Reviewed by Joseph Jamison

March 25, 2024

 


The East Is Still Red, Chinese Socialism in the 21st Century by Carlos Martinez.  (Glasgow, Scotland, Great Britain, Praxis Press 2023, 210 pp.    ISBN # 978-1-899155-16-3)


 

The extent of the US Cold War against People’s China came home to me this morning. While glancing at MSNBC to get the latest headlines, I saw a commercial for AUKUS, the new US-UK-Australian nuclear submarine-building program directed against China. The commercial suggests that US skilled workers and engineers check out a website:  <www.buildsubmarines.com/AUKUS> claiming AUKUS will need 100,000 workers.

This is serious war preparation. And AUKUS  is only one part of the US military encirclement and ideological demonization of People’s China.

In The East Is Still Red, Chinese Socialism in the 21st Century Carlos Martinez aims first, to convince the skeptical sections of the left that People’s China is building socialism and second, that the left must support China and oppose the New Cold War launched by the US and its allies. His two aims are connected. Much is at stake in whether or not one judges China to be building socialism. If China is just another capitalist great power, then the left has far less motivation to defend China and oppose the New Cold War.

The thesis of The East Is Still Red is that the People’s Republic of China is building socialism and that it is “axiomatic that socialists and communists should support and defend Chinese socialism.”

The author says in the Introduction to the book:  

“Modern China is the subject of a great deal of misunderstanding in the imperialist countries. People in Britain, the US, Australia, Canada, and Western Europe are subjected to an extraordinary quantity of anti-China propaganda particularly since the US launched its New Cold War, of which China is a primary target.”

Even among socialist and communists, he asserts, there are misapprehensions. “People simply find it difficult to get their heads around the idea that today’s China with its stock markets and billionaires and multinational corporations, is still socialist.”

Martinez readily concedes: “Travel to Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou and you will find McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Starbucks. There’s abundant private capital; there are big businesses, wealthy individuals, and significant inequality. There are rich people and poor people; there’s exploitation of labor; there’s integration into global value chains.”

Martinez also acknowledges  that support for China  within the left in Britain and the US is “a fairly marginal position.”  He wants to change that and enlist more of the left in the struggle against the New Cold War.

Carlos Martinez is an author and political activist from London, England. His first book The End of the Beginning: Lessons of the Soviet Collapse was published in 2019 by LeftWord Books. He is co-editor of Friends of Socialist China, a co-founder of No Cold War and a coordinating committee member of International Manifesto Group. He writes regularly for The Morning Star, Global Times, China Daily, and CGTN (China Global Television Network).

The East Is Still Red is rich in factual material about the immense growth of the productive forces in China both before and after “Reform and Opening Up” began in 1978. Before 1949, China was one of the poorest countries in the world, gripped by famine and poverty. Yet under the Communist Party of China (CPC), it may well become the biggest economy in the world by 2028; it already is the biggest, by some measures. China has doubled life expectancy since liberation, and literacy is almost 100 per cent. Everybody has access to healthcare and education. The UN Development Program describes China as having achieved “the most rapid decline in absolute poverty ever witnessed.”

Is China Building Socialism?

How does one determine whether a given society is building socialism or not?

Martinez stresses the class nature of the Chinese state as the decisive criterion of its socialist nature. According to Martinez, Chinese Marxists contend that  the fundamental defining
characteristic of a socialist society  is not the relative proportions of public and private ownership but the consolidation of political power in the working class and its allies. “A socialist state can…incorporate market mechanisms, as long as these operate under the guidance of the state and introduce some benefits for working people; so long as capital is not allowed to become politically dominant.”

Xi Jinping has declared: “We must be extremely clear that our nation’s basic economic system is an important pillar of the Chinese socialist system and the basis of the socialist market  economy; and therefore the dominant  role of public ownership and the leading role of the state sector must not change.”

A government’s priorities are a major sign of the class nature of the state. The top priorities of the Chinese government are consistent with the demands of the Chinese people. They are “protecting China’s unity and territorial integrity, improving living standards, clamping down on corruption, protecting the environment, eradicating poverty, maintaining peace and stability, protecting people’s heath and well-being, and re-establishing China’s national prestige, all but wiped out in the ‘century of humiliation,’ preceding the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.”

Another indication of class nature is what a socialist state can do that a capitalist state cannot or will not do. China has emerged as a global leader against climate breakdown. Unlike the US, hobbled by the gigantic power of the oil and gas lobby which paralyzes action in Congress on the climate crisis, China can channel enormous resources towards renewable energy production and distribution, biodiversity protection, low-carbon transport, forestation and pollution reduction because economic development proceeds according to state plans, not market anarchy.

Public ownership is dominant in China. Martinez asserts that while there is a great deal of private capital in China, “the economy is very much dominated by the state.”  He notes, “the Chinese state maintains tight control over the commanding heights of the economy: heavy industry, energy, transport, communications, and foreign trade.  The financial system is dominated by the big four majority-state-owned banks.”

Another useful indicator of the class nature of the Chinese state is government vigilance in fighting corruption. Corruption is routine and omnipresent in capitalist society. In China,  over the last ten years in particular, resolute action has been taken to root out corruption that has proliferated as a byproduct of market reforms.

Still another mark of socialism: Martinez notes that China has retained its commitment to Marxism. “In no country in the word is Marxism studied as widely as it is in China.” Marxism is part of the core curriculum at all levels of the educational system. The close to 100 million members of the CPC are required to study Marxism.

Finally, the Chinese leadership has never doubted that, step by step, it is building socialism. Xi Jinping has written: “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is socialism. It is not any other sort of “ism.” The foundational, scientific principles of socialism cannot be abandoned; only if they are abandoned would our system no longer be socialist.”

Evaluation

In Chapter 3 “Will China Suffer the Same Fate as the Soviet Union?” Martinez argues there are fundamental differences between the Chinese reform path and the Soviet path. China has made a rigorous study of the Soviet collapse and has applied what it learned. Unlike Gorbachev and the CPSU, Chinese leaders have maintained the legitimacy of the CPC and consistently raised living standards during reform. China’s reforms have been limited, cautious and experimental, retaining only what works.

Inequality, admittedly, has increased under “Reform and Opening Up” but practically all Chinese are substantially better off than before the era of reform. Extreme poverty has been abolished. Chinese productivity and innovation levels are gradually catching up with the most advanced capitalist countries. In China, a new class of entrepreneurs has emerged, but the CPC has made sure it has not gained political power. Xi Jinping has stated that one important reason for the disintegration of the Soviet Union was ideological weakness. The Gorbachev regime’s “historical nihilism” confused the people’s thoughts.  Martinez quotes the memoirs of Deng Xiaoping’s interpreter: after his meeting with Gorbachev, Deng commented “this man may look smart but he is in fact stupid.”

The US has mounted an ideological war against China. In Chapter 5 “Manufacturing Consent for the Containment and Encirclement of China,” Martinez demolishes  in considerable detail the propaganda campaign alleging mistreatment of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang province.

The book is amply footnoted. It is evident that Martinez has thoroughly researched the literature. It has a good index, and Recommended Readings for those who want to probe deeper.

The author is deft at finding just the right quotation. Last year having plowed through The Governance of China Volume 1, a collection of Xi Jinping speeches, I was struck — and a little concerned — by how infrequently Xi used the phrase “Chinese working class,” preferring instead “Chinese people.”  I was somewhat reassured by this Xi passage:

“The working class is China’s leading class and it represents  China’s advanced productive forces and relations of production. It is our party’s most steadfast and reliable class foundation; and it is the main force for realizing a moderately prosperous society in all respects and upholding and building socialism with Chinese characteristics [the first centenary goal]  …To uphold and build Chinese socialism in the future we must rely wholeheartedly on the working class, enhance its position as China’s leading class and give full play to its role as our main force. Relying fully on the working class is not just a slogan or label.”

People’s China, then, is contradictory. It  exhibits both capitalist and socialist features. Sometimes proponents of the China-is-capitalist view will seize on some ugly capitalist feature – see the recent debate in Black Agenda Report about the shabby conduct of Chinese cobalt mining companies in the Congo — and then jump to the conclusion  that this settles the question: China must be capitalist.

What is needed is all-sidedness.

Martinez mostly achieves this, but not always. He acknowledges the darker episodes of modern China’s history, for example, the twin disasters of the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

But, alas, there is more to the dark side than Martinez suggests in his summaries of modern Chinese history.  In his longest chapter Chapter 2 “Neither Washington Nor Beijing?”  he makes a brief reference to the fierce ideological dispute between the USSR and China “leading China to take objectively reactionary positions on Angola and Afghanistan.”

Indeed. The Chinese were on the side fighting the Cubans and Soviets who were aiding revolutionary Angola in its struggle  against South African apartheid troops. In Afghanistan, for similar anti-Soviet reasons, China was on the same side as the US, Pakistan and the mujahadeen.  I can find no mention in the book of the Chinese attack on Vietnam in 1979.   Martinez writes, “In the early 1970s “a window of opportunity opened for improved China-US relations.” No, in the early 1970s there was a cynical move by Nixon and Kissinger to harness Chinese anti-Sovietism “to play the China card” in a larger anti-Soviet effort.

These were sins of commission. There were and are sins of omission too. Today, why People’s China, claiming to be socialist and with newfound wealth and power, does not do more to help socialist Cuba slowly being strangled by the US imperialist blockade is baffling and disturbing.

There is an ongoing debate in the Communist movement about the status and role of China.  Some parties uphold the principle that the laws of socialist construction are objective and the same for all countries. They reject the idea that the characteristics of socialism depend on the national characteristics of different countries. Hence a socialism “with Chinese characteristics” is ruled out.  The Communist Party of Greece (KKE), an influential party, has maintained that there is now a “predominance of capitalist relations of production” in China, thereby making China a capitalist country, although KKE continues to have bilateral relations with the CPC, notwithstanding its public criticisms of China.

To this reviewer, the question depends on what national characteristics are meant. One can find in Lenin’s writings the idea that each country will contribute something of its own unique democratic experience to the revolutionary process; the Russians with their “soviets,” for example, or the Chinese in governing liberated base areas at Yenan and elsewhere. The above general principle — the laws of socialist construction are objective — is valid but, as the author notes, the 20th century experience of building “actually existing socialism”  has varied enormously according to  time, place, and circumstance. After the Second World War, Stalin was “actively re-thinking the universal validity of the Soviet model of  revolution and socialism” at least for the new Eastern European “people’s democracies.” (Domenico Losurdo, Stalin, p. 133)

In his concluding chapter 7 “Oppose the New Cold War,”  Martinez declares that a crucial difference between the original Cold War and the current one is that the US is very unlikely to win the New Cold War. “Compared to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, China is much stronger economically, much more integrated  into the global economy, has much stronger political leadership and has learned several crucial lessons from the Soviet collapse. Soviet GDP never exceeded 40 percent of US GDP.  China will surpass US in absolute GDP in the next few years. It is the largest trading partner of the majority of the world’s countries.”

But a new Cold War can do a lot of damage. It can set back China’s development for years. Moreover, there is the danger a Cold War can become hot. The far right in the American foreign policy establishment would love to see another proxy war, this time in the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea.

Conclusion

This is an important, well-argued, and readable book written for a left readership.  Martinez brings together in one place a strong case for the China-is-building-socialism thesis, though I doubt that the most hardline skeptics will be moved.  A fair-minded reader, I think, should at least conclude that the jury is still out on whether China is building socialism.

China is meeting its goals. China met its first centenary goal in 2021 when it achieved the abolition of extreme poverty. It will be interesting to see what China’s achievements will be as it closes in on 2049, the year of the second centenary goal: “the building of a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful.” As Greg Godels has advised, if building socialism is a dynamic process, we should attend to the direction of change, and not get bogged down in an unproductive and overly simple debate as to whether China is or is not socialist.

Martinez concludes, “Regardless of what one thinks of socialism with Chinese characteristics, anyone on the left must support China against US imperialist attacks and the New Cold War.”  He lays out a compelling case for this conclusion.