Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 15, 2020

From the final chapter of “China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse

Filed under: China,Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:44 pm

THE COMMUNIST PARTY’S EXISTENTIAL POLITICAL CRISIS

Why is a powerful country like China so afraid of a beauty queen?
— Anastasia Lin

Pan Yue was certainly prescient. The Chinese “miracle” has come to an end because the environment can no longer keep pace. The question is, can the Chinese find a way to grab the emergency brake and wrench this locomotive of destruction to a halt? One thing seems certain: The locomotive is not going to be stopped so long as the Communist Party has its grip on the controls. The CCP is locked in a death spiral. It can’t rein in ravenous resource consumption and suicidal pollution because, as a national superpower-aspirant, it needs to maximize growth to “catch up with overtake the USA,” maximize jobs to keep the peace, provide more bread and circuses to distract the masses, and build the glitziest “blingfrastucture” to wow the masses and the world with the “Amazing China” that it has built. The Communist Party doesn’t do subtlety or understatement. Given these drivers, I just don’t see how China’s spiral to ecological collapse can reversed by anything short of social revolution—one way or another.

The Party leadership presents itself as all-powerful, unassailable, monolithic, confident, and self-assured. It’s anything but. The Party is paranoid, terrified of independent thought and the slightest public disagreement, frightened of any personal or institutional autonomy, and shocked by the results of the explosive growth of capitalism that it has unleashed. It is strategically and ideologically bankrupt, demoralized and weakened by Xi’s relentless anti-corruption campaign and fracturing as wealthy cadres flee the country and send their families abroad.

For a government that presents itself as a superior model for the world, a deserving successor to the US and the “declining West”, its outwardly unflappable president is surprisingly thin-skinned, bristling at the slightest criticism, let alone mockery—more like Trump than Deng Xiaoping, Xi is terrified not just of beauty queens but Mongolian historians, Uighur professors, Tibetan linguists, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Google, Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Western movies, artists, democracy advocates, workers, trade unionists, environmental activists, human rights attorneys, Liu Xiaobo (even after his death) and his wife Liu Xia, Christian ministers, Hong Kong booksellers and high school students, Marxist university students, Maoist study groups, the NBA, Turkish soccer stars, and so many other real and imagined threats. In his current state of extreme paranoia, no perceived threat is too insignificant. Like the exasperated journalist Liang Xiangyi who rolled her eyes in disgust at another reporter’s unctuous and gushing question to a high official in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during the March 2018 National People’s Congress. Captured by China’s national news broadcaster, CCTV, the moment went viral and the government responded by yanking her media accreditation, taking down her Sina Weibo page, and erasing her name from the internet. In recent years Xi’s censors have banned cartoonists, hip-hop, video games, the bawdy humor app Neihan Duanzi, Winnie the Pooh, Peppa the Pig, the letter “N,” celebrity gossip, Stephen Colbert, and Saturday Night Live.

Chinese women too are posing a threat, like the so-called “Feminist Five”. The #MeToo movement particularly worries the powers that be. As one commentator said: “The leadership has understood from the beginning that the movement has shades of anti-authoritarianism and they’re afraid the allegations will spread to officials.

In totalitarian self-parody worthy of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, Beijing recently banned exports of black clothing to Hong Kong as the color is favored by protesters. Today, China’s leaders face unprecedented threats—and not least from those black-clad protesters in Hong Kong.

August 3, 2020

Shanghai Triad

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

Tomorrow, a digitally restored version of the 1995 “Shanghai Triad” will be available on Virtual Cinema. For a $10 rental, you get a chance to see a film directed by Zhang Yimou, widely regarded as China’s greatest director.

Set in Shanghai in 1930 and within the triad milieu (drug gangs originating in the Boxer Rebellion), this is not the same genre that Hong Kong studios routinely churned out in the 60s and 70s. Instead, the two primary characters have only a tangential relation to the  gangsters, who are mostly secondary. One is a 14-year old boy named Shuisheng, whose uncle has brought to Shanghai for a job with the Tang clan. Unlike most mafia movies, the boy is not being trained to be a hitman. Instead, he is a servant to the boss’s mistress Bijou, who treats him like dirt. The gang’s godfather is a Tang, just like Shuisheng and his uncle. Like the Sicilian mafia, family ties go a long way in guaranteeing loyalty.

Throughout the film, Shuisheng is a passive observer of the chaos all about him. Bijou is not only abusive toward him, she also is in the habit of telling off boss Tang, a man in his sixties who does on the beautiful but churlish young woman, who is played by Gong Li—generally regarded as China’s greatest actress.

On his first day of work serving Bijou, Shuisheng makes the mistake of bringing tea and cakes into her bedroom without knocking first. She snarls at his lack of servant skills. She orders him to go out again and start over. He must knock first, and, while he is at it, announce himself as Shuisheng the bumpkin. Bijou is a nightmarish diva who performs as a songstress in boss Tang’s nightclub. If you’re familiar with Zhang Yimou’s body of work, you’ll know that he is a sucker for spectacle. Except for “Not One Less”, a great film about a young schoolteacher in China’s hinterland, his films are feasts for the eyes and ears. When Bijou performs, it is like being treated to a Chinese version of a Busby Berkeley musical.

Toward the middle of the film, boss Tang begins to play a bigger role after a rival gang launches a bloody raid on his estate that results in the death of Shuisheng’s uncle and others in his retinue. In keeping with Zhang’s overall approach, we don’t even see the rival gangs in combat. His interest is mostly in the tangled relationship between the boss and his mistress, and hers with the young and mostly passive servant who speaks no more than 25 words in the entire film. His acting skills are displayed entirely through his facial expressions.

After the raid, Tang takes Bijou, Shuisheng and a small detachment of his lieutenants to a remote island with zero amenities. Upon their arrival, Bijou begins to complain bitterly about being bored. Perhaps being tired of the gangster life, she begins to spend more time with Shuisheng, and a widowed mother and her young daughter, the sole inhabitants of the island. They live primitive but satisfying lives unlike the murderous gangsters who interfere with their peaceful conditions like Edward G. Robinson’s gang in “Key Largo”. We soon learn that Bijou was once a bumpkin like them, as the ties between them grow. She tells Shuisheng that once they return to Shanghai, he has to break with the gang and return to the countryside or else he will end up with his uncle.

The climax of the film consists once again of a showdown between the two gangs seen earlier but also, once again, sans pyrotechnics. Zhang’s main interest is in showing how the brutal, feudal-like society of Chinese triads make those at the bottom of the chain vulnerable. Unlike the Hong Kong actions films of the 60s and 70s, as great as they were, “Shanghai Triad” leaves you with the conclusion that wiping them out was one of the great gains of the revolution made by Mao Zedong.

In the press notes, Zhang is asked “What’s at stake in this film? Is the film a warning to the Chinese people with regard to their increasingly materialistic lifestyle?” His reply:

Absolutely. This story is the first time I have depicted a life of luxury and material wealth. In effect, I just wanted to say to my countrymen and to others that there is something more important than power and mere material possessions. What counts most in life is man’s capacity for love and generosity. That is why I did not want to make a traditional Mafia film. To my mind, this film speaks up for important issues.

January 22, 2020

We the Workers; American Factory

Filed under: China,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

Now available from Ovid, the Netflix for radicals, “We the Workers” is a 174-minute cinema vérité study of labor organizers in China. Despite its economy of means, is an impressive and inspiring take on one of the  most significant class struggles taking place in the world today. Directed by Huang Wenhai, it is shot mostly indoors without much fanfare and consists almost entirely of strategy discussions by men working for the Panyu Migrant Workers Center between themselves and with the workers they serve.

Additionally, as you might expect from a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the cinema vérité genre, you see them coping with daily life—trying to strike a balance between the duress of standing up to an all-powerful state and living a normal life. Often, the scale is tipped toward the duress side. This was the case with an organizer named Peng Jiayong confessing that his wife broke up with him because she couldn’t share the burdens of being married to someone with such a single-minded devotion to changing a seemingly unchangeable system.

As the film begins, we see Peng Jiayong being dressed down by his colleagues for losing his temper with the cops. Joining a protest of 11 women being denied rights guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, Peng refuses to leave the headquarters of the government-backed trade union where the women have gathered to lodge their complaint. When the cops arrive, they sensibly leave. He stays behind and demands to be arrested, even though such defiance will only weaken his efforts on their behalf.

Next we see a meeting between other members of the Panyu staff and some workers who are being conned by the state labor bureau into resigning from their jobs and thus losing benefits accrued over 20 years. Panyu’s lawyer Duan Yi advises them to go as a group to the boss’s office the next day and insist on their legally guaranteed rights, making sure to capture the entire discussion with their smartphones. As becomes obvious throughout the film, the Panyu organizers and the workers they represent are as dependent on the Internet as CIO organizers in the 1930s were reliant on mimeograph machines.

When I saw this scene, I was reminded of a debate in the Boston branch of the Socialist Workers Party in 1971 between Peter Camejo and a minority that viewed support for the Shea bill as reformist. H. James Shea Jr. was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who drafted a bill challenging its constitutionality of the Vietnam War, thus enabling Massachusetts residents to ignore the draft. The minority denounced the bill as reformist since it was based on bourgeois legality. Peter replied that Lenin used to stay up late at night poring through the Czarist law codes looking for loopholes that would allow workers to go out on strike with legal cover. That’s essentially the strategy of the labor organizers trying to strengthen collective bargaining in China today.

Later in the film we meet up again with Peng Jiayong, who was beaten badly by the cops without him giving them any kind of excuse. As he lies in the hospital bed, his only interest is in figuring out how his injuries might be exploited to further the workers struggle.

Lin Dong, Peng’s comrade-in-arms who wisely left with the 11 women before the cops came, has spent time in prison for his organizing efforts. We see him on a street handing out a labor law handbook that can be used by workers to understand their rights. One worker probably spoke for most when he told him that “laws are useless in China.” In many ways, the struggle for working class power in China faces the same obstacles as in the USA. Workers feel weak and vulnerable in the face of Republican open hostility and the Democratic Party’s reorientation to urban, middle-class voters. Throughout the film, we see Panyu organizers hammering away at the idea that a united working class can win victories.

Toward the end of the film, we see a group of workers celebrating such a victory. The mostly female staff of Lide Shoe Factory are at a banquet organized by Panyu, where they get up one by one to express gratitude for its support. In 2015, the China Labor Bulletin wrote about their struggle:

After two strikes and three rounds of bargaining, Taiwanese-owned Lide agreed on 17 December to pay social insurance contributions dating back to 1995 and to a one-off compensation package of between 2,000 yuan and 12,000 yuan, depending on employees’ years of service. The company was also forced to disclose any future relocation plans and continue the dialogue with the workers’ representatives. Management further agreed in writing that it would not retaliate against those representatives.

I first came across the China Labor Bulletin not long after I started the Marxism mailing list in 1998. One of its editors began sending me newsletters about the work of labor organizers such as shown in “We the Workers”. In many ways, the newsletters were analogous to Labor Notes in the USA but documenting much sharper battles. In China, there is a deeper awareness about being exploited than there is in the USA, especially since independent labor action is virtually seen as a crime. In the USA, trade unions are legal but hamstrung by open-shop legislation, the threat of runaway shops, and a general feeling that unions can’t deliver the goods.

Last July, Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton published an attack on a conference co-sponsored by the DSA, Jacobin, and the disbanded ISO. As a supporter of “anti-imperialist” governments like the one led by Xi Jinping, it singled out China Labor Bulletin and other such groups as tools of the CIA and other groups bent on overturning what they regard as Chinese socialism. Ajit Singh, a Grayzone regular, wrote an article for Telesur claiming that “While capitalists exist in China today, unlike in capitalist societies, they are isolated and not organized in pursuit of their collective interests. Instead, they exist under the rule of the socialist state to aid national economic development.”

If aiding national economic development—a term utterly devoid of class criteria—means cheating workers out of benefits and beating up labor organizers who defend them, then what’s the difference between Chinese socialism and capitalist rule? Nothing would make Grayzone happier than to see China Labor Bulletin shut down. They write that “China Labour Bulletin (CLB) is actually based in Hong Kong, and it is funded by the US government.” As proof positive of its “regime change” intentions, they revealed that CLB’s founder Han Dongfang was a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as if army tanks were defending socialism against fanatics inspired by Ludwig von Mises. They also attack Han for using Radio Free Asia to push “anti-communist” propaganda. If communism involves cheating workers out of back pay and beating up men who fight on their behalf, then I guess I am anti-communist myself.

At the banquet for the Lide workers, Xiaomei, a female Panyu organizer, addresses her sisters: “The liberation of workers’ rights can only come through workers. Only when workers have power will the government and companies make concessions and society show its support. But how do workers get power? Through unity. There’s only one way. Unity. Coming together.”

Given the repressive nature of Chinese society, one can understand why there is no footage inside a Chinese factory where you might have seen workers confronting the boss. Ironically, the best way to see how such clashes unfold is to see “American Factory” on Netflix. This film was released last August as part of a five-film deal between Netflix and the Obamas. I avoided press screenings since I assumed that anything produced by the Obamas had to be tainted.

After seeing it for the first time this week, I can happily report that it makes an ideal accompaniment to “We the Workers”. It shows auto workers in Moraine, Ohio dealing with Fuyao, a Chinese firm that had purchased the recently closed GM plant that turned glass into automobile windows. The film was co-directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, who have collaborated on a number of films since 1990. On her own, Reichert has directed “Union Maids” and “Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists”, two of my favorite documentaries.

Like most workers, those who had been working for GM enjoyed excellent pay and benefits. When GM shut down, they became like the people Michael Moore spoke to in “Roger and Me”. Hopeless and broke. One woman in her fifties, a former forklift operator, has had her house foreclosed. We meet her living in the basement of a relative with nothing but a bed to sleep on and her belongings spread about in boxes on the floor.

When she and other workers in her position find out that Fuyao has bought the plant and begun recruiting from the pool of laid-off GM workers, they feel rejuvenated. Things start out with a bang. Fuyao founder and CEO Cao Dewang shows up in Moraine to give the marching orders to the Chinese managers who will be working side by side with their American counterparts. In a strategy meeting with just the Chinese managers and the workers who have relocated from China, Cao warns them that Americans are not as motivated as them.

Once production begins at the resuscitated factory, things come to a head rapidly. To begin with, safety has been sacrificed in order to meet new, much more ambitious, production quotas. An American supervisor who is fluent in Chinese meets with his Chinese counterpart to discuss the failure to meet the new quotas. The American is told that his countrymen in the factory talk to each other and joke around too much, which sounds like most factories in the USA. The American says that duct tape is the answer. The Chinese supervisor looks at him with a puzzled expression as if the duct tape was supposed to be used on machines. No, the American explains, we tape their mouths.

An African-American worker in his fifties says that throughout the decades he worked for GM, there was never a single accident at the factory. Now, under Chinese ownership, there have already been 11 in the first year.

One of the more telling scenes in the film involves the forklift operator who has been able to move out of her relative’s basement. She frets that the forklift operators at Fuyao are being asked to move around heavy loads of glass that the machinery could not handle safely. She turned out to be right. A year after Reichert and Bognar filmed this scene, her worries were confirmed:

Fuyao Glass America Inc. forklift operator Ricky Patterson was discovered early Tuesday morning nearly five minutes after more than 2,000 pounds of glass fell on him, trapping the 57-year-old Dayton man against his vehicle, according to Moraine Police Division documents.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the events that led to Patterson’s death. Fuyao, Moraine’s largest employer with about 2,000 workers, was fined $100,000 by OSHA last year for “serious” safety violations. Employees have repeatedly expressed concern about workplace safety.

It was not only accidents that began to stir the American former-GM workers to take action. It was also encroachments on their rights as human beings. For example, the on-premises lunchroom was converted into a production unit, thus leaving them without a place to have a meal in comfort. Even more crucially, they were not getting the kind of wage they used to earn. Starting pay was $14 per hour, about the same as you might make at McDonald’s or Walmart. One worker speaks at a UAW hall, where plans are being made to organize the plant. He points out that his daughter polishes nails out of her apartment and she made $17,000 more than him last year.

Like in other auto factories, especially in the south, getting a UAW local off the ground is very difficult as Volkswagen employees found out in Tennessee. The bosses use heavy-duty indoctrination against union organizers and the threat of permanent replacements or relocation outside of the USA to pressure workers into voting against a union shop. This is what happens in Moraine as well.

While most of the film is devoted to the events transpiring in Ohio, we also see how Fuyao runs its operations in China. You learn that management exploits the legacy of the Maoist revolution to keep workers in line. We see large posters of the Chinese presidents starting with Mao and ending with Xi Jinping lined up in a reception area with a Fuyao trade union official explaining that factories, the Communist Party, and the state-backed unions working like interlocking gears. As it happens, the trade union official is the brother-in-law of the plant manager.

In a review of “American Factory” for Jacobin, Joe Allen complains that “American Factory Stops Short of Class Conflict”. In his view, “the film leaves the door open to anti-Chinese xenophobia.” This conclusion is drawn not on the basis of anything in the film itself but because of an interview the Obamas gave. In keeping with their cluelessness about the problems facing working people, they said, “If you know someone, if you’ve talked to them face-to-face, if you know what their story is, you can forge a connection. You may not agree with them on everything, but there’s some common ground to be found and you can move forward together.” There’s little connection between what they said and what Reichert and Bognar wanted to say in this film.

My strongest recommendation to those trying to understand problems the labor movement is facing both here and in China is to see the two films in tandem. As I have said on multiple occasions, Ovid is the go-to place for leading edge cinema. If you are not yet a subscriber, I urge you to start now (https://ovid.tv/). It will be the only place to see “We the Workers”, a film that prefigures major class battles that have the potential to shake up the world’s second wealthiest nation in the world, one that is communist in name only. With workers determined to win the rights that the American trade union movement once enjoyed, both here and in China, the stakes are enormous. Just before his assassination, Trotsky was preparing an article on the trade unions that including the following observation. It is as true today as it was back in 1940:

From what has been said it follows quite clearly that, in spite of the progressive degeneration of trade unions and their growing together with the imperialist state, the work within the trade unions not only does not lose any of its importance but remains as before and becomes in a certain sense even more important work than ever for every revolutionary party. The matter at issue is essentially the struggle for influence over the working class. Every organization, every party, every faction which permits itself an ultimatistic position in relation to the trade union, i.e., in essence turns its back upon the working class, merely because of displeasure with its organizations, every such organization is destined to perish. And it must be said it deserves to perish.

August 25, 2019

Sidney Rittenberg (1921-2019): a long-time and remarkable member of the CP in China

Filed under: China,Maoism,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Today, the NY Times has an obituary for Rittenberg that is included below so that you won’t have any problems getting past the paper’s paywall. I first became aware of him in 2013 when I reviewed a documentary about him titled “The Revolutionary”. Since the review covered another film as well, I am only reprinting the section that dealt with him. Fortunately, the film can be seen on both Amazon Prime for free if you are a member or on YouTube for only $2.99. The link is above.

From my review:

Sidney Rittenberg is the quintessential anti-Zelig. Like Woody Allen’s character, he shows up in key moments of Chinese history next to all the big-time players but unlike Zelig is in a commanding position, most of all in the Cultural Revolution.

He was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina in 1921 and became involved with the labor movement while at the University of North Carolina, a long-time hotbed of the radical movement not unlike CCNY. Another famous red alumnus was the late Junius Scales, another scion of an upper-class family.

When he was in the army, he got sent to language school to learn Chinese. Afterwards he was sent to China just as the war was ending. With his radical sympathies, he was inspired to seek out Mao Zedong who was organizing his Red Army in Yan’an province for an all-out assault on the KMT army.

Upon meeting the 24-year-old Rittenberg, Mao invited him to take a senior position at Radio Peking, making sure that the CP’s communications with the West were conveyed properly in English. Rittenberg agreed to stay on but only on one condition—that he be accepted as a member of the Communist Party. That turned out to be a double-edged sword since this experience brought him terrible misery even as it offered him the most fulfilling moments of his life. Even though I and most of my veteran radical readers never reached such a lofty status, we surely can identify with him as he relates his being ground down as a member of what amounted to the largest socialist cult in history—Mao’s Communist Party.

Just four years after going to work at Radio Peking at a salary larger than Mao’s, Stalin sent Mao a letter accusing Rittenberg of being a spy. Rittenberg was offered the choice of being sent back to the U.S. immediately or going to prison in China. He chose China and then spent 6 years in solitary confinement until the Chinese brass decided he wasn’t a spy after all.

Oddly enough, the only other people besides Stalin who raise the possibility that Rittenberg was a spook was the Financial Times:

A feeling that Rittenberg must, surely, have been a deep-cover CIA agent still surfaces occasionally in the US. “There were actually no western agents in China in my time,” he says. “But former intelligence people are convinced to this day that I was an agent under deep cover. I get asked quite probing questions even today by retired CIA people. When I deny it, they say, ‘Wow, you’re good.’ I always considered myself a representative of the genuine American people, in the tradition of revolutionaries like Tom Paine. That’s why I always dressed as an American. I wanted to be an American friend of China, not Chinese.”

I find the CIA accusation hard to believe. Why would an asset such as Rittenberg be ordered to spend 6 years in a Chinese prison when his talents could have been deployed elsewhere? I think it is much more plausible that he did everything he did out of a conviction that he was a participant in the 20th century’s greatest anti-imperialist revolution. I did many stupid and self-destructive things for a much more marginal movement.

Rittenberg is still alive, having moved to the U.S. after his second imprisonment, this time during the Cultural Revolution and once again for being a foreign spy. Now in his 90s, he is an amazingly articulate man capable of deep insights about the Chinese revolution and the personal disasters stemming from both his idealism and the ambitions many of China’s top politicos harbored and still do.

August 7, 2019

One Child Nation

Filed under: China,science — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

Nanfu Wang, the Chinese émigré who made “Hooligan Sparrow” and “I Am Another You”—two outstanding documentaries, has a new film opening on Friday at the IFC Center in New York. Titled “One Child Nation”, it examines the draconian law that put a ceiling on births in China from 1979–2015. She was born in this period but her parents also were allowed to have a second child, her younger brother, because they were rural villagers. Now that she has become a mother of a young son herself, she was inspired to visit China and interview her parents, their neighbors, and urban dwellers to see how the policy impacted them.

Wang’s films tackle wrenching human drama. The 2016 “Hooligan Sparrow” is about a struggle to bring an elementary school principal to justice after he raped six girls. Known as the Hooligan Sparrow, Ye Haiyan is a leader of what amounted to China’s #MeToo movement. Unlike the USA, she and her team are considered enemies of the state and constantly harassed. So was Wang’s film team that employ various ruses to cover the struggle, eventually smuggling the raw footage out the country. A year later, she made “I Am Another You” that was even more daring. Determined to find out why a young man about the same age as her chose homelessness and a nomadic life as a beggar in the USA, she followed him about with her camera, living under the same circumstances. Both films are available as VOD, including YouTube, and well worth renting for a pittance.

“One Child Nation” reveals a population that is decidedly ambivalent about the policy, including her mother. Like most Chinese, she accepted it as a necessary evil. Given the massive propaganda campaign by the state, which included folk operas and the like, there was not even the hint of an alternative.

Wang has managed to obtain photos of the human wreckage the policy left behind, including gruesome evidence of how an extra newborn was often left in a garbage dump. As China had already been making huge strides toward private property under Deng Xiaoping, many infants were rescued and turned over to orphanages that marketed them to American families. Among them was American-born husband Brian Stuy and his Chinese-American wife Long Lan Stuy, who adopted three Chinese daughters. After learning about the circumstances of their availability, they became inspired to found Research China, an organization to help parents trace their adopted children’s history and even reunite siblings. Ironically, there is not much interest in being reunited, especially those who grew up in the USA.

After seeing the film, the publicist asked for my reaction. I wrote her back: “The film might have provided more background on how China ended up with such a policy but it was a valuable documentary. Will post a review just before it opens. I’ll probably add that background in my review.”

Here’s that background now.

Probably the most authoritative study of the policy was the 2008 “Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China” by Susan Greenhalgh. I really didn’t have time to read the book but the 36-page article “Science, Modernity, and the Making of China’s One-Child Policy” she wrote for the Population and Development Review in June, 2003 is a good place to start.

The article is heavily influenced by Foucault but there is enough substance to help you get a handle on the political and historical context. As the title implies, some of China’s top scientists helped to formulate the policy based on economics and demographical data. Drawing upon 15 years worth of interviews, Greenhalgh concludes that population science is intimately connected to politics, something that should be obvious to anybody familiar with Thomas Kuhn’s writings.

Greenhalgh writes:

I will argue that at the heart of China’s post-1979 population policy lie two powerful notions: that China faced a population crisis that was sabotaging the nation’s modernization, and that the one-child policy was the only solution to it. In China for most of the past 20-plus years, these ideas have had the status of self-evident truth. I question those apparent truths by looking at how they were constructed. I show that these ideas about China’s population problem and its ideal solution were actively fabricated by Chinese population scientists, using numbers, numerical pictures (such as tables and graphs), and numerical techniques (such as projections) to tell a particular story about China. In contrast to the coercion account, which points the finger at “communist coercion,” this close look at the actual making of the policy reveals instead that practically all the key ideas on which China’s one-child policy was based were borrowed from the West, and from Western science at that.

Specifically, the Western science was an update of Malthus, as indicated in this telling passage:

Innocuous and even progressive though it must have seemed in 1979, the intervention of the natural scientists in the conversations about population produced revolutionary effects. In a short time, a Marxian theoretical field belonging to the social sciences had been reinvented as a scientific-that is quantitative-discipline. The mathematical science of population that was to revolutionize China’s population thought and practice was an unusual amalgam of cybernetics, control theory, systems engineering, and Club of Rome-style limits-to-growth thinking that had been popular among some Western academics and a sizable chunk of the general public in the West in the early to mid-1970s (especially Meadows et al. 1974; Mesarovic and Pestel 1974; on the work’s public appeal, Wilmoth and Ball 1992). The group’s leader, Song Jian, got the idea for this project on a delegation visit to Europe in 1978. Song’s description of his encounters with some work inspired by the Club of Rome brings out the excitement his discovery produced. This passage also provides a backward glimpse at the larger intellectual climate of the 1970s, when notions of explosions of population growth were prevalent around the world and applications of control theory to abstract economies facing such situations were standard fare in Western population economics:

After more than ten years’ isolation from the outside world, during a visit to Europe in 1978, I happened to learn about the application of systems analysis theory by European scientists to the study of population problems with a great success. For instance, in a “Blueprint for Survival” published in 1972, British scientists contended that Britain’s population of 56 million had greatly exceeded the sustaining capacity of ecosystem of the Kingdom. They argued Britain’s population should be gradually reduced to 30 million, namely, a reduction by nearly 50 percent…. I was extremely excited about these documents and determined to try the method of demography. (Song 1986: 2-3)

It should be added that Greenhalgh does not deny that China had serious issues of bringing economic production and population into balance but that the leading scientists exaggerated them under the influence of Western neo-Malthusians. Essentially, the scientists based the need for such a policy through a comparison of leading economic and demographic indicators that grouped China with advanced industrial economies rather than 3rd World countries. Given such a skewed comparison, it was inevitable that a destructive one-child-only policy would ensue.

(Contact me privately at lnp3@panix.com for a copy of Greenhalgh’s article)

March 1, 2019

China, Saudi Arabia and the Fate of the Uyghurs

Filed under: China,Counterpunch,Saudi Arabia,Uyghur — louisproyect @ 3:18 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 1, 2019

Beginning with the 9/11 attacks, much of the left decided that Saudi Arabia was the chief engineer of a Wahhabi plot to impose its reactionary, feudal, and patriarchal values on the rest of the world. Supposedly, the USA was being punished for its licentious and ungodly ways even if it was one of Saudi Arabia’s chief supporters in the Middle East, alongside Israel. While 9/11 Trutherism is hardly worth taking seriously, another line of investigation has implicated the Saudi state as providing the logistical support that made the attack possible while the USA looked the other way. The truthers claim that the FBI and CIA ignored the threat because they were in cahoots with al-Qaeda. What could American imperialism have possibly gained by such an attack? The answer is an excuse to invade Iraq, a ridiculous idea. But is it any more ridiculous to believe that Wahhabism, the official religion of Saudi Arabia, explains the attack or Saudi foreign policy in general?

If you are looking for grounds for this, the 9/11 Commission Report  is a good place to start. It does not blame the Saudi state but its evil spawn al-Qaeda. The report stated:

In the 1980s, awash in sudden oil wealth, Saudi Arabia competed with Shia Iran to promote its Sunni fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism. The Saudi government, always conscious of its duties as the custodian of Islam’s holiest places, joined with wealthy Arabs from the Kingdom and other states bordering the Persian Gulf in donating money to build mosques and religious schools that could preach and teach their interpretation of Islamic doctrine.

For those who viewed Saudi Arabia as so devoted to ascetic values that it would be willing to mount a devastating attack on the WTC, a symbol of the financial system it was closely tied to, and the Pentagon, its chief military benefactor, there were some counter-indicators best left under the rug. For someone like Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, the former Saudi ambassador in Washington, who was supposedly the quartermaster supplying the jihadi hijackers, those values were not to be taken too seriously as Christopher Dickey reported in The Daily Beast: “When the prince was the ambassador he was the toast of Washington, and plenty of toasts there were. Bandar bin Sultan smoked fine cigars and drank finer Cognac.”

Continue reading

January 20, 2019

Is China a model for a New Green Deal?

Filed under: China,Ecology — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

On January 14th, Dean Baker wrote an article for Truthout titled “The Green New Deal Is Happening in China” that poses important questions for the left. Since the article is focused exclusively on reducing greenhouse gases to the exclusion of any other “green” problem areas, can we assume that climate change is the be-all and end-all of the environmentalist left? It also leads to the broader question of China’s relevance to the left. If it is in the vanguard of the fight against climate change, then can we conclude that Xi Jinping might be legitimately described as socialist? As the American democratic socialist left has committed considerable energy behind the call for a Green New Deal, can we look at the Communist Party in China as an ally of the left?

For some, the efforts mounted by the Chinese government are indications that it does have progressive aspects. For example, MRZine, the online voice of Monthly Review, posted a piece last May titled “China’s determined march towards the ecological civilization” that was written by Andre Vltchek, the erstwhile Counterpunch contributor who is well-known for his belief in the merits of the BRICS. (Whether Brazil is still considered an asset is open to question. The entire left views Bolsinaro as either a fascist or a rightwing goon, even though China has no plans to stop doing business with him and vice versa.)

Vltchek sought out a nonagenarian named John Cobb Jr., whose admiration for the Chinese governments past and present is unbounded. He told Vltchek:

The talk of moving toward an ecological civilization also encouraged reflection about “civilization” alongside “market.” That supported those Chinese who were concerned that the narrow concern for wealth at all costs was not healthy for human society. Marxism had always emphasized economic matters, but it was concerned to move society away from competition toward cooperation. It was always concerned with the distribution of goods, so that the poor would be benefited, and workers would be empowered. The idea of recovering traditional Chinese civilizational values gained in acceptance.

While Dean Baker’s article is far more measured, he does offer this:

Over the last decade, China’s GDP growth has averaged 7.9 percent annually. Perhaps there is a story where China’s economy would have grown even more rapidly without the subsidies and other measures to promote green growth, but obviously, these measures could not have been very serious impediments if the country could still sustain one of the fastest growth stretches the world has ever seen.

One cannot be sure if Baker identifies “green growth” as synonymous with reducing greenhouse gases but if so he is sadly mistaken. Even if alternative energy sources constituted 90 percent of the country’s supply, it would still be a ticking time-bomb as far as the environmental crisis is concerned. Let me review some of the key problem areas.

Water

China’s environmental crisis is deepest when it comes to water along a number of fronts. In 2008, Scientific American—not a Trotskyite journal, the last time I noticed—published a piece titled “China’s Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe?” that reported on problems so deep that even government officials could not sweep them under the rug. They included the likelihood of “triggering landslides, altering entire ecosystems and causing other serious environmental problems—and, by extension, endangering the millions who live in its shadow”, according to Scientific American. In a country where biodiversity is sacrificed to “socialist development”, the dam has proven deeply destructive. The Three Gorges area alone accounts for 20 percent of Chinese seed plants—more than 6,000 species. As the dam floods one area while rending others arid, that biodiversity ends up on the chopping block. By the same token, the dammed Yangtze River is host to 177 unique fish species, all of which have been subject to conditions that might cause extinction. Read the entire Scientific American article to get an idea of how far China is from an “ecological civilization”.

Moving right along, China suffers enormous water pollution due to unregulated manufacturing. Greenpeace published a report in June 2017 revealing that 85% of the water in Shanghai was undrinkable and that 56.4% was unfit for any purpose. One of the polluters was Luliang Chemical Industry that dumped 5,000 tons of chemical waste next to a river used as a drinking water source. China has targeted companies like Luliang through a new taxation policy that bases a fee on the amount of pollution being produced. A more “socialist” policy would be to begin jailing the polluters but I wouldn’t count on it. Taili Ni, a doctoral student, wrote a paper titled “China’s ineffective water pollution policy: an issue of enforcement” that strengthens my doubts. China’s water protection laws are among the strongest in the world, but there is a gap between the letter of the law and how it is enforced. Ni calls this the “enforcement gap”.

Environmental protection and enforcement of environmental policies rely on local governments to be successful. However, political corruption is a very present factor at the local level, and greatly interferes with enforcement. Local governments tend to have slightly different goals and motivations than the central government, and the system of fragmented authoritarianism allows them to act according to these motivations. Economic growth is crucial at the local level too, and in many cases local officials face high incentives to report economic success. There is a close link between local governments and polluting enterprises; in fact, local governments are often major shareholders of these enterprises, creating a common conflict of interest.

If you consider her words carefully, you will be reminded of how things work not only in China but in all countries where “economic growth” is in the driver’s seat. The USSR was a disaster area environmentally because decisions were made on generating income for the Stalinist state. For example, it was cotton production that turned the Aral Sea into a dead zone. In China, you get the same habits that were deeply engrained in Maoist time but magnified by the country’s integration into global markets. If 1.5 million people have died as a result of pollution in China, that can be rationalized by party theoreticians as the costs of building an industrial society that can meet the needs of the people. Is there much difference between this idea and Walt Rostow’s development theories? If so, I can’t detect it.

Soil

I can’t help but wonder how Xi Jinping gets a free pass in Monthly Review when his government is carrying out policies deeply at odds with John Bellamy Foster’s analysis of the “metabolic rift”.

Unlike the United States, China’s farms are smaller and less mechanized but that has not prevented them from using chemicals indiscriminately. To give you an idea of the dimension of the problem, China uses more than 30 per cent of fertilizers and pesticides sold globally (it is first in the world) but on only 9 per cent of the world’s soil. When fertilizers seep into rivers and lakes, it fosters the growth of algae that is inimical to marine life—a process called eutrophication. It has led to Chinese leisure-seekers trying to enjoy its algae-ridden lakes as the Guardian reported last year as best they can.  Here are people trying to make the best of a sorry situation at a lake overrun by algae:

China has made an effort to convince farmers to reduce their chemical fertilizer input with some success but it still does not resolve the “metabolic rift” that John Bellamy Foster has written about so persuasively. To do that effectively, it would require overcoming the breach between city and countryside as articulated in the Communist Manifesto but that is not very feasible given China’s integration into world markets. Like all capitalist countries, the cities have emerged over a century as production and export centers. To restructure China is a Herculean task even if it is a necessary one. Missing from the calculations of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of a Green New Deal and Dean Baker’s salute to China for carrying one out is a recognition that capitalism is unsustainable. Period.

Air

Largely as a result of wide-spread dissatisfaction with the toxic air pollution in most cities, the government cracked down in 2017 making even Greenpeace impressed with the results.

But under Donald Trump’s assault on its chief economic rival, the Chinese capitalists and the “Communist” state that rules on their behalf have been forced to retreat in order to allow firms to maintain a certain level of profitability.

Last September the Ministry of Ecology and Environment removed blanket bans on heavy industry production. Monitoring was decentralized, with local governments allowed to set their own targets. As is the case across the board, economic and environmental needs clash with each other. Despite Baker’s reference to “green growth”, the reality in China is that you have green versus growth. If the world was organized on the basis of human need rather than private profit, this would not be such a big problem. However, that would require a worldwide socialist revolution that most on the left view as a hopeless project. I guess I’ll stick to that even if I am a minority of one. That’s why I call myself Unrepentant.

Externalities

Finally, there is a failure on the part of Dean Baker and Andre Vltchek to acknowledge the environmental impact that China has on the countries it has established trade relations with. Was trade relations a euphemism? Sorry. I meant to say colonized.

If China has eased up on coal production internally, that hasn’t prevented it from profiting from it elsewhere. It is not that different from England turning to the New World in search of timber after it had cleared its own forests in the 18th century.

Kenya has been one of the beneficiaries of this colonialism. A consortium of Kenyan and Chinese energy firms are building a coal plant on the only part that is untouched by industrial development. Scientists and economists worry that this will become the largest source of air pollution in the country. Naturally, the bituminous coal that will be fed into this plant will be imported from South Africa, one that releases large amounts of toxins, particularly if improperly burned. Does anybody believe that China, Kenya or South Africa care much about this?

Finally, there is the matter of China’s ties to Brazil, its number one trading partner. Despite Bolsonaro’s invective against China during his campaign, there are signs that nothing much will change. Li Yang, China’s Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, said, “Personally, I don’t believe there would be a radical change from the new federal government towards China. I don’t believe so. So, either economic or political ties between the two parts, both Brazil and China, will be further tightened. We firmly believe so.” So, you can expect China to benefit from the soybeans being produced in the Amazon rainforest after all the trees have been cut down and the native peoples driven out or killed.

What if Bolsonaro carries out a Pinochet-type coup? Would that make China willing to break trade relations with an anti-working class dictatorship? Given China’s history under the Communist Party, I rather doubt that especially what happened under Pinochet and a China that was arguably still socialist.

In 1973, after General Pinochet overthrew Allende in Chile, the Chinese Embassy would not provide refuge to leftists fleeing terror. Just two years later, China offered Pinochet a $50 million loan, even when European governments would not extend a penny.

Things kept on this way for decades. In 1998, Jon Lee Anderson told New Yorker readers about the red carpet treatment the murderer received in China when Jiang Zemin was president:

Curiously, Pinochet’s popularity extends to the People’s Republic of China, which he has visited twice. China is a major client for Chile’s copper exports, and Pinochet has nurtured his relationship with Beijing. “They are very fond of me,” he says. “Because I saw that Chinese Communism was patriotic Communism, not the Communism of Mao. I opened up the doors to Chinese commerce, letting them hold an exposition here, in which they brought everything they had—and they sold everything they brought.” On both his trips to China, Pinochet says, the Chinese treated him with great respect. “The first time they put me in a house, but the last time it was a palace. And I became good friends with General Chen, a warrior who fought in Korea, in Vietnam, and who doesn’t like the Americans very much.” Pinochet shot me a sidelong glance and grinned.

July 8, 2018

Rhino horn poaching: brought to you by the BRICS

Filed under: animal rights,China,South Africa — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

Three days ago a NY Post article titled “Lions fatally maul poachers who broke into reserve to hunt rhinos” got shared widely on Facebook, including by me. For obvious reasons, this was a story that made you feel that some kind of animal revolt was taking place a la Planet of the Apes.

What you don’t get from Murdoch’s tabloid is any sense of the complexity that lay beneath the surface of this incident. For that you had to go to the NY Times, a newspaper that many radicals despise because it is for big business, etc., ad nauseam. However, as true as that may be, there is no substitute for the kind of newspaper that Karl Marx used to read in gathering the facts. For him, it was the London Times. For us it is the NY Times.

Titled “Lions Eat Men Suspected of Poaching Rhinos. Some Saw ‘Karma.’”, the Gray Lady coverage identified the socio-economic circumstances that led to the poaching epidemic:

Rhino horn is worth about $9,000 per pound in Asia, driving a lucrative and illicit trade. It is a prized ingredient in Chinese traditional medicine and is considered a status symbol.

South Africa is home to about 20,000 wild rhinos, more than 80 percent of the world’s population. About one-third of the animals are owned by private breeders. Since 2008, more than 7,000 rhinos have been hunted illegally, with 1,028 killed in 2017, according to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs.

“Selling a single horn can exceed the yearly income of most rural people,” Dr. Hübschle said.

The Eastern Cape is South Africa’s poorest province, with a gross domestic product of less than $3,700 per capita. The unemployment rate here, including people who have given up looking for work, exceeds 45 percent, significantly higher than the national average.

“Behind poaching there’s a bigger story of structural inequality,” Dr. Hübschle said. “People were chased off their land during colonialism and apartheid, losing their customary hunting rights and tenure. Today, many local communities experience some trickle-down from poaching, while attitudes are generally negative towards private game owners and protected areas.”

Anybody who has been following this story, as I have mostly as a result of seeing a number of films about poaching over the years, you’re probably aware that the Chinese see rhino tusks as a magic elixir that can cure cancer, impotence, etc. China has also been a major black market for elephant tusks that are used to carve expensive trinkets that the bourgeoisie likes to display as a symbol of having made it. For all of the lip-service paid to Maoism in this fucked up country, there seems to be little progress made in either scientific understanding of medicine or aesthetics. Superstition and ostentation rule.

However, even with a ban on both commodities, the demand continues. For rhino tusks, there is a logic that is reminiscent of the subprime mortgage boom of the period prior to the stock market crash of 2007. They have become for investors the equivalent of the tulip mania of early 17th century Holland.

Takepart, an online magazine associated with Participant Media that produced the documentary on Edward Snowden, lays it all out:

But a new paper in the journal Biological Conservation raises a startling alternative theory. Rhinos are dying by the hundreds for what may be in essence an investment bubble, like tulips in 17th-century Holland or real estate in 1920s Florida.

It’s part of a trend over the past decade in China, according to Yufang Gao and his coauthors, of treating art and antiquities as a place for investors “to store value, to hedge inflation, and to diversify portfolio allocation.” Rhino horn assets typically take the form of cups, bowls, hairpins, thumb rings, and other ornamental items.

“Rhino horn pieces are portrayed in the Chinese media,” Gao and his coauthors write, “as an excellent investment opportunity whose value is tied more to the rarity of the raw materials rather than the artistic nature of the item. The aggressive media attention has played a significant role in the growth of the art market.” Press reporting about outlier items—those sold for astronomically high prices—“drives the perception that collecting rhino horn is highly profitable and influences black market prices.”

So you might think that this kind of speculation represents a combination of medieval backwardness and the frenzied search for fast bucks in today’s China. However, the real origins of this sick exploitation of animals at the top of the food chain is in Mao Zedong Thought. Although folk medicine has been around for thousands of years in China, it was Mao’s state-based elevation of the practice that led to the poaching epidemic. In the 1950s, facing a shortage of trained doctors in China, Mao ordered the creation of a directory of all these snake oil medications to make up for the deficit even though he thought it was bogus. In other words, Mao had no problems with people eating powdered rhino tusk for their heart problems but you can be damned sure he would get proper, modern medical treatment.

For all of China’s flaws, and they are biblical in proportion, South Africa—a fellow BRICS member—has very few of the institutional advances of China that were part and parcel of the Chinese revolution. While most people, including me, had high hopes that the ANC and the South African Communist Party, would make huge economic changes and even go so far as to advance beyond capitalism, the country is the most unequal in the world with a GINI coefficient of 63.40. (A perfectly equal society would have a GINI coefficient of zero.)

The Eastern Cape in South Africa is a province formed out of the Xhosa homelands of Transkei and Ciskei, two Bantustans—in other words, places where Blacks were forced to live. Under apartheid, these places were allowed to run casinos and topless revue shows that the racist government had banned elsewhere as being immoral. In one such Bantustan – Bophuthatswana in what is now North West Province – Sun City was created as a resort that became the eye of the hurricane in anti-apartheid protests. Like BDS today, many performers crossed the picket line for a lucrative pay check, including Elton John, Rod Stewart and Linda Ronstadt. Leading the boycott attack on Sun City apartheid, Bruce Springsteen’s sideman Steve Van Zandt made a record with artists pledged to shun Sun City and South Africa in general.

So what might you expect if the ANC refused to tackle the deep poverty that apartheid’s worst victims were facing? Poaching, that’s what.

You’d think that the Eastern Cape’s favorite son would have done something to attack the province’s deep-seated economic weaknesses. I speak here of Nelson Mandela who Steve Van Zandt and all these other activists placed their hopes on.

Let me conclude with a long excerpt from a Time Magazine article by Alex Perry titled “The Eastern Cape, Mandela’s Homeland, Still Suffers from Neglect and Misrule” that is a depressing read, especially for someone like me who put considerable time and effort in the early 90s supporting Tecnica’s work in the new South Africa:

When Nelson Mandela’s body is flown to Mthatha in the Eastern Cape Saturday ahead of his burial Sunday in the nearby village of Qunu, he will be returning to his home and to the heartland of his African National Congress (A.N.C.) – and also to one of the most egregious examples of A.N.C. failure in power. Today while cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town enjoy a new cosmopolitanism, a third visit on Wednesday confirmed once again that transformation is far less marked in the Eastern Cape. So do the statistics. A full 88% of people of the province’s population still live below the poverty line, according to government figures, millions of them in the same township shacks and grass-roofed huts that they occupied under apartheid. Government services are dire to non-existent: power, if it exists, can black out for days, while provincial statistics show 78.3% of the population have no running water and 93.3% have no sewers, prompting intermittent outbreaks of cholera. HIV/AIDS rates run at 13%, rising to a third in some townships. Unemployment is officially 41%, though non-governmental studies put it at 70%.

The destitution nurtures an epidemic of violent crime. The South African Police Service says the Eastern Cape has the country’s highest homicide rate and Mthatha’s, at 130 people per 100,000, is three times the provincial rate and one of the highest of anywhere in the world. Most horrifying are the rape statistics. The SA Medical Journal found rape in Mthatha rose from 39 per 100,000 women in 2001 to 417 in 2006. Since studies indicate that at most only 10% of rapes are reported, it concluded a more accurate but still conservative figure was 1,300 per 100,000 a year. That’s 45 times the equivalent figure in the U.S. and makes Mthatha a contender for rape capital of the world. Grimmest of all, children are at particular risk. The study showed 46.3% of the victims were under 16, 22.9% under 11 and 9.4% under six.

Apartheid left an atrocious legacy in the Eastern Cape. South Africa’s white supremacist social engineers divided much of the province into two areas it designated autonomous black homelands, Transkei and Ciskei, which it continued to rule as puppets but cut off from any government spending. The injustice of that racial marginalization fueled a wave righteous rebellion which bore many A.N.C. leaders – Mandela, and also Oliver Tambo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Chris Hani, and Govan and Thabo Mbeki, as well as Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko.

Among them was Laura Mpahlwa. Born in Johannesburg in 1929, she was among the first to move to the South Western Township (Soweto) when it was designed a black dormitory town after apartheid was set up in 1948. In the 1940s Mandela moved from Qunu to Johannesburg, then Soweto. Mpahlwa went the other way, going to work in as a nurse in Mthatha hospital in 1953. “Back then, it was mud huts all the way from East London to Durban,” says the 83-year-old, referring to two major coastal cities.

With Transkei’s government little more than an apartheid puppet, the struggle was as fierce in Mthatha as Soweto. Mpahlwa’s first son spent five years on Robben Island for subversion, her second fled into exile and her third was tortured. Mpahlwa herself helped smuggle A.N.C. leaders in and out of South Africa from Transkei.

In 1990, Mandela was freed after 27 years in prison. In 1994, he became South Africa’s first black president. Mthatha was ecstatic. “There was such euphoria,” says Jennie, now 72. “It was such an amazing thing. We felt so hopeful.” There were also some immediate improvements. “People got lights,” says Laura. “Some got water. Work started on roads. There were social grants.” Still, when the A.N.C. asked Mpahlwa to become an MP in the new parliament, she declined. “I was scared,” she says. “Deep down I knew in my heart it was too big a position. I wasn’t trained for it. I wouldn’t cope.”

Other A.N.C. members did not share her modesty, with predictable results. The government of the new, free South Africa still left some of its people short of what they needed – books, teachers, medicine, roads, houses, jobs – and failed to protect many from what they didn’t. “Drugs, high rates of teenage pregnancies and HIV/AIDS,” says Mpahlwa. “There was mismanagement, misuse and, very disappointing, a lot of fraud.”

June 11, 2018

Is China Socialist?

Filed under: China,economics — louisproyect @ 9:04 pm

Donald Trump asking Xi Jinping for Karl Marx reading recommendations, especially anything on “spiritual pursuit”

Four days ago Michael Roberts posted an article titled “China workshop: challenging the misconceptions” that raised a number of interesting questions:

What are the reasons for China’s phenomenal growth in the last 40 years and can it last? What is the nature of the Chinese economy: is it capitalist or not? What explains under Xi the new emphasis on studying Marxism in China’s universities? Is China’s export and investment expansion abroad imperialist or not? How will the trade war between the US and China pan out?

The workshop invited Roberts and a number of Chinese economists to speak on these questions, all of whom—including Roberts—denied that China was capitalist. It was sponsored by the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, universally referred to nowadays as SOAS ostensibly because of the stigma attached to a word like Oriental. In the first session, Professor Dic Lo, an economist at SOAS who was the moving force behind this gathering, spoke alongside one Zhu Andong,  who is the Vice Dean at the School of Marxism at Tsinghua University. School of Marxism? Jeez, if I had kids, that’s where I’d want to them to study.

Or maybe not.

Dic Lo chastised people like Martin Hart-Landsberg, Paul Burkett, David Harvey, and Minqi Li for describing China as “neoliberal capitalist”, where growth is based on the “Foxconn” model—you know, the immense factory that turns out electronic parts and that is so oppressive that there was an epidemic of suicides.

For his part, the Vice Dean of the School of Marxism concurred with Dic Lo and offered supporting evidence for the country’s anticapitalist bona fides–the official support for the study of Marxism in Chinese universities like his. Well, only last month Xi Jinping stated that Marxism is “totally correct” for China so who are we to question that? He told all party members at a big gathering celebrating the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth to study his writings as a “way of life” and “spiritual pursuit”.

Ironically, the Vice Dean of the School of Marxism had a different take on Minqi Li at one time. In 2005, they co-authored a paper titled “Neoliberalism, Global Imbalances, and Stages of Capitalist Development” that described the U.S. and China as the two main engines of neoliberal growth. Could it be possible that such a paper might have reflected youthful radicalism that has been tamed through the inevitable process of a career path in the Chinese academy, even if the top roosts are emblazoned with the image of Karl Marx?

Dic Lo got in the face of those ultra-leftists like Martin Hart-Landsberg, throwing down the gauntlet:

All the talk from the left, said Lo, was about political repression, labour exploitation, inequality or Chinese ‘imperialism’. But then how to explain China’s phenomenal growth and success in taking over 850m people out of poverty (as defined by the World Bank) and reaching national output second only to the US. China doubles real living standards every 13 years. It now takes the US and Europe 50 years and Japan even longer. Is this just fake or illusory and if not, how can this ‘capitalist’ and ‘imperialist’ economy have bucked the trend, when the record of all other capitalist economies (advanced or ‘emerging’) can show no such success? “How can it be possible, in our times, for a late-developing nation to move up the world political-economic hierarchy to become imperialist? Can anyone on the left answer this question?”

Probably without realizing it, Lo answered his own question by asking us to “explain China’s phenomenal growth and success in taking over 850m people out of poverty.” It should be obvious that this phenomenal growth comes from the massive capitalist development along the southeastern coast in cities like Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton). By opening up such cities to foreign investment and drawing in people from the countryside through land privatization, the country became a showcase for capitalist modernization.

In fact, the country that was a counter-revolutionary dagger aimed at China enjoyed the same kind of “take-off”. I speak of Taiwan that was home to Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT that dreamt of overthrowing communism on the mainland. This chart should give you an idea of how dramatic the poverty reduction was.

It appeared in an article titled “Openness, Growth and Poverty: The Case of Taiwan” that appeared in the 2007 World Development journal. It makes one wonder whether, despite all the hostility between Taiwan and the mainland, that perhaps Deng Xiaoping consciously emulated its success. The article states:

Like many developing countries, poverty was widespread in Taiwan during the early postwar years. After the government decisively reoriented its development strategy from import substitution toward export promotion at the end of the 1950s, the exceptional economic growth has not only brought with it the well-known record of income distribution, but has also resulted in rapid poverty reduction. What Taiwan has experienced in the past four decades suggests that there is a close link between openness, economic growth and poverty reduction, and thus constitutes an ideal case for a country-specific study …

But does rapid capitalist growth, even when combined with generous social services as is the case in both China and Taiwan, serve as a benchmark for progress toward socialism? In China, there is lots of personal freedom. Unlike Iran, nobody gives a crap what clothes you wear or whether you walk down the street like a drunken sailor on shore leave. But like Iran, China will brook no challenge to the ruling party, which is closely tied to what Bernie Sanders calls the “billionaire class”. If workers want to press for higher wages and a relaxation of the killing pace at Foxconn, what happens? I recommend China Labor Bulletin to keep track of these encounters, especially the article titled “Swimming against the Tide: A short history of labour conflict in China and the government’s attempts to control it.” Among the findings:

Another report in 2009 by Hong Kong activist group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) showed that the 6,000 employees of the Tianyu Toy Company in Dongguan typically worked three hours overtime each day. During peak production times they worked four hours overtime a day and some workers complained they sometimes had to work through the night, with the longest continuous shift lasting 28 hours. Worse still, if the shift went past 9:30 pm, the company refused to pay overtime. And if employees refused to do overtime, they were fined 50 yuan. To prevent workers from walking out, the company held back a month and a half’s wages and, if workers resigned without their manager’s approval, they would lose one month’s wages.

Naturally, this kind of super-exploitation produces investment capital that can continue to build new factories that act as a magnet for the rural poor. When a peasant who earns about $100 per year loses his land due to modern day primitive accumulation, he could get a job at Tianyu Toy Company making $100 per month. Is this dramatic increase in wealth a step on the road to socialism?

Dic Lo’s articles are mostly written in non-Marxist journals and are meant to refute his neoliberal adversaries, who—compared to him—would accelerate the economic practices so that they would be line with those that prevail in India or Russia today. Basically, he is arguing from the standpoint of what used to be called a “mixed economy”.

You have to go back to Historical Materialism in 2001 for the one article he submitted to a Marxist journal, in this instance a special issue on the Asian financial crisis that began in Thailand in 1997. You can find an article in the same issue by the notorious ultra-leftist Paul Burkett titled “Crisis and Recovery in East Asia: The Limits of Capitalist Development”.

Lo’s article is titled “China After East Asian Developmentalism” and is much less technical that those written by him for a-list economics journals. In contrast to the smoking rubble of Thailand, Indonesia et al, China was barely impacted in the early 2000s. While he acknowledges that China shared some of the same “marketization” features as the Asian Tigers, it was protected from the financial superstorm by policies unique to China. Neither, however, have much to do with socialism.

The first was plain vanilla Keynsianism:

The East Asian financial and economic crisis, in conjunction with the steadily slowing down of economic growth in the domestic front, prompted the Chinese state leadership to adopt four major categories of anti-crisis policies from early 1998. The first was a range of welfare-state policies, which included raising the benefits for the retired and the unemployed, raising the pay of public-sector employees, and lengthening the paid holidays of workers. All these were aimed at reversing the trend of stagnant consumption expansion. The second category encompassed several Keynesian-type fiscal packages for expanding investment demand. These packages were financed by debt issuing on unprecedented scales. The third category encompassed policy measures to revitalise the state sector.

The revitalized state sector was embodied in the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) that for Michael Roberts, Dic Lo and all the other speakers at the SOAS workshop see as constituting the all-important socialist sector.

Let’s take a look at one of these socialistic SOE’s, the Anbang Insurance Group that attracted a lot of publicity this year for its bid to invest millions of dollars in a building owned by Jared Kushner. The largest shareholders are state-owned car maker Shanghai Automotive Industries Corp and Sinopec, a state-owned oil company Sinopec.

Of course, trying to figure out who exactly “owns” Anbang is not easy. Like many huge Chinese firms, they make discovery difficult as an American trade union found out when pressing charges against it for unfair labor practices as the Times reported in September 2016.

The Anbang shareholders in the Pingyang County area hold their stakes through a byzantine collection of holding companies. But according to dozens of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of Anbang filings by The New York Times, many of them have something in common: They are family members and acquaintances of Wu Xiaohui, Anbang’s chairman, a native of the county who married into the family of Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader in the 1980s and ’90s.

You remember who Deng Xiaoping was, right? He was Mao Zedong’s successor who took “the capitalist road” in the first place. I guess his friends and relatives were quite happy with the NEP-type reforms since it put them in the position of buying the Waldorf Astoria and coming close to bailing out Trump’s son-in-law who will hopefully be arrested this week.

As should be obvious at this point, “state ownership” is a convenient fiction in China, especially since anybody can buy shares in such companies, including Western investors. For example, Roberts is impressed with the fact that the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corp has begun to incorporate Western technologies, However, it is traded publicly on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, as is the case with the largest Chinese SOE’s, and thus no different from any other capitalist firm. In the final analysis, it is the class character of those who own the means of production that determines their social role. While the number of shares available to outside investors has been relatively small, “reforms” enacted in 2015 to transform SOE’s into mixed enterprises will likely increase their numbers as indicated by the transformation of the second largest mobile carrier.

Unlike China today, Soviet Russia never had a stock exchange. The children of Soviet bureaucrats could never look forward to inheriting their daddy’s holdings like Donald Trump did from his father. That is true state ownership.

Although ownership data is difficult to come by, you can read an article co-authored by Curtis J. Milhaupt and Wentong Zheng titled “Beyond Ownership: State Capitalism and the Chinese Firm” on the Columbia University Law School website. It hones in on Ping An, another insurance company. The largest block of shares is owned by HSBC Ltd., a multinational bank that originated in Hong Kong even though most shares are owned by other SOE’s. In 2016, Mexican families sued the bank for money-laundering the drug proceeds of the Sinaloa Cartel that had killed members of their families, just the sort of outfit you’d want to help overcome the law of value, as Roberts put it.

Milhaupt and Zheng refer to the “blurred boundaries” between private and state-owned firms in China, as I have tried to establish. To get an idea of how tangled things can get, this is how they describe ZTE, China’s second-largest telecom:

According to the website of ZTE Holdings, it is one of the “national key SOEs” designated by the State Council. The third shareholder of ZTE Holdings, Zhongxing WXT (also known as Zhongxingweixiantong), is a private firm owned by a group of individuals, of whom the founder, Hou Weigui, holds the largest percentage (18%). According to the website of ZTE Holdings, it was the first firm in China to adopt a “state owned, privately managed” model in 1993. Under this so-called “ZTE model,” the majority state shareholders contractually authorize the minority private shareholders to assume sole responsibility for managing the firm, subject only to the requirement that the state shareholders be guaranteed a minimum rate of return. Under the ZTE model, therefore, a firm is an SOE from the standpoint of ownership, but a POE [privately owned] from the standpoint of management.

ZTE? Doesn’t that ring a bell?

Trump hammered it with sanctions Trump after it was discovered that they were selling their smartphones to Iran and North Korea. But lately Trump seems to be in a forgiving mood. First it was Jack Johnson, now it is ZTE.

All ZTE had to do was pay a $1 billion fine and let bygones be bygones. Those of good faith might think there was a quid pro quo since the Chinese government approved Ivanka Trump’s application for five trademark applications related to her fashion and homeware business just days before forgiving ZTE.

At the same time, according to Vanity Fair, the theme park developer MNC Lido City has partnered with the Trump Organization to land $500 million in Chinese government loans, with another $500 million from government banks. The Trump Organization will take in almost $3.7 million in licensing and consulting payments from Lido, along with another project in Bali. The company will also earn management fees, and be “eligible for additional unspecified incentives.” You see, this is not graft since Donald Trump turned over the reins of managing the Trump Organization Donny Jr. and Eric, but chose not to divest himself financially from the company.

This is how the capitalist state operates in China and the USA. Even Donald Trump understands that Xi Jinping’s Marxism is a con. After Xi tightened his control of the state in the same fashion as Modi, Erdogan, Assad and all these other scumbags, Trump mused: “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”

 

May 4, 2018

Angels Wear White

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

Purely by coincidence, “Angels Wear White” bears a striking resemblance to last year’s “The Florida Project”, a film I nominated for best of 2017. Like “The Florida Project”, most of the action in “Angels Wear White” takes place in a motel—in this instance on a seaside resort in southwest China’s that is bathed in sunlight. Like Sean Baker, the director of “Florida Project”, Vivian Qu’s film revolves around two women dealing with class and sexual oppression. Baker’s characters were a single mother forced into becoming a hooker out of economic desperation and her six-year old daughter who is the charismatic gang leader of the motel’s bored and restless children. Finally, like the “Florida Project”, “Angels Wear White” is an outstanding film that has the inside track for my nomination of best foreign language film of 2018.

In “Angels Wear White”, we first meet Mia who is subbing at the reception desk for her friend Lily who has a date with her boyfriend. Mia’s regular job is cleaning the rooms, doing the laundry and other menial tasks. On her lonely shift (the tourist season has not yet started), a middle-aged man approaches the desk with two young girls wearing white naval-style school uniforms in tow, with one of them wearing a blonde wig. Mia doesn’t bother to ask the man, who registers for adjoining rooms, what he is doing with the children since we can assume that such questions are not often asked in China, especially by a housekeeper who lacks a proper ID. Not long after the girls order four beers, Mia is at least concerned enough to keep an eye on the video security monitor. When she sees the two girls pushing the man out of their room, she decides to film the confrontation on her smart phone—an act that sets the narrative in motion.

Eventually, the children’s parents discover what took place and bring them to a clinic where an examination reveals that they have been raped. They oscillate between rage at the children for acting like sluts and at the man who took advantage of them.

It turns out that he is the police commissioner and a powerful figure in the small town, which obviously puts constraints on the investigation that begins after the medical exam. A lawyer for the prosecution contacts Mia about what she saw that night but is frustrated by the young woman’s reluctance to share information. Her boss, who understands power relations in the town, has warned her that she will be out of a job if she doesn’t keep her mouth shut. Since Mia is only 15 years old (played by the 14-year old actress Vicky Chen) and lacks a proper ID that would allow her to apply for other jobs, she is as vulnerable as the two children.

The girl in the blonde wig is named Wen. Like the waif in “The Florida Project”, she simultaneously street-smart and innocent. When her friend tells her in the clinic that their hymen has been broken, she asks, “What’s a hymen?” Tired of being rebuked by her mother who throws out her age-inappropriate garb and the blonde wig, she runs away and crashes at her father’s house. He is in the lower ranks of the village’s social order but determined to see that Wen get justice. Except for the prosecution attorney and Wen’s father, everybody seems willing to let bygone’s be bygone, especially since challenging the authority of the police commissioner leads up a blind alley. Even the parents of Wen’s friend are ready to accept his promise of a payoff in exchange for dropping the case.

If the story sounds like it is the Chinese counterpart to #MeToo, that is only part of the story. It is equally the story about those millions of workers, both men and women, who lack the protections afforded those with proper identification. In effect, they are internal undocumented workers. Known as the hukou system, it serves as both a social security number and an internal passport. Lacking proper documents, a migrant worker suffers super-exploitation in much the same way undocumented workers suffer in the USA. In Beijing, there have been raids on neighborhoods where migrants live that are as vicious as those on the refugee camps in France. The NY Times reported on November 30, 2017:

“Starting from today, demolish what can be demolished, don’t wait until tomorrow,” Wang Xianyong, a district official in southern Beijing, said in a speech to officials that leaked onto the internet. “If it’s demolished today, then won’t you be able to get a good night’s sleep?”

Initially, city leaders ignored the complaints from the displaced migrants. But as images of expelled workers dragging their belongings along streets on freezing nights appeared on social media, they ignited an unusually strong public backlash. Even some state-run news outlets have chimed in to criticize the rushed demolitions.

In the press notes for “Angels Wear White”, the director recounts her inspiration for making the film:

Once during a scouting trip, I saw a young girl, 8 or 9 years old, playing alone on a long flight of steps against a hilltop. It was approaching dusk and the area was deserted. The girl was happy to see us and volunteered to be our model as we shot videos of the area. She told me that her parents, migrant workers from a faraway province, were still at work; that her home was in a basement at the bottom of the hill; that she had no friends. She didn’t want to see us leave, and asked if we’d be back the next day. Are the young girls fine? I often wonder.

The film opened today at the Metrograph, NYC May 4 and will open in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Music Hall on May 18.

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