China and the U.S. Left: A Dialogue Between Critical China Scholars and Spectre Journal

This exchange was originally posted on the Spectre Journal website on July 17, 2021

It is no secret that the US left is confused about how to respond to the rise of China. There is broad and justified opposition to Biden’s continuation of Trumpian efforts at containment, most obviously represented by mobilizing fears of China to justify astronomical Pentagon budgets. But opposition to US empire need not lead to siding with China: The Communist Party has embraced capitalism, in reality if not in rhetoric, while engaging in brutal repression of labor and feminist activists, Muslim minorities, and critical intellectuals, among others.

A group of Critical China Scholars (Sasha Day, Yige Dong, Eli Friedman, Daniel Fuchs, Kevin Lin, Sigrid Schmalzer) and editors from Spectre (Charlie Post, Ashley Smith, David McNally) got together to talk through the complexity of responding to the intensifying US-China rivalry, with an eye towards formulating anti-capitalist and liberatory politics on both sides of the Pacific. Our conversation has been slightly edited and split into two parts. In this first part, we discuss views of China on the US left. The second part addresses Marxism and theories of imperialism.

Eli Friedman

At the most general level, the question we’re trying to answer is what the left should do about U.S.-China relations. I think we are all interested in articulating a politically potent viewpoint rooted in radical political principles including internationalism and the solidarity of working class and socially oppressed people between China and the United States.

And we’re facing a number of obstacles to advancing these politics. I believe the dominant problem is ethno-nationalism here in the United States, as well as in China. And part of the weakness of our position is that we are attached to a political subject that doesn’t fully exist in reality, i.e., the transnational proletariat is not constituted as a political actor. On the other hand, both the right and the pro-state left have these political subjects that are fully constituted in the form of powerful states, and the campist temptation to pick a side in this imperial rivalry is apparently alluring.

So how much of a concern is this pro-CCP left? Does confronting this current end up confining us to an inscrutable sectarianism that few understand? Is the right the bigger threat and we should just be focusing our attention on them or does the left have to get our house in order with respect to this split over the question of the state before we’re in a position to take on the right, not to mention the zombie neoliberal currents that are still quite active and powerful?

Ashley Smith

For people on the U.S. left, as you rightly point, the main enemy is the U.S. empire. The powers that control it are united in intensifying its rivalry with China.

In the political class, the GOP holds an extreme ethno-nationalist and racist stance against China, especially since Trump’s domination of the Republican party. That’s symbolized by Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. By contrast the Democratic Party has traditionally adopted  a “globalist” strategy of integrating the world economy under the aegis of the U.S. state.

That strategy, however, has been challenged by the rise of China. And so now we have this very noticeable convergence between perspectives of the right wing in the GOP, as well as the centrists within the Democratic Party, especially Biden, around confronting China.

Although Biden’s rhetoric may be anti-racist on the surface, it does identify China as the main opponent of U.S. imperialism and its attempt to dominate the world. The byproduct of such anti-China rhetoric is racism, albeit of a “kinder, gentler” character compared to Trump and the Republicans.

Biden’s obsession with China is guiding almost everything in his administration’s domestic and foreign policy. I’ve used the moniker “imperialist Keynesian” to describe his project. His explicit aim is to restore U.S. domination of the world system.

In this context, our main enemy is certainly U.S. imperialism. But at the same time, we need a left that’s not one-dimensional. We should be able to oppose the U.S. and its rival imperialisms at the same time.

Too much of the left falls into two broad categories that are not up to this task. One is a portion of the social democratic left in the United States that doesn’t really think in internationalist terms and is very focused on domestic reform. It takes a pass on many international questions and has very little to say about the U.S.-China rivalry beyond tailing what Sanders says. But Sanders’ position is actually pretty close to Biden’s.

A second part of the U.S. left, which does pay attention to international questions and the U.S.-China rivalry, adopts a campist (or “tankie”) position that sees their role as opposing U.S. imperialism and defending if not apologizing for, or even identifying with, the Chinese state as somehow socialist. The campists are trying to shape the international politics of the emergent new socialist left.

We need to present an alternative to both of these. We have to prepare the U.S. left to face the reality that there is a new imperial rivalry between two capitalist powers: the U.S. and China. Of course, the U.S. remains dominant, but China is a rising challenger to Washington’s hegemony. This rivalry is going to shape geopolitics. We therefore have a double duty: to oppose U.S. imperialism and Chinese imperialism.

And we have to develop the kind of political stance that Eli outlined, one that is anti-imperialist and internationalist. We must stand against all great powers and build solidarity from below between working-class people and oppressed peoples across borders. We have to unite these forces against both Washington and Beijing.

Sasha Day

In the introduction to the recent collection on the new Cold War in positions, Fabio Lanza and Rebecca Karl talked about the mirrored fictions where both U.S. politicians and the CCP in China have to say that China is socialist and not capitalist. And in some ways, that’s also doubled in politics in the United States where you have both the right wing in the U.S. and some on the left have to also say China’s socialist. But they revalue it somewhat, and they obviously revalue the U.S. as either about freedom, on the one hand, or about imperialism, on the other.

But what this basically ends up meaning is that nobody actually looks into what’s going on in China. And so, there’s no investigation of what’s happening there, but the fiction remains that it’s socialist when it’s actually capitalist.

Hopefully we can create a position where people actually look into what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Many of these things are problematic and we need to be critical of them, but we also need to recognize why they are so attractive, and why some on the left see China as the best hope moving forward. 

Sigrid Schmalzer

We should also look at what the PRC state is doing that is attractive to people on the left internationally, especially around ecological civilization. There’s a sense that because China’s standing up to the U.S. it represents hope for the left. But I think it’s not just that: it’s also specific things like ecological civilization. I think many of these things are problematic and we need to be critical of them, but we also need to recognize why they are so attractive, and why some on the left see China as the best hope moving forward.

And I think this relates to a more general divide in the left that often gets papered over, which is the question of how we view the state. We often talk as if leftists all agree on the role of the state when in fact we do not, and those differences shape how people view the actions of the PRC state.

Kevin Lin

I wonder if understanding where the pro-CCP left comes from may also help us to tackle this question. I’ve continually encountered a refusal to seriously discuss China, and this has been a real challenge in various left spaces. Whenever I’ve tried to initiate these discussions, there are people who try to shut it down because they would say they don’t want to criticize China for fear of giving ammunition to the right wing in the U.S., or that the Chinese people should be left alone to sort out their own problems. I don’t think this is a majority attitude, but it’s a pretty vocal minority and still pretty dominant within the US left. So that does make it difficult to advance the discussion on China and the U.S.-China rivalry within the U.S. left if the largest political group simply refuses to engage on this question.

I really agree with Sigrid about taking China seriously and the social conditions and class struggles there. Often these very superficial facts will come up in discussion, things like poverty reduction and alleviation, that people would point to and say, “well, even though China may or may not be a socialist country, just look at the wonderful result of poverty reduction, they must be doing something right.” In contrast to a lot of other countries, I think the knowledge about China is just really, really scant among the U.S. left, and this is compounded by an unwillingness to discuss and debate these questions openly.

So, we are in a difficult position of having to counter right-wing discourse about China at the same time where we’re confronting the campists or tankies. This does raise a question about how we frame our discussions. There’s a real challenge in speaking to multiple audiences, also including multiple diasporas such as the Tibetan diaspora, the Hong Kong diaspora, the Uyghur diaspora, all of which have their own political views that may differ from ours on the left. We need to think carefully about how we relate to them as well.

Charlie Post

I think there has been a massive shift on the part of the left in its attitude towards China in the last three to five years. Three to five years ago, Monthly Review was publishing all sorts of material that was highly critical of the Chinese state, which they viewed as restorationist. They even published material by Richard Smith and people who are openly anti-Stalinist and even unsympathetic to the Maoist regime, no less the post-Maoist regime.

There’s been a huge shift on this in the U.S. left, and the same is true for the Australian and many other English-speaking leftists as well. There are elements of the British left that had been previously trained in a politics that was exceedingly anti-campist that are beginning to adapt to this as well. Not so much around China, but around Syria, etc. And I think that there’s a point that Sigrid made about the state-centric focus of much of the left. Rather than social classes, rather than the oppressed, they focus on the state.

This is something that binds together the nationally oriented, openly reformist, classical social democratic left that sees an alliance with the U.S. state as the road to social reform and getting good things for working people. And the other side is a layer of tankies or campists. And they do have a long history of looking to other states, which are perceived to be socialist or anti-capitalist as the alternative to this.

I think it’s right that the Chinese working class or the Chinese oppressed do not yet constitute a fully organized political subject. But one of the points we have to keep arguing is that it is through their own struggles, whether at workplaces or against racialized oppression and national oppressions as in the case of the Uyghurs, that they will have the potential of becoming a political subject capable of posing an alternative both to the rulers in China and the rulers in the U.S.

I also think that we need to develop and deepen our analysis of the Democrats’ views on China, because in fact, I think that Biden’s strategy for dealing with the challenge of Chinese imperial rivalry is probably going to be much more effective than Trump. Not only does it reject the worst of the open anti-Asian racism, but it does so in a context of attempting to build a pro-U.S. imperial alliance to isolate the Chinese, which will require, of course, collaboration with Japanese and South Korean capital.

That combined with the fact that they are abandoning elements of neoliberalism and are looking to the state to restructure both recovery at home and a strengthening of the U.S. imperial position, both politically and economically abroad, is much more dangerous than the open racist rantings, and, from the point of view of capital, irrational policies of Trump.

You can’t build mass anti-imperialism in the United States by apologizing for a class state that exploits and oppresses its own working class, engages in Islamophobia, builds clientelistic debt relationships with other states around the world, and so on.

Daniel Fuchs

I think in terms of positions on the left it would be good to also think beyond the United States, because there has been a similar shift in other regions. So just one example, the German left is also very much split on the question of China. Within the party Die Linke you would have to take account of several generations of people whose positions have been formed in relation to experiences with state socialism in East Germany. So, there are similar splits with regards to positions on China, but to some extent they are related to very different historical and political backgrounds.

David McNally

I don’t know how many of you saw the recent piece by that wonderful bellwether of U.S. imperialism Thomas Friedman about the prospect of war between China and the United States. It’s a riff on a novel written by a retired U.S. general called 2034. And the premise of the novel is that China and the U.S. go to war in 2034, and that the war turns nuclear.

I mention this because I do think Friedman is a bellwether of liberal imperialism, and his basic argument is really that containment is preferable to war.  And Martin Wolf was out recently in the Financial Times essentially saying, look, Russia’s not a serious imperial rival and here’s why, but China is. And he pointed to all the things that we know: that China is now first in the world in foreign domestic investment, having displaced the U.S. last year; that China is now the E.U.’s largest trading partner; that China now has more companies in the Fortune 500 top tier than does U.S. capitalism; and so on.

So, I think it’s true that we need to be very cognizant of the fact that for the American ruling class, Democratic or Republican wing, this is a rivalry that they imagine defining the next 25, 50 years or more, and all kinds of strategic deliberations are following from that. So that does have to frame the context, but I think there are ways of mobilizing that understanding to address what I think is the key strategic issue that I want to pick up on from Kevin, because I think the danger for us when we want to powerfully push back against campism and tankies is that we’re perceived as not being sufficiently anti-imperialist.

And it’s going to be really important for us to develop the line of argument that says you can’t build mass anti-imperialism in the United States by apologizing for a class state that exploits and oppresses its own working class, engages in Islamophobia, builds clientelistic debt relationships with other states around the world, and so on. In other words, I think we need to really develop the argument that it is our socialist opposition to the Chinese state that gives a much sharper cutting edge to anti-imperialism. And that, in fact, there’s no way you’re going to persuade millions and millions of working-class people inside the United States and a multi-racial working class to be part of a movement to stop aggression towards China if you go around apologizing for China’s ruling class.

Eli Friedman

And that’s an increasingly important perspective as China’s power in the world increases and more and more people are being exploited by Chinese capitalists and not just American capitalists.

One of the things that we’ve heard in the United States is some liberal commentators saying we should use competition with China as a framework to advance liberal policy aims, some of which we might support, such as expanded spending on clean energy or education. Rather than saying, education should be a public good that should be provided to people for free, it’s “we need to compete with China in science and technology, and so we’re going to spend more on education.” Obviously more resources will always be devoted to war, but how do you think we should respond to that framing of ‘social goods as imperial rivalry’?

Ashley Smith

This is why I call Biden’s program “imperialist Keynesianism.” He has definitely taken a liberal turn. He is not ruling in a conventional neoliberal fashion. I think many of us under-appreciated what the American ruling class and its political representatives saw as their challenges: a deep crisis to the legitimacy and stability of the American state triggered by the economic crisis, weak recovery, relative decline of imperial power, and domestic political polarization. Trump and the rise of a new right inside the Republican party brought this to a head, most dramatically with the semi-farcical putsch on Washington.

A wave of struggle from Occupy to the Red State teachers’ revolt and the Black Lives Matter uprising also threatened the establishment. They realized they needed to grant some reforms to stabilize US society.

On top of that, Biden’s foreign policy team, including Blinken, Sullivan, Campbell, and the rest have made it very clear that the rivalry with China had to be at the center of the foreign policy agenda. They’ve crafted a muscular multi-lateral program to deal with it. They want to redevelop the U.S. economic infrastructure, stabilize American society so it’s better fit to compete in the world, and gather together allies in a so-called “league of democracies” against China.

Biden has presented a very coherent set of ideas. Sanders has united with him saying we need a middle-class recovery that includes domestic benefits, which are real—more checks coming, more jobs programs, more investment in material and social infrastructure that will benefit workers and oppressed people. But all of this is tied to Biden’s imperial project abroad.

So, the challenge for the left is to separate positive domestic reform from the imperialist competition with China. One way to do that is to argue that if we cut the Pentagon budget, we could have an actual Green New Deal on the scale we need to stop climate change. We could have deeper, systemic reforms that would benefit the working class and oppressed people in the United States if we challenged the incredible amount of money that the U.S. sinks into managing the world system, especially through its military.

One example of such a program is the one put forward by the Red Nation: the Red Deal. It builds anti-imperialism into a set of demands for domestic reforms in the interest of oppressed and working-class people.

Charlie Post

I do think we need to be talking about the Red Deal, the more left-wing version of the Green New Deal. What we need is public works to rebuild an ecologically sustainable economy with decent jobs, that not only pay well, have decent hours and benefits, but don’t kill people, both their spirit and their bodies.

And to make a bigger point, these are all things we want because we want working people to thrive, but if it results in bad things for capital, so be it. In other words, to point out that what is good for working people is often, and usually not necessarily good for capital. And that means if capitalists find that they can’t make profits, then we’d have to start raising the issue of socializing enterprises. This is mostly education at this point.

More concretely, we would hope to see struggles around good jobs, rebuilding infrastructure for working people, not just for the military. We want decent mass transit and healthcare, not so that we can have healthy soldiers to die in a war with China or whoever else is the enemy, but so that people have meaningful and fulfilling lives.

David McNally

I wanted to come back to the conversation about how we view the state. And we’ve talked about some of the educational tasks that confront us on the wider left, I do think we need a highly accessible way to reclaim the idea that the radical socialist left stands in opposition to rule by the market and by the state. In a period of low levels of working class insurgency, because the travesties of the market are so damning, anytime that state actors seem to be capable of mobilizing public capacities, whether it’s around the environment or the pandemic, or what have you, then this looks like the glorious alternative to the market.

And so, we should reclaim the critical analysis of the state as a form of social class domination, because we really do need to try to reposition this discussion. In all of these cases, we’re trying to create openings to rebuild working class capacities so that it’s not about strengthening the state against the market. It’s about strengthening working class capacities to struggle against the state and the market.

Kevin Lin

I agree, and this is made all the more urgent in the context of the U.S.-China rivalry, which in many ways exacerbates domestic repression within China. Of course, there has always been various levels of repression in China against organizing, but we are seeing a further shrinking of the space for labor organizers and feminist organizers at least in part because of the accusation of working with “foreign forces” and political sensitivity at a time of heightened international tensions. This really militates against workers and those doing labor organizing. So, I think that the rivalry actually has a very tangible and a material impact on working class militancy, or at least the space for organizing. Of course, there are a lot of workers in China still trying to organize, but I do think that the rivalry makes it more difficult to do so.

There’s also the problem of the lack of alternatives. I think there’s a sense of despair because people feel they are forced to choose between the American state and Chinese state. And whatever you choose, you lose. There’s very little in the way of an alternative model or alternative society that the left could look toward.  I do think there’s a lack of imagination on the left where people can point to say, okay, let’s build something like that. Now it’s just choosing between two equally bad states.


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