An open letter: isn’t China “just as bad”?

21 Sep

Dear Zoltan Jorovic

Thank you again for your comment on my post of September 2. You focus on a key aspect – China Rising and the West’s response – of a more general piece.

I intend to respond very specifically but first let me restate my reasons for welcoming China’s rise. They fall into three parts: (a) the state we’re in; (b) the inability of Western resistance to effect change of the kind, magnitude and timeliness our dire circumstances demand; (c) China as offering a modicum of hope.

In setting out each in turn, I’ll be repeating verbatim much that I’ve said elsewhere, and not just the once. I make no apology for that.

The state we’re in

  • Our world is capitalist in its advanced stage of imperialism – the export of monopoly capital from global north to south, and the south to north repatriation of profits.
  • The prime beneficiaries of this world order are rentier elites in the most successful imperialisms: i.e. most of the former colonial powers (including the USA) but also the Antipodes, Canada, Scandinavia and an EU led by Germany.
  • In its initial progressive phase capitalism freed humanity, albeit at terrible cost, from feudal ties and slavery while hugely advancing human productivity. Now its structures (means of wealth creation in ever fewer hands) and laws of motion (prioritising above all else of private profits and insatiable accumulation) demand unsustainable levels of narrowly defined and grossly distorted ‘growth’, condemning the world to:
    • environmental degradation;
    • ceaseless wars, normalised and monetised, and sold to us in tissues of lies;
    • levels of global and national inequality as dysfunctional as they are obscene, and a mortal threat to meaningful democracy.

(I suspect you broadly agree with this assessment. Am I right?)

The inadequacy of resistance within the West

Its three broad strands – social democracy .. ‘vanguard’ revolutionary sects .. grass roots activism pace Occupy, XR etc – all have useful features but, each for its own reasons, zero chance of success of the kind and magnitude needed. My evidence for saying so is widely distributed across this site. For this reason, and the uncontroversial nature of the claim, I see no cause to labour the point.

(You of course are free to contest it by showing either that one or more of my ‘Big Three’ can indeed deliver us from evil, or that I’ve missed some fourth game-changer.)

China Rising as a ray of hope

I’ve long welcomed the rise of China not because of its intrinsic features – of which, like most Westerners across the political spectrum, I knew little – but because I saw as A Good Thing any check to US Exceptionalism’s pursuit of full spectrum dominance.

(A simple ‘market discipline’ analogy may help. Under capitalism a town with only one food store is worse for its people than a town with two. Provided they aren’t in cahoots, this holds even if the second owner is just as venal as his rival.)

Lately though I’ve been taking a closer look at China, and liking what I see. Which leads to my specific responses to your comment. I’ll address each of its paragraphs in turn.

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It’s easy to make the mistake that because someone is resisting a bully, they are any less capable of bullying. I take the side of the person being bullied against the bully, but I don’t then join them when they behave badly towards someone else. You can understand their need to lash out, but you can’t condone their actions, and if it is the practice of bullying that you abhor, you should abhor it in all instances.

As a matter of principle I agree with almost all of this. Only in those last few words – ‘if it is the practice of bullying that you abhor, you should abhor it in all instances’ – do I feel faint unease.

Those few words, incontestable in principle but all too often empire serving in practice, reflect the ethical-political stance some call universalism. I explore its reactionary potential, beneath that surface reasonableness, in Monbiot, Syria and Universalism.

The subject of that post is not China, and it addresses the universalism of two specific writers: George Monbiot and Owen Jones. But my criticisms of their universalism apply here. Since we are debating so vital a matter, I hope you’ll read and respond to those criticisms.

(A minor point. That post was written four years ago, when my political understanding was – as it still is – evolving. In an aside where I do mention China, I refer to it as imperialist. This claim is often made by ultra-leftist sects in the West, almost always without the empirical analyses we should demand of Marxists on such a matter. My recycling of it in 2017 shows that I had not yet fully shed the conditioned legacy of my own involvement with a strand of Trotskyism. 1 )

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So, while I tend to go along with your view of US / “Western” foreign policy, and internal politics, I don’t then subscribe to being a supporters of their opponents. My enemies enemy is not my friend; he might be a temporary ally, or someone I speak up for in certain circumstances, but I don’t make the mistake of thinking he is a friend. I accept that Russia, China, Iran and Syria, for example, are defending their interests, and that their main crime to the “West” is that they resist hegemony and defy the “established world order”, but I don’t imagine that they are any more benevolent, humanitarian, altruistic, or compassionate than their opponents.

Again I agree with most of this, including the general unsoundness of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. This, after all, has been a driving principle, often catastrophic for its main victims, of US foreign policy since 1945 if not earlier.

(For all my loathing of what the British ruling class has done, usually in my name, I’ll give it this much: it managed its own empire with far greater skill than its American counterpart has ever shown.)

I will skip over your claim that you:

… do not make the mistake of thinking [a temporary ally] is a friend.

Whether or not ally = friend in this context has yet to be tested. You offer no evidence on the point. Nor do you address the evidence, small but growing, set out in my posts on China.

Instead you tell me that you:

don’t imagine [Russia China, Iran, Syria] are any more benevolent, humanitarian, altruistic, or compassionate than their opponents.

Well it’s always interesting to hear what others do and do not imagine. Especially when those others are clearly, as in your case, articulate and thoughtful. But it’s no substitute, is it, for hard evidence? As a matter of fact, in the absence of hard evidence from verifiable sources – and in the presence of oceans of empire propaganda you implicitly acknowledge in a later reference to the Uighur issue – we cannot avoid being swept along by a current of assiduously cultivated prejudices which serve only too well our rulers’ designs. I’ve seen this not only in ‘liberal’ circles (which deem the four states you name worse than the West) but also in ‘revolutionary’ circles (which deem them just as bad).

Either way, I find myself asking: cui bono?

In this maelstrom of disinformation, its intensity a recent thing but the prejudices that drive it decades in the making, thinking progressives must put effort into finding out how China actually works. I’m doing that. Are you? Or will we trade lazy generalities as the house burns down?

*

I also find the argument that our “democracy” is a sham, but that their lack of any is somehow more admirable (which is the implication of what you seem to be saying) illogical if not entirely contradictory. Our democracy is in urgent need of fixing, but their forms of governance do not offer an improvement, just a different way of oppression for the majority and self-interest for those in charge.

Correct me if I’m missing something but this appears to add nothing substantive to the previous two paragraphs. And yet again you slip in a huge but evidence-free claim, in this case that China lacks any democracy. On what do you base it? How do you respond to China’s decision making processes as described here?

*

For example, it would be wrong to think that because the “West” uses China’s treatment of the Uighurs to make propaganda points, while no doubt doing their best to stir up as much trouble as possible by stoking any sparks of unrest, that that treatment is any the less repugnant. The point we should take from our tendency to “whataboutery” is that each wrong needs to be addressed individually, not that there is a score card and whoever is top of the table is uniquely deserving of criticism.

I fear you’re doing it again: presenting, as fact, allegations highly contentious and based on the most slender, the most tendentious and the most methodologically flawed evidence. Almost all of it comes from a single deeply suspect source; a reality obscured by amplification – a Ponzi of stacked and circular-referencing claims – to give the impression of truth diversely sourced and massively corroborated.

That’s how propaganda works, given corporate media’s business models. (Might I recommend the excellent Media Lens book, reviewed here, Propaganda Blitz?) The Uighur claims have been effectively debunked – not that we’d know this from a diet of Guardian, Economist and New York Times – and this too is addressed in one of my posts. Please add it to the list of things I’d like you to read and respond to.

(I can’t, of course, demand this. But your opting to engage me on these matters entitles me to make the request.)

Whataboutery is a currently fashionable put-down. I addressed it, in the context of China as luck would have it, in this short dedicated post from late 2019.

This concludes my response to the details of your comment. I’ve asked you a few questions of a specific nature. Let me close by leaving you with one more overarching.

Given the state we are in, if no hope is to be found in China’s rise, what is your recipe for saving humanity from the abyss it is hurtling towards?

Best wishes, and thanks again for taking me on in a debate where we all have much to learn – and must do so with the clock loudly ticking.

Philip

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  1. On the question of ultra-leftist damning of China, my skeleton arguments were set out in a reply to another comment on the post that inspired yours: ‘China’s capitalists (a) have been an important component in a miracle that’s lifted hundreds of millions from what the World Bank calls extreme poverty, (b) are subordinate to state policy – when in the West it’s the other way round – and (c) exist precisely because the failure of the West’s Left to make its own revolutions obliged China to adapt to global conditions of entrenched neoliberalism.

7 Replies to “An open letter: isn’t China “just as bad”?

  1. At a bit of a tangent to the above – ‘whataboutery’ is a bugbear of mine. I think it helps if we define ‘whataboutery’ as being a justification for a dubious action based on the example of a previous dubious action by an another actor. This is obnoxious.

    On the other hand, to point out an example of an actor saying or doing one thing then later acting in an opposite way, or condemning such action, is not ‘whataboutery’ – it is opposing hypocrisy, and is perfectly justifiable.

    • I see ‘whataboutery’ as one member of a family of terms – others being ‘mansplaining’, ‘fake news’ (a charge often levelled by corporate media who daily serve the stuff up in spades) and ‘conspiracy theorist’ – which may have validity in some situations but more often miss the mark and/or are reactionary in intent or effect.

      Sometimes the own goals are entertaining. If you follow the link I gave Zoltan (a short post) you’ll see a FB exchange in which my interlocutor displays the very whataboutery he condemns!

      (I use ‘conspiracy theory’ neutrally unless I say otherwise – in which case my objection will be that it is wrong on evidential or logical grounds, not that it posits a conspiracy. To use the term as means of a-priori dismissal is lazy or stupid. If I say this a shade too often it’s because I’ve a shade too often seen the term’s boorish usage, by people who deem themselves critical thinkers, to defend the indefensible or refuse to question a huge and establishment-friendly ‘coincidence’. Here’s an example.)

  2. I keep reading a lot of what might be referred to as ‘Chickin little’ type material about how the sky is about to fall in as a result of claims the Russians have superior weapons systems to the ‘ leader of the free world ‘; and that NATO is no match for their military capacity and capability .

    Which confuses me no end. No matter how hard I search, even with the new varifocal spectacles, I can’t find hoards of Russian troops roaming the countryside Not even up here in Whitby. I feel like Bob Dylan in John Birch Talkin’ Blues.

    Where are they? If they operate, as claimed, in the same way our sociopathic elites do – ie would act just the same as we do when having an advantage – why have they not invaded?

    Ditto for the Chinese with their financial muscle. Why have they not used that muscle to trash Western economies? (Though we seem to have made any such action superfluous to requirements ourselves without the need for such action on their part).

    Could it be that they are a lot more grown up as societies than we are and don’t need to constantly convince themselves and everyone else in the way we do that they are the biggest, baddest and bestest like kids in a school playground?

    • Could it be that [China and Russia] are a lot more grown up as societies than we are?

      I do believe you’re onto something there, Dave.

  3. Michael Hudson nailing down the difference between the dead end and failing rent extracting neo feudal economic model of the self selecting ‘free world’ and the productive model pursued by China:

    https://thesaker.is/chinas-fortune-cookie-crumbles-michael-hudson-and-renegade-inc/

    “America doesn’t build infrastructure these days unless it’s monopolised. This is the political fight going on in the United States now. President Biden has a infrastructure plan that he’s scaled down from six and a half trillion to three and a half trillion. And essentially the bulk of the Democratic and Republican Party said if we can’t privatise infrastructure and make it a rent-extracting monopoly, we’re not going to do it, and we’re going to block the government from doing it. So in the United States, they’re going to have high priced infrastructure, high-priced health care and high-priced education while China is going to have low-priced transportation, low-cost infrastructure, free education, public health care. And you’re going to have a very high-cost United States unable to compete with the rest of the world. All it can do is make military threats or financial threats. If it tries to impose sanctions as it’s imposed on Russia, China and other countries, these are going to serve as protective tariffs for foreign countries.”

    And where the US goes the UK follows. Though some would say it leads in certain respects.

    Purely from the point of view of a Yorkshireman; seemingly the only route out of the coming penury for the majority of us trapped between oligarchy and autocracy – with the cost of living set to go interstellar under the strains of this rentier model – is the rapid development of stem cell technology – required to grow enough arms and legs to pay the ever increasing asking price of stuff these days.

  4. I apologise for not having replied sooner but I have been away and off line. Once I have had a chance to fully digest what you have written, I will reply.

    Thanks.

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