A socialist guide to China’s role in the world today

August 29, 2023
Book cover
According to the author, the collapse of the Soviet Union and crushing of China’s democracy movement in the early 1990s were crucial elements to determining the trajectory of China’s capitalist path. Image: Green Left

Capitalist China and Socialist Revolution
By Simon Hannah
Resistance Books, London, 2023
Available as paperback and PDF via resistancebooks.org

Understanding China’s role in the world today is of crucial importance for progressives. In his latest work, Simon Hannah seeks to contribute to our understanding by sketching out China’s development into “one of the most powerful capitalist and emerging imperialist countries in the world”.

As Hannah notes in his introduction, “What China is and how it is developing is not an academic matter, it is already a profoundly important factor in world politics.” With this in mind, he devotes chapters to looking at China’s 1949 revolution, its subsequent conversion into a capitalist state “with its own historical characteristics”, and the country’s rise into an emerging power, among other topics.

According to Hannah, the collapse of the Soviet Union and crushing of China’s democracy movement in the early 1990s were crucial elements to determining the trajectory of China’s capitalist path. As opposed to Russia’s descent into “gangster capitalism”, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ensured “a controlled restoration of capitalist property relations”, in which the Chinese state facilitated “the expansion and consolidation of capital but under its control”. While the state fostered and protected the capitalists “overall interests as an emerging class” during this managed transition, they “remained subordinated politically to the state”.

This process was not without its contradictions, particularly given internal tensions within the CPP between its leadership — which represented the interests of the state bureaucracy — and the rising number of capitalists who joined after the party opened its door to them in the late 1990s. The end result was that China’s integration into global capitalism occurred “without following the dependency of traditional peripheral and semi-peripheral countries on central economies”.

Three decades later, China is simultaneously the second largest economy in the world while remaining a middle-income country. Hannah argues this “web of contradictions” has led to “a fruitless debate about whether China can be described as part of the ‘global south’ or not” when, in reality, “China is in many ways its own special case, a country that is many contradictory things at the same time — what socialist [sic] must do is plot its trajectory and understand its path.”

China’s integration into global capitalism in the 1990s led to a huge influx of foreign capital, transforming it into “the world’s workshop”. But, confronted with a problem of overaccumulation and overproduction and an “urgent need for raw materials and energy” at the start of the century, China began seeking out investment opportunities abroad for its surplus capital. In the process, “China began to rapidly transform its relationship to the rest of the world” and went from a net importer of capital to the world’s third largest exporter of capital.

Far from promoting the development of other countries, China’s foreign investments have followed a clear pattern — most evident with its Belt and Road Initiative — of seeking to transform their economies into raw material suppliers and stable trade routes for China’s economy. Countering the argument that because state-owned companies are behind these investments they cannot be factored into Chinese imperialism, Hannah reminds readers that history shows “the fusion of state control with financial and industrial might can absolutely be part of the development of imperialism”.

In his conclusion, Hannah argues that “the imperialist struggles between the USA (and its western allies) and China will come to define the future”. Given this, opposing one’s own imperialist government takes on even greater importance. But so too does having a clear position on the rights of nations to self-determination — in light of attempts to redivide the world and concurrent escalating militarisation — and solidarity with the “awakening” Chinese working class, which, given its size “hold the future of the world in their hands”.

Due to its length, Capitalist China and Socialist Revolution is more a polemic than a deep dive into the issue. Those looking for detailed statistics will have to look elsewhere. Nevertheless, the pamphlet provides a clear and concise contribution to a critical debate that deserves serious attention.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.