Socialism’s Specter Revives in China’s Belt and Road Initiative

The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming! This time they’re here to spread socialism not by war and invasion, but by good example, economic development and cultural exchange. And in the process, they are eating our lunch. They are demonstrating that it is possible for poor and troubled economies to develop as quickly as China’s by following the latter’s example of mixing the best elements of capitalism and socialism to benefit working class people rather than primarily the rich and elite.  Their efforts are showing every sign of success.

Progressives should take heart. Socialism’s specter is once again on the prowl.  

Specifically, I’m referring to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that actually looks like a Chinese version of a new Marshall Plan for countries representing 65% of the world’s population. Many of the countries involved would otherwise be unable to afford such development.

Particulars of the BRI include Chinese export of construction materials, especially iron and steel and their use to erect a huge power grid with wind and solar focus. The materials are being used to construct highways, rail facilities and sea ports to the benefit of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. The BRI will also include cultural exchanges and educational assistance. It will eventually account for 40% of the world’s domestic product.

That’s the impressive swath China’s trillion-dollar infrastructure-based development strategy that has been in place for the past six years – since it was announced by the country’s president, Xi Jinping in 2013. In his words, the Belt and Road Initiative is “a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future.”

However, many in the west are not buying that rosy description. To them the BRI seems like a new form of colonialism. Since much of it is based on loans, critics have even described it as a “debt trap” intended to create dependency in order to reduce participating countries to the status of vassals of an imperial Chinese state.

Ironically, such criticisms actually reflect the patterns of western colonialism and neocolonialism whose “foreign aid” has in fact intentionally continued the traditional underdevelopment of the former colonies in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia. The critique also overlooks the fact that the Chinese plan is based on Marxist principles which are inherently anti-colonial and international rather than imperial and national.

In practice, all of this has yielded a system often described as state capitalism. That is, the Chinese state (like every other economy in the world!) has a mixed economy that (as I mentioned earlier) incorporates the best elements of capitalism and socialism. This gives the Chinese a huge publicly- owned sector along with a smaller, but still large private sector strictly regulated by the state. Crucially, however, and unlike our own mixed economy, the Chinese version aims at mixing its economy not in favor of the elite, but in favor of the working classes.

This is in strict accord with Marxist theory, which recognizes that capitalism is a necessary stage in the history of economic development. It cannot be skipped, because capitalism is required for the development of productive forces that are sine qua non preconditions for the transition to full-blown socialism.

Moreover, the whole world has been watching. We’ve seen China’s implementation of a worker-friendly state-capitalist form of economy as responsible for 80% of the poverty-reduction the world has experienced over the past two or three generations. That is, China has been more successful in reducing poverty than capitalism or any country subscribing to neoliberalism’s trickle-down model. The latter, of course, favors the 1% and expects 95% of the world’s population to endure austerity measures in order to pay the social costs for capitalism’s dysfunctions. None of that is lost on denizens of poor countries.

And now through the Belt and Road Initiative, those same less developed former colonies as well as the poorer countries of the EU are given opportunity to follow China’s example economically and even politically.

Regarding politics, the Chinese example and initiative are demonstrating that a one-party state like China’s might work better at least in some contexts than what we in the west understand by “democracy.” Surprisingly, for the west (where there appears to be a tacit agreement never to allow us to hear anything positive about competing systems) the Chinese version of political organization has proven to yield governance far more meritocratic, flexible and legitimate than our own.

Its meritocracy insures that no one will rise to national leadership in China who has not come through the ranks and demonstrated outstanding leadership capabilities at each step along the way. The whole process takes about 30 years. This means that by Chinese standards, someone like George W. Bush or Barrack Obama (much less Donald Trump) would not qualify to govern even a small province in China. They simply lack the experience and resulting knowledge that in China are prerequisite for assuming greater responsibilities.

Such leadership has made the Chinese system far more flexible in terms of reform than our own. Thus, in China the revolution began with the country following the Soviet model of development. That changed with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which extended the revolution’s benefits to rural populations. This in turn was followed by Deng Xiaoping’s opening to the west around 1977, by entrance into the World Trade Organization years later, and now by Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Every one of those changes was profound and quickly made. Western capitalism has proven incapable of similar flexibility even in the face of climate chaos that threatens planetary life as we know it.

Moreover, in terms of public approval the Chinese system is proving much more legitimate than western models based on periodic elections. Increasingly, those latter models are corrupted by money. As in the United States, often inexperienced politicians (even comedians and reality show personalities) are elected by pluralities below 50%. A month or so after elections, their approval ratings can sink below 40%. This is because those elected prioritize the needs of their corporate donors rather than those of the people they’ve theoretically been elected to serve. As a result, we’ve increasingly lost faith in democracy-as-we’ve-experienced-it. In many elections, only a minority of Americans even bother to vote.

Meanwhile in China, Pew polling has nearly 80% of the population satisfied with the country’s direction. An even greater majority expects their lives to get better in the near future. Those numbers are testimony to government legitimacy far beyond what we experience in the United States.

So, while western governments and their economies lionize the past and strive to implement 18th century free-market policies, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is offering a different option.

And it’s doing so under the principles of internationalism and anti-colonialism based on sound Marxist theory. That theory has not only taken huge strides towards lessening world poverty; it has provided the world with an example of unprecedented economic dynamism. It’s no wonder that socialism these days is getting a new lease on life. It’s no wonder that its’ specter is once again haunting the world.

The Missing Faith Dimension of the Capitalism vs. Socialism Debate

Jesus Communist

Democracy Now recently reported surprising results from a new Gallup poll about evolving attitudes in this country about socialism. The poll concluded that by a 57-47% majority, U.S. Democrats currently view socialism more positively than capitalism.

Let me offer some reflections sparked by those poll results. I offer them in the light of some pushback I received over my related blog posting about the capitalism vs. socialism debate. These current reflections will emphasize the faith perspective that has not only shaped my own world vision, but that should mobilize Christians to be more sympathetic to socialist ideals.

To begin with, the Gallup poll results are themselves astounding in view of the fact that since after World War II all of us have been subjected to non-stop vilification of socialism. As economist and historian, Richard Wolff, continually observes Americans’ overcoming such programming is nothing less than breath-taking. It means that something new is afoot in our culture.

On the other hand, the Gallup results should not be that shocking. That’s because since 2016, we’ve become used to an avowed socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, being the most popular politician in the country.

On top of that the recent 14-point victory of another socialist, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, grabbed everyone’s attention. Recall that Ms. Cortez defeated 10-term congressional incumbent, Joe Crowley, in her NYC race for the Bronx and Queens seat in the House of Representatives.

Socialist candidates seem to be sprouting up everywhere. They advocate a $15 an hour minimum wage, Medicare for all, and tuition free college education.

Such promises seem to be somehow awakening Americans (at least subconsciously) to the reality that at least since WWII, similar socialist programs have become quite familiar. We’ve all experienced their efficacy since Roosevelt’s New Deal. We expect the government to intervene in the market to make our lives better.

In fact, since the second Great War, there have been no real capitalist or socialist economies anywhere in the world. Instead, all we’ve experienced are mixed economies with huge elements of socialism that we’ve all taken for granted.

Put otherwise, economies across the globe (however they’ve identified themselves) have all combined the three elements of capitalism: (1) private ownership of the means of production, (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings, with the corresponding and opposite elements of socialism: (1) public ownership of the means of production, (2) controlled markets, and (3) limited earnings. The result has been what economists everywhere call “mixed economies”: (1) some private ownership and some public ownership of the means of production (exemplified in the post office and national parks), (2) some free markets and some controlled markets (e.g. laws governing alcohol, tobacco and fire arms), and (3) earnings typically limited by progressive income taxes.

What has distinguished e.g. the mixed economy of the United States from the mixed economy, e.g. in Cuba is that the former is mixed in favor of the rich (on some version of trickle-down theory), while the latter is mixed in favor of the poor to ensure that the latter have direct and immediate access to food, housing, education and healthcare.

My article also went on to argue that the socialist elements just mentioned have enjoyed huge successes in the mixed economies across the globe – yes, even in Russia, China and the United States.

“All of that may be true,” one of my readers asked “but how can you ignore the tremendous human rights abuses that have accompanied the “accomplishments” you enumerate in Russia and China? And why do you so consistently admire socialism over capitalism which has proven so successful here at home?”

Let me answer that second question first. Afterwards, I’ll try to clarify an important point made in my recent posting’s argument about the successes I alleged in Russia and China. That point was in no way to defend the horrendous human rights abuses there any more than those associated with the successes of the U.S. economy which are similarly horrific. But we’ll get to that shortly.

In the meantime, let me lead off with a that basic point about faith that I want to centralize here. Here my admission is that more than anything, I’m coming from a believer’s perspective.

That is, without trying to persuade anyone of its truth, I admit that my Judeo-Christian faith dictates that the earth belongs to everyone. So, boundaries and borders are fictions – not part of the divine order. Moreover, for some to consume obscenely while others have little or nothing is an abomination in the eyes of God. (See Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus (LK 16:19-31).

Even more to the point of the discussion at hand, it is evident that the idea of communism (or communalism) comes from the Bible itself. I’m thinking of two descriptions of life in the early Christian community that we find in the Acts of the Apostles. For instance,

Acts 2:44-45 says:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

Acts 4:32–35 reads:

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had . . . And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”

Jesus’ identification with the poor and oppressed is also important for me. He said that whatever we do to the hungry, sick, ill-clad, thirsty, homeless, and imprisoned, we do to him. The words Matthew attributes to Jesus (in the only biblical description we have of the last judgment) are:

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
There is much, much more to be said about this basic faith perspective. But for now, let that suffice.

Now for the second point about human rights:

• To repeat: no one can defend the obvious human rights abuses of Russia or China. They are clearly indefensible.
• In fact, they are as inexcusable as the similar abuses by the United States in countries which are or have been U.S. client states. I’m referring to Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Vietnam, and countries throughout Latin America and Africa. In all the latter, it has not been unusual for freedom of press to be violated, for elections to be rigged (think Honduras just recently), for summary executions to be common, for journalists to be assassinated in large numbers, and for dissenters to be routinely imprisoned and tortured. Christians advocating social justice have been persecuted without mercy. (Recall that infamous Salvadoran right-wing slogan, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”)
• Moreover, while we have been relatively free from such outrages on U.S. soil, the events of 9/11/01 have been used to justify restrictions of freedoms we have historically enjoyed. Here the reference is to wiretappings, e-mail confiscations, neighbors spying on neighbors, and other unconstitutional invasions of privacy that seem to violate the 4th Amendment of the Constitution. It is now even permissible for the nation’s head of state to identify the press as “the enemy of the people.”
• 9/11 has also been used to justify the clearly illegal invasion of at least one sovereign country under false pretenses (Iraq) with the resultant deaths of well over a million people (mostly civilians). Other countries have also been illegally attacked, e.g. Libya, Yemen and Somalia without due congressional authorization. 9/11 has further “justified” the establishment of “black sites” throughout the world, the “rendition” of prisoners to third countries for purposes of torture, innumerable (literally) arrests without charges and imprisonments without trial. It has even led to extrajudicial killings of U.S. citizens.

Such observations make the general point that when countries perceive themselves to be under attack, they implement policies both domestically and abroad that defenders of human rights correctly identify as repressive, cruel, criminal and even homicidal. Russia, China, and Cuba have been guilty of such policies. But so has the United States in supporting friendly regimes throughout the world and by implementing increasingly repressive policies here at home.

Now consider the pressures that led Russia, for example, to implement its own indefensible repression:

• As the most backward country in Europe, its people had suffered enormously under an extremely repressive Czarist regime. [Czarism, in fact, was the model of government that most Russians (including criminals like Stalin) had internalized.]
• Following its revolution, Russia was invaded by a vast coalition of forces (including the United States). It was forced to fight not only the invaders, but Czarist sympathizers and anti-communists within its own population.
• The country had twice been invaded by Germany through Poland and saw itself as needing a buffer from its implacable enemies to the west.
• Its people had fought heroically against German invaders and though suffering 20 million deaths and incredible infrastructure destruction, it managed to defeat the German army and largely be responsible for winning World War II.
• During the Cold War, Russia found itself under constant threat from western powers and especially from the United States, its CIA, and from NATO – as well as from internal enemies allied with the latter.

My only point in making such observations was not to defend Russia’s indefensible violations of human rights (nor China’s, nor Cuba’s); it was, rather, to make my central point about the efficiency of economies mixed in favor of the poor vs. those mixed in favor of the rich.

As shown by Russia (and even more evidently by China), economies mixed in favor of the poor develop much more quickly and efficiently than economies mixed in favor of the rich. While both Russia and China became superpowers in a very short time, the former European and U.S. colonies in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia have remained mired in colonial underdevelopment. The latter’s organizing principle of “comparative advantage” has proven ineffective in enriching them, since it locks them into positions of mere suppliers of raw materials to industrialized countries. No country has ever reached “developed” status by following such principle. In other words, Global South countries are still waiting for that wealth to “trickle down.”

So, readers shouldn’t mistake the argument made by Wolff and others. It was not to defend the indefensible. (Even Khrushchev and Gorbachev recognized and denounced the crimes of Josef Stalin.) The relevant point is about capitalism vs. socialism. It was to indicate that the vilification of socialism overlooks the achievements of that system despite (not because of) restrictions on human rights that are common to both systems in egregious ways that no humanist or follower of Jesus should be able to countenance.

My conclusion remains, then, that it is up to people of conscience (and especially people of faith) to oppose such restrictions and violations wherever we encounter them – but especially in our own system where our voices can be much more powerful than denunciations of the crimes attributable to “those others.”