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Tactics and perspectives on U.S.-China relations

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Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, OrgUp editors Calvin Cheung-Miaw and Max Elbaum published an article at In These Times on U.S.-China relations. In it, Cheung-Miaw and Elbaum outlined their case for the left to prioritize the fight for a 180-degree turnaround in the U.S. stance toward China, demanding that diplomacy and negotiation replace trade wars and military encirclement. We invited several thinkers and activists to respond to our piece and provide their own take on the path forward. Two comments, from Joe Berry and Duncan MacFarland, are below.

Tactics for the left to address U.S.-China relations

by Joe Berry

Cheung-Miaw and Elbaum’s article is a major brief and readable contribution to an important discussion that is not happening enough on the left, which generally cannot even agree if China is capitalist or still some form of socialist society. That basic unclarity may be one of the main reasons that the discussion of other basic issues involving China has been sidelined to a great extent.

I personally am particularly interested in these issues having spent some months over the past 5 years in East Asia myself, teaching labor studies, with my partner and spouse, Helena Worthen, in a public, union-sponsored university in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam —  Ton Duc Thang U. There is probably no place on earth with more devoted China-watchers, and greater per capita, than Viet Nam, for historical/geographic reasons dating back over 2,000 years. 

While agreeing with both the general thrust and the emphasis expressed in the article, I was somewhat frustrated that the authors did not go on to posit some more specific strategic and tactical suggestions for us to consider implementing. I think that often these days we on the left find ourselves without a “general line” worthy of the name regarding a particular important area of concern. Without a more unified left leadership that is democratically accepted by a large number of existing socialists, we are likely to be in that position for some time to come on a great many issues. We should not let that reduce us to mere discussion and debate or to the default position of just opposing whatever we see as the key ruling class goals and the government policies they get our government (usually) to adopt. We need to have a public face of more than just being “against”. Bernie Sanders’ initiative of a new international organization directed against authoritarianism is a good example of such an attempt, though I think we can also do better with time. The idea is that, even without a general line other than anti-imperialism and working class internationalism, we can talk about the most important things to be doing at the base. The article has a few passing suggestions, and good ones, in this direction, but we need more. How can we actually implement bringing anti-racism, anti-imperialism and opposition to generalized China-bashing into our other daily political work, and lives. How can we build more rank-and-file contacts between Chinese and US activists, unionists, and workers and pro-worker intellectuals? 

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One idea that occurs to me is to build upon an initiative that has been ongoing for some years, led especially by Kent Wong, Director of the UCLA Labor Center and also involving Katie Quan, former director of the UCB Labor Center. Their efforts over the years have led to many exchange delegations (both ways)  between USA and Chinese unions and also, for a time, to a continuing research center at a Chinese university that involved a goodly number of US and Chinese folks at one time or another, and a numbest of published pieces. That center is no more, but the person-to-person initiatives and relationships can be built upon. 

We can also suggest that our organizations (unions, issue groups, electoral political groups, etc.) sponsor discussion, on these issues, perhaps structured around some of the very useful and provocative things that have been written lately, including this very article. The lack of internationalist discussion overall is a big problem in the broad left and the labor movement right now. Recent books like “China On Strike” and articles like the recent “The Enigma of China’s Growth” in December, 2018, Monthly Review (and others) are two that come to mind.

Joe Berry is a veteran education unionist, labor educator, and left activist for many decades. He is author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower.

Fuller perspectives on China are crucial

by Duncan McFarland

I agree with Cheung-Miaw and Elbaum about many things. The US-China relationship has great long-term importance for humanity’s future.  Cooperation between the two countries is essential for progress on climate change and peace, but the relationship is deteriorating. The authors do a service by clearly identifying the Trump administration national security strategy of prioritizing the “threat” posed to US dominance by China and Russia. The peace movement and the Left needs to pay greater attention.  

Concerning China, we need to criticize and oppose aggressive US policies such as the Obama “pivot” or rebalancing strategy aimed at encircling China militarily and also the Trump trade war. Such US actions remind the Chinese of colonial era aggression such as the Opium War. The US mainstream media supports this hegemonic policy with its biased coverage.

The article is right to call on the Left to initiate a campaign to deescalate global conflicts and emphasize diplomacy and cooperation.  We also need to promote people-to-people relationships, exchanges and educational and cultural programs at a time when state-to-state relations are not good.

The article is right to criticize those who look at China and present a “one-sided picture of a complex society.”  However, in this regard, I would advise caution about making statements referring to Xi Jinping’s “crackdown on independent labor organizing” and “increasing authoritarianism.”  The article cites only Western sources — where is the Chinese side of the story?  It is necessary to consider both to get a complete picture.

There is vast exploitation of labor in China’s capitalist sector and it is easy to sympathize with independent labor organizing given the weakness of the All China Federation of Trade Unions. However, my study of the landmark 2012 wildcat strike of Honda indicated that the Chinese workers’ political demands focused on the government actually enforcing the existing (progressive) labor laws and punishing corrupt officials. Direct election of union leaders is another demand. When discussing the situation of the Chinese workers, it is necessary to look at the total picture considering not only the weakness of ACFTU in dealing with exploitation in the capitalist sector, but also the situation of workers in the state-owned sector, and the general trend of rising wages and standard of living.

Xi Jinping’s centralization of power in the Communist Party of China is also of concern — but what is meant by “authoritarianism?” The article does not say.  Xi’s supporters may well argue that what the Western press calls authoritarianism is a crackdown on the widespread bourgeois values and practices that accompanied the expansion of the capitalist sector. Current policies support study of Marxism in the educational system; posters of the “12 core socialist values” were everywhere visible the last time I visited.

A clearer, more complete picture in studying contemporary China is provided by using both Western and Chinese sources equally to consider both perspectives. This includes statements by the Chinese government, communist party and their supporters. 

Duncan McFarland first visited China in 1981 with the US-China Peoples Friendship Association.  Today he is coordinator of the China Study Group at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge MA.  The CSG uses both Western and Chinese sources (in translation) equally.