I have attended enough conferences and meetings across the labour movement in my time to know that these events often become cauldrons of debate about the pernicious works of assorted foreign powers and the best methods for uniting the Left internationally in the task of confronting them. Special hostility is reserved for the United States and Israel, of course, which are seen as the embodiment of all things evil. In fact, such is the obsession with these countries, one could be forgiven for concluding that, in the eyes of the Left, no other regime runs them close in the oppression and tyranny stakes.
Usually conspicuous by its absence from such debates is China — or, more pertinently, the nature of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC). It’s an omission that has become even more glaring in light of recent events in Hong Kong. The national security law recently imposed on the territory, which will inevitably have the effect of quelling protest and freedom of speech, ought to have been the prompt for the British Left to abandon its reticence and, as one, speak out in unequivocal condemnation of the CPC’s repressive methods. But much of the Left remains either silent or ambivalent. If Hong Kong is a litmus test, too many on the Left are failing it.
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China has always been something of a hot potato on the Left, which — much as the Soviet Union did — creates all manner of factional and doctrinal disputes. For some, the Chinese system, if not truly socialist, resembles something approaching it and is therefore worthy of qualified support. Or at least is undeserving of explicit criticism. Their desire to see a bulwark against Donald Trump and what they see as US imperial ambitions, and the belief that only China will ultimately have the means to play that role, persuades them to look the other way when confronted with the facts about the CPC’s nefarious activities. It was probably this kind of thinking that lay behind Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to attend a state banquet given in honour of the Chinese president in 2015, while later declining an invitation to the one held for Trump.
Some diehard Stalinists, in search of a new lodestar since the collapse of Soviet communism, go further and openly wax lyrical about the wonders of the Chinese economic system. Their historical foes among the ranks of British Trotskyism, on the other hand, have traditionally felt little sympathy for the Chinese model, dismissing it variously over the years, just as they once did the Soviet Union and its satellites, as ‘state capitalist’ or a ‘deformed workers’ state’.
A certain layer on the Left, while ill-disposed towards the current regime, feels at least a residual fondness for Maoism and the cultural revolution. It’s a manifestation of the impulse felt even by more sensible elements on the Left to romanticise tyrants and revolutionaries provided they are dead. It might be said that when John McDonnell threw a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book across the despatch box to George Osborne, he was laying bare this impulse.
Meanwhile, many on the mainstream democratic Left in Britain have no time for the CPC or the Chinese system but are reluctant to voice full-throated condemnation for fear of the hornet’s nest that might be stirred up across the wider movement. So they are content to put away the whole subject in a box marked ‘too sensitive’ and refocus their attention on the easier targets in Washington and Jerusalem.
This really won’t do. There is no good reason for the Left to walk on eggshells around China. A regime that ruthlessly suppresses dissent, outlaws free trade unions, exploits workers mercilessly, and routinely uses the army against strikers is no friend of the labour movement in Britain or anywhere else. And in the context of the regime’s wider abuses, not least its persecution of Christians and Muslims, horrific birth limitation policy, repression of Tibetans and disregard for the environment, turning a blind eye becomes nothing short of inexcusable. By all means attack Trump and Netanyahu over their transgressions; the criticism is often deserved. But this type of selective outrage betrays a deep hypocrisy and lack of principle.
Today, however, it is obvious that it is no longer just the Left that is troubled by the China question; it bedevils the Right, too. Very recently, the former chancellor Philip Hammond criticised Tory colleagues for displaying ‘anti-Chinese sentiment’. In taking this stance, Hammond was emulating the approach of his predecessor, George Osborne, who, while in office, made a big push for a strategic realignment with China. A general softening among many Tories to the prospect of deepening ties with China is unsurprisingly correlated to the latter’s embrace of full-blown capitalist economics (albeit a version rigidly directed by the state) and entry into the global market. Who cares about human rights violations when there is highly-profitable commerce to be done?
The Right once knew where it stood with China. It opposed it, just as it did the Soviet Union. But today’s China is a different beast. As the towers of mammon in Shanghai and elsewhere began to be erected and opportunities in the way of investment and trade opened up, much of the Right’s hostility to China’s authoritarian regime seemed to dissipate, with only a dogged band of Atlanticists, civil libertarians and MPs of good conscience now putting up any real resistance. Whether the rapprochement will survive the fall-out from Covid-19, however, remains to be seen.
What we do know is that as China flaunts its growing prosperity and international status, trashing freedoms and liberties as it goes, it finds itself defended in Britain by a somewhat unconventional combination of free marketeers and old-fashioned communists, with each group claiming the success of the Chinese economy as the fruits of its own ideology. Premier Xi Jinping has hardly helped matters by simultaneously attributing it to both Marxist philosophy and free market economics.
In truth, the Chinese system is a deeply unappealing fusion of neoliberalism and brutal state authoritarianism. It’s the Square Mile meets the Stasi, a rapacious capitalism enforced by despots. No one, whether on the Right or Left, should look upon the CPC regime as anything other than the tyranny it is. And those on all sides of the spectrum who believe that democratic freedoms and civil liberties should always come before political expediency or the exigencies of global trade must not falter in their duty to speak out.