Skip to main content

There’s an information war raging, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Every day we search hundreds of items on the Internet to bring you insightful and reliable material on the side of democracy and social justice. Once a year we appeal to you to contribute to this work. Please help.


Xi, Trump and Rising China in the World

This fall the Chinese Communist Party holds its Nineteenth Party Congress. The US-China relationship is one of considerable global importance on several levels: political, economic and the situation of socialism and the international working class. Trump in his presidential campaign adopted a very hostile anti-China tone. However, after Trump assumed power, he changed; his actions towards China proved largely a continuation of established policy. Why did this happen?

printer friendly  
President Xi Jinping, South China Morning Post
The Chinese Communist Party will hold its Nineteenth Party Congress this fall.  Held every five years, the congress makes important decisions about leadership and policy.  The course of China-US relations is one important issue as China seeks to work out a relationship with the new Trump administration, whose rhetoric was at first harsh but then moderated.  However, the longer term US policy towards China is not clear but will include both competition and cooperation; China's history will help shape its response.  Another important program for China this year is the huge One Belt, One Road initiative of economic development projects in Asia, East Europe and East Africa, with major Chinese funding.  Education is key as the US Left and progressives should work for peace and friendship with China and oppose the US military buildup in East Asia, seeking dialogue and not confrontation.  China is again reaching out to socialists worldwide.
Trump and China
The US-China relationship is one of considerable global importance on several levels: political, economic and the situation of socialism and the international working class.  Trump in his presidential campaign adopted a very hostile anti-China tone.  However, after Trump assumed power, he changed;  his actions towards China proved largely a continuation of established policy.  Why did this happen?  What are the prospects for the future of the relationship?
Trump in his campaign elevated the now standard anti-China rhetoric of both Democrats and Republicans to a new level of belligerence.  He blamed China's supposed cheating approach to trade for swindling the US, resulting in huge trade deficits and job loss.  Trump said he would declare China a currency manipulator on his first day of office and spoke of applying a 45% tariff to Chinese goods.  Shockingly, he took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and referred to the one-China policy, the foundation of US-China relations for 40 years, as a "bargaining chip."  Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, said China should be denied access to its new installations in the reefs and small islands of the South China sea, suggesting possible military conflict.  If implemented, this approach would have yielded a rapid deterioration in US-China relations.
However, after the new administration took office, much of this changed.  The one-China policy was reaffirmed and Chinese President Xi Jinping then agreed to receive a phone call from Trump.  After review, the US announced that in fact China was actually not a currency manipulator.  There was less chance of military confrontation in the South China sea.  US withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership reduced economic pressure.  Secretary of State Tillerson during a visit to Beijing dropped the anti-China talk and even repeated some of Xi Jinping's favorite rhetoric, calling for cooperation, non confrontation and mutual respect.  Xi visited Trump in Florida in April and the talks seemed reasonably cordial with Xi proposing a 100-day process to overhaul the US-China trade relationship and inviting Trump to visit China soon.  The US did bomb a Syrian air base in the middle of the two-day meeting and rushed to install an anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea.  However, Trump seem ed mostly concerned with pressuring China to adopt harsh sanctions against North Korea.
Why did the new US administration moderate its position?  US capitalism-imperialism since the 1980s has been ambivalent in its attitude towards China.  While all sectors of capital want to see counter-revolutionary regime change in Beijing leading to a US-compliant government, strategies are different.  With the expansion of China's private sector in the 1980s, US corporations have made big profits in China and many companies like Boeing, Apple, GM and Ford have major commitments.  Wall Street banks seek to penetrate Chinese markets. This section of US  capital supports normal relations to pursue their lucrative business interests and wants to avoid war; their strategy is soft power.  They think that Western liberal values and practices like democracy, human rights, freedom of speech, direct elections and consumerism will appeal to youth, grow a new middle class and undermine communism.   The US role is to support Chinese elements who will oppose and eventually topple the Communist Party of China and institute Western-style political institutions.
Other sectors of US capital, however, see a rising Chinese colossus as the fundamental threat and obstacle to US global hegemony.  This group focuses on long-term strategic considerations, is more ideological and less concerned with immediate corporate profits.  It backs the "pivot" to Asia or encirclement of China with bases and alliances.  US support for reviving militarism in Japan and installation of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea are elements of this approach.  Peter Navarro, head of the White House trade council, advocates the "America first" version of this strategy; his books include "The Coming China Wars" and "Death by China."  Trump apparently was influenced by Navarro during his campaign but more moderate influences emphasizing continuity -- perhaps his son-in-law Kushner -- seemed to have gained favor since the administration took power.
The Chinese government has adopted a wait-and-see attitude towards Trump, responding not to his talk but to his actions.  President Xi is willing to negotiate trade but will not change his position on core issues bearing on  national sovereignty.  China, wanting to de-escalate military tension in the Korean peninsula, will work with the US if possible to do so; but the longer range situation dealing with the new administration is not clear.
Roots of China's foreign policy
To understand China's foreign policy, it is necessary to know some basic history.  China was for many centuries the dominant power in East Asia.  This changed in 1839-42 as British naval power defeated China in the First Opium War beginning the "century of humiliation."  China subsequently lost a series of wars to Britain, France and Japan and lost control over its coastal seas, culminating in the US Seventh Fleet asserting control over the Taiwan Straits in 1949, thereby enabling Jiang Kaishek to take power in Taiwan.  Today, China feels it is reasserting its traditional position in the South and East China Seas, important for national security.  Tensions have decreased in 2017 as Asian countries are moving towards negotiations and avoiding confrontation, but China's neighbors are very aware of the long history of Chinese regional domination.
Twists and Turns in the People's Republic
During the 1930s and 1940s, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai repeatedly expressed the desire to have friendly relations with the US, and welcomed Americans such as the journalist Edgar Snow and Canadians like the physician Norman Bethune.  But with the Korean War in 1950,  Chinese troops fought the US in bitter warfare.  China allied with the Soviet Union and Mao described the nuclear-armed US as a "paper tiger."
China's foreign policy has long been based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, jointly issued with India in 1954 and adopted by the Bandung Conference in 1955 and the non-aligned movement:  1) mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, 2) non-aggression, 3) non-interference in internal affairs, 4) equality and cooperation for mutual benefit, 5) peaceful coexistence.
Major policy disputes led to the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s.  Eventually China emerged from its relative isolation during the Cultural Revolution to advance its "Three Worlds Theory" in 1974.  This targeted both US imperialism and "Soviet social-imperialism" and positioned China as leader of the Third World.  However, China's strong anti-Soviet stance often led to alignment with US strategy and led to confusion in national liberation and left wing movements.
Deng Xiaoping, taking power after Mao's death, adopted the "crouching tiger" approach -- lie low, build up strength, don't take leadership.  This was the period of rapid industrialization and expansion of trade based on low-wages, exports and encouragement of foreign investment to access foreign markets.  Paramount was the need to build a strong economy and advanced technology. Friendly relations with Japan and the West were the priority at the beginning, although eventually China became a huge trading partner with many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.  Thus Chinese influence grew because of its economic clout.
The speed of this expansion was facilitated by China's "no strings attached" trade and investment policy that makes no political demands on developing countries, in contrast to the IMF, World Bank and Western countries which pressure for neoliberal policies, structural adjustment and austerity budgets.  Former colonies in particular appreciate the opportunity to do business on these terms, an application of the "non-interference" point of the Five Principles.
Today, "crouching tiger" has been replaced by "China's peaceful rise," introduced by President Hu Jintao in 2005.  Beijing wants a peaceful global environment to enable its continued economic and social development.  China opposes hegemony and supports the trend towards a multi-polar world.  This means commitment to multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the G77 plus China, the G20, the Shanghai Cooperation organization and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
Premier Li Keqiang, at the National People's Congress in March 2017, said, "China is ready to join hands with the international community and build a new type of international relations based on cooperation and mutual benefit and make new contributions to building a community of shared future for all humankind."  This means upholding global multilateral institutions and pushing economic globalization  to be "more inclusive, mutually beneficial and equitable."  President Xi Jinping has called for a new type of "win/win diplomacy" among countries where cooperation is primary and relations based on mutual benefit.  Increasing globalization is the long term trend, but it must be inclusive and not controlled by corporate interests.
Thus China's foreign policy is based on lofty ideals, which overlap with peace movement sentiment.  Like most developing countries and people of the world, China wants economic and social development, not war.  Peace/antiwar activists should examine the implementation of this policy in both its accomplishments and problems.
Rising China's new economic initiatives
The new Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was boycotted by the US but most Asian and European countries, including the U.K., are participating.  The bank is helping finance a major new international economic effort: the "Belt and Road," an ambitious centerpiece of Xi Jinping's international program.  Launched in 2013, this plan includes large-scale cooperative development and infrastructure projects involving dozens of countries in Southeast and South Asia, and west to Central Asia and Russia, to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the east coast of Africa.  Fifteen Chinese provinces are also working on the transportation, energy and trade projects.  Favorable financial terms are extended through the Silk Road Fund and the AIIB.  At an international meeting in May, Xi announced $100 billion funding of projects with eventual total investment projected at one trillion dollars.  The Belt (overland through central Asia) and Road (new maritime silk road leading from Southeast Asia across the Indian Ocean) if successful will considerably strengthen China's international economic influence as well as bolster development in China's poorer interior provinces.  And the Belt and Road is only part of China's huge program of investment in the developing world.
Military modernization
The Obama administration initiated the "pivot" or rebalancing to Asia-Pacific, often seen as a strategy to thwart a rising China.  China is modernizing its military with a new emphasis on coordinated air and sea operations and ability to fight and win local high-tech wars.  In part, this is a response to the US military buildup.  China is also modernizing its arsenal of nuclear weapons, which consists of about 300 nuclear warheads and long range ballistic missiles.  The Chinese have a no first strike policy and advocate nuclear disarmament; however, China also feels that the largest and  most aggressive nuclear superpower, the United States, should take the lead in the disarmament process.  China has just one overseas base, a refueling station in Djibouti to help with patrols against pirate ships off the coast of East Africa.  The Chinese have no formal military alliances although in recent years there have been large scale joint military exercises with Russia.  China has a great deal of pride in its space exploration program to eventually reach the moon and Mars.
China and Climate Change
China is a signatory and strong supporter of the Paris Climate agreement.  The Chinese join the Group of 77 in calling to broaden the scope of containing global warming to include considerations of historical responsibility for pollution and compensation for damage to the environment, and financial support from developed countries for green technologies in poorer countries.  While still the world's number one emitter of greenhouse gases, and plagued with a bad smog problem in major cities, the Chinese have been gradually reducing their dependency on coal and have committed to generating 20% of their energy from renewable resources by 2030.  The government invests in renewables on a large scale and the country has the world's biggest installation of solar and wind energy.  Solar panels are manufactured with greater efficiency and lower prices for global export.  Many feel that China will have an opportunity to be a world leader in fighting climate change especially as the US Trump administration has backed out of the Paris agreement; for example, California Governor Jerry Brown visited Beijing in June, met President Xi and signed an agreement for cooperation in low carbon technologies.
Domestic shifts
Shifts in domestic policy also affect China's outlook on the world.  China today has a mixed economy, with socialist and capitalistic sectors moving in the direction of more socialism, led by the Communist Party.   The move towards strengthening socialism has been pronounced since the 2008 global recession.  While growth has slowed, this is in part deliberate, due to the shift to a different economic model, the "new normal."  Moving away from an export-oriented, low wage strategy, China is now developing a more mature, innovation driven, service oriented economy; emphasis is on building domestic consumption and government services as drivers of growth and not manufacturing for export.   China still refers to itself as in the first or primary stage of socialism, planning to achieve a moderately well-off society by 2021 and a developed socialist country by 2049.
Politically, 2017 is an important year as the communist party will convene its 19th congress in the Fall; this is a time of political maneuvering as the new leadership group is elected.  Xi Jinping, recently named as a "core leader," appears to be in a strong position.  Under Xi, politics have shifted to the left, from a Western viewpoint; for example, there is more discussion of core socialist values, emphasis on Marxism-Leninism in education and critique of bourgeois Western influences. The leading role of the Communist Party has been affirmed.   In foreign policy, Xi's orientation has tilted toward the developing world and Russia, rather than accommodating the West and Japan for export markets.
The anti-corruption campaign
Former Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao, at his 2012 speech summing up ten years in office, identified problems within the communist party itself as the biggest threat to the Party's support among the people and thus continuing in power.  In addition to illegal activities such as bribery and nepotism, there are serious problems of bureaucratism and arrogance, and excessive perks among officials -- all resented and thus creating a gap between the Party and the people.  Soon after taking office in 2013, Xi Jinping launched a popular anti-corruption campaign targeting both "tigers and flies."  Numerous corrupt officials have been prosecuted.  For example, Zhou Yangkong, former member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau, China's most powerful political body, was sentenced to life in prison in 2015 for taking bribes.
Xi Jinping, at a high level meeting in Feb. 2014, stressed the importance of "core socialist values" as the ideological and moral foundation for China (Xinhua, 2/25/14).  Emphasized at the 18th Party Congress in 2012, there was concern that China had lost its moral compass during its three-decade economic boom, as corruption, alienation and other social problems intensified, with increasing individualism and crass consumerism.  At a Dec. 2016 conference in ideological and political work in China's colleges and universities, President Xi strongly reaffirmed the supremacy of Marxism and socialism in Chinese institutions of higher learning.  The greater emphasis of Marxist teachings has led to greater funding for research bodies such as the Academy of Marxism of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
China's rising: unique in the world
China is a unique country: a 4000 year old civilization with 2000 years of feudalism giving way to both democratic and socialist revolutions in the 20th century, followed by a historic program of rapid industrialization.  Today, China still has the world's largest population and industrial working class, and an 89-million member communist party.  China's continuing rise is one of the most important features of the 21st century looking forward.  Lives of Americans are impacted not only by Chinese made products but also by growing job producing investments.   Chinese companies now own billion dollar enterprises such as AMC theaters, GE appliance division, Motorola mobile phones, Smithfield foods as well as New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel.  Jobs are provided for about 100,000 Americans.
China rose from the relative isolation of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s to the world's largest trading country today, as measured in total value of imports and exports.  One of the largest recipients of foreign direct investment starting in the 1980s, China is now the largest source of investment funds in the developing world, surpassing the World Bank and western institutions.  Its military modernization is beginning to challenge US dominance in its coastal regions.  Chinese influence in international relations is also increasing with an activist orientation in the United Nations, the Paris Climate Accord and international bodies such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.   Founded in 2001, the SCO is an Eurasian political economic and security organization; with India and Pakistan joining in 2017, the SCO now represents about half the world's population.
China is also rebuilding a center for the world's working class parties.  For example, the World Socialism Forum is held in Beijing in October.  The World Association for Political Economy in Shanghai publishes the World Review of Political Economy and organizes international conferences; the 2017 conference is in Moscow.  Xi Jinping's "The Governance of China" was published in English and distributed in US bookstores, and exchange visits by Chinese Marxist scholars are more frequent.  In addition, a series of Confucius institutes around the world promote Chinese culture and language at colleges and universities.
Education needed
China is not well understood by the Left, progressives or the US general public.  US mainstream media, quite positive in the 1980s when the government was expanding the private market, is now mostly one-sided and negative during a period when socialism is strengthening.  A balanced perspective is needed, telling both sides of China's complex and often contradictory reality.  Socialists and communists too need to study socialist construction from the Chinese perspective.  A critical part of understanding is to read the Chinese press as well as western coverage to get a balanced, and more complete and accurate picture.  When government relations are uncertain, people-to-people contacts assume great importance, such as study tours, exchanges and cultural activities.
The pursuit of dominance by US imperialism in the context of declining capitalism will sharpen global class contradictions and tensions with the developing world.  Capitalist United States could directly oppose the People's Republic of China, the product of a socialist revolution.  The Pentagon a few years ago created a contingency plan for war with China, called "air/sea battle."  Such a war is considered quite possible by those who favor US hegemony and see China as the main obstacle.  Such a war would be a disaster for the US, leading to economic dislocation and political repression.  The Left and progressives should work for peace and friendship with China as a basic part of a democratic US foreign policy and oppose rising Japanese militarism, a major concern for China.  Socialist and working class organizations should actively pursue international contacts.  We should oppose militarism at home and abroad, cut the military budget, and support international cooperation such as the Paris peace accord and building a multipolar world.  There are vast possibilities for mutual exchange which would enrich Western, Chinese and world civilization.  The arc of history bends towards justice -- there will be a better world!
[Duncan McFarland first visited China in 1981 with the US-China Peoples Friendship Association and later became the editor of  the USCPFA journal US-China Review..  He has made 16 visits since, most recently in July 2017 with an activist delegation sponsored by the National Immigrant Solidarity Network (affiliated with the Alliance for Global Justice).  He was coordinator of the China Discussion Group in Cambridge, Mass. from 2008 - 2016, sponsored by the Center for Marxist Education.  Currently Duncan is a member of the national coordinating committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and chair of the CCDS socialist education project.]
Versions of this were previously posted on the websites of the Center for Marxist Education, Cambridge, Mass.; Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS); and the People's World
Thanks to the author for editing and updating this for Portside.