China and the Left: A Report from the People’s Forum

On September 18th, I was able to attend a day-long conference on the subject of China and the Left at the People’s Forum in New York City hosted by Qiao Collective. The event comes at a political moment where tensions between the United States and China are arguably at their highest levels in history, and much of the discussion centered on this developing cold war and how the Left should engage the question of US-Chinese relations.

China is a contentious topic on the Left. But with the global situation escalating more and more towards direct confrontation between China and the US, it's important that socialists in the United States have at least an understanding of the varied viewpoints that exist, both within our country and outside the imperial core.

It was exactly these escalating tensions that set the tone for much of the conference and provided the background to the day's discussions. The conference’s keynote address described the purpose of the event as “an opportunity to bring together people to discuss, meet, strategize, and build momentum toward challenging the rise of imperialist aggression toward China.” In what many panelists referred to as “the New Cold War” or the “Hybrid War” against China, the past ten years has seen US foreign policy in the Asian-Pacific geared more and more on “countering” China, and that Asian-Pacific strategy itself become more and more the sole focus of US foreign policy.

Obama's Pivot into Cold War

In 2009 Obama declared himself the US’s first “Pacific President,” and began to signal a greater focus on the region, alluding to a clean break from the Middle East-focused policies of the Bush Administration. At this time China and the US did not have the sort of hostile relationship they do now. This is underscored by Obama’s declaration in 2009 that "the United States does not seek to contain China...On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations."

In practice however, Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy was overtly provocative. Despite promises of mutual cooperation, the policy focused almost all of its efforts on a greater military presence in the region, with increased military aid to Australia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. While Bush actually reduced US forces in South Korea by 40% during his term, Obama reversed this policy and increased their military presence. In 2009, the Pentagon developed the “Sea-Air Battle” doctrine, which was effectively a combat strategy for a Sino-American war.

The almost exclusive focus on military capacity signaled that the objective was a military encirclement against China. This was also an unambiguous escalation at a time when up to then China had only ever indicated a desire for bi-lateral cooperation. In a piece on the legacy of Obama’s Asian-Pacific policy, US Army Captain John Ford wrote that “If the first flaw in the pivot was the prominence of its military component, the second flaw was that there wasn’t a compelling reason to have a military component at all...This led China to view the entire enterprise, not just its military components, as part of a broader effort at containment.”

Building on Obama’s policy of containment, Trump followed suit by provoking a trade war hoping that reduced access to the US market would force them to the table on a more favorable trade agreement. Militarily, the Trump Administration would go on to increase funding for operations aimed at reducing China’s sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific, as well as sign legislation to try and build stronger ties between the United States and Taiwan as well as Hong Kong.

So far Biden has only broadened the Trump era policy by continuing to ratchet up military operations in the Asia-Pacific. Just last week, the Biden Administration announced the formation of AUKUS, a security pact between the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia which the BBC called “the most significant security arrangement between the three nations since World War Two.”

The pact will allow Australia to produce nuclear submarines with US help as well as secure US support in developing other defense capabilities and is an overt escalation of already rising tensions between China and the West. Even more chilling, AUKUS is exploiting what the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace referred to as a “glaring and worrying loophole” in the enforcement mechanism of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which could lead to an undermining of global restrictions on nuclear proliferation that have been in place for the past 50 years.

The outbreak of the global pandemic has only exacerbated tension with China, while doubly inflaming longstanding racialized prejudices against people of Asian descent in the United States. When COVID-19 was first entering the public consciousness, before it was understood that it would become a global pandemic, figures within the mainstream media could barely contain their excitement as to how this deadly virus might serve US foreign interests. In a piece by Walter Russell Mead for the Wall Street Journal in February 2020 titled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” it opened with the lines, “The mighty Chinese juggernaut has been humbled this week, apparently by a species-hopping bat virus. While Chinese authorities struggle to control the epidemic and restart their economy, a world that has grown accustomed to contemplating China’s inexorable rise was reminded that nothing, not even Beijing’s power, can be taken for granted.”

As the pandemic spread, the mood turned toward blaming China for the outbreak. The Trump administration of course took every opportunity to associate China with the disease, eager for someone to blame for the US’ tragically poor response to the virus which has now taken over 687,000 lives. Even today, the so-called “lab leak” theory continues to be passed around and even Biden launched an investigation into the claim in May.

This rhetoric had its intended effect, and has correlated to a precipitous rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans in the United States. In March we saw a horrific mass shooting in Atlanta that appeared to be targeting Asian immigrants and claimed eight lives. In August the FBI announced that hate crimes against people of Asian descent had risen an astonishing 70% since 2019.

It was exactly this context that led to the formation of the principal organization behind the conference, Qiao Collective. Michelle, who identified as one of Qiao’s founding members, described Qiao as a “small group who are focused on challenging US aggression on China, and promoting anti-imperialist internationalism” with members living both in China and the Chinese diaspora that formed in 2020, right as the outbreak of COVID-19 in China was becoming headline news.

Chinese Agency and the Socialist State

Developments within China were as much a focus of discussion as global events. China’s meteoric economic growth was a prominent topic of analysis and was the subject of multiple panels at the People's Forum.

Following the 1949 revolution, China borrowed heavily from the Soviet economic model more or less wholesale, which emphasized investment in heavy industry and direct state ownership of all significant layers of the economy. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, however, China underwent serious economic and political reform which led to implementing a more mixed economy, where markets were gradually introduced which would be open to more foreign trade and investment. Firms would not be exclusively state owned, but employ a variety of ownership models, from private, to the State-Owned Enterprises (or SOEs), to mixed ownership models where a portion of shares in a private firm are owned either by the state directly or indirectly through SOEs.

These changes, and China’s subsequent astonishing economic performance, sparked dramatic shifts in US foreign policy toward China. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a political consensus developed in Washington that this apparent trend toward liberalization within China, signaled for instance by China entering talks to join the World Trade Organization, demonstrated a sort of color revolution from above that would lead China to ultimately become a liberal democracy. In 1998 Henry S, Rowen, former chair for the National Intelligence Council under President Reagan, echoed this growing sentiment. “The historical pattern is clear: As countries get richer, they become more democratic.” Rowen predicted that by 2015, China would reach a per capita GDP of 7000 USD, and that this rise in living standards would effectively force China to become a liberal democracy. “Either China will remain relatively poor and authoritarian, or it will become rich and pluralistic—and it seems to have chosen the latter path.” The United States would establish permanent normal trade relations with China in 2000.

China would go on to shatter Rowen’s predictions with respect to economic forecasts, though falling woefully short of the dream of becoming a Western-style liberal democracy. China surpassed $7000 per capita GDP by 2013, two years earlier than Rowen predicted. It overtook Germany to become the global leader in exports in 2009. It overtook Japan as the second largest economy in 2010. For a time it appeared as though the influence of state-owned firms was waning, but this trend reversed itself and by 2018 state investment was outpacing private investment three to one.

The conference didn’t only discuss the impact of China’s economic rise on the world stage, but also the nation’s impact on the lives of those living within China. Tings Chak, a researcher and art coordinator for the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, spoke on their recent study on China’s anti-poverty programs. In 1981, over 88% of China was living in extreme poverty, i.e. living on less than 1.90 USD per day. This year it was announced that China had eradicated extreme poverty in the nation of 1.4 billion people.

While there has been a generalized reduction in global poverty in recent decades, the announcement comes at a unique historical moment. In 2020, the United Nations announced a reversal of this trend globally for the first time since 1998, with 71 million people, mostly in the Global South, slipping backwards into extreme poverty. The UN estimates an additional 271 million more will enter extreme poverty as the impact of the global pandemic becomes more clear.

Chak’s talk underscored a facet of the subject of China that is often only discussed in abstract terms, but at the same time all-pervasive: the agency of the Chinese people themselves in shaping the future of China and what relationship the Communist Party of China has to that process.

The study on poverty reduction in China goes into some detail on how the grassroots of the CPC itself were deeply embedded in the process. Some 800,000 party members were organized into teams knocking the doors of 89 million people living in 29.48 million households and 128,000 villages living in poverty. Chak’s talk centered the experience of He Ying, deputy secretary of her party branch in the Wangjia community, one of many relocation communities where people who have lived only in impoverished rural villages all their life receive support in order to adapt to modern urban environments where the standard of living is much higher.

This aspect of Chinese life, where the CPC plays the role of civic organization, is something that is under discussion in discourse around China. It is all the more conspicuous given the role mass mobilization played in the response to COVID-19 in China.

In fact, the mobilization infrastructure and culture of mass volunteerism and civic engagement which in many areas was built out as part of the anti-poverty campaign was largely re-mobilized to combat COVID. In Wuhan, the city which ended up being the epicenter of the virus, tens of thousands of people volunteered to help with all sorts of emergency services to help combat the crisis. On February 3rd, the Communist Youth League of Wuhan issued a call for volunteers and received 7,000 applications within 12 hours. A subsequent call by the municipal government on February 23rd received 10,000 applications in 10 hours. These volunteer services included delivering essential items door-to-door to quarantined families, working in grocery stores to meet the increased demand, operating COVID hotlines set up by the city, and driving doctors and nurses to and from hospitals at all hours of the day and night.

Even the Brookings Institute, a rabidly anti-communist neoliberal think tank in Washington, DC was forced to admit through gritted teeth the magnitude of civic participation in combating the virus in China. “Unlike many Americans who took to the streets in protest against what they perceived to be a political ruse, Chinese civil society responded as a corporate body. From state-run organizations to online groups to big business, nearly all elements of civil society moved swiftly into action. They donated money, organized food delivery, built health apps, and distributed masks and other equipment. Working in concert with government agencies, these various groups mobilized like various crew teams on a gigantic ship in peril.”

China and the US Left

The subject of human agency was all the more pervasive given simultaneous events happening outside the confines of the People’s Forum where the conference was held. The conference coincided with news that the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions had voted to disband, citing threats to their safety by state authorities.

This confluence of discourse taking place at the conference on the one hand, and discussion about the conference happening online on the other occurred throughout the day. Brian Hioe, a blogger and contributor for The Washington Post and The Diplomat living in Taiwan spent the entire day critically live tweeting the event. Another account, presumably someone who identifies as on the Left, published similar tweets critical of the event, in one tweet referring to Qiao Collective as “disgusting fascists” for their positions on China, which received hundreds of likes and retweets throughout the day.

In discussions surrounding China, both in the mainstream media and the Left, the issue of human rights is often framed as both the alpha and omega of any serious analysis. Many speakers addressed this tension by emphasizing how this framing serves to ultimately provide left cover for the US imperialist policies. As Mark Tseng-Putterman put it in the panel titled The Western Left and Discursive Framings of China:

"I find it interesting that those responses sidestep the question of do you want a new Cold War or do you not? In what ways does your solidarity with the abstract Chinese people lead you to endorse, whether implicitly or explicitly, US containment policy, sanctions on Chinese firms, migration bans on members of the CPC? I have yet to see a compelling theory of change from people who profess to be in solidarity with the Chinese people that does not ultimately provide discursive cover for the consolidation of US imperialist aggression on China."

Going through and presenting counterpoints to common left critiques of China was not something speakers entertained in any sustained way. In fact, a core message of the conference was that putting the focus on the United States and its actions was not only appropriate but a thing sorely lacking in left discourse regarding China.

Still, opinions varied widely on the exact nature of the Chinese state. Some presented the view that China, while not an imperialist power, could be described as a peripheral or semi-peripheral power operating within an effectively neoliberal model, though a highly mixed one. Others clearly argued that China was in fact socialist, and moving towards the objectives of socialist construction. In referring to China as socialist, speakers were careful to make clear that this doesn’t mean China is some sort of socialist utopia, but rather that the issue is more nuanced, often pleading for more of this sort of nuanced analysis to take place on the Left.

Pawel Wargan, a leader in the Progressive International living in Berlin, spoke on the cognitive dissonance between how the US Left relates to nuance within their own movement versus movements outside the imperial core:

"We’ve gotten to a point where we’re allowed to celebrate the concessions that produced the US’s deeply flawed COVID relief bill and its $1400 checks, even though that same bit of legislation included hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for regime change operations in scores of countries around the world. But you’re not allowed to celebrate China lifting over 800 million people out of poverty through a set of policies that is far more complex, far more nuanced, and far more successful than any that the US proposes to put forward. China is not allowed nuance, and socialism is not allowed nuance.”

This dynamic was a common theme of the conference. The US Left’s attitude toward China has been, at least in recent decades, highly critical. Reports of mass internment of the Uygher people, overreaches in state censorship, and allegations of overt repression in Hong Kong are just a few of the reasons many US leftists find themselves apathetic, if not hostile, to Chinese socialism.

However, Michelle from Qiao Collective hit hard on this point, and emphasized that this often contentious framing not only fails to challenge US foreign policy, but also serves to paper over the US Left’s  own "pathetic weakness" in having no impact on foreign policy whatsoever. “We reject the moral cowardice and historical ignorance of the self-avowed western Left that has coalesced behind the neither Beijing or Washington line,” she said. “This position obscures more than it clarifies and is a de facto consenting to the anti-China propaganda, sanctions, and militarization we see happening before us every day.”

Recent events make this question of whether the Left has any real influence on US foreign policy all the more pervasive. On September 24 the House voted on approving $1 billion in funding for the Israeli Iron Dome defense system. Only two of the four DSA members in Congress voted no, with Jamaal Bowman voting yes and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez voting present. Although DSA published a statement condemning the bill, the incident underscores how little influence the socialist Left has on foreign policy even with its own elected officials, much less on that broader agenda. The bill ultimately passed the house 420-9.

The conference itself was well attended, with Qiao Collective reporting around 300 attendees. From talking to and meeting with others at the conference, there appeared to be a diversity both of opinion and demographics. Many      who attended the event appeared motivated by an opposition to war at any cost and are alarmed by the rising aggression toward China. Never in history have two nuclear powers entered into direct conflict with one another and the idea of such a conflict isn’t something anyone should take lightly.

I spoke with a fellow DSA member, Megan Romer, who also attended the event. Megan is part of Southwest Louisiana DSA, living in New York City short term. I asked her why she attended and what she took away from the event. “I went with a lot of questions and left with even more, and while Qiao Collective has been accused (perhaps rightfully, I don't know) of being too cozy with the CPC, I found it really valuable to spend some time listening to voices that are coming from a very different direction than the broadly-hostile and Sinophobic Western media. It gave me an opportunity to push back against some of my own biases and examine them, and if nothing else, gave me some questions to ask myself.”

Overall, the event sparked a valuable conversation about the Western Left’s attitudes on China. I hope it's a conversation that can continue into the future.

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