The left shift in China the western left is not talking about
- A significant "left shift" is occurring in the People's Republic of China under Xi Jinping that is totally in keeping with the Communist Party's stated and long-term development goals.
- The international and capitalist press has taken note of the significance of this push for "common prosperity" and have no doubt the "left shift" is real.
- Now it is time for large parts of the western left to drop its usual dismissiveness and to start to pay more attention.
If you are a reader of the capitalist press -- most especially the business press -- you would be aware that something that should be of interest to leftists around the world is going on in the People's Republic of China. But given the outrageous and ongoing dismissal of China by western leftists -- which is obviously, in part, based on racist western assumptions about the country -- you likely have heard nothing about it at all.
There has been a decided "left shift" in the weeks since the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the formation of The Communist Party of China. As the party and country has achieved its goal of eliminating extreme poverty, developing modern infrastructure and building a prosperous and modern economy, it is now turning its sights on creating common prosperity and achieving greater equality.
Almost all commentary on this shift is coming from the right and is a combination of angry and arrogant suggesting that while what China is doing is good for the people broadly it is bad for capitalists and will harm the country and its economy in the short and long run.
Looking at it more clearly though, this shift is an integral part of the process that the CPC laid out for creating a modern, socialist China and it is a natural ideological and economic evolution of a plan that was always there but that was generally dismissed as somehow a sham.
China has "gone capitalist" was the standard line embraced by both the western right and left. It was generally felt by most western leftists that China was communist in name only and that the Communist Party itself had abandoned the very idea of socialism.
As Roland Boer noted in Monthly Review in 2011:
Through increasing visits to China, to teach, travel and engage in endless discussions with Marxists, I have found most of my preconceptions thoroughly dismissed and utterly complexified. Slowly, I began to share the sense of my Chinese interlocutors that Western Marxist engagements with China were wanting in sophistication. So I contacted the organisers of an energetic annual conference, a vibrant journal and book series — Historical Materialism. The idea was to arrange for a panel or two on ‘Communism in China Today’ at a couple of conferences. We would gather some Chinese experts who would engage in detailed debate concerning Marxism in China.
The response was disappointing and predictable: ‘Is China really communist anymore?’ ‘Are there any Marxists left in China?’ ‘If so, they do not know what they are talking about’. ‘What about freedom, democracy, workers?’ To the suggestion of a conference panel I received a flat ‘no’, dismissing Marxism in China as at least unsophisticated, if not having betrayed some impossible ideal. I had thought the Historical Materialism people would be more open to a vigorous debate, one that explored issues in a manner that would move past such preconceptions. Yet, this response was also predictable, for I have encountered similar responses from one Western Marxist after another: China is not really communist, so it is not worth considering. Sometimes my interlocutor will suggest that China is ‘evil’, that it is out for world domination, that we need to fear the Chinese Empire. If I press further, my interlocutor will refer to an article in the Washington Post, the New York Times or another Western newspaper as ‘evidence’. And if I refer to a Chinese source, it is dismissed as tainted or unreliable. On such matters, these Western Marxists are no different from bourgeois critics of China.
Now, as the party embarks on its second century this looks exactly like the false caricature of China and the CPC that it always was.
The capitalist press has no doubt that the shift is real.
One of the major ideological organs of the international capitalist class, The Economist is taking it very seriously.
The article begins by noting that "in 2016 Xi Jinping, China’s president, explored the roots of an idea that is now troubling the country’s tycoons and depressing the stockmarket—an idea that may be motivating China’s crackdown on private tutoring, its antitrust fines on internet firms, its new guidelines on the treatment of gig workers and its steps towards a property tax, as well as inspiring large charitable donations from some of the country’s most prominent enterprises. That idea is common prosperity."
On August 17 Xi Jinping chaired the 10th meeting of the Communist Party's Central Committee on Finance and Economics in Beijing. The key theme of this meeting was "common prosperity".
As a Xinhua article about the meeting outlined:
In an important speech at the meeting, Xi stressed that common prosperity is the essential requirement of socialism and an important feature of Chinese-style modernization, and that we should adhere to the people-centered development ideology and promote common prosperity in high-quality development.
The meeting pointed out that after the reform and opening-up, our Party has deeply summarized the historical experience of both positive and negative aspects, realized that poverty is not socialism, broken the shackles of the traditional system, allowed some people and some areas to get rich first, and promoted the liberation and development of social productivity. Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC, the CPC Central Committee has placed the gradual realization of common prosperity of all the people in a more important position, taken strong measures to safeguard and improve people's livelihood, won the battle against poverty, built a well-off society in an all-round way, and created good conditions for promoting common prosperity. We are moving towards the goal of the second century, adapting to the changes in the major contradictions of our society, better meeting the growing needs of the people for a better life, we must take the promotion of common prosperity of all the people as the focus for the people's happiness, and constantly consolidate the Party's long-term ruling foundation.
In an article entitled Xi's leftward shift to a socialist China is for real, Nikkei Asia's writer Katsuji Nakazawa noted of the speech:
The address at the party's Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs was Xi's first public appearance after a summer break during which he and fellow incumbent leaders are thought to have met retired officials at the annual closed-door "Beidaihe meeting" at the seaside resort in Hebei Province.
Xi used the term "common prosperity" as many as 15 times. It was not hard to imagine that the leader who doubles as the party's general secretary received a stamp of approval to push the policy at Beidaihe.
In the name of common prosperity, Xi vowed to expand the size of the middle-income group, increase earnings of the low-income group and "adjust excessive incomes," including through the three-stage income distribution and tax system.
These measures are likely to become a basic policy going forward as the Xi administration keeps an eye on the sixth plenary session of the party's 19th Central Committee this autumn and subsequently the party's next quinquennial national congress in the fall of 2022.
Hints at targeting the rich run counter to former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's policy of "letting some people get rich first" and signal a sharp left turn toward a distinctly socialist China.
Many western business publications -- some using rather hysterical tones -- are publishing alarmed and alarmist articles such as Beijing Appears To Bite Its Own Nose To Spite The Capitalists in Forbes, Chinese Communist Party's New Socialism: 'Private Sector' Still Communist in the National Review, or China’s Xi Eyes Return to Communist Party Roots Amid Private-Sector Crackdown in the Wall Street Journal.
The business press in India sees it clearly enough. Writing even before the landmark August 17 speech, Paran Balakrishnan in the Hindu Business Line says of recent policy shifts and changes:
So, are these all signals of a leftward turn? The answer’s almost certainly yes. Firstly, there’s the order about ed-tech companies not making profits. Then, the government has indicated that gig workers like food delivery company Meituan’s delivery riders must earn the minimum wage. This, and other orders, have sent Meituan’s share price crashing by 50 per cent.
Besides this, the government has been discouraging speculators with a ‘houses are for living’ campaign. “It definitely looks like a leftward turn and more state control and not private capital and an emphasis on welfare,” says Manoj Kewalramani, Fellow, China Studies, Takshashila Institution, and author of Smokeless War, China’s Quest for Global Dominance.
There have been other strong signals of a decisive left turn from the time Xi Jinping assumed control of the government and the party in 2013. There have been reports entrepreneurs investing abroad have been targeted. Says Robert Murray, Fellow, National Security Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute: “The government’s been pushing private firms to establish party committees to ensure business decisions are in line with government policy.” Murray also argues the Chinese have slammed The Ant Group’s Alipay and Tencent’s Tenpay because it’s determined to establish its own e-yuan payment system.
Alan Song, founder of the Chinese private equity firm Harvest Capital said in late July: “Chinese entrepreneurs and investors must understand that the age of reckless capital expansion is over. A new era that prioritises fairness over efficiency has begun.”
China's wealthy and corporations are also being asked to contribute directly to the "common prosperity" through substantial financial contributions. After noting that under "Xi Jinping, China’s patience with the ultra-wealthy has now run out", the Guardian (UK) listed a number of Chinese billionaires that had recently been chastened by the government and pushed to make large donations including Jack Ma and Zhang Yiming of Tik Tok fame.
On August 25, one "of China's biggest tech firms...pledged to hand over its entire profit for the last quarter to rural development projects in the country as Beijing steps up the pressure for wealth redistribution.
E-commerce firm Pinduoduo...pledged to donate the $372 million it made in the three months through June 30 toward the development of China's agricultural sector and rural areas. In total, it expects to donate 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) toward such causes."
This is part of an overall drive for "rural revitalization" that China has been championing since the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017.
Rural revitalization is key to both the "no one left behind" and "common prosperity" objectives. According to Xinhua:
After the country successfully eradicated absolute poverty, the focus of work concerning agriculture, rural areas and farmers has shifted to promoting rural vitalization.
To realize this goal, the country has been working to foster rural industries, promote the application of agricultural technologies and build beautiful countryside.
This plan includes a major effort to upgrade rural housing standards.
The Chinese government and courts are now targeting tech and other companies that have been forcing their workers to work extreme overtime hours.
In a joint statement published last Thursday, China's top court and labour ministry detailed 10 court decisions related to labour disputes, many involving workers being forced to work overtime.
The cases covered various scenarios across a wide range of sectors, from tech to the media and construction.
The one thing they had in common? The employers had lost.
"Legally, workers have the right to corresponding compensation and rest times or holidays. Complying with national working hours is the obligation of employers," the notice warned, adding that further guidelines will be developed to resolve future labour disputes.
This has spooked markets and investors, some of whom seem very startled by what is unfolding.
Interestingly a number of capitalist commentators understand the actual continuity with the Communist Party's planning more than many western leftists seem to. Bloomberg's Matthew Brooker put it this way:
China’s leaders are making abundantly clear where they stand on the tension between private profits and social well-being. These sudden regulatory shifts have thrown asset managers across the world into a frenzy of effort to understand and explain how prospects for investors in the world’s second-largest economy have changed.
The most lucid and logically coherent explanation also happens to be the simplest: Take the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at its word. For decades, foreign investors have told themselves a comforting story: China was no longer truly communist, after then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) embraced markets in the late 1970s and started the country’s spectacular economic rise. The wealth and growth generated by capitalist techniques had converted the government and people. While the CCP continued to wrap itself in the rhetoric of communism, its members knew they were paying lip service to a bankrupt ideology, or so the thinking ran.
The era of such creative ambiguity is over. With a true believer holding the reins of power, there can be no doubt that China’s rulers mean what they say.
Or, with something of a flourish, Joseph W. Sullivan in the National Review: "As Maya Angelou said, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”"
He meant this as a negative. Anyone believing in a global socialist future should not.
Leftists in the west and globally would do well to pay more attention.