Capitalism, Confucius and China’s Great Leap Backward

On October 1, 1949, 200,000 people gathered in Tiananmen Square as Mao Zedong proclaimed victory in the People’s War of Liberation. The nationalistic Kuomintang government had been banished to Taiwan, the ‘Century of Humiliation’ was at its end, and the People’s Republic of China had announced its arrival onto the stage of world history. China, Mao argued, would no longer lie prostrate in front of Western powers, but had begun a journey toward emancipation and self-sufficiency.

Now, nearly 71 years later, it appears at first glance as though the Chinese people have indeed ‘stood up’ (although it is disputed whether Mao actually used this phrase). Between 1978 and 2013, the Chinese economy grew by an average of 10% per annum. In 1949, the life expectancy of the average Chinese citizen was 35 years, compared with 76 years today. China’s share of world income rose from 2.2% in 1980 to 14.4% by 2011.

Yet statistics often paint a misleading picture; the China of today is a far cry from the agrarian, peasant-led nation that Mao envisioned, as the predominance of foreign capital and ethnonationalist repression of minorities within China reveals a dark underside to the thin veneer of prosperity and harmony depicted at the 2008 Olympic Games, for instance. Xi Jinping can simultaneously venerate Lenin and advocate for supply-side economics, as the CCP’s ideology, ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ promulgates that the growth of private enterprise within China does not contradict or inhibit socialism. Indeed, Article 13 of China’s Constitution explicitly safeguards the right to private property. China’s SOEs (State Owned Enterprises) largely function according to capitalist imperatives.

The ‘Century of Humiliation’, which lasted from the mid-19th Century until the mid-20th Century, was marked by the systematic pauperisation and impoverishment of the Chinese people by foreign capital. In the Opium Wars, the British, who were running out of silver to exchange for Chinese porcelain, turned to smuggling opium into China despite the prohibitions laid down by Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu in 1839. The ratification of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 forced China to cede control over tariff autonomy and the court system while opening up treaty ports to foreign control. European finance capital continued to subjugate China throughout the 19th and early 20th Century, as HSBC was set up to assist Britain in leaching profits from accounts in China, Malaysia, and Singapore. This legacy has arguably since been inverted, as China now engages in the subordination of other nations.

Maoist thought once held that the ‘Third World’ (nations with antagonistic relations towards the Imperialist First World and the developing Second World) was the primary engine of the revolution, standing to gain nothing from the current system. The role that China has since assumed, as a creditor for infrastructural projects in Global South nations, may seem a method of modernising them, but actually functions as a means of driving these countries further into debts that inordinate sums of money must be spent to forgive. In 2017, for instance, Sri Lanka spent 95% of government expenditure avoiding defaulting on debts induced by Chinese loans. The failure to repay loans is typically followed by the privatisation of national assets including education and healthcare, following the coercive ‘structural adjustment’ model imposed on Global South nations by the World Bank and IMF. Moreover, there are clear ethnonationalist overtones to these programmes, as more than 95% of China’s ventures in Africa involve a requirement of 70% of Chinese contracted personnel.

Lenin, writing in Imperialism: Highest Stage of Capitalism, argued that “imperialism is capitalism at the stage of development at which the export of Capital has acquired pronounced importance….at which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest Capitalist powers has been completed”. The expansion of China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ and ‘Digital Silk Road’ indicate that the modern methods of harvesting data and imposing state-led surveillance have become the modus operandi of Chinese predation. China’s record of eroding the civil liberties of citizens in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan is well documented, as instruments ranging from traffic cameras to cameras inside schools have been used to subject potential political dissidents to incessant government monitoring. This display of political and technological might demonstrates just how far removed modern China is from the ideals of Maoism.

The nationalistic and chauvinist character of the Chinese State is not just observable from economic and foreign policy, but from the way in which Xi Jinping’s conception of the identity of China as a nation diverges from Mao’s. China has frequently eschewed solidarity with the DPRK, following UN sanctions against them. This includes voting in favour of sanctioning the DPRK, banning all coal imports from 2017, and prohibiting imports of petroleum products and textiles. China remains the DPRK’s only viable trading partner, yet the CCP chooses to ingratiate China further with Western powers at the expense of a potential ally. This indicates that China interprets its role in the world differently; the CCP now views China as a prosperous and independent power in its own right, rather than a nation constrained by the dictates of Marxist theory and a necessity to show solidarity with other ‘Communist’ countries. Mao, in late 1950, sent 200,000 ‘people’s volunteers’ into Korea to help Kim Il-Sung resist US intervention. Prior to the foundation of the PRC, North Korea had assisted Chinese communists in overthrowing the Kuomintang nationalists and had allowed the People’s Liberation Army to use the Korean peninsula as a land base during the Chinese Civil War. The mutual support that existed between China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union during this time has not been replicated since, as China continues to take the side of Western Imperialists, even selling drones to Saudi Arabia to continue their genocide in Yemen.

Xi Jinping’s decision to neglect socialist solidarity and proletarian internationalism not only represents a break from Mao’s policies but a regression to a pre-PRC understanding of the nature of the Chinese State. The new embrace of Confucianism, which was previously condemned by Mao as anti-Marxist and anti-materialist, indicates that Xi is attempting to reinstate an understanding of the national and historical roots of the Chinese people. In 2014, Xi referred to Confucianism as “the cultural soil that nourishes the Chinese people”. Obedience to authority and correct behaviour are widely considered central tenets of Confucianism, as are rituals of the Zhou dynasty and the inherent legitimacy of the family as an institution.

The continuation of accepted values and norms contradicts dialectical materialism, which as a product of the Enlightenment, holds that human history is a linear progression, driven by class struggle and control over the forces of production. Culture, religion, and family are considered ‘superstructures’ which are superseded by the economic ‘base’ that determines the material conditions of a society. Dialectical and historical materialism are therefore antithetical to any philosophy, including Confucianism, that denies the power of ‘progress’ and the uprooting of any social force that stands in the way of revolutionising the productive forces. Marx, for instance, championed the destructive potential of capitalism to undermine the conservative vestiges of feudal society, and to “drown” them in the “icy water of egotistical calculation”, to sow the seeds of its own destruction, and to pave the way for Communism.

China may have risen to world power status since the Century of Humiliation ended in 1949, but it is a country with a manifestly different outlook and a hugely different identity. The principles of Marxism, proletarian internationalism and agrarian reform have been sidelined as debt-trap diplomacy and revanchist ultranationalism characterise Xi Jinping’s despotic rule. Material conditions including national share of world income may have improved, but morally, socially and with regard to its foreign policy, China has arguably undergone a Great Leap Backward.


Tom Perrett

I write about politics, history and current affairs from a socialist perspective. My writing has covered a variety of topics, from the American opioid crisis to the Libertarian to Fascist Pipeline. My intellectual influences include Eric Hobsbawm, Emma Goldman and Murray Bookchin.

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