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Home > 2021 > Chinese Communism: A Left Critique | Shubham Sharma

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 32, New Delhi, July 24, 2021

Chinese Communism: A Left Critique | Shubham Sharma

Friday 23 July 2021


by Shubham Sharma*


As a young Marxist dreaming about the triumph of labour over capital, it was a moment of near absolute nausea to stand witness to the uncritical applause received by the Communist Party of China (CPC) on its birth centenary. I was wondering whether those overjoyed reds were also secretly weeping on the recent weight loss of Kim Jong-un! Although birthdays are not the best of times for critical evaluation, but if it is the birthday of a communist party, matters are a bit different.

The CPC is no less than an enigma. It was forged in the crucible of anti-imperialism when a semi-colonised China was being gnawed at by different imperial powers on all sides, not to speak of the parasitic warlords within, much like the war-torn Afghanistan of bygone decades. The Chinese suffered greatly at the hands of imperialist powers. It became part of the ‘triangular trade’ wherein Britain, in order to balance its trade deficits with China, made the Chinese addicted to opium farmed in India. By 1836, a whopping 35,000 chests of opium were being imported into China, and some 15 per cent of China’s large population became opium addicts. John K. Fairbank has indicted the opium trade as ‘the most long continued and systematic international crime of the modern times’. Apart from bodily harm, the Chinese economy suffered massive deflationary pressures because most of it was being paid through silver. In India, the local peasants were coerced under state monopoly into growing opium for a very low price, and the silver tael proceeds of the East India Company’s opium exports were used to offset Britain’s deficits with China. And when the Chinese ruling class opposed the opium invasions by burning opium chests worth 2.4 million pounds sterling, the British waged the Opium Wars to break down the walls impeding free commerce. The Nanking Treaty that followed in 1842 and the Bogue Treaty in 1843, marked the century-long spoilation of China by imperial powers. The first of many unequal treaties imposed on China, they stipulated an indemnity of 4 million pounds, opened up five ‘treaty ports’ for trade, and lowered the custom and transit duties on British goods. Notwithstanding this, China was never fully colonized, the way India was.

The Ottoman empire, proverbially known as the ‘sick man of Europe’, was never colonised by Europeans and given a seat of respect after the Congress of Vienna for balance of power reasons. China too escaped this fate because of its sheer size and the clear understanding on part of imperialists that all benefits of economic drain could be obtained without formal control. Non-Marxist votaries of pan-Asianism who often offer a non-revolutionary road to emancipation via some continental or cultural syncretism forget that Japan too joined the imperial spoilation of China after it had trodden the capitalist path through the Meiji Restoration, 1868. After the US Secretary of State John Hay proclaimed the Open-Door policy in 1899-1900, Japan utilized this opportunity to insinuate itself in the system. After having defeated China in the 1894-95 war, Japan allied with Britain in 1902 which allowed it to seize control of Korea, Taiwan and parts of Northern China.

The economic drain was perpetrated through the establishment of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service (ICMS). The lion’s share of the revenue collected went to the British. Between 1861 and 1886, imperialist powers (primarily Britain) mooched off some 11 million pounds out of China. In this period of control, the local Chinese production of opium had undercut. India’s export allowing it to sell cotton piece goods to China. Almost 10 percent of British cotton exports were sold in China. The amount might seem small, but it was greater than what Europe and the United States of America combined were willing to buy from Britain. Tea production, which was the mainstay of Chinese trade, suffered when the British shifted base to North-East India (Assam and Darjeeling). From 70% in 1879, tea exports went down to 10% in 1900. It was from these reminiscent commercial networks that the Chinese nationalists and communists were to target imperialism in the early twentieth century.

The republican revolution of 1911 ousted the Qing monarchy through, what Rebecca Karl calls, ‘an almost accidental accrual of ideological strength backed by military support’. [1] The revolution failed to establish political unity as it was led to a shaky coalition of a scholar-bureaucrat fraction transforming itself into an intelligentsia with connections to urban, rural, commercial and military elites. Karl departs from the classical Marxist characterization of the revolution as ‘bourgeois democratic’. For her, the revolution marked, notwithstanding its anti-colonial rhetoric, a Han-ethnic revival opposed to the Manchu-ness of the Qings. [2] This was clear in the anti-Manchu notion of the revolutionaries. Sun Yatsen had led a Japan-based organization Tongmeng Hui (Revolutionary Alliance) that explicitly espoused anti-Manchu sentiments and theorized the modern world in ethnic terms. This should not lead us to the total abandonment of the role of the commercial elements in the revolution. In 1904-1905 when the Qing monarchy funded the construction of trunk lines, they soon became economically unviable. Left with no other option, the Qing proceeded to nationalize and then pledge them to foreign banks as collateral for loans. This led to discontent among a section of merchant and commercial elites thereby ensuring their support for the revolution.

The coming of the First World War, the assumption of power by Yuan Shikai and his (un)timely death led to further tumult in China. The presence of various imperialist powers had led to the uneven development of industry. By the end of the war in 1919, there were over 1.5 million industrial workers in China with 300,000 in Shanghai alone. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 shook the world in various ways. But among the Chinese radicals, it was initially perceived as a ‘victory of anarcho-communism’. By contrast in India, Shaukat Usmani, an early communist, records that the Bolshevik Revolution was first reported in his native city of Bikaner as Baal Sevak Kranti (Child Welfare Revolution)!

The Chinese had supported the Allies during the First World War and had placed high hopes on Wilsonian liberalism’s promise of self-determination for the colonies. When the former’s demand for a return of Shandong, a German-occupied territory, fell on deaf ears, radicals started exploring other political options.

The first Chinese translation of the Communist Manifesto had appeared in 1920; it was then that Mao Zedong, at the age of twenty-seven, read the Manifesto for the first time. Although the year before he still went on a pilgrimage to the grave of Confucius, but not as a believer. His estrangement with orthodox Chinese society had reached its zenith in 1919 when the suicide of a certain Miss Zhao reached him. She had slit her throat protesting her forced marriage. Mao had written on these social relations as ‘iron nets’ and called home life a ‘daily trial of direct rape for women’.

In 1920-21, the Soviet Union had started to penetrate Asian states via the emissaries of the Communist International (Comintern). As a result of these efforts, the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China was in July 1921. It was attended by 12 delegates representing a total membership of fifty-seven. Chen Duxiu was named as the Chairman and Mao was named as the head of the Hunan branch. On the eve of the Second Congress, in the following year, the same number of delegates spoke for a membership of 123. There were still no more than 900 party members in entire China at the beginning of 1925, shortly before the communists were to find themselves at the head of insurgent millions.

On May 30, 1925, a massive strike wave sparked by the repressive tactics of British imperialism, erupted first in Shanghai then across the industrial cities of the coastal regions. More than 200 students and workers died only in Shanghai itself. By the end of June, CPC grew by tens of thousands and the trade union by millions. And by the opening of 1926, the urban working-class revolt had been joined by a peasant rent strike against the landlords. Neil Davidson has written that ‘all at once it seemed possible that 1925 might be to 1911 in China what 1917 was to 1905 in Russia’. The developments unnerved the Kuomintang (KMT), the party of the nationalist bourgeoisie, which had sought to form a unified capitalist nation-state. The Comintern, by then under the iron grip of Stalin and his pygmies, saw these developments as antithetical to the construction of ‘socialism in one country’. Peddling the idea of a united front, the Comintern did not allow independent action by the communists and dogmatically stuck to the stagist idea of the revolution being limited to those of the ‘bourgeois-democratic stage’.

Chiang Kai-Shek, the militarist leader who had defeated the left within the KMT, marched on Shanghai in early 1927. The workers had already laid siege to the city after defeating the local warlord. The CPC was ordered to hide its weapons and not resist the onslaught. Chiang’s offensive caused the death of thousands of workers and the decimation of the CPC over time. The biggest loss of the offensive was that the CPC ceased to be the party of the working class and had to metamorphose into a peasant base guerrilla organization.

Leon Trotsky’s analysis was spot on when he declared that the Chinese bourgeoisie was far enmeshed with imperialism and would always fall short of accomplishing the task of a bourgeois-democratic revolution, very much like Russia. The Bolshevik revolution had shown that politics does not always go in tandem with economics. The uneven and combined character of capitalist development shifts the historical duty from the shoulder of one class to the other. Writing on Trotsky’s position, the great left-wing historian Arif Dirlik has argued that ‘for Trotsky, the anti-imperial struggle for national liberation in China was also a class struggle. If China were to achieve national liberation and the progress of its productive forces, the proletariat must lead the rest of the labouring masses in a struggle against imperialists and the Chinese economic and the political elite.’ [3]

Trotsky was proved right by the forces of history as it was the CPC that accomplished the national revolution in toto along with the socialist revolution in 1949. Unfortunately, this intertwining has cut both ways. On one hand, China inspired downtrodden agrarian masses worldwide but at the same time has used nationalism for authoritarian purposes. Even after seven decades, the near-dictatorial ruling elite is using the nationalist trope against ethnic minorities and nationalities, and as a social cement for its political reproduction. This is nothing but one of the many pathoses of history.

Isaac Deutscher has interestingly pointed out the similarities between Mao and Trotsky’s arguments in that period. He argues that while in Hunan, Mao wrote that ‘the genuine friends of the revolutionary proletariat were the poor peasants and the semi-proletarian elements in the villages; the genuine enemies—the landlords, the wealthy peasants, the bourgeoisie and the right-wing of the Kuomintang’. [4] The prose was spectacularly close to that of the left-opposition against the right in the Soviet Union led by Stalin and Bukharin. The latter, before Stalin started break-neck collectivization that caused nearly 10 million peasants to die or enslaved in vastly swollen labour camps, supported the big and middle peasantry under the slogan of ‘enrich yourselves’ and formed the pro-NEP majority against Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev.

Similarly, in early 1926, Mao had protested against the decision of voting Chiang Kai-shek to the Executive Committee of the KMT and to back his candidature to the post of commander-in-chief of the armed forces. About the same time in Moscow, Trotsky also protested against Chiang’s election as an honorary member of the executive committee of the Comintern and hence Stalin’s choice. Unfortunately, this fact is not even mentioned in the official Chinese history of the party.


The retreat of the CPC was further ensured by KMT’s continuous aggression. The communists were driven out of the Jiangxi province. This time attempts at the extermination of the communists were in partnership with the Nazis. Looking for a safe haven, the CPC undertook the legendary Long March in which only 7000 out of the 100,000 marchers survived.

The rise of Japanese aggression again led to the rapprochement between the KMT and CPC. Strangely though, the rapprochement was mediated by the kidnapping of Chiang Kai-shek by the Manchurian warlord who coerced him to take the Japanese threat seriously. The joint defence of China up till the second Japanese invasion was jointly organised but here too the communists outperformed Chiang’s forces. This was mainly because the latter abhorred mass mobilization. The attack on Pearl Harbour by Japan was a god-sent for Chiang and the KMT. This brought China directly into the orbit of the Second World War. The US played a stabilizing role in the country while remaining sympathetic to the KMT.

And on the eve of the departure of the US-sponsored Marshall Mission, Chiang sensed the opportunity in view of KMT’s recovery of the cities and towns whereas the communists lay far away in Yenan and as splinter guerrilla groups spread thinly across the countryside. The ensuing civil war was won by the communists riding on the support of the distressed peasantry and a restive urban population that was reeling under massive hyper-inflationary pressures.

The revolution was consummated in 1949 with the declaration of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) on 1st October. On 4th January 1950, India became the second South Asian state, three days after Pakistan did, to give recognition to the PRC. Interestingly, a bourgeois-liberal Nehru powerfully advocated PRC’s entry into the newly formed United Nations Organisation (UNO) as a permanent member of the Security Council. This was done not out of some ideological bonhomie, a fact that is proved by Nehru’s disdain of ‘successful’ communism when he dismissed the world’s first democratically elected communist government in Kerala in 1957, but out of balance of power calculations. Imperialist manoeuvres by the US, such as the planting of nuclear bombers in Okinawa, Japan in 1953, Gen. Douglas Macarthur’s aggressive posturing in Korea, and the fact that the PRC was too ‘great’ a power to be ignored, led Nehru to support PRC’s candidature. Nehru twice refused offers for permanent membership in the Security Council by both the US and the USSR. He understood the former’s proposal as an attempt to suck India into the global anti-communist coalition. And he rejected USSR’s offer because it would dent India’s relations with China. There was also the looming fear that the US might use India’s entry into the Security Council to thwart China’s entry. This would have led to immense tensions within the nascent UNO as the communist camp would not have let that slide.

Revolutionary China brought immense relief to its peasantry through radical land reforms and the liquidation of the parasitic landed elite. In the early stages, the CPC wanted to follow the Soviet route of grain acquisition from the peasantry to fuel industrialization. The scheme was re-evaluated in light of the bloody history of forceful grain acquisition that marred Stalin’s attempt of industrialization at break-neck speed, and the fact that a war-weary peasantry was least inclined to sell grains at lower prices harming their own subsistence. Mao acknowledged these problems in his secret speech ‘On the Ten Major Relationships’ and decided to develop heavy industry by developing more light industry and agriculture. The Great Leap Forward, 1958 provided a great push to rural industrialization through the creation of ‘Peoples Communes’. It organised all aspects of social welfare which included public mess halls, public work projects, and manufacturing programs. Private property in land was abolished and all land was declared to be socially owned. Within a year, grain output increased by 28 percent. However, there was no moment of jubilation because, from 1957-59, the number of urban workers had increased by a massive 25.8 million. And when there was no sufficient harvest in 1959 along with the lack of any systematic price signalling, China’s export spree of grains, and the state’s over-procurement, the result was mass starvation. Death counts still vary but scholars peg it to anywhere between 16 to 40 million. As a result, states’ grain acquisition was lowered and grain resales by the state became the norm in case of hunger.

Sigrid Schmalzer informs us that despite the draining of the rural economy, the labour mobilization strategy of the communes saw a massive expansion of irrigation, multi-cropping, water conservancy and other scientific rural developments. [5] She also shows in her fine book Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China that instead of bureaucratically controlled mechanization, local initiatives fared extremely well. They were coordinated by the social synergy between the party cadres, enterprising peasants and young scientists driven by a people-centric approach to innovation. But this too had comical paradoxes of its own. For instance, despite Mao’s disdain for chemical fertilizers and in 1973 (a year after Nixon’s visit to Beijing) just five years after the People’s Daily lambasted India for following the US model for its ‘green revolution’, China signed contracts with the US Kellog Corporation along with two companies in Holland and Japan to build large ammonia plants for the production of nitrogenous fertilizers. [6] But this did not tantamount to total dependence as natural fertilizers such as pig and human manure along with the mining of bat guano was widely used which made farming far more ecologically sustainable than in places where the so-called green revolution took place.

Notwithstanding all this, the peasantry suffered the brunt of Mao’s urban bias. As Isabella Weber argues in her latest book How China Escaped Shock Therapy,

the urban bias also becomes apparent in the allocation of state investment funds. Throughout the Mao period, more than 80 percent of the population lived in the countryside and more than 73 percent worked in agriculture. Only about 10 percent of the state investment fund was allocated to agriculture. Until the mid-sixties, the state-investment amounted to less than the taxes from the rural economy; that is, rural communities paid more to the state than they received in return in the form of investment funds. This extraction was amplified by the low price of agricultural products and the high price of industrial goods. [7]

But this disparity did not lead to the growth of a privileged urban strata. The overabundance of the workforce along with strict rationing of food and housing in the urban areas limited monetization and controlled wages. On the other hand, since 1955, the rural exodus was prevented through strict restrictions on rural-urban migrations. Prices were kept stable through a three-fold division of goods and the limited role of the forces of demand and supply were not allowed to function freely that would lead to price hikes in the essential commodities of consumption.


The system began to unravel in the mid-1970s. Ironically, the World Bank’s first report on China (1983) argued that ‘the previous 30 to 40 years of Chinese development had been remarkably successful’. Mao had begun to open China to the West and made a mockery of communist unity by cosying up to America in the early 1970s. This was a subliminal moment especially for the devil incarnate, Henry Kissinger. It was one of the rare times in one’s life when his scholarly output is proven right, in politics and even more so when he/she oversees its operation. The doctoral thesis written by Kissinger at Harvard University, had among many things, the notion of taming and sobering of revolutionary powers in the long run. His idea that the flickering flame of revolutionary idealism cannot withstand the storms of the ‘system’ seems to have proven right in China. Sensing the Sino-Soviet split, he brokered the détente between the US and China. The Soviets on their part also found Maoism to be despicable. This was apparent from the prominent journal Far Eastern Affairs’s editorial stance that depicted China as ‘militarist, whipping up anti-Sovietism, aggravating international tension and leaguing with imperialism’.

And China on its part did away with almost all the revolutionary pretences that it had. For instance, China ended its support for black radical groups and switched its allegiance in Angola from the Cuba and Soviet-backed and pro-Marxist MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola) to UNITA (Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola), a group supported by both the United States and apartheid South Africa. [8] Robeson Taj Frazier has argued in his book The East is Black that throughout the 1960s and 70’s revolutionary China maintained that it had ended all economic and trade ties with apartheid South Africa. But in reality, China had increased its trade with the pariah country over the period. [9] Such action garnered serious backlash among the African American radical intellectuals. The Marxist scholar Gerald Horne edited a booklet Facts on Angola (1976) that exposed China’s duplicity. In another article written for Daily World Horne wrote that ‘China was nothing but the Trojan horse of imperialism’. [10] The Chinese invasion of Vietnam and support for the crackpot Pol-Pot’s regime in Cambodia during the Cambodian-Vietnamese War further illuminated the fickleness of its revolutionary foreign policy.

The rise of Deng Xiaoping to power saw China’s turn to the market for a solution of its economic woes. Mao had removed Deng from all offices because he thought that Deng had gone too far in reversing the Cultural Revolution. After Mao’s death, Deng first removed Mao’s handpicked successor Hua Guofeng and replaced him with Zhao Ziyang as premier. Ziyang had used market reforms to restructure agriculture, disciplined contracts and reduced cost and increased profits when he was the governor of Sichuan province. It must be noted that even during Huo’s short tenure, China’s opening to the capitalist world was accelerated in the first post-Mao year, 1977. Chinese delegations were sent all around the world as exchanges with the capitalist West increased rapidly. This opening up marked the final and formal denouement of socialist internationalism and Third Worldism.

It was Hua Guofeng who first declared revolution as ‘liberation of productive forces’ and accorded first priority to national economic development. It was under Huo, hitherto revered as an orthodox Mao loyalist, that the first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) opened in China and major efforts were launched to attract foreign direct investment. In 1979, Deng followed him by opening China’s first export processing zones in the Pearl River Delta—a region of exception outside of the national tax regulation structure that would become a defining feature of neoliberalism by the 1990s.

Isabella Weber has argued that the crucial imports for the heavy industry were to be financed from petroleum exports. However, the oil field discoveries failed to materialize, and China faced a lack of foreign currency. [11] The Communique of the Third Plenary Session, 1986 stressed that ‘because of the failure of petroleum fields ‘the advancement of agriculture would rely on price adjustments made effective by reviving economic incentives.’ [12] Egalitarianism was to be replaced by the principle of ‘to each according to his work’ that required ‘working out payment in accordance with the amount and quality of work’. Decades later this almost seems like a dark joke when China hosts the most billionaires world-wide. According to the Hurun Global Rich List 2021, China has a billionaire population of 1,058 people whereas 696 resided in the United States. No socialist doctrine could possibly justify this brutal praxis. [13]

China’s turn to capitalism was an absolute god-sent for global capitalism, in the long run. In 1979-80, after almost a decade of failed attempts to revive growth rates by Keynesian models and the new dispensations in Britain and the US were determined to break up corporatist constraints on capital. This historical conjuncture paved the way for a peaceful accommodation of China into the capitalist world market.

The dismantling of the commune system led to a massive flooding of rural population into the cities. Their conditions were extremely precarious as they were completely bereft of any social welfare safeguards such as health, education etc. Till 2020, the estimates suggest that around 300 million flocked to the cities. China’s industrialization was carried on the back of these workers, and labour force engaged in non-agricultural activities grew from 28 million in 1976 to 176 million in 2003. Justin Rosenberg and Chris Boyle point out that China’s entry into the capitalist circuit provided a fillip to the regional capitalist economies of East Asia. [14] From the 1990s the industrialized economies in the region began to regroup around China’s role as the assembly hub within a new trans-national production complex—‘factory Asia’. Trade within Asia took a triangular form with intermediate goods and components produced in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan exported to China for processing before being re-exported to consumers in the West. [15] This restructuring would not have been possible without China’s low-cost, yet healthy and educated labour force. This was the key difference that marked China’s opening from close competitors, say India, which was being opened-up for investments during the same time.

Policymakers in India often battle it out among themselves as to whether which political dispensation was more open without reckoning the fact that post-colonial dirigiste India, apart from protecting petty producers, hardly did anything to ameliorate their despicable backwardness on all fronts, health, education etc. There were no radical land reforms anywhere in India, except for the states ruled by the communist parties. The Chinese rural workers, thanks to radical land reforms and other rural initiatives delivered through the communes, were much healthier and educated than their Indian counterparts. Even the World bank in its 1981 report attested to this. It said,

China’s most remarkable achievement during the past three decades has been to make the low-income groups far better off in terms of basic needs than their counterparts in most other poor supply is guaranteed; most children are not only at school but are also comparatively well taught; and the great majority have access to basic healthcare and family planning. Life expectancy—whose dependence on many other economic and social variables makes it probably the best single indicator of the extent of real poverty in a country—is outstandingly high for a country at China’s per capita income level.

The initial attempts by Western firms to colonize China’s internal market in areas such as automobile and manufactured goods did not do well. The only sectors where clear initial successes were recorded were in those sectors exporting goods with a higher labour content. For instance, in the Pearl River Delta the American brand Apple has enjoyed the fruits of such cheap labour. In 2010 Foxconn, one of Apple’s principal Asian suppliers employed around 500,000 workers in its factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu. It became a matter of infamy when reports of suicide attempts by workers started coming out. In a country where a communist party has been ruling a regime in the name of workers, Foxconn employed a strictly regimented ‘military-style’ labour regime. At the start of the day, managers would ask workers ‘how are you?’, and the staff must reply ‘good, very good, very, very good!’. After that, they were required to work in silence with strict limits on toilet breaks. After a spate of suicides and protests, Foxconn agreed to raise wage by 25 percent. This was not the end for capital, as Apple contracted another supplier, Pegatron near Shanghai, that ended up saving Apple’s $61 million a year because it supplied cheaper components based upon even lower wages and worse conditions than Foxconn.

John Smith in his book Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century has pointed out that a survey conducted in 2012 showed that low wages compelled workers to accept overtime hours. [16] The average unpaid overtime in most of the factories was between 100 and 130 hours per month, and between 150 and 180 hours per month during the peak production season. [17] And what could have been more appalling than the fact that the Chinese state had allowed to reverse the more than century-old gains of the worker’s march in Chicago of an eight-hour workday to eleven hours! (including weekends and holidays). All socialists and communists who see China as their model should hang their heads in shame on 1st May each year. Mention should also be made of the fact that this labour force is ‘legally disadvantaged’ since they are denied employment protections offered to the registered urban workers. This is called the Hukou system and it has created deep social divisions and tensions. Worst of all this has created a massive pool of informal workers (something ideally unimaginable in a socialist system ruled by a communist party). From 15,000 in 1978, it has shot up to 168 million, out of a total workforce of 283 million i.e., 59.4 percent of the total workforce.

Cheap labour has also allowed for lower-wage bills for companies like Apple. According to Smith’s calculation, the number of workers employed in iPod related activities was similar in the US and China, yet the total US wage bill was $719 million, and the total Chinese wage bill was $19 million. [18]

Intan Suwandi in her book Value Chains: The New Economic Imperialism has shown that the countries with the deepest participation in the global commodity chains, China, India and Indonesia, respectively, also have the lowest unit labour costs (which means that not only the wages are low, but productivity is also high). [19] She shows that between 1995-2014 the unit labour costs in China have arisen by just 9 percent whereas non-communist Indonesia fared a notch better with a rise of 12 percent. [20] The unit labour cost of China was at 46 percent of the US level whereas that of Indonesia was at 62 percent of those in the US. This allowed for surplus value capture by companies such as Apple since for each iPhone 4 imported to the US from China in 2010, retailing at $549, only about $10, or 1.8 percent of the final sales price went to labour costs for production of components and assembly in China. [21]

This criminal acquiescence by China has allowed global capitalist firms to accumulate extraordinary wealth. Along with this, Suwandi argees with Walter Daum’s argument that ‘China’s remarkable economic growth rests on the super-exploitation—the practice of paying workers wages under what is necessary to reproduce their labour power—of its own proletariat’. [22] This has allowed for the lowering of the wages of the workers of the global North since the socially necessary labour costs are now defined by unit labour costs in the South rather than the North whereas the realization of value is determined by sales in the North rather than the South. [23] And China has contributed immensely to this global income disparity. As growth accelerated the share of wages in national income fell for 22 consecutive years, falling from a low 57 percent of GDP in 1983 to just 37 percent by 2005.

This takes us to the question of whether China is capitalist and imperialist in nature. Without any doubt, China is a capitalist state of the most authoritarian sort. Its capitalism is different from the other bourgeois democracies by the fact that it is presided over by an amphibious communist party and a corrupt bureaucracy. Since the essential character of capitalist society is determined by the fact that the market in labour comes to structure the bulk of overwhelming bulk of economic activities. The basic social relation between the appropriating and the producing class is structured around the sale and purchase of labour power instead of the labour himself. This is the most crucial denominator of a capitalist society because otherwise, the market cannot be a regulator of economic reproduction until labour-power is commodified. As David McNally has argued ‘for without the transformation of labour-power into a commodity, the fundamental law of commodity production and exchange (the law of value)—which dictates that commodity exchange takes place according to socially necessary labour time established competitively on the market—will not regulate the economy’. [24]

China not only reaps the surplus value of commodified labour but helps in the grabbing of the surplus generated by its proletariat by the global capitalist corporations. It’s deep intertwining with international finance accelerates this process further. However, the Chinese government has been doubly conscious in not allowing portfolio diversification.

Many on the left erroneously fall for the fiction of the ‘state’ and the ‘party’ and claim that notwithstanding the fact that labour is commodified in China, it is nonetheless socialist because it is led by a communist party. The grave mistake that such an argument commits is that they leave out the most vital component from their understanding which for Marx was the most crucial component of his analysis—living labour and the surplus value that is pumped out of him/her. State and party, under a communist revolutionary program, are not an end in itself but a means towards achieving a classless society. And this cannot be done through squeezing the marrow out of the bones of the living labour.

The development of the forces of production is most necessary to ward off the problems of scarcity but it has to be done in the most democratically possible way i.e., by the workers themselves because, in the ultimate analysis, Marxist political praxis is nothing but the self-emancipation of the working class on their own.

Even the state and the party are deeply imbued with capitalism. Adrian Budd has argued that private capital contributed almost nothing in 1978 but today accounts for 60 percent of the GDP and 90 percent of the exports. The share of state-owned enterprises has fallen to 30 percent of the GDP. [25]

On the question of the imperialist nature of China, it must be noted that the Chinese are not replicating the territorial land grab and warmongering which the western capitalist states did during their heydays. All the claims of China debt trapping weaker countries in Africa and elsewhere are not on a solid footing. A Jubilee Debt Campaign research (2018) found out that over two-thirds of external debt owed by African states is to multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and private creditors. [26] And of the 16 African countries identified by the IMF and the World Bank to be in debt distress or at high risk of debt distress, the mean average amount owed to China was found to be 15%, with only three states found to owe more than a quarter of their external debt to China. [27] Furthermore, Chinese lending of funds has not been at usurious rates. For instance, of the $97.5 billion lent by China to sub-Saharan African countries from 2007 to 2017, 80 percent consisted of loans that were lent at low or fixed interest rates. [28]

However, the One-Belt-One Road related lending by the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China has collapsed from a $75 billion peak in 2016 to just $4 billion in 2019. Although this has to do with the recent resolutions on focusing on the domestic market, at least 18 processes of debt renegotiation with China have taken place in 20 countries and 12 countries, till September 2020, were still in serious talks with Beijing covering $28 billion in Chinese loans.

But if we follow the definition of imperialism offered by the Marxist economists Prabhat and Utsa Patnaik as ‘a relationship between capitalism and its setting, central to which is an imposition of regime upon the setting that entails income deflation as a means of preventing the threat of increasing supply price’, [29] China unarguably becomes part of the imperialist setting. The Patnaiks argue that during the colonial era, capital from the metropolis moved to the periphery only sectors like plantations, mining, services and those sectors associated with the export of primary commodities from the tropics. [30] It did not locate manufacturing plants in the peripheries to take advantage of lower wages and thereby undermine the real wages in the metropolis. But under the current regime of capitalist globalization, this old segmentation has come to an end. Capital has migrated to wage economies. And the above discussion has so far shown how favourable China has been to such movements of capital. The workers in the metropolis now have to compete with workers of the periphery, because of which their real wages do not increase over long periods of time. In Western Europe and the United States real wages have been stagnating for more than three decades now. After much pressure from below, Joe Biden has reluctantly signed $15 minimum wage executive order in April 2021.

So, in the light of the powerful argument offered by the Patnaiks, it can be very well said that if not ‘imperialistic’, China is more than happy to be part of the imperialist structure that marks the current conjuncture.


The global revolutionary left would be better off criticizing the authoritarian capitalist China and the Communist Party of China. Dancing and merrymaking in jubilation of its centenary is the last thing that the workers of Chinese coastal towns and the beleaguered workers of the western countries would like us to do. In criticizing China, we must follow Marx’s words: ‘a ruthless critique of all that exists’, in its true spirit. Only then the brighter socialist minds which are numbed, just the way the unfortunate peasants of China were numbed by the British through opium addiction a century ago, by the idea of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristic, could find a better road to emancipation.

Just some final words: the phrase ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is both anachronistic and senseless. Socialism has just one characteristic: Internationalism! It can neither be Chinese, nor Indian or American.

* (Author: Shubham Sharma is a research Scholar, Dept. of World History, University of Cambridge)

[1Karl, R. (2020). China’s Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretative History. London. Verso. p 30


[3Dirlik, A. (1989). Revolution and History: Origins of Marxist Historiography in China, 1917-1937. Berkley. University of California Press. p 65

[4Deutscher, I. (1964). Maoism: Its Origins and Outlook.

[5Schmalzer, S. (2016). Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

[6Ibid, 12

[7Weber, I. (2021). How China Escaped Shocked Therapy: The Market Reform Debate. London. Routledge. p 167

[8Frazier, T. R. (2015). The East is Black: Cold War China in the Black Radical Imagination. Durham. Duke University Press. p 206

[9ibid, 207


[11Weber, 187


[14Rosenberg, J. and Boyle, C. (2019) Understanding 2016: China, Brexit and Trump in the History of Uneven and Combined Development. Journal of Historical Sociology. p 14

[15Ibid, 14-18

[16Smith, J. (2016). Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation and Capitalism’s Final Crisis. New York. Monthly Review Press. p 23


[18ibid, 28

[19Suwandi, I (2019). Value Chains: The New Economic Imperialism. New York. Monthly Review Press.

[20ibid, 60

[21ibid, 67

[22ibid, 171


[24McNally, D. (1993). Against the Market: Political Economy, Market Socialism and the Marxist Critique. London. Verso. p 175

[25Budd, A. (2021). China and Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century. International Socialism.

[26Singh, A. (2020). The Myth of Debt-Trap Diplomacy and Realities of Chinese Development Finance. Third World Quarterly. p 4

[27Ibid, 05


[29Patnaik, P and Patnaik, U. (2021). Capitalism and Imperialism: Theory, History and the Present. New York. Monthly Review Press. p 81-82

[30Ibid, 98

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