- The Guardian
- Issue #1966
Editorial Note: The following is an edited version of a longer view by Challenge – the magazine for the Young Communist League (Britain). For the full interview please visit https://challenge-magazine.org
In the 1990s and 2000s conventional Western wisdom was that China had long abandoned socialism. But by 2018, when president Xi Jinping lauded Marx as the greatest thinker of modern times at the closing speech of a two-week celebration of his 200th anniversary and reaffirmed China’s commitment to his vision of communism, many on the left – and the right – were willing to take him seriously. [Alexander Norton] sat down to long-term expat Keith Lamb, a socialist from Scotland and commentator for the CGTN news agency, for an informal interview on life in China, its political system, its contradictions and its vision for the world.
Many would ask: isn’t there a danger in promoting Marx and Lenin with such a huge industrialised proletariat?
Of course. So the party has to always deliver. There is no release valve of an election.
They support the government because their lives have improved rapidly: if your government put out a plan that said “by 2030 your living conditions will be similar to Portugal” and they had already delivered on their previous promises then it would seem crazy to rock the boat.
When things are “unacceptable” though, what happens? How do people go about changing things? Can they? Are there examples?
There are demonstrations, they can petition the local party, there are mechanisms for complaining – labour bureaus. I made a complaint about my welfare payments not being paid by my university once. I didn’t even realise the form I filled in was going to go to court. I had already left the country on the day of the trial so I didn’t even attend – and the court ruled in my favour.
I’ve seen housing protests in the street. In one block of flats who had a dispute with the housing developer they all hung out slogans. I saw a very emotional demonstration outside a hospital by a man who said a doctor’s incompetence had killed his wife and baby in childbirth […] it was very upsetting. The police came along, I thought to shut him down. They were forceful but allowed him to continue to protest, just not in the middle of the street where he was blocking traffic.
Of course our Western systems provide more room to make noise. Conversely less progress seems to be made. It’s a real catch 22; coming back to the UK in 2020 I see no visible change from 2004 except more homeless people and shuttered-up shops. On the other hand China is constantly transforming itself. For me that’s the most exciting thing.
If I thought China’s development would stop and, for example, the health system would not change, housing would not improve etc. then I think that the people would have every right to be negative about the future. However, the fact that change has been so rapid and decisive in China – the word “unprecedented” sums it up – means one can’t look at how China is today and judge it on how it will be tomorrow.
This is the problem I feel coming back to the West. It’s fine to criticise China but there just isn’t any other example of a country that has lifted millions of people out of poverty in such a short time. I get very frustrated about the West coming to the Chinese people as some sort of saviour […] When China was weak they hardly came as the saviour then. And this history is what informs many Chinese citizens if you talk to them.
What about the description of China as “national dictatorship” – one run in the interest of the nation, via the CPC [Chinese Communist Party], but simply with the aim of improving the nation, rather than achieving a socialist or even classless society?
Can they not both happen? Reading their description of the path to communism, they believe it can’t take place soon. One condition they place on communism is having a means of production that vastly outperforms what they have now – a huge jump in technology – and various social and economic contradictions need to be resolved which we’ve spoken about.
There’s a stress in Chinese socialism that they are not utopian socialists but that they’re following the principles of scientific socialism as something to be built. They do say their aim is a classless society – but this is also linked with Chinese thought too: a just society is “harmonious” – so doesn’t have the class divides we have now. In terms of just augmenting national strength I can’t predict the future but I think there are key differences to China’s rise that separate it from the West.
Firstly is the CPC’s historical outlook. They draw a lot on history for their lessons. Looking at colonialism and neo-colonialism they see these forces as not only having a negative impact on them but also being outdated. Much is made of challenging hegemonism – having one state that rules over others, e.g. the British Empire or the US now. They see that as being self-destructive in the end – an immoral world system that cannot last.
A lot is made of the Belt and Road Initiative being the way for China to exploit others, for example – so let’s unpack what this is. Essentially this is a lot of infrastructure development across central Asia and Africa, investment into these undeveloped regions.
Now how did China rise – how has it augmented its state power? Through building its infrastructure. So it plans to do the same across central Asia and Africa. This is a very different philosophy to the Washington Consensus of privatisation and Nato bombing. China builds bridges – America bombs them.
The development through the capitalist mode of production has barely started for Africa, or South America and much of Central Asia; until their infrastructure is built up, they too will find it hard to resist outside forces.
Of course there will be challenges along the way. The railway being built to Malaysia was put off by the government who said the loan’s terms were too high. The press leapt on this to show how China was being a predatory lender – but what happened? The deal was renegotiated.
Now I’m not saying China will never be a bad actor or there won’t be shady things happening, but who else is providing such a vision for the world? The West has been predominant for hundreds of years. Africa is still in a mess.
Surely the measure is the USSR, with regards to helping the anti-colonial struggle and then postcolonial states? Where is China’s Cuba? Indeed – where is their support for rebels and socialists worldwide, either guerrilla movements or socialist states?
I know China gives a lot of support to Venezuela and has good relations with Cuba and North Korea. As to guerrilla struggles, well this is on the back burner – China has chosen a different path, one that seeks to work with global capital. Of course it’s a dangerous one. Just as China can use capital for its own ends there always remains the danger that China can be co-opted by capital. This is the essence of Xi’s anti-corruption drive. The other argument of course is he’s just purging his rivals. China has a policy of non-interference – whether it always follows this is another matter.
What confuses me is that whilst obviously China has the right to oppose its enemies, to intervene etc. – it seems completely against say, giving a socialist party in a small country the financial support to win (by the bullet or the ballot).
I think for China they see development as their priority. Imagine if they were actively funding the Communist Party in the Philippines in their civil war […] more American troops would arrive to encircle it. I think China is really caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. But one thing China has is patience. I don’t think China wants to engage in foreign wars. Peaceful rise is essential. I think the ideal of peace and harmony is very ingrained in the Chinese psyche.
The Chinese have gone through so much turbulence they really don’t want war. Also they already feel threatened by the US which has bases surrounding China. The US holds naval drills to block of the Straits of Malacca – it’s obvious who they’re intended for.
In my analysis – I think there is a necessary contradiction within Chinese socialism. It goes like this: having seen the tremendous political and military force the colonial powers can bring into play China’s only option is peaceful rise, especially in this world of nuclear weapons. Now the necessary contradiction for the CPC to work with world capital is that the CPC must always be seen to be working for both capital and socialism. It can never be clear. It must always seem to the socialists in the country that it is using capitalism for socialist destinations. Likewise, for global capital the CPC must always appear that it is using socialism (it’s philosophy) as a cloak for integrating itself within the capitalist world system. The destination and the means must always appear contested. Both can be right.
Another important distinction between how the Chinese see their development to a socialist system is that it’s not just based on principles, but just as the capitalist means of production was vastly better than the feudal one the socialist means of production should be much better than the capitalist one – again, highly dependent on technology. This means of production should then be good enough to defend the state against foreign states such as the US. Of course if the Chinese created socialism with a means of production far better than present day advanced capitalist economies it would be foolish for them not to adopt such systems.
China’s location is a vastly underestimated factor. Often Westerners believe the rise of China will lead to just another USA, but the conditions are so different: the US is protected to the east and West by oceans and shares two borders with compliant or poor states birthed from European culture. Then look at China, in the middle of Russia, Korea, Pakistan, and India – they all have nukes and Japan and South Korea could go nuclear too, central Asia is unstable, and they are already surrounded by US troops. There is very little option for China but to rise peacefully.
Also China is the longest continuous civilisation on Earth, and its culture reflects that; the US is by comparison a recent and violent intervention into the territory it occupies and I think perhaps that is what drives its continued violent, warlike character.
In the West we have this optimistic concept of “fully automated luxury communism” — in short, where a machine takes our job, we still get products or pay, rather than unemployment: a leisure society. To my mind only the Chinese state has the level of technology and political power to achieve this.
China has been at the forefront of these technologies and there have been layoffs due to mechanisation – so the acquisition of technology is heavily tied in with achieving a future communism. This weighed heavily on Deng’s mind when he opened up China. And like I said their concept of communism is utterly tied to technological development.
Personally I see China’s priority with automation should be one where, as they become unneeded, manual workers are retrained to higher and higher skill sets – creating more scientists, doctors and so on. If there is too much unemployment for too long they will have to do something, because they can’t use the Western narrative that it’s a natural phenomenon because they proclaim a socialist society – and unemployment also threatens stability. If China is currently a country with a socialist government but a highly capitalist economy, it fundamentally cannot allow for unemployment, so yes, its response to automation is likely to be far more progressive than in the West.
How broadly accepted is the state’s plan of achieving a socialist society by 2050? What that will mean for the nation’s billionaires?
I would say the plan is by and large supported by the vast majority of the population because the CPC is widely supported by the population as PEW [think tank] surveys and my own experiences support.
In terms of the nation’s billionaires, and class contradictions in general, they will likely still persist. We have to take into account that socialism in 2050 if achieved will only be considered the start of a socialist epoch. Chinese Marxists discussing the transition to communism, which Xi Jinping himself states will signal the end of class, usually talk of a socialist transition lasting anywhere between 100-500 years.
The power of capital and its contribution to building socialism is usually underestimated by Western socialists. In contrast the CPC places a lot of importance on working with its bourgeoisie. The four small stars on the Chinese national flag represent the bourgeoisie, petit bourgeoisie, workers and peasants united by the CPC, represented by the large star who together work for achieving socialism.
We’ve all seen socialist states lagging due to being upended through a capital strike. The trick is how to prevent the bourgeoisie from seeking a counter-revolution or disseminating their own class interests. One way is to prevent them occupying the heights of political power and disseminating their class interests through dominating the media as is permitted in liberal societies.
Then capital has to be co-opted which it generally is at the upper heights of the economy. For example, all monopoly industries are state-owned. The bourgeoisie are also allowed to keep much of their profits though capital flight is highly discouraged. The Chinese petit bourgeoisie is provided with a very open market, probably much more so than in the West.
While the US represents the interests of monopolies and private banking interests, China seeks to fully implement the dynamism of the market. For example, in the West, and much of the rest of the world, there is one Youtube while in China there are numerous competitors. Large banks are rightly state-owned in China while private banks in the West get paid out with taxpayers’ money.
Ironically then the US, for all its talk about capitalism and the free market, seems more inclined towards a type of monopoly or neo-feudal capitalism where the rich are bailed out and the dynamism of capital is curtailed. In contrast, the CPC drive their market to be more competitive which I see leading to greater technological innovation and laying the foundations for a future socialist epoch.
Ultimately, though what I see happening under a socialist epoch, indeed must happen, is that it as a social-economic epoch must become vastly more productive than the current epoch. The transition to greater democratisation of the means of production then, can’t come about only through moral command – rather it has to come about because it makes economic and social sense. That is to say the socialist epoch will lead to more rapid economic and technological progress precisely because there is a greater democratisation of the means of production.
A small example of socialist type conditions coming about in league with capital is the rise of the shared bikes phenomenon in China. It led to many who just used a bike for city travel ditching their bikes because private ownership became a burden. This sharing came about through technological innovation and I hope schemes like this continue in the future with technology like driverless cars which can in turn be used to make ownership inconvenient because servicing property takes time away from things that bring real value to the economy. This of course is one’s time used to be creative and innovate. The CPC are pushing full-steam ahead with automation, AI, 5G and even 6G which will allow workers to leave the factories and switch their labour to creative uses which in turn drives on the technological progress needed to furnish a socialist means of production.
Eventually though, with technological progress, a level of freedom has to come about where even possessing and commanding capital becomes a burden because firstly it takes time away from the human creative process as well as the time needed to develop the self and secondly – it won’t improve the quality of one’s life.
Of course, China’s march towards socialism will be contested and nothing can be taken for granted. China is challenged by Western elites who would like them to implement liberal democracy for the purpose of solidifying the power of national and transnational monopoly capital. The CPC will always have to be vigilant for corruption within the party and foreign aggression – including that of propaganda campaigns. I think those who believe in socialism in the West have a duty to understand China beyond the Western-mediated image presented to us. Only by understanding China from their own perspective, based on their own conditions and aware of our own failings can we ever offer advice and criticism to China that won’t sound patronising at best and ignorant at worst.