China: Rise, Fall and re-emergence as a Global Power – some lessons from the past

By James Petras

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! is publishing this along with a number of other articles by James Petras on our website because they have some serious political qualities even if there are aspects with which we do not necessarily agree.

Introduction

The study of world power has been blighted by Eurocentric historians who have distorted and ignored the dominant role China played in the world economy between 1100 and 1800. John Hobson’s1 brilliant historical survey of the world economy during this period provides an abundance of empirical data making the case for China’s economic and technological superiority over Western civilisation for the better part of a millennium, prior to its conquest and decline in the 19th century.

China’s re-emergence as a world economic power raises important questions about what we can learn from its previous rise and fall and about the external and internal threats confronting this emerging economic superpower for the immediate future.

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China: between a rock and a hard place

Bourgeois and left-wing analysts alike view China as either a potential saviour of the capitalist system or rival to US hegemony of the world or maybe both. Currently it will play neither of these roles. Despite China’s economic growth and increased military spending it cannot challenge the domin­ance of US and EU imperialism, except within its regional sphere of influence, and that may be intolerable to imperialism. TREVOR RAYNE reports.

The SWP’s Alex Callinicos and Socialist Register’s Panitch and Gindin have described China as a potential challenger to the US (see FRFI 193). That challenge may be for the future, but it is not imminent. The influential US academic Marxist Robert Brenner describes the underlying cause of the economic crisis as being an over-production of goods exacerbated by ‘the emergence of the Chinese leviathan’. (Interview 22 January 2009, Links: international journal for socialist renewal). Brenner says that China prefers US hegemony as a means of allowing its economy to expand and he denies the existence of inter-imperialist rivalry, saying that Europe also approves of US hegemony. He foresees China ‘still pouring as much money as it can into the US to try to keep the US economy going, so that China can keep developing the way it did’. This is wrong! The Chinese ruling class will assert its own interests in conflict with the US when it needs to and ‘the way it did’ can be no more.

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China myths and realities

The impressions are awesome: 70% of the world’s construction cranes will be operating in China over the next five years; in 2005 China consumed half the world’s cement and built as much as the whole of Europe will in three years. Investment bank Goldman Sachs announced that China’s economy will exceed that of the US by as early as 2041. China’s surging growth and emergence as a significant player in the world economy are undeniable but what this means for the global balance of forces and future of imperialism has still to be demonstrated. For some on the left the image of a rising China coming into conflict with the US eclipses the necessity of analysing inter-imperialist rivalries and the substance of China’s rise. TREVOR RAYNE reports.

TV poseur Niall Ferguson gives a dramatic depiction of the ‘triumph of the east’, wherein ‘a hundred years ago... the west could justly claim to rule the world. After a century in which one western empire after another has fallen, that can no longer be claimed.’ Now it is Asia, led by China, which is in the ascendant. (New Statesman, 26 June 2006)

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CHINA: from internationalism to chauvinism – the Sino-Soviet dispute

For all but the last two centuries of the past 2,000 years China has possessed the world’s biggest economy. The Mongol Khan’s once ruled an empire stretching from the Pacific to the Danube. Today, with a total population of 3.3 billion people, the countries of east and south Asia (excluding Japan) have more than three times as many people as the developed capitalist countries. With China as the world’s fastest growing economy, there are many who see the locus of world power shifting in the coming period from the US and Europe to China and Asia. Hence, Martin Jacques:

‘The growing conflict between an extant America and a rising China will become the dominant fault line of global politics’ (The Guardian, 18 June 2005).

To support his argument Jacques cites China’s economy, ‘immeasurably stronger than the Soviet Union’s ever was…economic strength is the key precondition for global power and influence’, and China’s integration into the global economy, unlike the Soviet Union. FRFI 188 examined China’s transition from the socialist to the capitalist road of development. Here Trevor Rayne explores the Sino-Soviet dispute and its consequences.

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CHINA along the capitalist road

‘Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.’ Napoleon

On 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong announced ‘China has stood up.’ A quarter of humanity, led by the Chinese Communist Party, had thrown off imperialism and its comprador bourgeoisie and begun dismantling semi-feudal land-ownership. They began constructing socialism: banks and industries were nationalised and land redistributed to the peasantry.

Fifty-five years later the Hong Kong based brokerage firm CLSA says that the private sector is now responsible for three-quarters of China’s output and employment, making the Communist Party government more dependent than ever on entrepreneurs to sustain high-speed economic growth. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that private business generates nearly two-thirds of non-farm output. It says that the number of state controlled enterprises has halved to 150,000 since 1995. Private companies increased output by 400% and foreign companies 200% between 1998 and 2003 compared with the state sector increase of 70%. TREVOR RAYNE examines the routes China has taken since 1949.


A new police force is being established in Chinese cities, equipped with helicopters and armoured vehicles to combat ‘the threat of terrorism and the rising incidence of rioting and social unrest across the country’. The Public Security minister, Zhou Yongkang, said the authorities dealt with 74,000 protests and riots last year, involving 3.7 million people, compared with 10,000 incidents in 1994. Professor Xiaozheng of Renmin University doubted that the new force would have any impact on the causes of unrest: ‘The crux of the problem lies in an unbalanced society which lacks justice and equality. As the income gap widens, and officials become more and more corrupt, better equipped police will only be used to protect the rich people and residents of big cities.’ (Financial Times, 19 August 2005)

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