Terms of Trade | Why the West’s critique of China lacks conviction

Oct 21, 2022 05:36 PM IST

There is a reason that the Chinese story appeals to the global South, while the western liberal narrative comes across as either ineffective or hypocritical

Lest the headline gives the readers the idea that this column is an apology for the all things the Chinese State stands for, it is useful, to begin with a little digression.

If the Chinese state is indeed an abomination, not just for the free-marketers, but also from a Marxist viewpoint, then what is the point this column is trying to make? (AP) PREMIUM
If the Chinese state is indeed an abomination, not just for the free-marketers, but also from a Marxist viewpoint, then what is the point this column is trying to make? (AP)

“There are two ‘ten days that shook the world’ in the history of the revolutionary movement of the last century: the days of the October Revolution, described in John Reed’s book of that title, and the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (14–25 February 1956). Both divide it suddenly and irrevocably into a ‘before’ and ‘after’. I cannot think of any comparable event in the history of any major ideological or political movement.

To put it in the simplest terms, the October Revolution created a world communist movement, the Twentieth Congress destroyed it”, legendary Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in his autobiography Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life.

A 20th party Congress — in 1956

For the uninitiated, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Stalin in the 20th party congress. Khrushchev’s speech was initially a secret document which eventually made its way to the rank and file of the party in Soviet Union and finally outside the country. The speech, in many ways, led to the unravelling of the ideological hegemony of the Soviet Union as a vanguard of human emancipation from capitalist oppression among communists worldwide.

It is useful to go back to Hobsbawm once again:

“What disturbed the mass of their (communist parties outside Soviet Union which did not have state power) members was that the brutally ruthless denunciation of Stalin’s misdeeds came, not from ‘the bourgeois press’, whose stories, if read at all, could be rejected a priori as slanders and lies, but from Moscow itself. It was impossible not to take notice of it, but also impossible to know what loyal believers should make of it. Even those who ‘had strong suspicions … [about the facts revealed] amounting to moral certainty for years before Khrushchev spoke’ were shocked at the sheer extent, hitherto not fully realized, of Stalin’s mass murders of communists. (The Khrushchev Report said nothing about the others.) And no thinking communist could escape asking himself or herself some serious questions”, he writes.

As is obvious, the 20th party congress is considered to be a bad omen among the communists world-wide.

From Moscow to Beijing

If one were to look at the 20th party congress of the CPC with a critical eye for socialism as a system and Marxism as an ideology, and compare it with what has happened in the 20th party congress of the CPSU, one cannot but reiterate Marx’s famous paraphrasing of Hegel in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

The Chinese State, as it stands today, has mutated into a dictatorship of the party (it is now on its way to becoming a dictatorship of a person) rather than the proverbial proletariat. There is massive wealth inequality and the party has all but imbibed capitalism as a system (and, as a logical corollary, capitalists as communist party members).

Leave alone revolutionary class struggle, the Chinese state does not even allow political activity which is permitted in so-called farcical bourgeois democracies. While some of these problems were always present across communist regimes in the world, including the Soviet Union, what differentiates “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” is the fact that the CPC does not use words such as class struggle, capitalism or imperialism even as part of its rhetoric.

Those who want a documentary proof of this can either go through this more than 25,000-word speech by Xi Jinping at the opening of the ongoing party congress or this two-minute video about the CPC released on the official Weibo account of the CPC.

If the Chinese state is indeed an abomination, not just for the free-marketers, but also from a Marxist viewpoint, then what is the point this column is trying to make?

What China means to the global South

The international and domestic press has been flooded with commentary about China and most such commentators are more well-informed about the subject than this author is. However, the point which western or west-inspired commentaries on China seem to be missing is the following.

While there is a lot of truth in a liberal-style critique of the Chinese regime, it is unlikely to find political traction, or more appropriately, conviction, especially within the Global South. The reason for this is very simple.

China, till date, is the biggest economic success story among countries which were under colonial domination. This economic resurgence, while it was achieved in violation of principles which would appeal to textbook Marxists, would not have been possible under a vibrant democratic framework.

Scandalous as the assertion may sound, it is often endorsed by both politicians and capitalists in private in India. In fact, even the Chinese State likes to rub this fact in when it gets an opportunity. “In essence, the root cause behind the reform difficulties in India lies in its political and social system, which deprives the government of any capability to actually push forward with key reforms”, Chinese state media Global Times said in an article after the Narendra Modi government repealed the three farm laws in November 2021.

If one were to use Marxist jargon, the Chinese State used the lack of democracy to overcome all obstacles to primitive accumulation of capital, which is indispensable for rapid capitalist development of the kind the country has achieved.

To be sure, there is a convincing Marxist line of argument that the success of Chinese reforms would not have been possible had the Chinese society not undergone a transformative change under the revolution.

To put the larger point in context, the current Indian government is trying to achieve something similar (in a much more gradualist way) by pushing for forced formalisation of the Indian economy.

India is not the only country in the Global South which wants to get rid of political impediments to “reforms” in order to give a boost to economic progress. Most success stories in Southeast Asia or city states such as Singapore have or have had very little democracy (some even had dictatorships) when they made successful economic transitions.

The West, of course, enjoyed the economic tailwinds of colonialism in order to facilitate and even finance its successful capitalist transformation. As if this historical advantage is not enough, the international trade system, especially in sectors such as agriculture, which is where the Global South has an overwhelming interest, continues to be grossly rigged in favour of the advanced capitalist countries. While this may offend so-called liberal economists, there are no benign (as far as fate of democracy is concerned) economic transformation stories in the modern capitalist world.

To be sure, selected countries in the Global South, have at different points of time, been given exceptions to have a mutually beneficial relationship, especially in terms of trade, with the advanced capitalist bloc.

China, which sustained its high-growth phase with an export boom, is the biggest example of this fact. However, the history of global capitalism from the 1970s shows clearly that the only third world countries which have emerged unscathed from the age of Washington Consensus are the ones which refused to take the advice coming from high table of global capitalism – this almost always included a complete deregulation of both commodity and financial markets – on face value.

The 1980s were a decade of financial and economic crisis in Latin America, the contagion came to the Asian Tigers in the 1990s and finally culminated, as irony would have it, into a financial crisis in the US in 2008, which brought down the entire global economy with itself.

Both China and India have been able to avoid a serious financial crisis so far, largely because financial markets continue to be significantly regulated in these two economies. Almost 15 years after the Global Financial Crisis, the fate of so-called liberal capitalism is even more jeopardised. As the world battles the twin shocks of a pandemic and an ongoing war in Europe – more than anything else it has sent inflation out of control – fears are being expressed about the likelihood of a global recession.

One could go on about the problems currently plaguing the global economy, but the point is quite simple. Established economic wisdom – it preaches inflation targeting and complete globalisation – is increasingly finding it difficult to make sense or repair the world economy as inflation continues to surge despite rate hikes and countries such as the US, once considered the prophet of free trade, are enacting protectionist laws. Multilateral trade institutions such as the World Trade Organisation have been reduced to report writing offices rather than rule-setting authorities.

Given the crisis which plagues the so-called vanguards of the “free world”, it is very unlikely that third world countries, which need to be dissuaded from coming under Chinese influence, will feel very enthused about fully embracing the “liberal” order. In fact, even in large democracies, there are clear signs that the electorate is more than happy to support populist leaders who are not hesitant to brandish their hard-line credentials, which they increasingly argue must be deployed for national economic and cultural rejuvenation.

Of course, these kind of political tendencies do not mean that the Chinese state will not have conflict with other countries outside the advanced capitalist camp. India’s conflict with China, which has in many ways pushed it into a strategic partnership with the US, is a good example of this fact. What is ironical is the fact that this kind of strategic alliance is developing at a time when a large part of the western liberal eco-system believes that democracy is coming under squeeze in India.

Where the West fails

What is the larger point of this kind of discussion? Is there no real alternative to an economic accumulation driven national self-interest which does not even think twice about crushing democracy when needed? This need not be the case.

But first there has to be an acknowledgement that notwithstanding their so-called freedom, democratic systems in the advanced capitalist countries, more so in the US, has been almost completely hijacked by big money, which makes sure that no radical redistributive programmes see the light of the day while big capital enjoys all the freedom to seek unmitigated profits. Even a minor change in the balance of power on this count could lead to significant improvements in the lives of millions of people in both rich and poor countries.

Unless the developed world takes a step in this direction, liberalism’s political appeal will have very little traction outside the sanitized spaces which have a material interest in echoing its concerns.

In lieu of a conclusion, it is useful to quote from the editorial in the latest issue of The Economist (October 15th-21st), one of the most influential voices of free capitalism in the world. (Rightly) criticising China’s zero-Covid policy, the editorial says, “The policy has failed to adapt because no one can say that Mr Xi is wrong, and Mr Xi does not want China to be dependent on foreign vaccines, even though they are much better than domestic ones”.

One cannot but remember the fact that the free-world and their governments failed miserably at the WTO’s Geneva Ministerial Conference in June this year to prevail upon the big-pharma lobby to provide easy access to Covid-19 vaccines for third world countries. In fact, a large number of countries have managed the situation with Chinese vaccines. This is exactly what needs to change if the world has to put collective pressure on the Chinese regime to reform itself rather than stray further on a rogue trajectory.

Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.

The views expressed are personal

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    Roshan Kishore is the Data and Political Economy Editor at Hindustan Times. His weekly column for HT Premium Terms of Trade appears every Friday.

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