China, the Chinese Diaspora, and Internationalism from Below

The complexity of US-China relations poses both challenges and opportunities to internationalist organizing in the US.

Earlier versions and parts of this piece appeared as invited talks earlier this year for DSA San Francisco’s Political Education committee and Solidarity’s internal membership call on “China, the U.S. and Global Supremacy.” The author would like to thank the organizers and participants of those events for helping to improve the ideas in this essay. – eds.

In light of the US-China tensions—or what some on the left label “the New Cold War”—what does an “internationalism from below” look like? How should we as socialists conjoin our internationalist campaigns with building independent mass power against our own capitalist state? The Chinese government today, like the US government, is an undeniably reactionary regime facilitating the operations of global capitalism. But the increasing tensions between that regime and ours reasonably call for us to think intentionally about how we formulate our organizing strategy as socialists. An effective praxis can only flow from an accurate understanding of global political conditions. State and economic elites have given us a false framing and analysis of these conditions: pitched as a clash between the civilization of “democracy” against one of “authoritarianism,” the dominant response by the US establishment is a bipartisan campaign to disastrously build upon the Trump administration’s hawkish posturing. “Anti-China” bills like the Strategic Competition Act would put tens of billions of dollars into the US military and its allies in the Indo-Pacific per year. The DSA International Committee’s campaign to resist such efforts as part of the organization’s “No New Cold War” mandate is indeed an important start.

But activists ranging from pro-democracy anti-CCP dissidents to left-wing anti-imperialists have lined themselves up on two sides of this “New Cold War” narrative. The internationalist left should begin instead from a different framing that is attuned to the complexities of the material conditions. I aim to discuss two main avenues here. The first is linking up local movements at strategic sites of struggle to target the infrastructures of global capitalism from which US and Chinese state and economic elites draw their power. The second is developing more intentional programs for Chinese diaspora organizing in social movement spaces, building cells of militant immigrant organizers that can contribute to domestic struggles as well as providing a bridge to movements back home in and around China.

These strategies build on a different analysis of global conditions than the one offered by the “No New Cold War” campaign. The contradictions of the global neoliberal order are not confined to an easy binary between the two nation-states. Operating at the interstices of the national rivalry is an ever-shifting paradigm of inter-imperial collaboration and competition between US and Chinese entities, bolstered by the interests of transnational corporations. Imperialism is a world-system that functions as a complex network that sometimes pits state and economic elites against one another, while at other times allying them against others. The class division of the world remains durable. To borrow an analogy from early modern historian Lawrence Stone, ruling class composition functions like “a bus or a hotel, always full, but always filled with different people.” These different people, like US and Chinese elites, sometimes find themselves in conflict, and these relations of power sometimes affect the material conditions of working people for better or worse depending on a number of factors, but the fundamentally uneven relationship to the means of production between classes remains resilient. Another analogy is being a worker at a company whose board of directors or branches clash at times, or work smoothly together, at others. Their conflicts or collaborations might sometimes cause adjustments to workers’ bargaining power for their own factional gains, but ultimately the hierarchy of the workplace, and where the power lies, remains unchanged.

The US-China rivalry doesn”t fundamentally shift the base structure of global neoliberalism, but sees different players fighting for control over the same pie, or what Esteban Mora calls “mutual profiting within a global financial bourgeoisie.” The exacerbation of this conflict would harm working people worldwide, but the cooling of the conflict—without an alternative political vision and organizing plan from the left—might also not necessarily lead to a different result. Brazil’s soybean trade is an excellent example in this regard. China’s voracious demand for Amazon soy plays directly into the deforestation of Indigenous lands—the easing or exacerbation of the US-China trade war would simply see the region’s resources exploited by different capitalist factions. Xi Jinping put it best in his recent speech at the World Economic Forum: all his advocated reforms for a better, more inclusive multipolar world system rests on “uphold[ing] the multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organization at its center,” while “China will continue to let the market play a decisive role in resource allocation.” Reinforcing this “unified, open, competitive and orderly market system” means showing support to free-trade agreements from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to Regional Comprehensive Economic Plan (RCEP) and promoting “mutual benefit and win-win results.” Indeed, China, as one of the highest-voting members of the IMF today, has historically played, and in some ways continues to play, a sub-imperial role to the global North. This sub-imperial framework shows signs of giving way to something more like an “inter-imperial” relationship, characterized by more complex and malleable interlinked layers of collaboration and competition. While activist-researchers have been divided in categorizing the US-China relationship today as an instance of “sub-imperialism” or “inter-imperial rivalry”, these perspectives need not be opposed to one another. We can take seriously the emerging imperialist tendencies of Chinese bourgeoisie on its own terms, while recognizing that it nonetheless still operates within, not against, a global capitalist system tethered to Western hegemony and institutions.

Regardless of how one characterizes the exact relationship between US and Chinese capital, one thing is certain: both anchor an interconnected global system opposed to wealth redistribution and systemic change. An anti-militarist position from the left must also account for how the interests of rivaling nation-states continue to be entangled with one another through multilateral institutions and corporations. In other words, the anti-war left’s old rule of thumb—that one should first and foremost oppose one’s own national bourgeoisie—becomes not untrue, but increasingly inadequate in today’s age of globalization, when our ruling class’ interests and sources of power are bound up with those of other countries. As Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò reminds us, our social system’s ruling class is no closed “council of people,” but “a spectrum of power” or “the highest level of the competition” that throws the likes of Lockheed Martin and Vanguard and the “upper echelons of the CCP, US, and Russia” into a same arena from which we are fully excluded.

Anti-globalization From Below 

This “internationalism from above” calls for various strategies of struggles from below that focused on where state elites really draw their power. Taking a page from the anti-globalization movements of the late 1990s and early 2000s, organizing against global institutions and infrastructures that implicate state and corporate actors across geopolitical blocs becomes all the more important. Activists and organizations can conduct political education and outreach with their local bases to develop campaigns that do not exceptionalize China’s “crimes” but target its real sources of power that are inextricable to Western-led imperial organs. In fact, the idea that we must choose between opposing US militarism and standing up for human rights issues in China puts us in a false dilemma. The legitimate call to dismantle the US military-industrial complex should be inseparable from demands to dismantle its other wings and organs—oil companies, international financiers, logistical infrastructures, etc—which are integrally tied to the interests of the Chinese state and capital.

These entities, ever more developed, function as shared sources of power for both hegemons that are incredibly resilient against even their points of competition. Chevron, for example, continues to operate in tight allegiance with PetroChina in multiple sites of extraction throughout the trade war. The Chinese state-backed Andes Petroleum, building on extractive infrastructures put in place by Texaco, has long faced pushback from Indigenous peoples like the Sapara Nation for operations in Ecuador. And in fact, activism against oil corporations and extraction has long been happening, but the left has rarely developed programs that can comprehend and situate those campaigns as part of a larger internationalist and anti-war platform. In other words, international solidarity for socialists should not be waging a separate campaign divorced from ecosocialists or climate justice groups’ organizing against transnational corporations. Let’s reframe how we choose and form campaigns in our committees: internationalist groups can be offering internationalist support and facilitation to these existing local efforts, instead of funneling resources into campaigns that focus on a selective offensive against Western-led imperial institutions. To stop at defunding the US military in the Indo-Pacific without also tackling Western imperialism’s other subsidiary institutions that Chinese state elites benefit from is to limit the horizons of anti-imperialism. Some might argue that such alternatives to the more straightforward “No New Cold War” campaign might be more unfocused and burdensome for organizers. But “No New Cold War” prioritizes simple messaging at the expense of concrete benefits in the long-run that can actually shift the terrain of global capitalism.

To delve deeper into what an alternate internationalist campaign can achieve, we can look at the benefits of organizing against free trade agreements and the entanglements of global logistical infrastructures, which centrally organize the capitalist system in a way that neutralizes independent labor power. This year marked the beginning of the Chinese-led RCEP’s implementation, which now rivals the US-led TPP as the dominant free-trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region. Decried for years by labor activists in the Indo-Pacific region, RCEP represents the deepening of the just-in-time methods of the neoliberal labor management regime, containing no policy at all regarding labor and environmental issues. This is even worse than the TPP’s guidelines. RCEP’s solution to recent global supply chain issues is to boost and expedite production at the expense of protecting workers’ rights. The “No New Cold War” paradigm prevents us from building concrete solidarity with anti-RCEP activists, and completely overlooks and provides no concrete solution to the basic operations of global neoliberalism that implicates both China and the economies of the global North. But as scholar-activist Charmaine Chua observes in her investigations abroad vessels along the East Asian seaports, “where mammoth logistical economies rise, so too do its unruly remainders.” What activists call “counter-logistics” organizing can focus on building solidarity between these unruly remainders from the ports of East Asia to the US West Coast. A counter-logistical project, taking the lead of workers who have been organizing stoppages and strikes at the choke-points of the global economy, can be bolstered with a keen understanding of how authoritarian states and so-called liberal democracies work in tandem to shape global supply chains.

In other words, what organizing possibilities can we unlock if we reframe struggles against authoritarian capitalist powers in China and East Asia from a matter of “human rights” to a matter of the containment of independent politics—one that works through a continuous machinery of repression that works from the ballot box to the workplace? This would entail thinking of the work of “international” or “anti-imperialist solidarity” in the West as inseparable from the workplace struggles that connect US and Chinese workers along a global supply chain that guarantees the relations of power today. As activist-researcher Lee Wengraf writes, “while the world’s working classes might be differently-positioned within supply and production chains, those same working classes share the same interests within a wider system built on profit.” In fact, the kinds of work stoppages, blockades, and other forms of actions happening domestically already threaten the interests of those reaping the benefits of production and supply chains in China and beyond. The key for internationalists is to sharpen, empower, and connect such struggles—to continue to articulate the internationalist components of these local fights.

Sometimes the interconnections between US and Chinese capital appear even more tangibly in local struggles, which we tend to overlook as key sites of internationalist organizing.

Kayapó Mekrãgnoti protestors recently launched a physical blockade targeting key Brazilian commodities shipment routes that critically interrupted the interests of Brazilian agribusiness companies, Chinese funders, and US corporations. These struggles and existing organizing work against other branches of the same companies in the US can be powerfully complementary. In another example, local community members and allies recently won a long fight against the city-backed gentrifying rezoning project in New York City’s Sunset Park neighborhood, Industrial Park, which had been funded with hundreds of millions of dollars in loans by the Chinese state-owned Bank of China at one point as the senior lender. This is one example of Chinese transnational capital directly working with US city governments to finance gentrifying developments that threaten the livelihoods of the working-class Chinese diaspora, among other communities of color. As scholar-activist Tarry Hum notes, initiatives like EB-5 visas (overwhelmingly dominated by mainland Chinese investors), which grant overseas bourgeois green cards in exchange for investments, became what one developer called “legalized crack cocaine” for the real estate industry in the US since the 2008 financial crisis. These can be concrete opportunities to organize with and shift anti-CCP diaspora organizers—who have long been ignored by the left and are often easily co-opted by the right-wing—into new movement terrains that productively fights Chinese state capital in its entanglements with US state and corporate interests. In organizing against destructive “anti-China” programs like the racist “China Initiative” or the Pentagon bills, we must offer the anti-CCP diaspora a concrete organizing alternative—or the left will continue to remain irrelevant at best to such communities. In turn, we can support local activists to fill in the appropriate organizing gaps that can take existing struggles up another level, or design programming and campaigns that connect local struggles while amplifying their transnational components, like the work of the NOlympics coalition based in Los Angeles.

The Chinese Diaspora and Independent Mass Politics

Rethinking the key pressure points for internationalist praxis with China would be lacking without crafting an intentional organizing strategy toward Chinese diaspora communities. While it is now difficult to provide concrete material solidarity for workers and organizers in Hong Kong and the mainland without endangering the safety of those on the ground at this current moment, we must not rule out the importance of the Chinese diaspora. The essential task of organizing anti-Sinophobic solidarity demands looking at how Chinese diaspora communities can independently grasp collective power in their own right. This means attending to the unique material conditions that have historically prohibited various Chinese working-class communities from establishing themselves as their own independent political force. Those that straddle the difficult line between US and China, such as international students, are best poised to translate political experience and resources between diaspora community organizing and mainland political work. Thus, supporting diaspora communities with internationalist concerns or interests to practice building independent social movements can help expand the capacities of independent mass organizing more broadly in the US and in China.

And yet, DSA and most left-wing movements have no coherent campaign to provide a political infrastructure for them, despite all the collective intention around combatting rising Sinophobia in light of the US-China tensions. In fact, US socialist organizations have had no program or vision for organizing Chinese American communities since the time of I Wor Kuen decades ago, with rare exceptions like Leftroots. And perhaps none has properly attuned to the specific concerns and positionalities of the Chinese and other Sinophone diaspora. For example, how can we create intentional opportunities for entry for Chinese students in ongoing social movements, uplifting their efforts to organize independently while inviting their voices to shape our programs and campaigns with their own community interests in mind? Chinese Students and Activists Network (CSA) has been at the forefront of organizing important programming that introduce Chinese-speaking students to social movements by connecting them to activists on the ground. From the Black Lives Matter movement in 2019 to the ongoing sexual harassment cases in China like Xianzi and Peng Shuai, Chinese diaspora organizers, through organizations like CSA, Chinese Feminist Collective, and Chinese for Black Lives, have developed new pathways for Chinese diaspora communities to plug into feminist and anti-racist movement work. In Los Angeles Chinatown, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) activists are experimenting with ways to facilitate local Chinese immigrant high school students’ participation in ongoing tenants’ struggles around them.

This does not mean working to completely absorb them and their organizing work into DSA or any other socialist or left-wing group. It means supporting their capacity for independent organization while providing them with avenues to help shape our local and national priorities and campaigns. This may mean intentionally building dual membership and collaborative initiatives with diaspora organizations, like the ones mentioned above, in the form of what Chicago-based DSA member Joanna Misnik calls “offering affiliation” with other organizations led by people of color such that they are “coalesced with the DSA.” Such a strategy, as she describes, would “honor the fact that these organizations [independently] exist, while cementing our common bond beyond a punctual coalitional meeting.” Even more specifically, DSA’s housing justice work can complement or benefit from joint organizing with Chinatown organizations currently organizing against gentrification. We can also provide resources to support these students’ political development and material conditions, such as collaborating with trusted community organizations to create fellowships that fit Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa requirements, allowing immigrant students to work and stay in the country. Political issues back home can serve as catalysts for political gatherings, especially among diaspora who are more engaged in news back home than social movements in their country of residence. At Columbia University in 2019, mainland and Hongkonger students self-organized forums, inspired by counterparts in Australia, to work through the complexities of feelings and positions around the Hong Kong protest movement together across political standpoints, producing a replicable model distilled into a guide. To amplify and build these programs means carefully attending to how any political work here can bring about severe consequences for these communities back home, given China’s increasingly repressive atmosphere, thus requiring us to listen to diaspora activists to introduce better security protocols in our organizing. These spaces can become sites of practice for political conversations, and organically build cohesion among immigrant students that can be channeled for participation in broader mass movements where they are located, like student strikes. Thus, international issues do not have to be confined as the insular domain of left “anti-imperialist” experts, but can serve as an avenue to better organize immigrants and refugees into the broader mass movement.

By organizing students and other diaspora communities, we materially provide avenues to support Chinese diaspora participation in independent mass politics—which can both enable more effective organizing and outreach among immigrant communities here while in turn developing political expertise that can be shared back home. As Chinese diaspora activist Mengyang Zhao writes, “The unique positionality of diaspora activists, however, is related to their organizing experiences back home, which render them more sensitive to differences in organizing models and difficulties of building solidarity. Their comparative insights thus serve as bridges between movements under different political contexts.” As Chinese subjects face unprecedented threats of civil liberties, the diaspora would continue to function as an important organizing base. A key part of internationalist praxis is to think long-term, to build a transnational base of organizers that can preserve necessary organizing experiences—while learning new ones in different milieus—in the midst of repression. On the flip side, these immigrant communities may provide movements here with an energized base to push back against right-wing co-optation of diaspora communities. This is an increasingly large base, and we are already seeing the costs of continuing to leave diaspora communities fleeing from nominally left-wing regimes to the anti-communist right: more and more organized support for the electoral right among some communities of color, as the left continues to abandon an ever-growing organizing base.

In addition, while public organizing and programming remain increasingly impossible with and for organizers on the ground in China, there is still ample capacity for private or semi-private activist-to-activist exchanges. This does not mean giving up on the work of building power as an independent mass movement. It recognizes that when immediate avenues for such a task remains risky and impossible, activists can engage in the long but important work of cultivating the seeds and laying the foundations for future movements. The early days of the May Fourth movement in China saw a minority of diaspora intellectuals and revolutionaries who brought back invaluable experience from their political experiences abroad that would later pivotally shape the course of mass movements. We can expand on this model in a number of ways. For one, students and allies with experience organizing in their workplaces in recent labor upsurges can share back workplace organizing experiences with their counterparts in Hong Kong or China. Anti-TPP organizers can connect with union organizers in Asia who have been organizing against RCEP to share strategies and build solidarity. The US left often underestimates how thoroughly erased traditions of independent workers’ organizing are in these regions thanks to decades of repression by the CCP. We can create and facilitate opportunities for resources and experience-sharing for people to adopt the positive aspects of others’ movement experiences into their own context of struggle. These encounters may not lead to immediate changes, but can lay the groundwork for future mobilizations, so that one day the dissident movement in China can imagine an alternative beyond liberal paradigms of “human rights”. In today’s world of migration and globalization, it remains ever more crucial for revolutionary social movements to rely on each other for their success. Our vast diaspora communities in the margins means that building parts of other countries’ revolutionary movements—especially those located near the central levers of global capitalist power—remains key to building powerful independent mass coalitions domestically.

Many of my recommendations for international organizing are already being done by activists on the ground—though often not under the explicit auspices of internationalist work. On the other hand, what the left generally calls “international solidarity” with regards to China—encapsulated in the “No New Cold War ” campaign—I view as limited, and in some cases, it provides rhetorical cover for various kinds of authoritarian apologism. People from all across the political spectrum are rightly reckoning with the implications of China’s rapidly increasing role on the global stage, but the answer is not subscribing to the same battle lines drawn for us by state and corporate elites. We must build from a different analysis of the world—one that reveals the actual relations of power in order to accurately pinpoint the most effective sites of struggle—to come to a new set of organizing strategies.