China Has Billionaires

“We want to do business.” Quite right, business will be done.
 — Mao Zedong, 1949. On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship[1]

Contents

Introduction

US Presidents historically reach their highest approval ratings due to war. George W. Bush reached an all-time-high of 90% in 2001 as the wrathful nation geared up to invade Afghanistan, and his father George H. W. Bush ranks second place with 89% in 1991, right as the US declared the end of its (first) invasion of Iraq and the “liberation of Kuwait.” [2] So when Harvard University’s Ash Center released a 2020 study of Chinese public opinion showing that, as of 2016, “95.5 percent of respondents were either ‘relatively satisfied’ or ‘highly satisfied’ with Beijing,” it was all the more remarkable given the fact that this was a country at peace. [3]

Though it came as a shock to Western audiences, who understand China to be a tyrannical state-capitalist authoritarian regime, observers in the imperial periphery have always seen things rather differently. As far back as 2004, Fidel Castro argued that “China has objectively become the most promising hope and the best example for all Third World countries,” [4] and in August 2014, he reaffirmed this sanguine outlook: “Xi Jinping is one of the strongest and most capable revolutionary leaders I have met in my life.” [5] In May 2018, Professor Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek Minister of Finance, assuaged an anxious member of the audience at a Cambridge Forum: “I have to tell you that, from my understanding of China, it’s a very interesting social experiment, in the sense that at the local level or the regional level you now have a boisterous democracy, with popular success stories in overthrowing local authorities, local bureaucrats who have been corrupt.” [6] Later that same year, before his 2019 ouster in a US-backed coup, Evo Morales said “I trust China very much. China has always accompanied us in many of our aspirations in the social, cultural, political and economic spheres” [7] and that “China’s support and aid to Bolivia’s economic and social development never attaches any political conditions.” [8] In 2020 the former Liberian Minister for Public Works W. Gyude Moore bluntly wrote “China has built more infrastructure in Africa in two decades than the West has in centuries, China is also our friend,” [9] and in 2021 Iran signed a 25-year cooperation agreement with China. Despite the vehement insistence of Western punditry, world consensus against China’s “tyranny” fails to materialize.

The imperial core is not bereft of insightful testimony either, especially outside of the salacious atrocity propaganda that currently jams the airwaves. A 2021 Politico memo urged policymakers: “To Counter China’s Rise, the U.S. Should Focus on Xi.” [10] The White House was similarly unequivocal in a June 2020 assessment:

Let us be clear, the Chinese Communist Party is a Marxist-Leninist organization. The Party General Secretary Xi Jinping sees himself as Josef Stalin’s successor. In fact, as the journalist and former Australian government official John Garnaut has noted, the Chinese Communist Party is the last “ruling communist party that never split with Stalin, with the partial exception of North Korea.” [11]

Leaked cables from 2009 give a clear sense of why Xi Jinping aggravates the US:

Unlike many youth who “made up for lost time by having fun” after the Cultural Revolution, Xi “chose to survive by becoming redder than the red.” … Xi is not corrupt and does not care about money, but could be “corrupted by power,” in our contact’s view. [12]

Elsewhere, a 2015 piece for the New York Times titled “Maoists in China, Given New Life, Attack Dissent” expresses outright anxiety:

“China watchers all need to stop saying this is all for show or that he’s turning left to turn right,” said Christopher K. Johnson, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who formerly worked as a senior China analyst at the C.I.A. “This is a core part of the guy’s personality. The leftists certainly feel he’s their guy.” [13]

My favourite article in this genre, though, comes from The Guardian. Perfectly illustrating Marx’s observation that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,” Richard McGregor’s “How the state runs business in China” appears blissfully unaware that his scaremongering portrayal of the trials and tribulations of capitalists in China is actually rather heartwarming:

But Xi’s support for mixing private and public ownership structures was purely pragmatic. It had value, he said in another forum, because it would “improve the socialist market economic structure.” Xi’s assessment is echoed by Michael Collins, one of the CIA’s most senior officials for Asia. “The fundamental end of the Communist party of China under Xi Jinping is all the more to control that society politically and economically,” Collins argued earlier this year. “The economy is being viewed, affected and controlled to achieve a political end.”

The party’s overarching aim, though, has remained consistent: to ensure that the private sector, and individual entrepreneurs, do not become rival players in the political system. The party wants economic growth, but not at the expense of tolerating any organised alternative centres of power.

“[Capitalists] act as if they are being chased by a bear,” wrote Zhang Lin, a Beijing political commentator, in response to these comments. “They are powerless to control the bear, so they are competing to outrun each other to escape the animal.” [14]

The horror!

The bourgeois press, articulating the fears of really nobody other than its owners, rattles off one tragedy after another:

  • At moments, it’s hard to tell whether the driving force behind China’s green policy is a desire for a cleaner environment, or an obsession with social controls. (The Economist, September 2020)
  • China’s vow to end extreme poverty in 2020 involves stunning numbers: billions of $ spent, millions moved from rural homes. But don’t miss what it really is: a political campaign to integrate the poor into the natl economy, & train them to thank the Party. (The Economist, September, 2020)
  • Hong Kong’s opposition has been tamed. Now, Beijing is turning to the city’s wealth gap and lack of affordable housing, which it blames for the social unrest. Up for consideration: Reforming the tax structure and increasing land supply. (Wall Street Journal, March 2021) [15]

Taken together, these accounts tell a pretty compelling and straightforward story: a worker state led by a vanguard party has placed the productive forces developed by capitalism under human control once again, for the benefit of the many rather than the few, and so definitively begun the complex and difficult transition away from capitalism and into communism that we call socialism. Capitalists, sheltered and insular in their dealings with fellow human beings, don’t understand that they are not sympathetic characters, so they shamelessly self-victimize in the press in the hopes of winning sympathy from the masses, in a futile effort to rally the necessary fervor for military intervention. The situation looks grim for the forces of reaction.

And then the Western Left bursts onto the scene with a litany of harsh recriminations, determined to build up China into a villain worthy of war: “China has billionaires.” “China still has inequality.” “China still has wage labour.” “There’s no free speech there.” “Suicide nets.” “Free Tibet.” “Xinjiang is East Turkestan.” “Liberate Hong Kong.” “Neither Washington Nor Beijing.” Their indulgence in atrocity propaganda is unparalleled, and they’ll often outdo original sources and even the most vicious reactionaries in their preening paraphrases of Chinese horror.

In their “David vs. Goliath” worldview, heroism is characterized by evanescense or futility (Rosa Luxemburg, Anarchist Catalonia, Leon Trotsky, Rojava, CHAZ in Seattle, Bernie Sanders, the Communist Party of the Philippines), whereas victory and longevity are in themselves proof that principles were betrayed and sadism is the rule (Joseph Stalin, Kim Il Sung, Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping). Though socialist groups in the West tend to be secular, Christianity remains culturally hegemonic to such a degree that figures are appreciated in proportion to how well they fit a narrative template of martyrdom. [16]

Faced with the intellectually challenging task of defending projects that didn’t always live up to our a priori ideals, with the task of understanding why they didn’t live up to those ideals, many opt for the doctrine of betrayal:

In the period around 1968, a book was circulated fairly widely whose very title, Proletarians without Revolution (Carria 1966), was thought to deliver the key to understanding universal history. Always inspired by the most noble Communist sentiments, the masses were regularly betrayed by their leaders and the bureaucrats. And this is also paradoxical because what was intended to be a complaint of the masses against the leaders and bureaucrats converts abruptly into an indictment against the masses. The analysis reveals the masses to be completely irredeemable simpletons who are entirely unable to comprehend their own interests at decisive moments. [17]

Indeed, this is exactly how the aforementioned spectacular Chinese public approval of the leadership of the Communist Party is explained away: “Brainwashing.” Enthusiasm is proof of credulity, cynicism is proof of enlightenment — a hipster credo as much in politics as it is in art.

For the sake of this analysis at least, let’s reject the doctrine of betrayal. We will accept the successes of the Chinese Revolution as empirically measurable socialist feats worth celebrating. We will study how Eastern socialists — Deng Xiaoping in particular — were real exemplars of the tradition of scientific socialism to which Marx and Engels belonged, contra aspersions cast by Western utopians.

Fantasies of abolishing hierarchy will give way to an interpretation of Marx that understands relations of production in terms of domination rather than mere subordination, and therefore of capital as an “automatic subject” that needs to be tamed, as opposed to a blight that can be eradicated. The transition from Feudalism to Capitalism will be re-examined so as to challenge idealistic notions that a clean break from Capitalism to Socialism is possible, which will in turn clearly illustrate why Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is not at all comparable to Social Democracy, particularly in regards to imperialism. And in lieu of the welfare-state checklist that currently passes for a definition of socialism, we will recover a much more practical and useful definition, one that centers work rather than leisure, and so better captures the spirit of the myriad tasks to be accomplished in the socialist stage: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their work.”

Automatic subject

John Pilger’s 2016 documentary The Coming War on China documents the US “Pivot to Asia,” initiated by Obama in 2011 and carried on by subsequent administrations. It mostly centers on the victims of US military base-building in the Pacific: the Marshall Islands, Okinawa in Japan, and South Korea. He also interviews Chinese targets of this military buildup. His exchange with Eric Li, a Shanghai-born, California-educated venture capitalist and political commentator, is fascinating:

Li: At the moment, the Chinese the party state has proven an extraordinary ability to change. I mean, I make the joke: “in America you can change the political party, but you can’t change the policies. In China you cannot change the party, but you can change policies.” So, in the past 66 years, China has been run by one single party. Yet the political changes that have taken place in China in these past 66 years have been wider, and broader, and greater than probably any other major country in modern memory.

Pilger: So in that time China ceased to be communist. Is that what you’re saying?

Li: Well, China is a market economy, and it’s a vibrant market economy. But it is not a capitalist country. Here’s why: there’s no way a group of billionaires could control the Politburo as billionaires control American policy-making. So in China you have a vibrant market economy, but capital does not rise above political authority. Capital does not have enshrined rights. In America, capital — the interests of capital and capital itself — has risen above the American nation. The political authority cannot check the power of capital. That’s why America is a capitalist country, and China is not. [18]

John Pilger appears to remain skeptical, as do many who dismiss Li’s insight simply on the basis of his identity (Chinese, businessman). And yet I believe what he is saying here is far more insightful and pertinent than anything you might find in any of David Harvey’s lectures. Why?

Let’s travel back to Marx’s Grundrisse:

It is not individuals who are set free by free competition; it is, rather, capital which is set free. [19]

Beyond being a brilliant rebuke of liberal praise of “competition” in the abstract, it is notable that Marx here does not speak about worker versus capitalist, but of individual (that is, human) versus capital. If this seems like a tendentious reading, consider this fragment from his 1844 manuscripts:

Estrangement appears not only in that the means of my life belong to another, and that my desire is the inaccessible possession of another, but also in that all things are other than themselves, and that — and this goes for capitalists too — an inhuman power rules over all. [20]

Marx’s “inhuman power” and “capital which is set free” is the same entity that Eric Li has in mind when he speaks of “capital itself” and its “enshrined rights.” This talk, which appealingly (to me) borders on the supernatural, stands in stark contrast with Bernie Sanders-style rhetoric that chalks the problems we are mired in up to mere “corporate greed.” Greed is the vice in question, of course. One to be cursed and curbed. But every serious theorist understands that we face a far more serious challenge than the mere assembly of policy-makers with good moral fiber.

Consider Engels in On Authority:

If mankind, by dint of science and its inventive genius, has bent the forces of nature to its will, the latter avenge themselves by subjecting humanity, insofar as it employs them, to a true despotism independent of all social organisation. [21]

Consider Lenin in Imperialism:

The capitalists divide the world, not out of any particular malice, but because the degree of concentration which has been reached forces them to adopt this method in order to obtain profits. [22]

It is useful to conceive of two interlocking but different struggles: that of the worker versus the capitalist, and that of humanity versus capital itself. The workers’ triumph over the capitalist (“to each according to their work”) is in a sense a precondition for humanity’s triumph over capital (“to each according to their need”).

According to Christian Thorne, “[Marx’s] critique of political economy began as the philosophical critique of religion.” His work must be read in full, but the parallels he calls forth are striking:

(in the Hegelian account of alienation)

  1. Humans invented God.
  2. Having invented God, humans then assigned to Him their own powers of creation.
  3. Having projected thought onto a non-human and invented entity, humans then subordinate themselves to it.

(in Marx’s critique of capitalism)

  1. People make capital. Everything that counts as capital is a human creation.
  2. Having created capital, people then assign to it the powers of creation.
  3. Once the creative powers of work get misassigned to capital, actual workers are made subordinate to it. [23]

This is capital as automatic subject. A technophile may call it something akin to a market-based artificial intelligence arising from game-theoretical instrumental rationality. Someone like Fidel Castro puts it more poetically, but I believe he is grappling with the same demon [emphasis mine]:

Would you say capitalism, with its blind laws, its selfishness as fundamental principle, has given us something to emulate? Man should have the possibility to chart his own course, to plan his own life, to employ human resources and natural resources rationally, instead of this mad race that has led us nowhere, and will lead us nowhere. And so I cannot see why people talk about the swan song of socialism. I identify socialism with new ideas, with advancement, with progress, with the capacity of man to design his life, design his society, project himself into the future. [24]

This is my preferred formulation:

Feudal lords were the masters of Feudalism. Capitalists, however, aren’t the masters of capitalism. They are merely the high priests of capitalism. The master of capitalism is Capital itself. [25]

Now, it would be a mistake to presume we are merely shackled via mental bonds, as so many of those who would plead for the masses to simply “wake up” often appear to believe. Marx and Engels are both emphatic in rejecting such a notion:

It is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world and by employing real means, that slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and that, in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. “Liberation” is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the development of industry, commerce, agriculture, the conditions of intercourse. [26]

Will it be possible for private property to be abolished at one stroke? No, no more than existing forces of production can at one stroke be multiplied to the extent necessary for the creation of a communal society. In all probability, the proletarian revolution will transform existing society gradually and will be able to abolish private property only when the means of production are available in sufficient quantity. [27]

The need to transcend this miserable stage of historical development is urgent. And yet history has shown that the local liquidation of the capitalist class is insufficient. Witnessing the struggles of the Soviet Union, Trotsky and his followers mocked “Socialism in one country,” only to turn and push some truly fantastical garbage about permanent world revolution.

In this context, we begin to understand the genius behind the risky yet plainly rewarding balancing act that the CPC has been managing the last four decades, since Deng initiated the process of Reform and Opening-Up. Consider the trajectory traced by Losurdo:

  • Mao, 1958 (responding to criticism from the Soviet Union regarding the persistence of capitalist areas in the Chinese economy): “There are still capitalists in China, but the state is under the leadership of the Communist Party.”
  • Deng, 1978: “We shall not allow a new bourgeoisie to take shape.”
  • Deng, 1985: “Is it possible that a new bourgeoisie will emerge? A handful of bourgeois elements may appear, but they will not form a class.” [28]

What does this look like as of 2018? McGregor’s frightened pen once again proves insightful:

One recent survey by the Central Organisation Department, the party’s personnel body, found that 68% of China’s private companies had party bodies by 2016, and 70% of foreign enterprises. Although these figures sound high, they don’t match the targets the party has set for itself. In Xi’s old stamping ground of Zhejiang, for example, officials set a target in August 2018 to have cells inside 95% of private businesses. There was a need, the survey said, to retain the revolutionary spirit inside the companies as their ownership was handed on to the next generation. [14]

It simply does not matter how distasteful Westerners or, indeed, Soviets, find this compromise. A good scientific theory is able to make accurate predictions, and take risks on account of confidence in core principles. Deng is brimming with confidence in his interview with Oriana Fallaci in 1980:

Fallaci: But isn’t this just the dawn of a new capitalism, in miniature?

Deng: Let’s say that the principles that we are following as we rebuild this country are essentially the same that were formulated at the time of Chairman Mao: to concentrate on our strengths and to consider international assistance as a subsidiary factor and nothing more. In whatever measure we open ourselves to the world — in whatever way we use foreign capital or accept the assistance of private investments — this assistance will only constitute a small part of the Chinese economy. In other words, foreign capital — and even the fact that foreigners will build factories in China — will not influence, in any way, our system, which is a socialist system based upon public ownership of the means of production. Despite this, we are aware that the decadent influence of capital will inevitably develop in China. Well, I don’t think that’s such a terrible thing. I don’t think that it’s correct to be afraid of this. [29]

And then again in 1984:

We have opened 14 large and medium-sized coastal cities. We welcome foreign investment and advanced techniques. Management is also a technique. Will they undermine our socialism? Not likely, because the socialist sector is the mainstay of our economy. Our socialist economic base is so huge that it can absorb tens and hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of foreign funds without being shaken. Foreign investment will doubtless serve as a major supplement in the building of socialism in our country. And as things stand now, that supplement is indispensable. Naturally, some problems will arise in the wake of foreign investment. But its negative impact will be far less significant than the positive use we can make of it to accelerate our development. It may entail a slight risk, but not much.

Well, those are our plans. We shall accumulate new experience and try new solutions as new problems arise. In general, we believe that the course we have chosen, which we call building socialism with Chinese characteristics, is the right one. We have followed this road for five and a half years and have achieved satisfactory results; indeed, the pace of development has so far exceeded our projections. If we go on this way, we shall be able to reach the goal of quadrupling China’s GNP by the end of the century. And so I can tell our friends that we are even more confident now. [30]

And then again in 1985:

We summed up our experience in building socialism over the past few decades. We had not been quite clear about what socialism is and what Marxism is. Another term for Marxism is communism. It is for the realization of communism that we have struggled for so many years. We believe in communism, and our ideal is to bring it into being. In our darkest days we were sustained by the ideal of communism. It was for the realization of this ideal that countless people laid down their lives. A Communist society is one in which there is no exploitation of man by man, there is great material abundance and the principle of from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs is applied. It is impossible to apply that principle without overwhelming material wealth. In order to realize communism, we have to accomplish the tasks set in the socialist stage. They are legion, but the fundamental one is to develop the productive forces so as to demonstrate the superiority of socialism over capitalism and provide the material basis for communism. [31]

There is no sense whatsoever, practical or principled, in refusing to credit Deng for his confidence in the Chinese people, in Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, and in democratic centralism as a bulwark against capitalist subterfuge. People who rightfully acknowledge Lenin’s innovations over Marx and Engels and then turn to reject Deng’s contributions are simply practising chauvinism.

Transitioning

Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
 — Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme[32]

No better proof of the Russian Soviet Republic’s material and moral victory over the capitalists of the whole world can be found than the fact that the powers that took up arms against us because of our terror and our entire system have been compelled, against their will, to enter into trade relations with us in the knowledge that by so doing they are strengthening us. This might have been advanced as proof of the collapse of communism only if we had promised, with the forces of Russia alone, to transform the whole world, or had dreamed of doing so. However, we have never harboured such crazy ideas and have always said that our revolution will be victorious when it is supported by the workers of all lands.
 — V. I. Lenin at the Moscow Gubernia Conference Of The R.C.P.(B.). [33]

“Cross the river by feeling for the stones.”
 — Xi Jinping quoting Deng Xiaoping, Dialectical Materialism Is the Worldview and Methodology of Chinese Communists[34]

I’ve elsewhere remarked that one of the most egregious and common vulgarizations of Marxism that I keep encountering is the flattening of all past and present history into “propertarianism” and the bright future ahead as “egalitarianism.” Portraying socialism as idyllic, and everything before it as hellish, may be all well and good as a slogan at a rally, but it ignores complex realities with important lessons for every revolutionary.

Consider this exchange between H. G. Wells and J. V. Stalin:

Wells: The Chartists [a working class movement that agitated for universal male suffrage in Britain, 1838-57] did little and disappeared without leaving a trace.

Stalin: I do not agree with you. The Chartists, and the strike movement which they organised, played a great role; they compelled the ruling class to make a number of concessions in regard to the franchise, in regard to abolishing the so-called “rotten boroughs,” and in regard to some of the points of the “Charter.”

Chartism played a not unimportant historical role and compelled a section of the ruling classes to make certain concessions, reforms, in order to avert great shocks. Generally speaking, it must be said that of all the ruling classes, the ruling classes of England, both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, proved to be the cleverest, most flexible from the point of view of their class interests, from the point of view of maintaining their power. [35]

In the US, in France, in Russia: civil war, bloodshed. In Britain, collaboration. Stalin, unlike many of those who uphold him today, was perfectly willing to appreciate and derive lessons from other strategists. He died in 1953, and did not live to see capitalists all over Western Europe and Canada lovingly suffocate incipient revolutionary fervor in their countries with a mixture of CIA covert operations and bribes to appease the working class:

Elites provide policy concessions when they face credible threats of revolution. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent formation of Comintern enhanced elites’ perceptions of revolutionary threat by affecting the capacity and motivation of labor movements as well as the nature and elites’ interpretation of information signals. These developments incentivized elites to provide policy concessions to urban workers, notably reduced working hours and expanded social transfer programs. States facing such threats expanded various social policies to a greater extent than other countries, and some of these differences persisted for decades. [36]

Sadly, Stalin’s prediction did come to pass:

What would happen if capital succeeded in smashing the Republic of Soviets? There would set in an era of the blackest reaction in all the capitalist and colonial countries, the working class and the oppressed peoples would be seized by the throat, the positions of international communism would be lost. [37]

Post-Soviet history demonstrated that the Soviet Union was indeed the bulwark of the international socialist movement, even and especially for those who opted for non-alignment and engaged in stern and performative condemnations of its cruelty. Even today, syndicalists and social democrats in the West look backwards rather than outwards when trying to understand their own history. They never understood that they were basking in the fading afterglow of someone else’s revolution.

The crucial difference between Western Social Democracies and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics lies precisely in the relation of domination. Both the former and the latter present similar features: some capitalists thriving, some pro-social policy being enacted. A fool would conclude their analysis here, declaring them the same. We need to ask ourselves what is different.

A revolution was necessary for the Chinese working class to gain power, and demonstrate the fearsome seriousness with which they would exercise it. After tragic failures, however, they corrected course. In the 1980s, they demonstrated flexibility in learning from the enemy. Then, throughout the 2010s, they corrected course again, reaping victories earlier sown. The Communist Party never ceded the power that they sacrificed so much to obtain. Conversely, the Western working classes never even tasted power, just concessions. Sadly, it was more than enough to subdue them. After revolutionary discipline was eroded into an anachronism, a whole mythology came into being. It pandered to the worst vices of western working classes: self-flattery and white supremacy. Armies of well-paid academics rewrote the history of the 20th century, and portrayed the doomed supplicant approach as a work of anti-authoritarian genius.

Concrete examples support the theory that the Chinese political system is truly distinct. Elsewhere in the interview with Wells, Stalin makes the following remark:

Capitalist society is now in a cul-de sac. The capitalists are seeking, but cannot find a way out of this cul-de-sac that would be compatible with the dignity of this class, compatible with the interests of this class. They could, to some extent, crawl out of the crisis on their hands and knees, but they cannot find an exit that would enable them to walk out of it with head raised high, a way out that would not fundamentally disturb the interests of capitalism. [35]

Now consider these excerpts from the aforementioned Guardian article:

For a reliable benchmark about the power of the party in China, you only need to listen to wealthy entrepreneurs hold forth on politics. These otherwise all-powerful CEOs go to abject lengths to praise the party. To take a few companies listed in a single article in the South China Morning Post, Richard Liu of e-commerce group JD.com predicted communism would be realised in his generation and all commercial entities would be nationalised. Xu Jiayin of Evergrande Group, one of China’s largest property developers, said that everything the company possessed was given by the party and he was proud to be the party secretary of his company. Liang Wengen of Sany Heavy Industry, which builds earthmovers, went even further, saying his life belonged to the party. [14]

Just as the lack of dignity of American workers isn’t merely superficial, but symptomatic, the same is true of the lack of dignity of Chinese capitalists. The periodic execution of corrupt capitalists and the humiliation of Jack Ma matter. Chauvinistic “Left” intellectuals may dismiss them as performative, but Western capitalists accustomed to impunity understand the threat loud and clear. The dignity or indignity experienced by different classes testifies more to the class character of a state than musings about its leaders’ sincerity.

The handling of COVID-19 is another powerful example. [38]

However, the grip of the Communist Party is nowhere more apparent than in China’s foreign policy, where peace and multilateralism appear in stark opposition to capitalism’s depraved and inhumane pursuit of profit. China is simultaneously berated as an encroaching superpredator by the Western establishment and scolded for not exporting revolution by Western ultra-leftists. Witnessing the US openly installing and propping up reactionaries like Bolivia’s Añez and Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Western socialists scold China for failing to retaliate in kind. Xi Jinping responded decisively in 2012:

“In the midst of international financial turmoil, China was still able to solve the problem of feeding its 1.3 billion people, and that was already our greatest contribution to humankind,” he said in comments that drew applause from Chinese Internet users.

“Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us,” he went on. “First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?” [39]

The Chinese strategy can be understood as a reaction to the outcomes of the Soviet model, which openly aligned with emancipatory projects world-wide. Although heroic, the bravado allowed capitalists to construct and propagate narratives of impending communist invasion, which in turn created the conditions for the erection of economic fences that isolated and ultimately destroyed dependent socialist projects.

As far back as 1950, Deng Xiaoping laid out the basic tenets of an alternative strategy:

If the upper strata do not consent to our plan, we should give it up, for only their consent counts. Why? Because, owing to historical, political and economic peculiarities, the upper strata hold the chief sway in minority nationality areas. Progressive forces are weak there and exert little influence. In future, however, when the progressive forces expand, they will exert a very great influence, although they do not have a decisive bearing at present. [40]

To put it metaphorically, the USSR helped revolutionary forces cross the river, a river they were never quite strong enough to cross on their own. China instead stands across that same river, offering help to those who manage to cross it. China’s history of undermining US sanctions against Cuba, the DPRK, and Venezuela does not in itself help any individual revolutionary party succeed. However, whoever succeeds knows they won’t have to deal with US subterfuge without support. The success or failure of any revolution will once again be up to national forces, not Washington, ex machina.

Yanis Varoufakis explains how this respect and solidarity for expanding “progressive forces” works out in practice:

When I was Minister of Finance I had a very interesting experience with COSCO, one of the Chinese national companies that in the end bought the Port of Piraeus.

When I moved into the Ministry I found the contract from the previous government, that had already sold the Port of Piraeus for a pittance and other ridiculous conditions to the Chinese, under the guidance of course of the European International Monetary Fund. In other words, as a minister, I was bound to a particular deal that was terrible for Greece. And I went to the Chinese, and discussed it with them, and I was really astonished.

I said to them: Look, you’re paying too little, you’re not committing to a sufficient level of investment, and you are treating our workers as fodder. You’re effectively subcontracting labor to horrible companies that exploit the workers, and I can’t deal with this effectively. I proposed to them we to renegotiate the contract. So instead of getting 67% of the shares of the port, they would get — with the same price — 51%. The remaining shares would go into the Greek pension fund system, in order to bolster the capitalization of the public pensions. Secondly, I want you to commit to 180 million euros of investment within 12 months. And thirdly, proper collective bargaining with the trade unions and no subcontracting of labor. And to my astonishment, this is okay!

Can you imagine if that was a German company, or an American company? That’s what I’m saying. [6]

This is not an isolated anecdote. London School of Economics research concludes an Ethopian case study with the discovery that “Chinese Investment In Africa Has Had ‘Significant And Persistently Positive’ Long-Term Effects Despite Controversy.” [41] Dr. Deborah Brautigam from Johns Hopkins University concurs:

The Chinese ‘Debt Trap’ is a myth. The narrative wrongfully portrays both Beijing and the developing countries it deals with.

Our research shows that Chinese banks are willing to restructure the terms of existing loans and have never actually seized an asset from any country, much less the port of Hambantota. A Chinese company’s acquisition of a majority stake in the port was a cautionary tale, but it’s not the one we’ve often heard. With a new administration in Washington, the truth about the widely, perhaps willfully, misunderstood case of Hambantota Port is long overdue. [42]

Why can’t capitalists replicate these strategies, even cynically, in pursuit of long-term profit? As per Lenin, “the degree of concentration which has been reached forces [capitalists] to adopt [imperialism] in order to obtain profits.” These strategies are only available to China because the CPC — China’s sovereign, the political authority — is able to check the power of capital.

Inequality and Socialism

Can someone who makes more money than you ever be said to be working for you?

The idea of a wealthy or even exploitative servant may appear self-evidently ridiculous, however it is not actually all that farfetched. Doctors, for example, tend to be very well-paid compared to their patients.

Consider this exchange between German author Emil Ludwig and J. V. Stalin, in which once again a Western European appears puzzled at the sophistication of the Georgian:

Ludwig: Allow me to ask you the following question: You speak of “wage equalization,” giving the term a distinctly ironical shade of meaning in relation to general equalization. But, surely, general equalization is a socialist ideal.

Stalin: The kind of socialism under which everybody would get the same pay, an equal quantity of meat and an equal quantity of bread, would wear the same clothes and receive the same goods in the same quantities — such a socialism is unknown to Marxism.

All that Marxism says is that until classes have been finally abolished and until labor has been transformed from a means of subsistence into the prime want of man, into voluntary labor for society, people will be paid for their labor according to the work performed. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.” Such is the Marxist formula of socialism, i.e., the formula of the first stage of communism, the first stage of communist society.

Only at the higher stage of communism, only in its higher phase, will each one, working according to his ability, be recompensed for his work according to his needs. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

It is quite clear that people’s needs vary and will continue to vary under socialism. Socialism has never denied that people differ in their tastes, and in the quantity and quality of their needs. Read how Marx criticized Stirner for his leaning towards equalitarianism; read Marx’s criticism of the Gotha Programme of 1875; read the subsequent works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and you will see how sharply they attack equalitarianism. Equalitarianism owes its origin to the individual peasant type of mentality, the psychology of share and share alike, the psychology of primitive peasant “communism.” Equalitarianism has nothing in common with Marxist socialism. Only people who are unacquainted with Marxism can have the primitive notion that the Russian Bolsheviks want to pool all wealth and then share it out equally. That is the notion of people who have nothing in common with Marxism. That is how such people as the primitive “communists” of the time of Cromwell and the French Revolution pictured communism to themselves. But Marxism and the Russian Bolsheviks have nothing in common with such equalitarian “communists.” [43]

Income inequality rhetoric ignores that a class can reap the benefits of work via public investment (e.g. a bullet train), even if bosses make more as individuals. Working Chinese people are seeing the fruits of their labour despite billionaires and inequality. To recriminate them for not demanding more is recriminating the virtue of patience.

In fact, much of what passes for “socialist” idealism in the West turns out to be a mirror image of bog-standard liberal-capitalist entrepreneurship propaganda: “I will be my own boss! I will run my own business!” This idealism appears unaware that the necessity of management is foisted upon us by logistics, not capitalism. Denial of this reality results in fantasies of perfect synchrony between perfectly autonomous anarchists.

The “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” dream, embraced more by pundits with cushy lives than working people, also reveals a dark truth: western “socialists” have some awareness that a more equal world will mean losing first-world privileges. They cannot conceive of things getting better steadily and slowly, with hard work. And so they are forced to denigrate the Chinese road of self-sacrifice in favour of leisure-driven utopianism. The reality is that the victory of the working class over the capitalist class will usher in an era of hard but rewarding work, as opposed to hard work without reward.

Another staple of Western socialism borrowed from Christian culture, pervasive in our entertainment media, is the idea that the pure of heart are bound to succeed against all odds, one way or another, absolving us of the need to ever make hard sacrifices. This is simply not realistic. We should be sympathetically analyzing how socialists throughout history managed difficulties such as placating masses which coveted American consumer goods (blue jeans in the USSR), and the lack of excitement — even disappointment — over social welfare offerings (such as Universal Healthcare in Canada), rather than tallying sins to see if we can justify branding them Judas.

Adopting a mindset which acknowledges the difficulties faced by the Soviet Union and Cuba, both with waning domestic enthusiasm over socialism and hostile international encirclement, goes a long way towards dissolving what initially appears to be a devastating “gotcha” against China.

Conclusion

Why does China have billionaires?

I want readers to abandon their unearned sense of moral superiority, the one that leads Westerners to arrogantly declare Chinese choices betrayals. I want them to adopt instead a curious approach, one that tries to understand why someone like themselves would make such choices, even if it doesn’t appear obvious at first. With this mindset, it turns out anyone, not just “scholars” and “experts,” can participate in the conversation, simply by considering the difficulties and contradictions China must manage:

  • Many people are not selfless, and in fact downright selfish and greedy, so that dream keeps them working hard. Making room for their ambition stems the brain-drain of talent, which is a zero-sum game. Some of the fiercest and most dangerous opponents of the Soviet Union and Cuba were in fact vengeful “expats,” whereas in China’s case most vile but intelligent capitalists stay behind, within disciplinary reach of the Communist Party.
  • Billionaires work as “adapters” to the rest of the capitalist world, enabling trade and collaboration as well as tempering anxiety arising from fear of the unknown, which helps prevent encirclement.
  • They exist as scapegoats if one is ever needed. Consider how narratives about the Soviet Union always attribute every incident that ever occurred in its history to the deliberate malice of the Communist Party.

These aren’t exhaustive, nor fully fleshed-out. Despite the title of this essay, I don’t intend to provide a final answer that satisfies every reader. I couldn’t hope to. My goal is to get us to reconsider our approach to the problem at hand. Nobody knows which institutions need to be swapped out in what order or on what schedule, because no one’s ever successfully effected the transition to communism.

Westerners need to fantasize less about the complete reorganization of society into something utterly unrecognizable and focus more on how to take control over the ugliness that already exists so that they can chart a better course for their countries, as China has.

Socialism is not a checklist, and the experience of rich imperialist nations where capitalists bribed angry masses with welfare to stop them from revolting can never be its benchmark. Socialism is, and always has been, an ongoing experiment.


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