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Upheavals in China by Peter Taaffe

Relations with China’s neighbours

China, as we have seen, has begun to assert itself diplomatically and also militarily. Great powers have always seen the need for significant armed forces to reinforce their economic weight.

China, however, in reaching out worldwide economically, does not have the military muscle, as yet, to back this up. It is unable to project the power of its army, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), beyond Taiwan, an island state off the southeast coast of China which Beijing regards as a breakaway part of its territory. (The search for arms technology in Europe is an attempt to correct this position.) But as in other matters China, in vying for domination in Asia in particular, rubs up against Japan and, more significantly, US imperialism as well.

Relations with Japan appear paradoxical as far as China is concerned. We have seen how integrated and dependent both economies are for each other. And yet, at the same time, this is combined with what can only be described as a mini-Cold War between the two giants. Some commentators have characterised this as "politically cold and economically warm". Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shinto war memorial, including the burial grounds of "Class A" Japanese war criminals, are part of an attempt to court the nationalist wing of the political establishment at home and neutralise their opposition to his neo-liberal reforms. But these visits have aroused enormous opposition both in China and in South Korea, which suffered horribly at the hands of Japanese imperialism in the past. This has been accompanied in Japan with a xenophobic wave against so-called "Chinese crimes". A few murders by Chinese nationals domiciled in Japan have been utilised by right-wing politicians to give the impression that most crime in Japan is conducted by "foreigners", whereas 97 per cent of all crimes are the product of Japanese citizens themselves.

The perceived "China threat", taken together with the threat from North Korea – which actually fired missiles over Japan and also into the Sea of Japan – has allowed the Japanese ruling class to whip up nationalist sentiment. The result is that 58 per cent of Japanese now "fear China’s long-term intentions". [The Guardian, London] The Japanese foreign minister recently asked Israel to halt weapons sales to Japan’s "neighbours", which is code for China. The government has used the "external threat" to begin to rearm as a means of "standing up" to China. At the same time, the Japanese defence minister has drawn up plans to deploy 55,000 troops in the event of an invasion of disputed islands off southern Japan, and as one commentator stated, "There was no question as to who the most likely invader would be." These developments are part of a profound shift – the creeping "de-pacification of Japan" – which reflects Japanese capitalism’s increasing desire to punch its weight in world affairs. This has seen it send token military contingents to East Timor, Iraq and now Aceh, as a means of gradually breaking down public opposition to the use of its armies overseas, something that has been taboo for 50 years.

The Chinese regime has utilised this increased muscularity of Japan to whip up anti-Japanese, nationalist sentiment. In effect, the ex-‘Communist’ Party of China, having abandoned the ideology of Stalinism, and of ‘socialism’ (although it finds it useful to deploy this term when necessary) now relies on nationalist Chinese sentiment to justify its actions, particularly externally. In early 2005, for the first time, the new Japanese defence policy guideline names China as a possible threat: "China, which has significant influence on the region’s security, has been modernising its nuclear and missile capabilities as well as naval and air forces, and expanding its area of operation at sea." Japan is pushing to regain disputed islands occupied by Russia at the end of the Second World War and is prepared to lock horns with China as well on disputed territorial issues.

The US, on the other hand, is potentially in the same situation as Japan in its relations with China but on a much larger scale. The seemingly endless stream of cheap goods has significantly benefited US capitalism, fuelling the consumer boom in the US. The low prices of these goods, moreover, have acted as a deflationary factor on the world economy, keeping down, as with capitalist globalisation as a whole, the threat of inflation that plagued the world economy in the past, for instance during the 1970s. This in turn has been an important factor allowing the US Federal Reserve to keep interest rates at a historically low level. US imperialism is, therefore, conducting a complex balancing act. It is economically dependent on China, with American transnational companies investing hugely in the country, both for export and for the growing domestic market.

As we have seen, the Chinese state, alongside Japan, in effect underwrites the colossal US deficits by purchasing US government bonds. Added to this now is an agreement, although only in outline in character at this stage, for China and the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to establish a free trade area. In the past, the US opposed this, which it perceived as a threat to its economic grip on the region. But preoccupied with the Iraq War, the US was muted in its reaction when China revived plans for the establishment of such an arrangement two years ago. If China-ASEAN got off the ground as a rival to the EU and the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA), encompassing half the world’s population as it does, this could pose a significant threat to the other economic blocs. The US is likely, if not to pour scorn, then certainly to seek to undermine this attempt to unite the Southeast Asian nations and China. China, on the other hand, is using this as a wedge against the US, with the implicit threat to Japan that unless it joins in it too will be shut out, along with the US, from a ‘dialogue’, both on geopolitics in the region and on economic developments. This is yet again an example of where China is asserting its diplomatic and military power in line with its growing economic weight.


Another area of conflict is in Taiwan, a constant flashpoint in the past and potentially still the trigger for a major military confrontation in the region. This recently came to a head with the adoption by Beijing of the ‘Anti-Secession Law’ (ASL) which led to massive anti-ASL demonstrations – numbering possibly half a million – in Taiwan. Some of the same features in Japan’s relations with China are present in Taiwan’s relations with the mainland. The ‘One China’ position of the Beijing leadership means that any attempt to declare Taiwanese independence could be the trigger for military action: "Should the Taiwan authorities go so far as to make a reckless attempt that constitutes a major incident of Taiwan independence, the Chinese people and armed forces will resolutely and thoroughly crush it at any cost." [2005 Beijing Defence Policy Paper.]

If a conflict should break out between China and Taiwan, it would not end there. Under the defence agreement with Taiwan, the US would be "duty bound" to come to the assistance of Taiwan. This would mean two nuclear powers confronting one another in the region. Moreover, Japan, which is a military base and home to 50,000 US troops, from which the US would launch any defence of Taiwan, would also find itself sucked in, plunging the whole region into turmoil. The US’s primary aim is its own strategic, military and economic interests; "Asked in Tokyo why the US kept so many troops in Okinawa, [Condoleezza Rice] immediately mentioned the rise of China. She went on to suggest that US ties with Japan, South Korea and India, were aimed at ensuring China’s good behaviour." [Financial Times 23 March 2005.] Even a Chinese military blockade of shipping in the Taiwan Strait aimed at forcing the Taiwanese government into line, could inflict massive economic fallout on both economies and the rest of Asia. As a US executive warned, a conflict between China and Taiwan "would cripple the global electronics industry" [Financial Times].

The position of US imperialism has nothing to do with support for Taiwanese ’democracy’ or self-determination. Its primary aim is stability in the region and for this reason it has been pressurising the Taiwanese government to moderate its pro-independence rhetoric. But despite its far greater economic interests in the mainland today, US imperialism could not just sit back if China tried to retake Taiwan by force. To refuse to assist Taiwan would effectively signal the end of US dominance in Asia, with major implications for its main allies in the region – Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia for example.

Such a conflict appeared to be very close in the past. In 1991, both sides hurled shells at one another across the Taiwan Straits. Moreover, in the Taiwanese elections at the end of 2004, the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) threatened that if it increased its support in the elections, the president would take action which would be a de facto declaration of Taiwanese independence. This seemed to correspond with the outlook of a growing section of the Taiwanese population, who saw themselves primarily as Taiwanese, which has risen from 17 per cent to 41 per cent, whereas those who see themselves purely as Chinese has dropped from 26 per cent to 6 per cent of the population. From the point of view of elementary democracy, never mind a Marxist and socialist point of view, the Taiwanese people should have the right to decide their own fate, free of bellicose threats from any quarter, and foreign military involvement whether from Beijing or Washington.

The fact that Taiwan territory ‘belonged’ to China in the past is of no decisive importance in determining its future. Important are the wishes of the Taiwanese people. Like any other people, the Taiwanese have the right of self-determination. As articles from Laurence Coates on the CWI website have indicated, the population seems to be divided between two bourgeois blocs, the ‘Greens’, who promote Taiwanese identity are opposed to unification with the mainland, and the ‘Blues’ and the KMT are generally seen as much more right-wing than DPP, although in practice the difference is not so big) who favour more rapid integration with China.

The position of the CWI and of Marxism is that neither camp offers a way forward for the working class. We defend the right of the Taiwanese people themselves to determine what relations they have with neighbouring states and the world. Unity between the Taiwanese and Chinese peoples, with historical, cultural and now economic ties, may be desirable but not if it is imposed from the top by a capitalist elite. At the same time, unless the Taiwanese masses forge links and win support from China's vast emerging working class, which is noticeably less nationalistic and keen on a Taiwan war than the urban middle classes and intellectuals, there is a very real risk that any popular movement towards a formal declaration of independence could unleash a devastating war with Beijing.

One of the main factors in Beijing’s bellicose approach towards Taiwan is its fear of similar opposition and separatist movements, in particular on mainland China itself. By threatening Taiwan it is warning potential national or cultural rebels in China itself to desist. Yet, just as the Taiwanese have the right of self-determination, so do the Uighur Muslim minorities, those in Xinjiang and any other section of the population of China that feels oppressed by the centralised Chinese state.

Beijing has used the issue of Taiwan, again playing the nationalist card, in order to mobilise its people behind the government and suppress the criticisms of other issues, lack of democracy, lack of national and democratic rights in the rest of China, amongst Muslims, Tibetans, etc. In the aftermath of the Taiwanese elections the DPP softened its approach and the issue receded somewhat but the danger of military escalation has not gone away. Tension was high between China and Taiwan in September 2004, when the Taiwanese prime minister declared: "If you hit us with 100 missiles, we’ll fight you back with 50 missiles. If you hit Taipei or Kaohshung, we’ll strike Shanghai."

Role of Chinese masses

While these bellicose threats are made, with both sides using nationalism as a diversion from social problems at home, the underlying economic integration of Taiwan with the mainland is a fact. In 2002, China overtook Japan and Taiwan to become the world’s second largest IT hardware producer after America. The steep upward curve of China’s IT exports is almost exactly matched by its imports of IT components from Taiwan. China is now the world’s biggest IT hardware exporter to America. Yet more than 60 per cent of these exports are made in China by Taiwanese companies. This underlines the role of the ‘overseas Chinese’ of which Taiwan investors are a vital component, in the economic development of China. Taiwanese companies employ some 10 million people on the mainland. At the same time, Taiwan is second only to Japan as a source of Chinese imports. Notwithstanding this, such is the clash of interests, particularly between China, Japan and the US, together with its suzerainty, Taiwan, that the region is a flashpoint for conflict and on a gigantic scale. Involved here is not a struggle for the interests of the majority of the population, the working class and poor peasants of the region, but the political survival of the rival ruling elites.

These events conclusively demonstrate that the Chinese masses are no longer to be considered as mere passive instruments for the realisation of the aims of Chinese and world capital. There are some comparisons in the process of privatisation – read daylight robbery – of collective state assets, in China and what happened in the former USSR and Eastern Europe. There are also profound differences as well. In the case of the USSR and Eastern Europe, a rapid introduction of "wild capitalism" resulted in the greatest economic collapse in the history of capitalism. The outcome in China up to now, as we have seen, has been entirely different, with, it seems, China’s endless economic fireworks dazzling the world. In the case of the USSR there was mass impoverishment but in China there has been a significant growth in living standards, perhaps for the majority at least of the urban population.

Moreover, there are differences in consciousness as well. In Russia and Eastern Europe, such was the discrediting of the Stalinist regime that the majority of the population either supported or acquiesced in the return back to capitalism. They regretted their decision later. Consciousness in China is more complicated. The crucial difference from the former Soviet Union is that China has experienced a longer road, more of a controlled journey towards capitalism with all the contradictions this entails. This in turn means a longer experience of capitalism for the Chinese masses and a dispelling, partially at least, of illusions of broad layers of the population as to what kind of future is held out for them on the basis of this system.

Consciousness in China is not that of Russia today but perhaps more like nineteenth century Britain or the Russian working class in the period prior to the 1905 Revolution. The economy, in crude figures, might be going ahead, but it is on the backs of the Chinese masses and their sweat and suffering. They have had more than two decades of this to begin to draw conclusions about the nature of this system. Naturally, the first priority for the masses is to assemble basic organisations, the trade unions, with which to check the onslaught of capitalism, red in tooth and claw and ‘vampire-like’, as Marx described it more than 130 years ago, in its lust to suck out huge profits from the labour of the working class. This stage in the struggle is inevitable and mass resistance is growing. According to official Chinese government statistics, there were 58,000 incidents of demonstrations, strikes and other forms of oppositional movements in China last year. This represented a 15 per cent increase on the previous year. Moreover, recently a whole Chinese village rose up in opposition to widespread environmental damage. They organised mass demonstrations and, in the process, clashed with the authorities and police. At least two elderly women were killed. This is a portent of what is to come.

However, despite the huge numbers involved, the protests have not yet taken on a co-ordinated form, not just at national level but in a significant region, particularly in an urban centre of importance. If it should do so, as it will, it can become the heat lightning flash of the coming revolution of the Chinese working class and poor farmers. This will have elements of what we saw in the 1905 Russian Revolution and the great heroic enterprises of the Chinese working class in the past, particularly the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27, when the masses, kept at the level of pack animals, stepped onto the scene of human history.

In the course of this movement, the working class will generalise, select a leadership, search towards an alternative party, go back and find examples from the past to inspire their struggles today. They will find a road to the genuine democratic and socialist ideas, underpinned by a Marxist analysis and unbesmirched by the tainted ideas and methods of Stalinism. In so doing, they can begin to change their conditions. In other words, genuine Marxism, as understood by Lenin and Trotsky, Marx and Engels, will be rediscovered anew by the Chinese working class, above all by the new fresh layers in the first instance.

Additionally, from an environmental point of view, capitalism is unsustainable in China. This is not the conclusion of Marxists but of China’s own State Environmental Protection Administration, officially a branch of the Beijing government itself. Its deputy director, Pan Yue, has declared: "If we continue on this path of traditional industrial civilisation, then there is no chance that we will have sustainable development. China’s populace, resources, environment have already reached the limits of their capacity to cope." In the past 20 years the consumption of oil has risen 100 per cent, natural gas 92 per cent, steel 143 per cent, copper 189 per cent and aluminium 380 per cent. While China has only 21 per cent of the world’s population, it has only a fraction of its reserves of oil, natural gas, iron ore, alumina and other resources.

Historically, the advocates of capitalism have extolled the idea that "industrialisation equals prosperity" and, conversely, "agriculture equals poverty". But this is the likely outcome only on the basis of capitalism; "If China wanted to live like Americans, we would need the resources of four worlds to do so." [Liang Congjie, China’s leading independent environmentalist.] But this is a conclusion based on capitalism. Socialist and democratic planning could give everybody "US living standards" on the basis of environmentally friendly and sustainable growth.

Not only China but the whole world is crying out for a real democratic division of labour based on the planning, management and control of the development of the world. This is not possible so long as a handful of billionaires, their governments and system control society. Only by the mass of the population through their democratic organisations and representatives acting to change the situation can China and the world be saved from rapacious capitalism. Such a world is possible on the basis of the masses taking events into their own hands and reshaping society on a socialist basis. This is a mighty task which the Chinese working class will embrace in the next period.

Peter Taaffe, April 2005