Donald Trump’s latest outburst against China over the origins of the coronavirus does not come as a surprise. As deaths from the disease and mass unemployment continue to mount and the US economy faces its worst-ever recession, the president’s ratings have been falling.
It is neither the first nor the last time that the president lashes out at the US’ greatest geopolitical and economic rival. Partly this has reflected the growing antagonism and clash of interests between the US and China. But this is an election year in the US and China is a useful scapegoat for the vast problems the country faces and for Trump to counter Democratic claims that he is soft on Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader.
Xi Jinping does not face the test of an election but the vast, ‘turbo-charged’ economy has gone into reverse and anger has accumulated against him, not least for the criminal suppression of news about the outbreak in Wuhan and the bungled handling of the emergency.
It is reckoned that five million people left Wuhan in the two weeks after the ‘discovery’ of the deadly disease and when the clampdown came it was enforced with deadly brutality. So-called whistle-blowers – scientists and others who have told the truth – have been disgraced, punished or disappeared. But the ‘netizens’ have not held back with their complaints about the handling of the crisis and ordinary citizens of Wuhan have told foreign journalists about their woes, knowing full well how the state security services watch and pounce on the slightest opposition. Many who lost loved ones are trying to sue the government have faced repression and clashes with state forces have taken place as the lock-down has been eased.
Now, even as news has spread of a new outbreak of covid 19 near the northern border with Russia, the Chinese economy is being pushed back into action. Workers are back in the vast factories and the small workshops, whether they like it or not. Where there is discontent, there will be rumblings of revolt. China has experienced in recent years hundreds of thousands of incidents of small-scale but angry protests as well as important strikes.
The Chinese ruling layer has long feared a movement from below which can start on any number of discontents and it moves quickly to try to crush any questioning of its rule. The common suffering experienced during the Covid 19 crisis, the privations and misery inflicted on their everyday lives, will have pushed China’s vast army of workers to try and draw conclusions – about their bosses and about their government.
The National People’s Congress of the ruling so-called Communist Party is due to meet on 22 May. About 3,000 members from across the vast country would assemble, read prepared speeches and unanimously agree on proposals handed down by the ruling ‘Politburo Standing Committee’, and, really, the ‘No 1’ – Xi Jinping.
Xi calls himself a ‘communist’, but, like all those in his ‘kept’ government, who have become billionaires with super-yachts and bulging bank accounts around the world and send their offspring to elite private schools in Europe or the US, he hangs on to the name of the party which once represented the fight for a classless society. In this way, they attempt to ‘justify’ their rule and sow confusion as to what socialism and communism actually are.
The Chinese government continues to honour the leader of the revolution against imperialist powers, of more than 70 years ago, Mao Tse Tung. This was, indeed, after the coming to power of a communist government in Russia in October 1917, the second greatest event in history. It was a huge defeat for imperialism and colonialism, inspiring movements in British, French and Portuguese empires. But from the beginning, while sweeping away landlordism and capitalism, the rule of the CCP leaders was modelled on that of Stalin – a nationalised economy run from the top with no element of genuine democratic control.
There were decades under Mao’s ‘leadership’ of disastrous zig-zags that saw deadly conflict and mass famine with estimated millions of deaths. By the early 1980s, a grouping within the ruling elite around Deng Xiaoping began moves to allow the rebirth of capitalism in China. This led, over time, to a fundamental change in the nature of society in China, not without further battles and bloodshed, including the horrific massacre by the regime of workers and youth in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The Chinese bureaucratically-run state-owned economy morphed, through a hybrid stage, into a very special kind of state capitalism. We have seen during this crisis, that the Xi regime can still order massive state spending and initiate a stimulus package on a larger scale than any other country worldwide. It may not be as big as that of the post-2008 crisis period because of the recent slowing down of the Chinese economy and the sharp fall, due to the coronavirus, of 6.8% in the first quarter of this year.
This special form of state capitalism has its equivalent special form of imperialist policy in so-called developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. China’s ‘Belt and Road’ investment policy is truly global and estimated to be worth trillions of dollars. But it is not all Chinese state investment. As Western imperialist countries, represented by the World Bank, IMF and G8 discuss debt forgiveness, China also insists that it cannot allow loans abroad to be written off.
Socialists say, in the interests of the suffering millions in these countries, no debts should be repaid. If the major capitalist powers are suffering, let them take a few billion from the off-shore bank accounts of billionaires like the ‘philanthropists’ Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffet or one or two of the Chinese billionaires!
As the thieves of world capitalism fall-out, tensions grow. The protection of national interests takes priority. As European leaders fear for the break-up of the EU they also rile against China for invading their territory with their state investments. In fact, it is massive companies like Alibaba and Huawei which are investing huge sums of money in things like distribution and telecommunications.
China has scored some points even during this epidemic by showing it can build hospitals in record time and supply the world with PPE – the simple equipment that costs so little to produce and saves so much in terms of human lives. ‘Normal’ capitalist governments have failed to get private businesses to produce essential equipment and drugs in advance of this pandemic. That would have cost too much without the immediate prospect of making a profit!
Of course, the provision of medical aid to Italy and elsewhere from China and Russia have been politically motivated gestures, while their hesitations to take the necessary measures at home have proved deadly!
Will this crisis prove to be the undoing of dictatorial regimes, along with that of the most powerful capitalist economy in the world, the US? Will the US and China be forced to hang together rather than to hang separately? Will a similar spat between Beijing and Canberra, with accusations of ‘panda-baiting’, lead to a freezing of the massive trade between these countries?
An announcement has been made about the renewal of trade talks between China and the US with Donald Trump’s approval. But, given the catastrophic collapse of economies worldwide, especially in the US, it is most likely that, despite temporary deals, the tendency towards nationalism and protectionism will prevail. The US government still talks of sanctions against China.
The idea of a new ‘Cold War’ is often referred to. In the past, this meant a stand-off between governments representing totally different social systems. Today, we no longer have the state-owned, ‘command’ economies of the ‘Eastern Bloc’, as we saw in the post-WW2 decades until 1989/90, which presented an alternative to capitalist class rule. (The CWI supported workers’ moves towards a political revolution in Stalinist countries, whereby the working class would overthrow the ruling bureaucratic elite and introduce genuine workers’ democracy and accountability, based on a planned economy). However, it is not ruled out that the stand-off between two of the most heavily armed powers in the world can result in armed clashes in the South China Sea and elsewhere, as tensions grow.
The Chinese government was hoping to end this year with an economy that had doubled in size in the ten years since 2010 before the celebrations next year of the founding of the Communist Party in July 1921. Failure to reach that target and growth in opposition across the country could put the future of the Xi regime in jeopardy. A resurgence of the struggle in Hong Kong also poses big problems.
When ruling layers sense the wrath of those they rule over, they can lurch rapidly from repression to concession in attempts to overcome crises that threaten their system’s survival. The coming months and years will show how far the revolt against the ruling elite will go in the US, in China and worldwide.