Chinese society, Xi Jinping wrote in a recent article, should be like “stars revolving around the revered moon” – where the stars are the citizens, and the moon is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The party has a long list of admirable goals: the harmonious development of the country into a moderately prosperous society, modernisation of governance, the rule of law “with Chinese characteristics” and the “harmonious coexistence of man and nature”.
The only problem is that the “stars”, being human, tend to deviate off-centre. Since 2013, all court judgements in China have been stored online. Based on these official papers, the Twitter account @SpeechFreedomCN has built a remarkable database documenting the CCP’s crackdown on free speech.
Guangdong citizen Yang Xubin was sentenced to eight months in prison for spray-painting the words “Democracy, liberty, independence, popular vote election, revolution in our times… support Hong Kong”.
Zhang Longquan, from Hubei Province, got eight months for “humiliating the party, the state and their leaders” in a WeChat group.
A man in Anhui was detained for five days for posting the term “CCP bandits” in a WeChat group. In his appeal he pointed out that the same Chinese characters can be used to signify the US Republican Party, but his sentence was upheld.
These are not high crimes: a lot of the discontent revolves around personal disputes, or low-level bureaucratic injustice.
For open political dissidence, the punishments are more severe. Gao Zhisheng, a coal miner turned human rights lawyer, published an account of his abduction, torture and mistreatment by the Chinese state. It begins:
“Four men with electric shock prods began beating my head and all over my body. Nothing but the noise of the beating and my anxious breathing could be heard. I was beaten so severely that my whole body began uncontrollably shaking.”
In 2017, after enduring years of informal house arrest and harassment due to his work and this public account, Gao went missing and has never been seen again.
The victims of repression include journalists, labour organisers, campaigners for religious and academic freedom, and of course the largely Muslim Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang, where the state is using forced labour, sexual violence, coercive “re-education” and mass incarceration to destroy the group’s culture.
Merdan Ghappar’s smuggled testimony of repression and incarceration, revealed to the BBC this week (4 August), is merely the latest evidence.
All this is being done under the banner of Marxism. Xi’s crackdown on internal party factions, the inculcation of unquestioning party-worship, the systematic abuse of ethnic minorities, the rising and open Han ethnic nationalism, and the insidious low-level harassment of what people say in private is, according to Xi, “the latest achievement of the Sinicisation of Marxism”.
The left, and above all anyone who thinks the term “Marxism” is worth saving, should be outraged. But parts of the British left seem determined to apologise for China’s crimes against human rights and free speech.
In recent Labour meetings at which activists have tried to raise solidarity with democrats and trade unionists in Hong Kong, or with the Uighurs, they have been met by accusations that they are “promoting Western imperialism” and “media lies”.
I am certain that the renewed salience of the Uighur question, which was ignored for years during the “golden era” of Sino-British relations declared by George Osborne, is in part being driven by the US’s newly aggressive stance on China. But the point of being a socialist is being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
This, however, seems beyond the two left-wing publications in the UK that appear committed to whitewashing China’s authoritarian form of capitalism: the Morning Star and Socialist Action.
In a piece written by the paper’s international editor, the Morning Star says reports of forced labour and mass sterilisations in Xinjiang are “speculative claims” derived from “just one source”, a TV station in Turkey that regularly plays host to a separatist group linked with al-Qaeda.
The Morning Star has a history of deciding that those not totally on board with the repression committed by an authoritarian “communist” state are imperialist lackeys. Thus, in an article by Carlos Martinez, the left-wing Labour MPs John McDonnell, Apsana Begum and the “usually excellent Claudia Webbe” were berated for joining in the “histrionic denunciation” of China over the Uighurs.
On Hong Kong, the Morning Star‘s editors parrot the Chinese state in denouncing democracy protestors as “a violent fringe” that “has been moving towards open adoption of terrorist methods”. The newspaper has run news stories based on press releases issued by the Hong Kong police.
In Socialist Action you can read not only about the spectacular achievements of the Chinese economy – which are real – but two critically important delusions: that China is “not capitalist”, and that Xi’s actions are being guided by Marxism.
John Ross, a Socialist Action writer who teaches at Renmin University in Beijing, argues that by privatising large parts of the economy after 1978, and accepting rampant distributional inequality, “China’s post-reform economic policy is in line with Marx’s analysis of socialism and the economics of post-capitalist societies.”
How the wholesale exploitation of 250 million migrant workers, herded into dormitories and slums and forced to sign contracts certifying they will not commit suicide fits into “Marx’s analysis of socialism” is not explained. Nor are phenomena such as the Jasic strike in 2018, which was led by workers and students claiming to be “Leninists”, and caused the shutdown of Marxist study circles in Chinese universities.
While these two left-wing outlets were highly influential within the Corbyn project, most of the Labour left, and the wider social movements beyond the party, have thankfully avoided outright support for China’s capitalist billionaire torturers.
But the problem for the left remains, as it did in the original Cold War, of how to support democracy, human rights and workers’ rights in China – and in its wider diplomatic sphere of influence – without supporting the Sinophobic rhetoric and aggressive militarism of Donald Trump’s America.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, this week outlined a policy towards China of “constructive engagement and strategic independence”. At an online event held by the Fabian Society, she made a clear distinction between Labour’s approach and the one being driven by the Conservatives’ China Research Group – and emphasised the need to continue engaging with Beijing over climate change.
“In order to have strategic independence,” she said, “we need to create a third pole on the landscape, between the US on the one hand and China on the other; alliances, for example, like the D10 that has been proposed in relation to Huawei, where France, Germany, the UK, Australia, Canada, Japan and others would pool technologies.”
It’s a sensible starting point – and puts Keir Starmer’s leadership miles away from the straight Atlanticism of the Blairite right of the party. But it is not enough.
What should distinguish the British left’s approach to China is knowledge of and engagement with the workers’ movement. Beyond the outright CCP apologists there is a more widespread belief, born out of lazy cultural relativism, that it is somehow imperialist or even racist for British people to criticise China’s human rights record.
The actual experience of the victims of repression documented in China’s own legal reports is discounted against surveys that purport to show that “most Chinese people are satisfied”. Having visited China six times for multi-week, multi-city visits, I have no doubt that this is exactly what people tell the surveys.
I also have no doubt why, on every public occasion or ceremony, the police are deployed on the streets in large numbers, while in neighbourhoods heavy-set men in leather jackets are positioned on street corners.
For those of us on the left who want to maintain an architecture of thought based on historical materialism, whose genealogy runs from Marx, through the early Communist International, the “Western Marxism” of the 1930s, the New Left of the 1960s and the anti-capitalism of today, I am afraid taking a position on Xi’s actual ideology is not a luxury.
Do you want to live in a society where the citizens “revolve around the Party like stars around the Moon”? I don’t – and to believe that 1.4 billion Chinese people must do so as the price for economic development is the worst form of Orientalism. Though I probably don’t agree with the Maoist students who helped organise the Jasic strike, I want them to have the freedom to express their views and to debate them openly.
Xi’s “Marxism” is overtly and systematically anti-humanist. Its endlessly repeated loops of closed and meaningless phrases make the Newspeak of Orwell’s Oceania sound positively lyrical. The forced, televised confessions of corrupt officials are – as China expert Christian Sorace has argued – part of an attempt to create “affective sovereignty”: love of the party above the state, irrespective of what it says or does.
And it’s all being done in the name of a man whose grave in Highgate Cemetery is now on the must-see list for every CCP millionaire who visits London.
That’s why the Labour left has to be unequivocal in distancing itself both from the US project of encircling, isolating and diminishing China, and from the brutal authoritarianism of the CCP.
[see also: The China problem]