would be, and I didn’t intend to be drawing it.

  3. Michael Schaefer Says:

    Wasn’t there a discussion on here awhile back in which it was stated that the Chinese economic system was “essentially neoliberal?” It’s a neat symmetry, given that either statement requires stretching the definition of the term in question so far as to be totally meaningless.

    A de facto one-party state combining heavy state intervention/planning/ownership in the economy alongside substantial private enterprise/private property–that describes pretty much every successful East Asian economy of the last 100 years, none of which anyone, anywhere would describe as communist (Red Singapore?). Hell, even in Hong Kong the government owns all the land, and they’re still considered a free-market happyland.

    That’s the instant dismissal that popped into my head–I’d love to hear arguments otherwise, since I could be thinking about this in a completely different way than was intended.

  4. Hill Says:

    This sounds like a fantasy to me, namely, that there is a government on the planet sufficiently communist enough to be worth modeling by US progressives.

  5. karlo mikhail Says:

    The Chinese Communist Party (since the death of the great Mao) has been highjacked by capitalist roaders and does not push for any recognizably communist project at all. Instead, the party has presided over the implementation of the worse neoliberal policies by attacking the working class and the masses, and slowly dismantling the state sector. The party led the country’s complete integration into the world capitalist system. Its policies has resulted in grave ecological problems and the intensification of the class divide in a supposedly “socialist” country. There are several noteworthy studies on the ill-effects of China’s capitalist restoration. One of these is by Pao-yu Ching: https://anakbayanph.wordpress.com/2010/07/10/pao-yu-chings-china-socialist-development-and-capitalist-restoration/

  6. Rick S. Says:

    China is economically neoliberal. They haven’t been truly communist since 1976. They’re also pretty bad when it comes to public health. Their tap water is basically lethal. They still enforce a one-child policy (thanks Mao). Also, their government censors the internet. Leftists supporting China as an exemplary model? Yeah.

  7. Michael Feltes Says:

    The recent cashiering of Bo Xilai makes this thesis even more unlikely than it would have been a month ago. No national government outside Scandinavia is genuinely engaged with ecology as a guiding principle of governance.

  8. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I wouldn’t say we should hold it up as exemplary model, but I do think there is something rather pitiful about the usual dismals from liberals and, weirdly, anti-liberal leftists (you know, like the ones above). Their human rights abuses are a serious issue and everyone is right to protest them. And it would be silly to deny that in the drive to move forward their economy under a global capitalist system they haven’t played a capitalist game. This means that they have perpetuated abuses against workers and the environment. But, the long term plans for cities and overall inferstructure is remarkably green, literally decades ahead of the US. As is their move to feed, you know, a billion people. None of this excuses the abuses, and there are serious questions communists (esp. Maoists) would want to raise about the role of determining power in these situations, but the fact remains that you don’t de facto rule out policing or military defense under communism. That’s anarchism or perhaps some form of utopian ultra-leftism, and they have a place in the debate, but we’re talking, again, about feeding and housing a billion people in a sustainable way.

    The story of Xilai is interesting. In many ways he was just as “neoliberal” (in the sense that they are playing the game in the global market) as his other party bosses, but he was also a law and order canidate. It’s strange for ultra-leftists to hold him up, as I’ve seen some down, but his downfall has everything to do with the fact that his police chief tried to defect to the US. It may also have something to do with his big personality, which seems to contradict the attempt to create a very rational form of governance (which, again, I think there may be problems with) without subjective characters (Mao being a kind of absent center at this point in China).

    This is all specualtion by someone just interested. I wouldn’t claim any great mastery of the contradictions in China or special insight, but even from a cursory glance at the situation I think we can see a very different picture, at least more nuanced, than those given above. There is a strange thing in left-wing discourse, a kind of privileging of the regulative ideal against any form of concrete reality, that leads us to just dismiss these complicated phenomenon. The fact is, try as we might, the day after the revolution you still have the structures in place. Some of them will prove useful and I think recognizing them is important. I don’t know about the question of support though, I’m not sure I see what the point of that would be, anymore than dissent, as non-Chinese people or people outside the situation in any meaningful sense.

  9. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Oh, and Bolivia is actively engaging with ecological principles at the level of government now. It’s kind of silly to claim only Scandanvia is. They may be the only one with the capital power to deliver on some things under the current global regime, but others are trying to carve out something at the same time as, you know, feeding human beings.

  10. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Pardon my naivity, but given the emphasis on ecological concerns, what is intrinsically wrong about the one child policy? We could do with some of that in North America and Western Europe.

  11. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    The one child policy is a difficult ethical problem, though, no? In the sense that, yes, ecological concerns are addressed there. But the forcing of women to have abortions is inherently violent. I think in general the use of other forms of birth control is encouraged, but sexual ethics, as I understand it, are weirdly paternalistic in China.

    Why does no one right on this stuff from a left perspective, though?

  12. Khalid Says:

    Rick S. is right. I wrote a report on China’s economic growth and the environment (in 2006). Basically, (at the time) addressing the environmental issues would wipe out all GDP growth. All of their water was so toxic that I was shocked that humans could survive drinking it. One professor said the Yangtze was cancerous and could die within five years.

    What ecological success are you referring to, Mr. Kotsko?

  13. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Yes, forced abortion is likely a categorical, but I’m sure we could imagine a socio-economic and ecological policy that incentives zero or negative growth and disincentives reproduction combined with easily available, free birth control and abortion.

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Khalid and Rick S.: Given that a billion people manage to survive day-to-day in China, I’m going to say that it’s simply impossible that all the country’s water is toxic. As for rivers — on the Chicago River, there are signs saying that the water is not fit for “any human contact,” yet I can still manage to track down safe drinking water rather easily. All this to say, I find your remarks pretty self-undermining, even without knowing the situation in China in detail.

    Anthony: Thanks for jumping in, as I was inspired by a conversation with you on this topic. And you’re probably right that “support” is not the best way to think of this.

  15. Khalid Says:

    AK, I don’t know if this site is otherwise credible, but it has the same info I’ve seen elsewhere, all in one place:

    “Water consumed by people in China contains dangerous levels of arsenic, fluorine and sulfates. An estimated 980 million of China’s 1.3 billion people drink water every day that is partly polluted. More than 600 million Chinese drink water contaminated with human or animal wastes and 20 million people drink well water contaminated with high levels of radiation. A large number of arsenic-tainted water have been discovered. China’s high rates of liver, stomach and esophageal cancer have been linked to water pollution.”

    “Water shortages and water pollution in China are such a problem that the World Bank warns of “catastrophic consequences for future generations.” Half of China’s population lacks safe drinking water. Nearly two thirds of China’s rural population—more than 500 million people—use water contaminated by human and industrial waste.”


    Again, I don’t know what that site is, but you can find credible sources saying the same, and it has links to some.

    “…on the Chicago River…yet I can still manage to track down safe drinking water rather easily” — but hundreds of millions of Chinese can’t, because their water isn’t properly treated.

    “I find your remarks pretty self-undermining, even without knowing the situation in China in detail” — this would seem to mean, “I don’t know the facts, but I’m sure you’re wrong,” a self-undermining statement itself.

  16. Khalid Says:

    Point being, what ecological successes are you referring to? Just the one-child policy?

  17. Daniel Silliman Says:

    Thanks Anthony for that alternative to the standard liberal account. That helps.

    And thanks Adam for pushing the blog-button that elicits the standard leftist responses that provoke Anthony into basically writing the blog post you were hoping he would. Well played.

  18. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m referring to what Anthony mentions.

  19. niceasrice Says:

    geographers write about china’s ecological policy from a left perspective. they generally won’t make claims like “hold it up as a model” though.

  20. Michael Schaefer Says:

    I’ll happily hold up China (and Japan, and South Korea, and Singapore) as models, but at their core what’s being implemented is a more pragmatic form of capitalism. I don’t have any great problem with that, but if you’re looking for an alternative to capitalism I don’t see how the example of China would be very satisfying. It’s not all that different from how capitalism has been implemented all over the world in the 20th century, prior to the 1970′s, for sure. Any focus on ecology just seems to be an extension of the basically pragmatic approach we’ve seen there for the past twenty years–we will grow and grow and grow and sort things out as we go. If a more eco-centric approach means less need to import fossil fuels and fewer deformed babies, awesome.

    I’m willing to be convinced, but how is their approach radically different from, say, Dubai?–in both cases you have a kind of centrally-planned capitalism with an overarching set of development goals, with a mix of state-directed private actors and direct state ownership. The difference between that and what we have in the West is the planning, the goals, the ability to think long term, and the idea that markets are a means to an end, to be tweaked, cajoled, manipulated as necessary. Which is all terrific in my opinion, but I was always under the impression that that kind of “capitalism done better” was precisely -not- the kind of system many on the left have in mind.

  21. Adam Kotsko Says:

    As I’ve said, I’m not married to this position, but here’s how I’d make the case. The “orthodox” Marxian position was always that you needed to bring capitalist development to its highest point, at which time the contradictions would somehow “sublate” into communism — where you’d get the dynamism and abundance of the capitalist system without the drawbacks.

    What the international communism of the 20th century did, insofar as it always took place in underdeveloped (Russia) or substantially undeveloped (China) countries (from a capitalist perspective), was attempt to force an extremely rapid capitalist development that would presumably be self-consciously directed toward the communist endpoint (i.e., the “communist” name in the party indicates their ultimate aspiration, not what they claim to be practicing in the present). Hence, yes — grow and grow and grow. Mao pursued this in pretty stupid ways, as far as I can tell (iron smelting in every living room!), while it appears the Deng et al. have done it in much more successful ways.

    So it makes sense to me that the tools would be recognizable, given that we now have a lot of experience of capitalist development and what works and doesn’t, etc. What’s different, at least potentially, is the goal. You could say that, just like with Dubai, the goal of Chinese development is to legitimate the rule of a self-interested autocratic elite in perpetuity — what this post presupposes is, maybe it isn’t?

  22. Richard Says:

    Is the iron-smelting in every living room “stupid”? I’ll admit I know precious little about China, so I recently heard about this phenomenon, via James & Grace Lee Boggs 1974 book, Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century. They refer to it in the context of a process through which ordinary people were to gain knowledge of such production, in part in response to the extreme hierarchical bureaucratization that resulted from Russia’s attempt to rapidly modernize. I have no doubt that my summary is wildly insufficient, since I don’t have the book to hand, but it’s something like that.

  23. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It occurs to me that there’s one obvious way we could “support” China — through our consumer choices! And hence we all already do.

  24. Michael Schaefer Says:

    According to every account I’m aware of, yes, the iron smelting in backyards was stupid. Lots of people melting down perfectly-usable implements to create not-useful lumps of metal. If there are any revisionist accounts of the Great Leap Forward out there, I’d be interested.

    I would argue that the ends -are- quite different in China vs. Dubai–in the latter, the goal of development is to legitimate the rule of a self-interested autocratic -family- in perpetuity, in the context of a city-state where 90% of the population are temporary laborers–extremely well-compensated temporary laborers in some cases, but temporary all the same. I don’t think China’s -anything- like that, my point was more just that the means of pursuing two rather different goals are quite similar in some ways.

    I also don’t see how the outlook and goals of the Chinese leadership are dramatically different from, say, the Kuomintang in Taiwan in the 1970′s and 80′s or the South Korean military government. The goal is development, security, prosperity of some kind in there somewhere, I don’t yet see where the eventual communist endpoint enters into it at all.

  25. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The eventual communist endpoint has always been a bit elusive — even Lenin assumed it would be many, many generations before anything like that was possible (though Krushchev thought they were a decade or so away…). It does still appear that the official legitimating ideology for the Chinese Communist party is some form of Marxism, however, and I’m not sure that Korea or Taiwan really had anything immediately comparable.

  26. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Obviously that could all just be cynical window-dressing, a way of answering the question of, “Wait, why should you guys still be in charge?” I don’t claim any special insight into the sincerity level.

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