The international left was split over the 2019 Hong Kong revolt, just as it was split again over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since February 2022.1This is an adaptation of the introduction to the Portuguese edition of Hong Kong in Revolt, scheduled to be published later this year. The author wishes to thank Gilbert Achcar for his helpful comments on this article. Those who supported or remained silent over Beijing’s repression often explicitly or implicitly indicated that Beijing was just reacting to a revolt manipulated by foreign forces. This is not true. The existence of a minority of Trump supporters during the revolt can hardly invalidate a two-million-strong popular democratic movement.
Since 2020 Beijing has responded with devastating repression. It is not just a handful of right-wing localists who are being suppressed by Beijing, as regime apologists claim. It is working people, and their political rights, who are the victims of Beijing’s repression. Nothing illustrated this better than the fact that after the imposition of the National Security Law, the biggest union, the teachers union, was forced to disband. Soon after, Cathay Pacific ripped up its collective agreement with its workers’ union.2Danny Lee, “Cathay Pacific Snubs Union,” South China Morning Post, November 27, 2020.
One of the reasons for some leftists’ failure to stand with Hong Kong is that they believe that Beijing, relative to capitalist “free market” Hong Kong, is more progressive. Various arguments are put forward: China is “socialist” or “non-capitalist,” “a global south” or “developing” country, or it is “anti-US imperialism.” Such claims are untenable. The logic of positions of sympathy with Beijing can be transplanted from supporting its repression in Hong Kong to backing it in other interventions. If Putin scores a major victory in his war on Ukraine, that might encourage Xi Jinping to become more provocative towards Taiwan. And where should the international left stand in this scenario?
The Class Nature of the Chinese State
In order to correctly position ourselves not only in regard to Hong Kong or Taiwan but also in relation to the contest between the US and China, we need to discuss the nature of the Chinese economy and state in some detail. For leftists like John Ross, China is socialist.3John Ross, China’s Great Road—Lessons for Marxist Theory and Socialist Practices (Glasgow: Praxis Press, 2021). Michael Roberts has argued that China is neither socialist nor capitalist.4Michael Roberts, “Xi Takes Full Control of China’s Future,” Michael Roberts Blog, October 25, 2017. He has further implied that that China is “at a crossroads and the future of the class character of China is open and contested within Chinese society.”5Blair Vidakovich, “A Contribution to the Debate on the Class Character of China,” Socialist Alliance, https://socialist-alliance.org/alliance-voices/contribution-debate-class-character-china. Roberts’s position is quite compatible with the orthodox Trotskyist notion of a “deformed workers’ state.”
Both Ross and Roberts base their argument on the supposed dominant role of state ownership of the economy in China. While Roberts does not embrace it, the logical conclusion of this argument would be to support Beijing’s attack on Hong Kong or a future one on Taiwan. Of course, state ownership in China is surely prominent. However, according to official figures from 2017, the private sector share of GDP already exceeded 60 percent. A high ranking official from the Central United Front Work Department used the figure “56789” to depict the contribution of the private sector to the economy as follows:
More than 50 percent of tax revenue.
More than 60 percent of GDP, fixed capital investment, and foreign direct investment.
More than 70 percent of high tech companies.
More than 80 percent of urban employment.
More than 90 percent of new jobs.6“党的十九大举行第三场记者招待会 介绍党的统一战线和对外交往有关情况,” [“The Third Session of the Press Conference on the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of Chin,”], http://www.gov.cn/zhuanti/2017-10/21/content_5233545.htm. See also Amir Guluzade, “The Role of China’s State-owned Companies Explained,” World Economic Forum, May 7, 2019.
Although the state sector represents a minority share in terms of many of these measures, its control of the commanding heights of the economy allows the state to set prices for many downstream branches of the economy. Nevertheless, the private sector is still able, within certain limits, to keep the state in check, often preventing it from achieving its macroeconomic goals.
China’s reliance on private suppliers on the world market is another one of the state’s Achilles heels. Although China’s dependence on imports has declined over the decades of its economic rise, it still relies on them in key areas. For instance, China imports more than 80 percent of its microprocessing chips, and producers who use them were paralyzed when the US blocked their import. As of yet, China has not been able to overcome this dependency in key high tech products. Thus, the Chinese state sector remains prominent, but it is far from solely determining the dynamics of the state and economy.
“Public Ownership” and Privatization
Strictly speaking, China has “state ownership,” which is quite different from “public ownership.” The latter is an exceedingly vague concept and does not define the class character of the state. In April 2022, the Scottish government announced that its railway system would be “returned to public ownership,” but no serious socialist should argue that this “public ownership” of the Scottish railway signifies Scotland is advancing towards socialism.
Several decades ago, one could find quite a number of capitalist countries with dominant “public ownership,” but they remained capitalist regardless. Under capitalism, a state-owned enterprise cannot be described as “public ownership,” because the state is not in turn owned by all people. On the contrary, the state is dominated by the capitalist class and its political agents.
State-owned Enterprises (SOEs) under capitalism are merely a kind of state capitalism, as Engels explained in the late nineteenth century. He once joked that if “the taking over by the state of the tobacco industry is socialistic, then Napoleon and Metternich must be numbered among the founders of socialism.”7Frederick Engels, Anti-Duhring, , https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/notes.htm. The notion that “state ownership equals public ownership equals socialism” is altogether false. And the idea that the importance of the state sector makes China socialist is particularly untenable. First, China’s one-party dictatorship and its hostility to workers’ self organization means that these SOEs are as unaccountable to the people as in any capitalist state. Second, most large Chinese SOEs are listed on the domestic stock market, accounting for 40 percent of listings.8Ori Ben-Akiva, Mickael Nouvellon and Ziang Fang, “Commentary: The Value of China’s State-owned Enterprise,” Pensions and Investments, March 7, 2019.
Many of them are also listed in markets outside mainland China, for instance in Hong Kong and New York. Put simply, these SOEs serve, first and foremost, the interests of the Party and private investors. The basic feature of capitalism is its pursuit of profit. With a huge profit-seeking private sector and a half-commercialized state sector, the profit motive is in full operation in China, just like it is in any other capitalist nation state.9Tom Bottomore, ed., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 71. Bottomore gives the definition of capitalism as follows: (1) production for sale rather than own use by numerous producers; (2) the emergence of a labor market; (3) predominant if not universal mediation of exchange by the use of money, which also gives a systemic role to banks and financial intermediaries; (4) the capitalist or his managerial agent controls the production (labor) process; (5) control of financial decision: the universal use of money and credit facilitates, the use of other people’s resources to finance accumulation; (6) competition between capitals. Both the means of production and labor have been commercialised to the point that it is hard to deny that nowadays China exhibits all of the above six features.
And workers suffer the consequences. Since 1979, China has experienced three waves of privatization, first of small and medium SOEs, then urban land, and in the last decade, massive land grabs in the rural areas, which are ongoing. These waves of privatization have resulted in the layoffs of forty to fifty million workers in SOEs and collectively owned enterprises. They have been replaced by two hundred and fifty million rural migrant workers, who sell their even cheaper labor power to both private companies and commercialized SOEs.
The Myth of “Poverty Eradication”
Beijing apologists tend to avoid discussing the defining features of capitalism, as understood by Marx, and turn instead to other narrowly defined criteria for their contention that China is “socialist.” Thus, when claims about state ownership are proved inadequate, they argue that “poverty has been eradicated in China”—a decidedly nonMarxist criterion. Ross asserts three times in the short preface to his book that, since 1978, China has lifted 853 million people out of poverty.
But Premier Li Keqiang, who was marginalized by Xi Jinping, disagrees. According to him, six hundred million Chinese—more than 40 percent of the population—earn a monthly income of only 1,000 RMB (about US$148). Such an income qualifies its recipients as suffering extreme poverty.
Similarly, labor activists reject claims about eradication of poverty. When I asked one what he thought of news reports praising the government’s “eradication of poverty,” his response was “what has the government done for workers? It is the workers’ sweat and blood which have lifted them out of dire poverty!” In reality, the Chinese state contributes nothing to workers’ social insurance and housing fund. Only the employees and employers do so.
Ross and other Beijing apologists, of course, ignore such grassroots labor activists. These “campists” are obsessed with finding a supposedly “progressive” state in China and supporting its fight with the US, with little regard for the basic interests of working people living and fighting on the ground in China or anywhere else in the world. They replace the struggle of the international working class with a geopolitical mode of analysis, supporting enemies of the US state as their friend.
Furthermore, the Beijing apologists focus on the eradication of absolute poverty, the highly controversial World Bank poverty measurement of either $1 a day in 1990s, or $2 a day today. They ignore the fact that relative poverty—earning significantly less than the average in a given society, at a given time, as inequality rises—in China has gone from bad to worse. Thomas Piketty and his colleagues noted that:
The national wealth–income ratio increased from 350 percent in 1978 to 700 percent in 2015, while the share of public property in national wealth declined from 70 percent to 30 percent. We provide sharp upward revision of official inequality estimates. The top 10 percent income share rose from 27 percent to 41 percent between 1978 and 2015; the bottom 50 percent share dropped from 27 percent to 15 percent. China’s inequality levels used to be close to Nordic countries and are now approaching US levels.10Thomas Piketty, Li Yang and Gabriel Zucman, “Capital Accumulation, Private Property, and Rising Inequality in China, 1978–2015,” American Economic Review 109, no. 7 (2019): 2,469–96.
Nor does the eradication of absolute poverty prove that “China is socialist.” Advanced capitalist countries have largely reduced absolute poverty in the past three centuries, without in any sense becoming “socialist.”
The reason is simple: while capitalism in China and the Global North can eliminate absolute poverty, capitalist accumulation necessarily produces a reserve army of labor, and with that, relative poverty. China’s rapid modernization and urbanization explains the alleviation of absolute poverty. But this has come at a price, namely high levels of exploitation of workers and the denial of basic political rights. China’s development aligns with the logic of capitalism, not socialism.
Another common argument for characterizing China as “socialist” is its spectacular GDP growth. Ross even quotes the Communist Manifesto in support of this claim. The proletariat, upon taking power, shall “increase the total productivity as rapidly as possible.”11Ross, 77. Such arguments ignore the fact that the proletariat has never actually taken power China and established workers democracy. There has never been workers rule in the country—not in 1949 and certainly not today.
While there has been continuity in the autocratic political regime, there was a great rupture in China’s socioeconomic system between Mao’s and Deng’s leaderships. It is difficult to find a single term to characterize Mao’s China. Suffice it to say that in my view Mao’s China was noncapitalist/anticapitalist. It was not socialist, and especially after Mao’s crackdown on dissident cadre/intellectual and worker protests in 1957, it moved even further away from pursuing socialism.
This is the case despite Mao’s subsequent Great Leap Forward towards “communism.” The contest between the privileged bureaucracy with Mao as its head and the much weaker popular democratic forces had long been concluded with the complete victory of the former. Deng’s reform helped restore capitalism and rebuild it with “Chinese characteristics.” The subsequent great leap forward in productivity has mainly benefited the bureaucratic capitalists and the private bourgeoisie.
An Orwellian Regime
Ross and Roberts almost exclusively focus their argument on the economy of China, often without a serious discussion about the nature of its political regime. China is not only capitalist in terms of its economy, but also in terms of its state. It has an Orwellian regime that has brought back capitalism and shaped it to suit the exploiting classes’ needs—first and foremost those of the Party bureaucracy.
The bureaucratic rulers took two highly visible political steps to restore capitalism. First, they abolished the right to strike in the new 1982 constitution, and second, they legalized the private sector and the sale of the land-use rights in the 1988 amendment to the constitution. Rather than restoring “socialist democracy,” the party-state’s “reforms” maintained its monolithic bureaucratic character and promoted the development of capitalism. These policies enriched the officials and antagonized the bulk of the population, triggering the democratic movement that culminated in 1989’s Tiananmen Square uprising.
We need to grasp Beijing’s regime in its totality. Since 1949, the party-state shaped the economic fundamentals of the society, not the other way round. Surely the economy reacts to the policy of the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) either positively or negatively, but it is always the Party which takes the initiative in the first place. Therefore, we cannot afford to overlook the party-state and its politics.
Politically, China is a totalitarian regime. I use the term “Orwellian state” to describe it. The advantage of the term is that, like “totalitarianism,” it captures the nature of a political system that denies people basic rights, most importantly the right to independent political and social organization, tolerates no dissent or self activity, and seeks to regiment society, politically and ideologically.
Ideological indoctrination was evident in the state’s cult of “Mao Zedong Thought” in the past and is now evident in its plans to make “Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” the main goal of education.12“The Head of the Textbook Bureau of the Ministry of Education Answers Reporters’ Questions on the Compulsory Education Curriculum Program and Curriculum Standards,” March 4, 2021, http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/2022-04/21/content_5686539.htm. That these shifts require a constant rewriting of the CCP’s own history is of no significance to the bureaucratic rulers.
Since its founding in 1949, this Orwellian state has oscillated between harder and softer versions of repression. While the hard version does not even tolerate individual dissidents, its soft version does, except for those who become too well known. Since 1979, China has seen the hard version become prevalent twice, first during the immediate period after the Tiananmen massacre, after which it was relaxed a bit, only to revert to a harder version again under Xi. Repression is now getting worse by the day.
In this “socialist” or “progressive” country, common folks have to use a lot of code words to get around the heavy censorship of social media. At the height of the recent Shanghai lockdown to stop the spread of Covid–19, a poem entitled “Just Try to be a Bit More Brave,” a “pledge of allegiance” to the “Zero Covid” policy, was widely distributed:
Let’s try to be a bit more brave,
Instead of using the word “zy” let’s write “freedom,”
Instead of using the word “zf” let’s write “the government,”
Instead of using the word “gj” let’s write “the state,”
Instead of using the word “zs” let’s write “suicide,”
Instead of using the sign of an iron chain let’s write “chained.”13The coded word here is an abbreviation of pinyin characters. For instance, the pinyin for the word “government” is “zhengfu” and is further shortened to “zf.” As for the word “chains,” this is probably related to the Xuzhou chained woman incident that came to light in late January 2022. A woman was found to have been chained to a wall for years. This is probably a case of human trafficking: she might have been abducted and “married” to a man and given birth to eight children.
This is not a “new normal.” Since the start of the age of the internet, strict censorship has always been in place, and it is only becoming more severe.
Already in 2013, the government promulgated a secret decree of “Seven Speak-Nots,”14Benjamin Carlson, “7 Things You Can’t Talk about in China,” The World, June 3, 2013. Note that in an unverified Chinese version claiming to be the original document, “civil rights,” “crony capitalism,” and “judicial independence” were replaced by “constitutional democracy,” “neoliberalism,” and “raising doubt about Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” which forbids people in higher education from discussing: universal human rights; freedom of the press; civil society; civil rights; past mistakes of the Communist Party; crony capitalism; judicial independence. This prohibition in higher education has a ripple effect in silencing discussion of these issues in the rest of society.
Ritualizing Politics and Depoliticizing China
By stopping people from talking about politics, this decree hollows out the meaning of the word “politics.” In China today, “politics” has been reduced to public rituals and performances whose sole purpose is demonstrating that everyone enjoys happy unity with the Party. The Party then fills the void with the latest “great news” about its economic achievements. Citizens are downgraded to mere economic animals.
In this way politics is totally depoliticized. The bravest may stand up for their economic and social rights from time to time, but after the June 4th massacre in Tiananmen, no serious effort has ever been launched again to demand the right to talk about the Party’s monopoly over all public power. Chinese labor activists have to confine their advocacy to purely bread-and-butter issues and avoid politics and protests altogether.
Actually, most labor NGOs have long “depoliticized” themselves just to survive at the mercy of the state. The founder of the China Labour Bulletin, Han Dongfang, has long dropped his previous position of fighting for an independent trade union movement. Instead, he uses his high profile to advocate for a strategy of the “depoliticization” of the labor movement, hoping that this will be tolerated.15China Labour Bulletin, “Protecting Workers’ Rights or Serving the Party: The Way Forward for China’s Trade Unions,” March 14, 2019. Predictably, that has not worked. Since 2015, even “depoliticized” labor NGOs have not been tolerated and have been annihilated.
Such “depoliticization” is Beijing’s main policy toward Hong Kong. It has always aimed to restrict the financial center to be just an “economic city,” free of any political dissent. For Beijing, people there should be merely “economic animals” or the collective “goose that lays golden eggs,” that must never be allowed to evolve into a “political entity.” After Beijing cracked down on the 2019 Hong Kong revolt and introduced the National Security Law in 2020, it immediately moved on to accuse trade unions and professional associations (for example, the bar association) of being “politicized.”16Zheng Chiyan, “Politicized Trade Union Suffers Endlessly,” Grand Gazette, February 12, 2020. Since what a “political entity” amounts to has only ever been loosely defined, anyone who merely comments on politics can be targeted.
Divorcing Economics from Politics
Of course, such attacks on the right to organize demonstrate that economics and politics, especially in the case of China, cannot be separated. That’s why we must challenge the Beijing apologists’ argument that the economic wellbeing of working people is sufficient on its own. If we want to determine how effective policies are, or ascertain the nature of the Chinese state, we need to consider the politics behind its actions and examine how many political rights people enjoy.
Unfortunately, some of Beijing’s critics accept the economistic terms of the Beijing apologists and argue against them on exclusively economic grounds. That is a mistake, especially when such a line of argument is pursued to its logical conclusion. People’s economic rights have to be guaranteed by political rights because, without those, even if they are earning a reasonable income at the moment, their economic security can never be guaranteed. Without the political right to organize, they face the danger that even their meager standard of living can be undermined by the party-state’s undemocratic changes in policy. Their wages can be cut, their homes dispossessed, their land grabbed, their assets appropriated, and laws stipulating social rights violated with impunity. Without democratic rights they remain objects, not subjects, of their own destiny.
Just look at the history of the Chinese peasantry under the party-state. They were allocated a plot of land during the early 1950s land reform only to lose everything to the so-called “commune” within a few years. They got back their land in the 1980s only to begin losing it again in the current land grabs, often led by local party officials.
As for labor rights, when in 1995 the first labor code was enacted, it was hailed as a great step forward for labor, and many people praised it as the beginning of a Chinese “New Deal.” Yet the government has little incentive to enforce these laws. With the elimination of labor NGOs in 2015, the nonenforcement of labor laws have become worse, as the so-called “996 labor disputes” demonstrated. The number, 996, refers to the practice of China’s tech companies, including those owned by the state, of making employees work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week, hence “996.” That work schedule is twenty-eight hours (64 percent) more than what the Chinese labor law allowed.
This would not have happened if workers had the right to organize independently from the state union, a right they do not have. The state union, since 1949, has been nothing but the Party’s tool to silence workers.17In the early years of the Republic there were still progressive elements who might defend certain economic interests of workers, but most of them were eventually purged. Contemporary China continuously exhibits features of what one may call “barrack capitalism” in terms of working conditions, where workers are subject to very harsh discipline and punishment. In Mao’s China, although workers at SOEs enjoyed job security, this came at a price. Workers had to give up a great part of their human rights and they could not hold dissident views in relation to the Party’s line. In order to guarantee these conditions a whole set of disciplinary precautions were taken. For instance, the state developed an infamous filing system that recorded conversations of workers. This repression allowed for harsh labor discipline from the Great Leap Forward onward; workers produced more, while wages were frozen for twenty years until Mao’s death. So much for Mao’s “communism.” This denial of basic political rights by the party-state has direct economic impacts on working people. That’s why evaluation of the Chinese regime cannot be based on economic performance alone. One cannot divorce the political from the economic.18Ross did say that “politics comes before economics, that is the ABC of Marxism,” Ross, 186. I think this statement is too crude from a Marxist point of view. Regardless, what is funny is that he only applies his view to the US and never to China. This is especially true of a one-party dictatorship. While the regime never changes, its economic policies do sometimes change in the blink of an eye. The despot remains constant, while its policies vary. Thus, “People’s Commune,” “collectivization,” or “marketisation” are all just changeable “policies.”
As a common Chinese adage says, “the policy of the Party resembles the moon—it changes its shape all the time.” The Party bureaucracy knows very well that as long as it holds all power in its hands, it can change its economic policies to suit the situation (as they perceive it) or to make some minor concessions. By only focusing on the policy variables while avoiding talk about the despotic constant, Beijing apologists are merely performing a clumsy magic show for the party-state.
With the Helping Hand of Western Imperialism
But the Chinese Communist Party and its international apologists would not have been successful in pushing forward its agenda of depoliticizing Chinese society had they not been helped by the West in the 1990s. The Tiananmen massacre was a sufficient indicator of the regime’s true nature, which exposed its nature by demonstrating it would never tolerate the idea that its power could be checked by any opposition, including social protests.
Yet the US and the European Union simply could not resist the offer from Deng Xiaoping—accept our despotic constant as a fact, and you can take your cut of our gigantic market. The Western governments happily accepted the offer, and in order to convince the public, they invented a policy of “change through trade” (promote democratic changes in China through trade), using rhetoric about human rights in China to cover up their greed. In the end, while they did make a lot of money, they also helped the latter to evolve into an Orwellian superpower. In this endeavor, both Washington and Beijing were also helped by neoclassical economists, like Milton Friedman, who were invited to China by the CCP leaders. Their advice to Yeltsin and Deng Xiaoping to pursue “market reform” has helped the Party leadership to further consolidate its iron grip over China.
To sum up, China is capitalist with an Orwellian regime, which in its censorship, surveillance, and outright denial of political freedom, is much worse than liberal capitalism like Taiwan or Hong Kong before 2020. Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are all capitalist. But there is still a difference between the semi-liberal democracy of pre-2020 Hong Kong, liberal Taiwan, and Orwellian China.
If there is something worth defending in the former two places, it is less their capitalism and more their political and social rights, without which no social protest is possible, which is exactly the situation in China today. Unfortunately, Beijing’s apologists ignore this fact. That said, while valuing every democratic right, we as socialists should not accept the choice between two evils both premised on exploitation of working people—liberal capitalism and autocratic capitalism.
Limitations of the Concept of Totalitarianism
In characterizing China’s economic and political system, both the concept of “totalitarianism” and “Orwellian state” have their limitations. When George Orwell wrote 1984, he probably had in mind three countries which shared similar political systems—Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy. However, the first one possessed a very different economic base and class relations compared to the last two. This explains why many socialists preferred to support Soviet Russia when it was attacked by Germany. This showed the downside of the two terms—by focusing on the political system, it runs the risk of divorcing politics from the economics, which is making the same type of mistake as China apologists like Ross do, but in an upside-down way.
In China’s case, the terms capture the Party’s “despotic constant,” showing the great continuity between Mao’s China and post-Mao China. But the term cannot capture the “policy variable”—the deep rupture in economic policies and the corresponding transformation in the economy (that is, from being anticapitalist to embracing capitalism).
We have to bear in mind that although, in itself, it’s a tool of the Party, the change of policy since 1979 is still important. Only through this turn could the Party quickly accomplish its target of industrialization and leap from a very low income country to a higher middle income country. But this was only made possible by the presence of the absolutist state, which has facilitated an unusually high investment rate premised on low wages and denial of rights to working people.
A Bureaucratic Capitalist State
This reality demonstrates why, as I have suggested, the question of whether China is socialist, in transition to socialism, or capitalist, should be investigated not only at the level of the economy and politics, but also at the level of the state, its composition, and class nature. The class nature of the state is not always identical with its economy or its politics, especially in a period of upheaval, revolution, or counterrevolution. In such situations, the nature of the economy can be very different from the nature of the state.
For instance, a genuinely democratic and socialist government, once it comes to power, might not be able to eradicate poverty or transform the capitalist economy to the degree it wishes. In this case, we might have a socialist government, but a large part of the economy would remain capitalist. Or in reverse, during a counterrevolutionary period, right-wing forces (either by forming a new reactionary state or by taking over the revolutionary government from within) could take power and begin to undo the work of a fallen revolutionary government.19This is what happened in Soviet Russia following the 1920s. Such a process of undoing previous revolutionary achievements within the economy may encounter strong resistance to the degree that the nature of the economy remains mixed.
In both scenarios, however, it is not the economy that defines the nature of the state. The class character of the state itself needs to be taken into account and judged by political criteria. Solely relying on economic measurements to determine the nature of the state is misguided. And vice versa, the class character of the economy also has to be analyzed not just by economic criteria but also in political terms.
In China’s case, between 1949 and 1979, the Chinese party-state was an anticapitalist state, but one which was simultaneously consolidating the bureaucracy’s hold on absolute power. For this reason, it was never socialist and was never heading in a socialist direction. The period of 1979 to the present was one of transition from anticapitalism to the full restoration of capitalism, a process which can be divided into two stages.
The first ten years was a period of comparatively reasonable market reforms aimed at curing the bureaucratic diseases of the state sector. The regime’s crackdown on the 1989 democratic movement signaled a qualitative change in the character of the state. The Party drowned the democratic movement in blood to complete its capitalist restoration. The Party bureaucracy would soon bourgeoisify itself.
To argue that “China’s class character is still under contest” is wrong not only in its conclusion but also methodologically. The argument confines itself to looking for proof of qualitative change in the economy when one should be looking at the Party’s political devolution between 1980 and 1989. No wonder such analysis is stuck in the past without knowing it.
China’s Bureaucratic Capitalism
In my 2013 book, I used the term “bureaucratic capitalism” to describe China. Today, despite the large private sector, the party-state is even more powerful. In this sense, China exhibits features of state capitalism. Furthermore, China is a special type of state capitalist system, one where the ruling bureaucracy is so powerful that it subjects all other classes to its despotic rule. In 2013, I wrote:
The name bureaucratic capitalism is more appropriate for China because it captures the most important feature of China’s capitalism: the central role of the bureaucracy, not only in the transformation of a state which was once deeply hostile to capitalism to one which is thoroughly capitalist, but also in enriching itself through the fusion of the power of coercion and the power of money. This has given new impetus to the bureaucracy’s drive towards industrialization and state-led investment in infrastructure and also to making China into one of the most business friendly countries in the world by its harsh repression of labor.20Au Loong-Yu, China’s Rise: Strength and Fragility (London: Merlin Press, 2013), 6.
The strait jacket that the Party imposes on the whole of society across all classes cannot be explained by its allegiance to absolutism alone. There is also a contemporary class interest here. Greedy Party bureaucrats and their families could not have amassed such wealth if they had not monopolized political power. The more the Party and the oligarchs use their power to extract social surplus, the more they need to perfect their hold on all power. The CCP leadership have consolidated a completely bureaucratic capitalist state with themselves at the helm.
Paraphrasing Marx, we may say that Mao’s China was a kind of “bureaucratic socialism.” In his Communist Manifesto, Marx discussed different kinds of nonproletarian versions of socialism—reactionary, conservative, and utopian. Class struggle in China had produced in 1949 another brand of “conservative socialism,” (that is, a “socialism” of the bureaucracy).
When Mao died in 1976, his version of “socialism” was totally bankrupt, and Deng replaced it with his version of “socialism” (“bureaucratic capitalism”) in order to save the CCP’s absolute rule over China. It was quite successful for three decades until it began to exhaust its usefulness and slide into crisis. Now there is much talk about Xi Jinping’s supposed “left turn” as he promoted his version of “common prosperity” and his attack on IT tycoons.
Such talk forgets that the despotic constant of the Party constitutes the greatest obstacle to the Party making any genuine left turn. Those who applaud Xi’s policies are making the same mistake all over again—they focus on Beijing’s magic show, without ever bothering to look at the constant of despotism behind the show.
The term “bureaucratic capitalism” captures one special feature of Chinese society under the CCP: its absolute control over a huge population for such a long period, something that is perhaps unrivalled in the present world.21North Korea is comparable, but it is much smaller and poorer. Its great success with its one child policy in the 1980s, followed by its social credit system since the 2010s, has proven this. The lockdown in 2022, in response to the Covid pandemic, is a bigger step forward in its perfection of its Orwellian state. No regular authoritarian state could accomplish this. The absolute power of the party-state is vital to the success of its second wave of industrialization. And this requires us to acknowledge the particularities of contemporary Chinese capitalism, which have only been briefly sketched here.
A word of caution, however, is needed in relation to the term “absolute control.” In the end, we have to qualify this designation. A bureaucracy which exercises such control will take extreme measures that will eventually pave the way for its own crises. We are seeing one such crisis right now. Xi Jinping’s lockdowns to achieve his Zero Covid policy are curing the headache by beheading the patient. They have made the economic crisis worse while antagonizing even diehard nationalists.
Conclusion: Breaking with Pseudo-Leftism
To conclude, the thesis that China is “socialist” or “progressive” is wrong on two counts—wrong on the nature of the Chinese economy and wrong on the nature of the party-state. If the thesis sounds appealing to some, it is only because they are misled by those Beijing apologists’ agenda of depoliticizing Chinese bureaucratic capitalist politics and only paying attention to China’s economic performance. If we are not to be fooled, we must go back to the study of political economy, that is, to a study of the economy not just on its own but in relation to the state and classes in the general allocation of social resources and social surplus. If we apply this method to studying China today, it is impossible to miss the fact that the regime in Beijing is an anti-working class regime.
If in Mao’s era China was repressive towards the working class, it was at least even more hostile to capitalists and to imperialism, although it was also Mao who received Nixon’s visit in 1972. China since Deng is the reverse of Mao, but with Mao’s realignment policy with the US which Deng happily continued, and which has helped China reintegrate with global capitalism.
For a time in the 1980’s, there was a welcome optimism in mainland China and Hong Kong. For the mainland Chinese, it was the feeling that the madness of the Cultural Revolution was finally over and now the people could enjoy the fruits of their labor peacefully while the party would lead them towards the Four Modernizations.22The goals set forth by Deng Xiaoping to modernize the four most important sectors of the country, namely industry, agriculture, defense, and science & technology. For the Hong Kong people, the “reform and opening up” policy signified that China’s closed door policy to the West had finally come to an end, and they welcomed this with a wave of popular patriotic songs.
It did not take long before both peoples were disillusioned. The June 4th massacre changed the whole situation. The CCP maintains support from the private bourgeoisie, the new middle class, and also from the West, by allowing them great opportunities to exploit working people and the country’s resources. In the process, it has entrenched its Orwellian state to keep the working people in bondage.
Meanwhile, the more China has grown as a repressive capitalist state, the greater the centrifugal forces develop in the country’s periphery—Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. No one knows better about the nature of the CCP regime than common people under its rule. Another river of blood marked a new historic turning point, this time the 2019 Hong Kong revolt.
If there is anything positive about China’s rise, it should be assessed in totality against its two most important repressions—Tiananmen and Hong Kong. On top of these we also need to factor in Beijing’s aggression against Taiwan, an island where working people enjoy the rights to protest and to organize politically. The two repressions and Beijing’s aggression against Taiwan constitute the most important events in proving the fiercely anti-working people nature of the Orwellian regime.
Unfortunately, the great continuity of Beijing’s crimes against working people has been continuously overlooked by regime apologists because they have been preoccupied with watching out for Beijing’s foreign enemies, and because they do not care about the country’s real people nor those in its periphery. Those who are not Beijing apologists but who keep reminding readers of the supposed “progressiveness” of the regime, share even if in a lesser degree, in the same mistake of depoliticizing the China debate by assessing the nature of the regime purely on its economic performance. In this sense, their China position is merely the twenty-first century version of “economism”—the notion that as long as the CCP is raising economic growth and creating jobs then it is progressive or socialist, and what happens in its politics and how it infringes on the basic rights of the people does not matter. Any genuine supporters of democracy or socialism must break with this pseudo-leftist position in the China debate.
Notes & References
- This is an adaptation of the introduction to the Portuguese edition of Hong Kong in Revolt, scheduled to be published later this year. The author wishes to thank Gilbert Achcar for his helpful comments on this article.
- Danny Lee, “Cathay Pacific Snubs Union,” South China Morning Post, November 27, 2020.
- John Ross, China’s Great Road—Lessons for Marxist Theory and Socialist Practices (Glasgow: Praxis Press, 2021).
- Michael Roberts, “Xi Takes Full Control of China’s Future,” Michael Roberts Blog, October 25, 2017.
- Blair Vidakovich, “A Contribution to the Debate on the Class Character of China,” Socialist Alliance, https://socialist-alliance.org/alliance-voices/contribution-debate-class-character-china. Roberts’s position is quite compatible with the orthodox Trotskyist notion of a “deformed workers’ state.”
- “党的十九大举行第三场记者招待会 介绍党的统一战线和对外交往有关情况,” [“The Third Session of the Press Conference on the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of Chin,”], http://www.gov.cn/zhuanti/2017-10/21/content_5233545.htm. See also Amir Guluzade, “The Role of China’s State-owned Companies Explained,” World Economic Forum, May 7, 2019.
- Frederick Engels, Anti-Duhring, , https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/notes.htm.
- Ori Ben-Akiva, Mickael Nouvellon and Ziang Fang, “Commentary: The Value of China’s State-owned Enterprise,” Pensions and Investments, March 7, 2019.
- Tom Bottomore, ed., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 71. Bottomore gives the definition of capitalism as follows: (1) production for sale rather than own use by numerous producers; (2) the emergence of a labor market; (3) predominant if not universal mediation of exchange by the use of money, which also gives a systemic role to banks and financial intermediaries; (4) the capitalist or his managerial agent controls the production (labor) process; (5) control of financial decision: the universal use of money and credit facilitates, the use of other people’s resources to finance accumulation; (6) competition between capitals. Both the means of production and labor have been commercialised to the point that it is hard to deny that nowadays China exhibits all of the above six features.
- Thomas Piketty, Li Yang and Gabriel Zucman, “Capital Accumulation, Private Property, and Rising Inequality in China, 1978–2015,” American Economic Review 109, no. 7 (2019): 2,469–96.
- Ross, 77.
- “The Head of the Textbook Bureau of the Ministry of Education Answers Reporters’ Questions on the Compulsory Education Curriculum Program and Curriculum Standards,” March 4, 2021, http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/2022-04/21/content_5686539.htm.
- The coded word here is an abbreviation of pinyin characters. For instance, the pinyin for the word “government” is “zhengfu” and is further shortened to “zf.” As for the word “chains,” this is probably related to the Xuzhou chained woman incident that came to light in late January 2022. A woman was found to have been chained to a wall for years. This is probably a case of human trafficking: she might have been abducted and “married” to a man and given birth to eight children.
- Benjamin Carlson, “7 Things You Can’t Talk about in China,” The World, June 3, 2013. Note that in an unverified Chinese version claiming to be the original document, “civil rights,” “crony capitalism,” and “judicial independence” were replaced by “constitutional democracy,” “neoliberalism,” and “raising doubt about Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”
- China Labour Bulletin, “Protecting Workers’ Rights or Serving the Party: The Way Forward for China’s Trade Unions,” March 14, 2019.
- Zheng Chiyan, “Politicized Trade Union Suffers Endlessly,” Grand Gazette, February 12, 2020.
- In the early years of the Republic there were still progressive elements who might defend certain economic interests of workers, but most of them were eventually purged. Contemporary China continuously exhibits features of what one may call “barrack capitalism” in terms of working conditions, where workers are subject to very harsh discipline and punishment. In Mao’s China, although workers at SOEs enjoyed job security, this came at a price. Workers had to give up a great part of their human rights and they could not hold dissident views in relation to the Party’s line. In order to guarantee these conditions a whole set of disciplinary precautions were taken. For instance, the state developed an infamous filing system that recorded conversations of workers. This repression allowed for harsh labor discipline from the Great Leap Forward onward; workers produced more, while wages were frozen for twenty years until Mao’s death. So much for Mao’s “communism.”
- Ross did say that “politics comes before economics, that is the ABC of Marxism,” Ross, 186. I think this statement is too crude from a Marxist point of view. Regardless, what is funny is that he only applies his view to the US and never to China.
- This is what happened in Soviet Russia following the 1920s.
- Au Loong-Yu, China’s Rise: Strength and Fragility (London: Merlin Press, 2013), 6.
- North Korea is comparable, but it is much smaller and poorer.
- The goals set forth by Deng Xiaoping to modernize the four most important sectors of the country, namely industry, agriculture, defense, and science & technology.