The United States and China are locked in a geopolitical conflict that is shaping the trajectory of the twenty-first century. As democratic socialists living in the US, we have a responsibility to understand the dynamics driving this conflict so we can work effectively to ratchet down tensions, combat domestic anti-China rhetoric, and promote greater US-China cooperation on the major problems facing humanity – above all, climate change.
Tobita Chow and Jake Werner are two of the most perceptive analysts of US-China relations on the American Left. They recently spoke with Socialist Forum on a wide range of topics: the nature of China’s social and political system, the factors driving US-China conflict, the US Left’s approach to China and international politics generally, and more. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Socialist Forum: How should we understand, in general terms, China’s social and political system?
Jake Werner: I think we should understand China as a part of the system of global neoliberalism. But it also stands out from other countries because it integrated into the global system in an unusual way. It integrated in ways that allowed it to be more successful than other poor countries that also were integrated into neoliberalism and this dynamic makes it, in some respects, appear to be outside of neoliberalism. I think this is where a lot of the disagreements on the Left about the nature of the Chinese system come from.
If you’ve lived in China for any time, or if you’ve studied the history of China from the 1980s to the present, you can see an identifiable set of neoliberal transformations in Chinese society. After Mao’s death in 1976, we see the society move from the collective to the individual, from a discourse of collective participation to one of individual motivation and entrepreneurship and self-responsibility, hard work. It happened at the level of institutions, which moved away from a centralized state-planned economy to a market-driven economy. It happened at the level of culture – a kind of analogue to Western multiculturalism rose in China out of what had been a really homogenizing culture.
So there’s been a parallel transformation of China and the rest of the world at the level of politics, economy, and culture over the last 40 years. And over the last 10 years there’s been a parallel transformation away from inequality, free market power, high levels of official corruption, and intense labor exploitation. The Chinese system is starting to move away from the features that defined it over the last 40 years. So the question here in part is, what was China and what is it becoming?
I would characterize China as part of global neoliberalism, but what makes it different is the way it transitioned into neoliberalism out of the previous form of accumulation. The state apparatus that was built between the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 and Mao’s death remained intact even as the strong states of collectivist accumulation collapsed elsewhere in the world. China was able to do this in part because it made this transition earlier. It began as early as any other place in the world, in the late 1970s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Deng and other leading figures were less rigidly attached to the planned economy than their counterparts in the Soviet bloc. They were also willing to employ really harsh repression, for example the mass killings that took place at Tiananmen Square in 1989. So the elite and the state structure remained intact through the period of transition to neoliberalism.
In China, the state administered neoliberal reform. In a lot of other places, neoliberal reform entailed the dismantling of the state. The substance of these reforms was the same, and China moved in the same direction as the rest of the world: towards greater inequality, greater social fluidity and individualism, the breakdown of egalitarian ideologies. Nonetheless, the state had a much more prominent role in administering this transformation in China than elsewhere. That has implications today, as China, like the rest of the world, moves out of neoliberalism. But I think it’s important to recognize that up until the last five years or so that neoliberal identity had not been repudiated in any important way, even though the state had a much stronger role in it than most other countries.
Tobita Chow: China is now a capitalist society, socially and politically, although it has a much stronger and in some ways more competent state than, say, the US. But the setup is fundamentally consistent with the capitalist system, and it’s increasingly authoritarian and nationalistic.
What are the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s main objectives, at home in China and in the world at large?
Jake: At one level, the CCP is a very typical status quo ruling class. They want to maintain economic growth and the legitimacy of the existing political system. Those are two sides of the same coin, because you can’t maintain legitimacy without growth, and you can’t maintain growth if everything is falling apart politically. That’s a very natural and understandable perspective for an established elite. We can understand why they think these things would be good, because when you don’t have growth and you don’t have political legitimacy, you have chaos and you have people ripping each other apart. So at one level it’s just a very basic, conservative ruling class ideology oriented to stability and growth. They understand what they’re doing as helping the people by maintaining their own power, and that conception helps them understand what they’re doing in ways that legitimize the system, at least in their eyes, if not always in the eyes of the people.
That’s the starting point for understanding everything else: modes of economic management, the need to repress popular protests, the various foreign policy initiatives that have become increasingly confrontational in recent years. All of that comes down to maintaining growth and legitimacy.
Tobita: This is a really important framework for understanding the rise of China globally. US commentators often interpret in the most sinister possible terms, rather than understanding what purposes that serves in terms of China’s domestic politics and economic priorities. China has to maintain economic growth, and given what has happened within the Chinese economy in the past decade this requires expanding its power economically on the global stage.
China also has very legitimate concerns about being choked off in various ways by the United States, given that the US is the incumbent hegemonic power. There are potential economic and military threats China feels like it has to protect itself against. Closely related to those things is Chinese nationalism. There is a sense that China is reclaiming its rightful place on the world stage after being in a subordinate position for decades.
Jake: We should recognize both the conservative impulses at play here as well as the possible openings for progressive movement. China has been extremely successful within neoliberalism, but has done it in a way that draws the condemnation of the dominant powers, mainly the US but the West in general. This generates resentment on the part of the Communist Party elite and a sense that the people who hold power in the global system are out to get them. They say, “Well, we’ve been successful. We’ve done what we’re supposed to do, which is keep the economy growing and raise incomes, and we did it. Why aren’t you applauding us?” And instead everyone is denouncing them and saying they’re terrible. This resentment drives nationalism, which is a reactionary impulse that motivates a desire to climb within the global hierarchy. China’s not trying to abolish the global hierarchy, it’s trying to gain what the elite imagines to be its rightful place in it. So that’s a very conservative impulse that affirms the standards within the global system.
On the other hand, this resentment also motivates a sense of injustice concerning existing global inequalities that prevent poor countries from developing. And that impulse, which has a lot of progressive possibilities if it were to be taken in the right direction and institutionalized in the right way, is believed just as genuinely as the American foreign policy elite believes in democracy. There’s a parallel here. In substance, the American foreign policy elite’s commitment to democracy is uneven at best, of course. The US constantly betrays and undermines democracy. But nonetheless, they believe in it, and that means that there are progressive possibilities that we can push the country toward. We don’t have to destroy the American state in order to win democratic reforms, we can force it to make good on what it says its ideals are.
The same is true of China. People in the US who are critical of China treat the ideology as just cynical, self-serving window dressing. I think that’s wrong, they really do believe in it. But again, the people who run the state are not fundamentally driven by ideology most of the time, they’re driven by the desire to maintain their power. The ideology is an important part of that, and it offers certain opportunities to people who can make demands that the party follow through on the promises they’re making.
In recent years we’ve seen student activists latch onto the party’s Marxist ideological heritage and organize in solidarity with working people in China – only to be repressed, like in the case of the Jasic workers.
Jake: The Jasic case really illustrates some of the dynamics here. The locus of that organizing started at Beijing University, which is the most prestigious university in China. The Marxist students who were trying to help workers organize a union had a Marxism club there. The party kind of lost its mind over this and imprisoned them and shut down the Marxism club. When they reopened the Marxism club, the first thing that they had them read was Confucius. That just is like a blaring siren about the conservative nature of the party elite. What does the Communist Party’s reading of Confucius teach us? It teaches us to obey, essentially.
That’s such a contrast with the Mao-era campaigns against Confucius and his supposed followers. Both of you have alluded to this already, but it seems like the mode of CCP rule has become more authoritarian over the last decade or so. China was, in many ways, a lot more freewheeling under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. What are some of the domestic and international factors behind the shift? Does it just reflect Xi Jinping’s ascension to power and his own personal preferences and ambitions, or is there something deeper going on than just a personnel change at the top?
Tobita: It is definitely not just the individual personality of Xi Jinping. There’s a lot of weird commentary in the US that takes Xi’s personality and psychology as its starting point. Xi clearly has some talents or predilections for authoritarian and nationalist politics that he’s bringing to China. But I would say his moves in this direction meet a need the party elites felt for a more nationalistic and centralized form of politics. Xi draws his power from the fact that he’s meeting a need that is pretty widely felt in the Chinese ruling class.
We need to understand this as part of a global trend toward authoritarian and nationalist forms of politics in every continent and in multiple countries, including of course here in the United States. Our analysis is that this is ultimately a reaction to the growing dysfunctions of the neoliberal economy ever since the financial crisis in 2008-2009. Since then, there was so-called recovery from the financial crisis and the great recession but it has been very anemic. These conditions of very weak global growth and growing dysfunctions in the global economy create a breeding ground for this kind of nationalistic and authoritarian politics we’re seeing all around the world. And it is showing up in China in this particular way.
Jake: One thing I think we want to be careful to distinguish here is between authoritarianism and centralization. And these two things obviously can work together very well, but it’s not the case that centralization is the same thing as authoritarianism. When you’re dealing with the political and economic landscape of neoliberalism, which is highly fragmented, the kinds of state-led policy initiatives that are required to face up to the problems in the economy or the pandemic or climate change, those require a degree of centralization that from the standpoint of neoliberal ideology just looks like tyranny.
Countries can emerge from the breakdown of neoliberalism in a reactionary direction or in a progressive direction – and elements of both of those are present in the Chinese government – but the reactionary trend has been more dominant to this point. There are still progressive possibilities there, I think. Whether you’re coming out in either direction, you want to pursue centralization to try to overcome what you see as the maladies that have built up intolerably within the neoliberal system. And ultimately that’s where Xi Jinping comes from.
There was a consensus in the party elite that inequality and corruption and popular protest were getting out of control and were starting to threaten the legitimacy and the political power of the party. So that had to be addressed. How were they addressed? Well, through centralization to overcome what up to that point had been a highly fragmented political system. And then using that centralization to pursue initiatives like the enormous and apparently pretty effective anti-corruption campaign, which was Xi Jinping’s first big initiative. Now we’re seeing that approach being applied to problems that we would want any progressive government to address, and also to “problems” that are part of the life of a thriving democracy, like labor protests or demands for gender equality. All of that stuff is getting shut down because the party elite has concluded that they need to regiment the entire country behind their leadership in order to succeed in what, for understandable reasons, looks like increasingly intense and threatening international competition.
It seems like the party is trying to increase repression and responsiveness at the same time. Is that a fair encapsulation of the strategy here?
Jake: Pretty much, though I think the new economic course that has been unfolding over the last couple of months, the drive for “common prosperity,” is a more recent development. Up until about 2015, the Xi Jinping administration looked pretty committed to deepening market reform. The Chinese economy came very close to a major financial crisis in 2015, and I think that really sobered up a lot of the leadership about what possibilities there were. So it’s hard to distinguish how much of this is a response to events on the ground, and how much is what Xi and the party already planned to do anyway.
I don’t think Xi Jinping came into power with a well-formed vision aside from boosting the party’s legitimacy and firming up national unity behind these various projects. But I think that the further breakdown of the neoliberal global system is pushing the Chinese Communist Party in the same direction it’s pushing everyone else around the world. We really should try to understand China in that context rather than casting developments as wholly specific to China or to Xi Jinping.
Tobita: What we’re seeing now in China are genuine efforts to address issues of inequality and other social problems that cause popular discontent, and if they work out they’ll generally make a lot of working people’s lives better. But it’s paired with unrelenting and merciless crackdowns on any possible source of power that would allow people to organize themselves and give voice to this popular discontent. So there’s an effort to rein in corporate power while, at the same time, mercilessly shattering any hint of organization among the workers in those corporations.
I think it’s really important to understand both sides of the dynamic as we evaluate China today. This also points to a potential contradiction with the CCP’s current strategy. Consider how something similar might play out in the US. If an American president wanted to adopt policies that really took on corporate power and dealt with inequality without real backing from working-class organizations, would they succeed? I think that’s a real question, and I have no idea how that’s going to play out in China.
On that point, it looks like there’s some real pushback against Xi’s moves to impose something as basic as a property tax system because many party officials are opposed to it.
Tobita: Yeah. And it might help to mobilize the people who would benefit from this set of “common prosperity” policies, but they don’t want to do that because they’re afraid of any potential competing center of social and political power.
Jake: We’re making the point that China is moving along with much of the rest of the world towards greater nationalism, authoritarianism, centralization, a greater state role in the economy, even more egalitarian politics at the economic level, but also a more culturally repressive politics. One thing that really differentiates China: this is all happening in a much more top-down fashion there, so it’s also more advanced, I think, than in most other places. Other countries have not yet caught up, but they’re moving in the same direction.
A big part of where Xi Jinping comes from, and the thing that really galvanized the party elite behind greater centralization and greater authoritarianism, was a sort of upstart party leader named Bo Xilai. Bo was the party secretary in Chongqing, a province-level city which is a gigantic administrative unit, bigger than many countries in terms of population. And he, in the late aughts and early 2010s, was experimenting with genuinely populist forms of politics that the rest of the party elite saw as profoundly threatening. It threatened to unleash these popular energies and all of the dissatisfaction that had built up with corruption and inequality and pollution and abuse of workers. There was just boiling popular resentment at the end of the 2000s, and the party elite was terrified that this was all going to be unleashed against them. Bo Xilai made a play for political power through this, so he was mercilessly purged from the party. And now he’s imprisoned for life because of a very weird scandal that involved his wife being implicated in the murder of a foreign businessman. I mean, everyone should read about this really weird story around Bo Xilai. The party decided to tap into this populism that Bo unearthed but to do it in a top-down way, which means they’re not mobilizing these bottom-up energies. We’re in the middle of seeing whether this experiment in top-down populism can work and what “working” means.
Relations between the US and China have really deteriorated in recent years. Why is this happening, and does one or the other power bear primary responsibility for the deterioration?
Tobita: I don’t think allotting responsibility or blame to one side or the other is a useful way to analyze the situation. We need to understand this as a conflict being created by growing contradictions in the global system of neoliberal capitalism which is increasingly dysfunctional. And these conditions encourage countries to adopt the framework of zero-sum competition, where they have to compete with each other for a piece of the shrinking pie of global economic growth. That makes it feel like prosperity at home depends on sticking it to rivals abroad. This isn’t just happening between the US and China, but this is the most important case for global geopolitics.
On top of that climate of zero-sum competition, there’s also the specific competition between the US and China over the most advanced industries like tech and some parts of advanced manufacturing. That is another shift from previous decades, when China was a source of low-wage labor for US multinational corporations. Niall Ferguson used to talk about “Chimerica” because the economies were so integrated. That’s changed in the past decade, and a lot of that has to do with China’s reaction to the financial crisis and the resulting global recession. They engaged in this massive stimulus program that, compared to the size of the Chinese economy at the time, was just way bigger than what we were doing here in the US under Obama. And that jump-started a bunch of higher value industries in China. We see Chinese companies capable of competing with American and European companies not just for market share in China but in the global economy, like Huawei for example. That’s the foundation of the growing tensions.
It’s also important to look at how this all gets interpreted by Chinese and US elites. From the Chinese perspective, the US is reacting to the situation in ways that interfere with Chinese national sovereignty and China’s right to economic development. From the US side, they look at a lot of what China is doing as threats to human rights and democracy. These are narratives used to justify nationalism on each side, and each of them have some merit to them. That’s what makes them seem plausible. But together, they function to create a feedback loop between the two countries where an aggressive nationalist action by one country triggers a nationalistic response from the other country – and it spirals from there.
Jake: There’s a real failure on both sides to envision a global system in which both sides could prosper. The official ideology of the Communist Party is closer to something like a vision for how the whole world could prosper at the same time. But it’s missing some really key components, above all the power of labor, since Chinese development within neoliberalism was based on the repression of labor. They do have a commitment to global development, which I think has some potential for contributing to a bigger vision of how the global system could be changed so everyone could live and grow together and there isn’t a zero-sum struggle. So parts of a positive vision for the world are there on the Chinese side.
The US side has some parts of it too, at least rhetorically. The Biden administration talks a lot about labor rights. The US historically has done absolutely nothing on that though, so the commitment is pretty hard to believe. There’s also the idea of cultural pluralism, which is another important part of the Biden administration, if not the US in general. That’s a really essential part of the picture here too. The rise of nationalism and the suppression of multicultural politics is one of the worst reactions to the breakdown of neoliberalism, and that’s happening much, much more in China than it is here. But we’ll see what happens in the United States because the Republican Party obviously is moving very strongly in that direction too.
Ideally, the US commitment to multiculturalism and the Chinese priority on development, combined with an increase in the power of labor that an internationalist Left could promote, would lock together into a new system that would open up space for everyone to live together. That vision is missing on all sides. The neoliberal approach to governance is being repudiated, but what’s being substituted for it is a nationalist organization of the economy so that the nation can compete with others in the brutal zero-sum global economy. That’s a recipe for absolute disaster because societies will become increasingly organized along nationalist lines, the conflicts will increase, and the spiral that Tobita was talking about will just continue. It’s very hard to get out of that dynamic, which is being increasingly militarized. Under neoliberalism, the economy and military-strategic questions could be separated conceptually. They’re not separated conceptually anymore. Now, in China, the United States, around the world, everyone is talking about how national security and the economy are the same thing. Once we make that link, we’re on the road to massive international violence. It might take a little while to develop, but military tensions between the US and China have gone from zero to 80 in the last three years.
The US Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, recently gave a speech where she made some noises about a new course for US-China relations. She criticized the idea that the US and Chinese economies, which have been so intertwined, could plausibly be “decoupled.” But at the same time, she didn’t offer many details or anything really new, mostly just the same old complaints about Chinese industrial and trade policy and what have you. The Biden administration’s approach to China seems pretty confused, so far. They seem to want to have their cake and eat it too by combining a policy of “extreme competition,” as they call it, on one hand, with cooperation in a range of fields on the other.
Jake: Yeah, they keep saying that we should separate certain areas and cooperate on those things, and then we can have quite intense conflicts in other areas. And yet they also talk about China as a whole-of-society threat to American interests, and don’t seem to register the disconnect. The Biden people were really shaken by Trump’s victory in 2016. Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, had a very important role in the Hillary Clinton campaign, and he responded to the Trump victory by going back and trying to rethink a lot of his assumptions. Sullivan and a group of people around him drew some important conclusions—they really have moved away from some of the standard presumptions of the neoliberal US foreign policy that preceded Trump, and they’ve concluded that foreign policy needs to be connected to the everyday interests of regular Americans. But I think that they’re not very clear about how to achieve that.
They won’t put it in these terms, but essentially what they’re doing is trying to hoard jobs and profit for the United States. Their inability to think outside of this zero-sum logic means that their only solution is to maximize American and Western control over high-value sectors and job creation possibilities. This kind of rhetoric is all over the discussion of green investments, the Build Back Better Bill, and the Strategic Competition Act. All of the legislation is getting phrased in these terms, because that’s what they think made Trump successful and how they think they’ll protect themselves from attacks from the Right.
Tobita: There’s also this fantasy of how closing ranks against China will revive bipartisanship, which they keep going back to, even though there’s no evidence that this is actually happening.
Jake: The one bill that has gotten really strong bipartisan support is the Innovation and Competition Act, which was sold as something that will allow us to compete with China in the military and economic realms. So there’s something to the idea that you can get bipartisan support if you’re doing something to encourage conflict with China. But we’re not seeing the bigger aspiration, which is that we’re going to restore national unity by getting everyone on board with this epochal confrontation with an authoritarian superpower, happening at all.
Tobita: When it comes to trade policy, the Biden administration is fundamentally staying the course the Trump administration set out under the influence of people like Steve Bannon. So, big win for Steve Bannon. The other issue that seems central for the Biden administration is China’s use of industrial policy, which is criticized as a so-called unfair practice. This is certainly reactionary, in the sense that it reinforces the neoliberal dogma that industrial policy and centralized economic planning is always bad. It’s also horribly hypocritical, given that a core part of the Biden domestic economic agenda is an embrace of industrial policy for the US domestic economy.
So this contradiction is extremely glaring. I’m always surprised that mainstream liberal commentators seem to miss it, but I think it’s going to have real consequences at some point because it’s going to be noticed, not just by China, but also other countries around the world – particularly countries in the global south that have been punished by the US for trying to pursue these sorts of policies. If I were in the US ruling class, I would worry about how the US can maintain legitimacy globally while maintaining this very obvious contradiction.
Jake: You can see an opening there for something really positive, where the Chinese record of economic development is extraordinary. It came on the back of horrifying exploitation and mass death. According to Chinese government statistics, 1.7 million people have died in unsafe workplaces over the last 20 years. But nonetheless, in contrast to other countries that entered neoliberalism as poor countries, China really made a huge breakthrough that has massively improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It’s a really extraordinary story. To understand why it had to be such a brutal process, we need to put that in the larger context of neoliberal globalization. There’s a diplomatic opening here to recognize the achievements of the Chinese ruling class, affirm them and say, “Yes, this was great. And you know what? We’re not just going to praise the success of the developmental strategy here, we’re also going to make greater use of it because we need these techniques if we’re going to survive climate change, and we need to distribute them across the entire world so that everyone can use the power of the state to direct what the market is going to do for the good of humanity.” If we connected that with a decent labor regime, that would actually be more powerful because it would put money in people’s pockets.
There’s an opening here, but the Biden administration is not seeing it. What a huge missed opportunity, and it indicates how powerful corporate interests still are in the Democratic Party (as if everything that’s happening legislatively with the reconciliation bill doesn’t already prove that). A lot of new ideological space has actually opened up in the Democratic Party compared to just a few years ago. The Democratic Party can think in much more interesting ways now, ways that are much friendlier to the Left. But on the other hand, there are still certain key commitments blocking a positive vision for the global economy.
It’s certainly true that the rise of Bernie Sanders, DSA, and the US Left in general has made an impact, but this has been almost entirely focused on domestic concerns. For better or worse, the US Left has been able to get away with talking almost exclusively about domestic issues and not very much about international and foreign policy questions. How would you assess the Left’s current capacity to think about and act on international questions in general, and regarding China in particular?
Tobita: I think internationalism is at a historic low for the US Left right now, certainly compared to the 1960s or even during the height of the global justice movement in the 1990s. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that this is a real weakness and vulnerability for the US Left. The US-China relationship is a particularly pressing case, because it’s the place where these growing contradictions in the global system are becoming very relevant to politics in the United States. There’s been a turn towards anti-China nationalism in both parties, but I think we should be particularly concerned about the more violent and conspiratorial forms that it’s taking on the Right.
We see Republican strategy memos talking about how they’re going to use anti-China narratives to position themselves within electoral politics. One of their narratives is going to be, “The biggest threat to US workers is China. You should vote for Republicans because we’re more anti-China and because the Democrats are weaker on China, which shows that they don’t care about the working class.” It’s how they’re going to position themselves as pro-worker, and it’s going to be applied to other issue areas as well. So it’s going to be harder and harder to avoid these questions, and I think we need to build up internationalism in the US Left very quickly to deal with this. When it comes to understanding China and the US-China relationship, I think it’s gotten a lot better recently in a lot of ways, but overall China’s poorly understood. So we need a lot of investment in political education and international solidarity work. A lot of that has to do with very real obstacles facing US-China solidarity work that have existed for a long time and are getting worse. But these are some real weaknesses we need to deal with.
Jake: To the extent that the Left is thinking about US foreign policy, it’s often really one-sidedly about the US. As Leftists, we are rightly critical of US society and US actions in the world, but we really need to conceptualize what the US is doing in its foreign policy and what the possibilities for progressive politics are globally, rather than starting from the standpoint of the United States is doing something bad.
The United States is doing a bunch of bad things, and those should be opposed. As people in the US, we have a special responsibility to prevent the terrible things that US foreign policy often does. But the solution is not to just stop there and have a solely negative approach to things. If we’re serious about winning power, and I think we should be, we need a vision for what that looks like. As Leftists and internationalists, I would hope that’s a vision that reaches beyond our national borders. What kind of a global system could, at least in the short term, prevent the movement towards really horrifying conflicts that we’re currently experiencing? Beyond that, how do we open up possibilities for countries that have been subordinated to grow and develop? How do we open up possibilities for life in the global working class to be significantly improved, and make all of this compatible with our liberatory cultural politics?
That needs to be the level of ambition we’re thinking at, and that has really been missing. Instead, we have just a knee-jerk response to any sort of aggressive US foreign policy. The United States is the most powerful country in the world. It has a huge influence over what the global system is going to look like. How can we use that to bring about a system that would open up possibilities for progressive change in the entire world, not just in the United States? That’s the question I think we really need to be addressing seriously.
Tobita: One important mindset we need to get over is the habit of looking at international affairs in very moralistic terms, where we see our job as categorizing different countries into who’s good and who’s bad. And if they’re good, then they’re on our side, and if they’re bad, we have to crush them. This is a very common way of looking at the world among liberals, but it’s also all too common on the Left. This is just not a sufficient framework for understanding how the world actually works and what we need to do about it. If you adopt this framework, then you just cannot understand China the way that we need to. Both China and the US have within them some progressive potential, both have within them reactionary potential. Both are doing some horrible things. It’s just a fact about both countries. Our analysis has to be on that basis – where’s the potential for progressive movement and where’s the potential for reaction, in the US, China, and everywhere else?
Some on the Left argue that we should just focus on getting our house in order and opposing American foreign policy, and not worry about criticizing Chinese policy in Xinjiang or Hong Kong, or about labor repression, or about democracy and human rights in general, on the grounds that this just manufactures consent for US imperial strategy. What do you make of that kind of argument?
Tobita: We reject it. It is certainly true that US imperialists will use human rights arguments to justify their policies. That’s a problem we need to deal with. But the correct strategy is not to reject the promotion of human rights and democracy, but rather to reject the idea that US imperialism is ever going to be the tool to promote those values in the world. That’s the fight that we have to pick. The opening for Left foreign policy in the US right now, I think, includes laying claim to the values of human rights and democracy and saying that it’s our approach to the world that will actually promote these values, not current US foreign policy.
These US imperialists talk a good game but they’re faking it. We know from history, and we know from current trends, that this escalating conflict with China, if we allow it, will be waged under the banner of human rights and democracy, even as it inevitably leads the US to be complicit in violations of human rights and democracy around the world in the name of countering China. We’ve already seen this, for example, in US support for the highly repressive and violent regimes in India and the Philippines. We are giving weapons to President Duterte in the Philippines, and the biggest reason why the US cannot stop doing that is because the Philippines is just too crucial an ally to cultivate in its China strategy.
So our approach has to claim these values of human rights and democracy, which if you took them seriously have radical implications that are inconsistent with the priorities of the foreign policy establishment. This approach is consistent with our values, and it’s also the most effective strategy for us in the context of US politics. We have the potential to build power for a progressive foreign policy and make it a more dominant force in US politics. But if we reject claims to human rights and democracy, that is ultimately a self-marginalizing and self-defeating strategy. There’s simply no space, no mass audience in the United States for a kind of politics that says “You know what? People in Hong Kong don’t actually deserve democracy. Concentration camps in Xinjiang are not happening, or if they are, that’s actually okay.” There’s no space for that form of politics. There are no progressive champions in Congress who are going to work with a Left that adopts that perspective. It is a powerless and self-marginalizing strategy that isn’t going to work.
On the other hand, if we critique the US-China great power rivalry in a way that is consistent with the values of human rights and democracy, and actually lay claim to that, then I think there is a way forward for us and the potential to win some real foreign policy fights in the United States.
Jake: The US-China conflict is about, on both sides, drawing a sharp distinction between the self and the other, even though a lot of the practices in the two countries are really strongly parallel. If you imagine that there is some radical difference between you and the other, then you can interpret away these really strong parallels. There’s massive inequality and corruption in both the US and China. There are horrible labor abuses and exploitation in both countries. Collective goods are unaffordable in both countries, it’s hard to access healthcare. It’s hard to get decent schooling, it is hard to get a decent pension. There’s deprivation and poverty in both countries. Both countries maintain concentration camps. Police violence and misogyny are deep features of both societies. The entire left-wing program for the US, right down the list, are the same concerns that most animate people in China. That’s because we exist in a global system that aligns our fates. We in the United States are systematically connected to life in China through the global economy and through global geopolitics. What nationalists want to do is separate these two and imagine that they are unconnected and different, and then the one is turned against the other. To say that we should just not be concerned about the horrifying abuses of ethnic minorities in China, or that we should not care about the terrible repression that is visited on people who are critical of their society in China, affirms that binary.
It says, “Yes, we are not related to those people. Those people have nothing to do with us. They are not the proper object of our solidarity. Our concern is our people. Their concern is their people. We don’t care.” It’s just a profoundly reactionary political stance to say that our solidarity does not belong with people in other countries.
Tobita: In my experience, the most effective counter to nationalistic narratives against China is if you can get people to a place of feeling solidarity with their counterparts in China. So my starting point in doing work on the US-China relationship is doing labor solidarity, worker solidarity and trying to build on that. If you can get people in the US to understand that the US working class and the working class in China have a lot of the same struggles, a lot of shared interests and same enemies, that is the most powerful counter to the nationalistic anti-China narratives that Americans are fed on a daily basis now.
In order to get people to that point, they have to understand the position of workers in China, and you can’t understand that without understanding how the Chinese state is collaborating with Chinese capitalists to oppress the working class in China. So solidarity is the most powerful counter to anti-China nationalism. What ought to be the bare bones starting point for Left internationalism is this idea of workers’ solidarity, instead of what I would say is apologetics for China’s government. The Hong Kong labor movement has historically played a crucial role in connecting labor organizers in mainland China to labor organizers in the US and the rest of the world. And this is being lost right now thanks to the crackdown in Hong Kong. For those of us who’ve done any of this work, it’s just a tremendous, tremendous loss.
What do you think an organization like DSA can do to promote a more constructive relationship between the US and China, and to promote a vision for a progressive global order?
Jake: The baseline needs to be a critique of the idea that international confrontation can achieve anything desirable. Progressives need to drive home the point that international conflict will never, ever improve human rights. It will never, ever establish democracy. It will always damage those things in the object of US aggression and in the United States itself. So a fundamental opposition to aggressive, conflict-oriented US foreign policy is the first thing.
The second thing is we need a positive agenda for the global economy, a vision of how this can be achieved, of why creating jobs in developing countries would help create jobs in the United States, and why the interests of the working class around the world are actually aligned. We need to develop the policy, and then we need to figure out the politics. And the politics is hard because neoliberalism has left us feeling like we as individuals are in competition with the entire world. In that kind of really intense, zero-sum competitive environment, it’s not that hard to make the case that you’re going to lose out to people in other places If you don’t beat them first. I think there’s no question that the interests of the working class are aligned globally, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make that connection to the average person who has grown up in this very brutally competitive society. So we need to figure out the politics around that.
Bringing that back to the US-China question, if we were to achieve a progressive system that has enough space for everyone, that would really weaken the foundations of the Right because it’s much harder to turn people against each other when they’re all succeeding together. If we’re to achieve that, it really requires the US and China to get on the same page on these issues. So we need to not just have a negative perspective on US-China relations in terms of just opposing conflict, we also need to figure out the policy program and politics of creating US-China cooperation around these essential global issues like development, labor rights, climate change, pandemic disease. These are all massively urgent places where we need US-China cooperation, and it’s not happening at all. So this should be at the center of our foreign policy agenda.
Tobita: Right now climate is a particularly fruitful place for us to push the need for US-China cooperation. Short term, we push for that cooperation as the alternative to conflict and competition. We also oppose the bad stuff, trade war and militarism. I think another very important front is anti-racism and connecting the growth of anti-China narratives to the rise of anti-Asian racism. There’s an opening for us there. And there is also a fight to be waged within the Democratic Party where we see Democrats adopting these anti-China narratives that are typically much exaggerated. One of the key arguments we need to figure out how to make is that this is just the worst terrain on which to try to resist the rise of the racist authoritarian Right. If we use these xenophobic narratives, we’re just adding fuel to the fire that the Right is going to feed off of.
All of this has to point towards this positive vision for the global economy that Jake talked about. Our position should be that we need more and better industrial policy in China, in the US, and all around the world. That should be part of the basis for a new global economy that overcomes the failures of neoliberal globalization. That’s going to be both good for people around the world. It’s going to relieve some of these dysfunctions in neoliberal globalization and it also indirectly attacks this key economic grievance that the US ruling class uses against China.
And long term, the kind of politics we need is working-class-led solidarity at the grassroots between the US and China. We’re in a situation now where that is increasingly impossible because of crackdowns in China driven by nationalism, as well as increasing nationalism here in the United States. Building this kind of international solidarity is close to impossible now, it’s only become more difficult.
We need to get to a place where we dial down the nationalistic tensions, so we as the Left can engage in that kind of work again. And these measures we’re talking about to get to a relationship between the US and China that is based more on cooperation and less on competition and conflict is how we’re going to get to that point.