This year marks the 40th anniversary of China’s “reform and opening up,” initiated in 1978. At that time, although living standards had significantly improved following the socialist revolution in 1949—life expectancy nearly doubling in the first 30 years—China still faced tremendous challenges. Seeking to overcome the country’s severe underdevelopment, the West’s monopoly over technology, and the isolation to which it had been subjected to during the Cold War by the United States, China implemented reforms in order to promote economic growth and development. Deng Xiaoping, chief architect of the policy, summed up the Communist Party’s thinking in three simple clauses: “Our country must develop. If we do not develop then we will be bullied. Development is the only hard truth.”
Four decades later, the success of reform is undeniable: China has lifted 800 million people out poverty—more than the rest of the world combined during the same period—and generated “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history,” according to the World Bank. China’s GDP growth has averaged nearly 10 percent a year over a 40-year period, without crises, with the country becoming a world leader in science, technology and innovation. Rising from extreme poverty to international power, China now has the world’s second largest economy, and is generally expected to overtake the U.S. in GDP terms within the next two decades. Measured in terms of purchasing power parity, China’s economy has already surpassed the U.S.
When beginning its reform, China sought to “keep a low profile” and “bide its time, while building up strength”, as the U.S. led an international offensive, destructively imposing neoliberalism on countries throughout the global South. Today, we are in the midst of a turning point. Announcing to the world that it is entering a “new era” at last year’s National Congress of the Communist Party, China is playing a more assertive and leading role in global affairs. The country’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative—called “the largest single infrastructure program in human history”—involves over 70 countries and 1,700 development projects connecting Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe. Meanwhile, mired in economic stagnation and decline, the U.S. is its losing international authority. In particular, during the “America First”-era, the country’s reputation has plummeted, as the Trump administration unilaterally withdraws from international institutions and agreements, displays open bigotry towards developing countries, and eschews diplomacy for insulting arrogance and genocidal threats.
U.S. hostility towards China increases
That China and the U.S. are moving in opposite directions is not a new phenomenon, but this trend has been brought into sharp focus under Trump. Growing anxious about its diminishing global dominance, the U.S. demonstrates increasing hostility towards China. In a series of recent policy statements – the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, and State of the Union address – the Trump administration has repeatedly identified the “threat” posed by “economic and military ascendance” of China, declaring that “[i]nter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” It is claimed that China, along with Russia, “want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.”
In response to this “danger,” the Trump administration is pursuing a substantial buildup in U.S. military forces, viewing “more lethal” and “unmatched power [as] the surest means of our defense.” Trump’s 2019 budget proposes a massive increase in Pentagon spending to $716 billion and he has assembled a war cabinet to make use of it, including extreme hawks and noted anti-China hardliners such as John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Peter Navarro. These moves come after top U.S. military officer, General Joseph Dunford, called China the country’s “greatest threat” and U.S. Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris, new ambassador to Australia, told Congress in February that the U.S. must prepare for war with China. Washington is increasing military pressure on Beijing: ratcheting up tensions on the Korean peninsula; taking steps to construct a “quadrilateral” alliance with right-wing governments in India, Japan and Australia, targeting China; and passing the Taiwan Travel Act which violates the “One China” policy and encourages the U.S. “to send senior officials to Taiwan to meet Taiwanese counterparts and vice versa”
On the economic front, the Trump administration seeks to launch a “trade war” with Beijing and form a broad anti-China alliance, proposing $50 billion in tariffs targeting Chinese imports (and threatening $100 billion more), launching an investigation into technology transfers to China, and lodging formal complaints at the World Trade Organization on “the state’s pervasive role in the Chinese economy.” Washington is increasingly regulating and monitoring inbound Chinese investment, outbound U.S. investment in China, and joint ventures. Viewing technological dominance as a pillar of its international authority, Washington considers China’s development and technological advance to be an “existential economic threat.”
As this animosity increases, U.S. rhetoric towards China calls to mind the virulent anti-communism of the Cold War and racist “yellow peril” phantoms of decades past. Newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently warned that China was trying “to infiltrate the United States with spies – with people who are going to work on behalf of the Chinese government against America … We see it in our schools. We see it in our hospitals and medicals systems. We see it throughout corporate America. It’s also true in other parts of the world … including Europe and the UK.” Similarly, FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress in February that “the whole of Chinese society” is a threat to the U.S. That such belligerent statements can be made towards 1.4 billion people, one-fifth of humanity, without receiving any challenge from Democrats, Republicans or the corporate-owned media, is an indication of the consensus around the “China threat” theory in the U.S. establishment, and the danger this poses.
A new Cold War
Washington’s hostility towards Beijing is rooted in the foundation of modern U.S. foreign policy. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and end of the Cold War, ushered in an era during which the U.S. has sought to establish unipolar global dominance. Explicitly outlined in a 1992 Defense Policy Guidance paper authored under neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz, the principal objective of U.S. foreign policy in this period has been “to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival” capable of challenging U.S. aspirations for global hegemony. In the quarter-century since, the U.S. has aggressively pursued this aim, engaging in endless wars, “regime change” efforts, and military build-ups around the world, now operating over 900 military bases globally.
Despite these most destructive efforts, the U.S. has been unable to stop China’s momentous rise, which has emerged as the primary obstacle to U.S. aims for unipolar dominance. Although Washington has sought regime change in Beijing ever since the socialist revolution of 1949, the U.S. has generally pursued a strategy of “containment through engagement” following the normalisation of bilateral relations in the 1970s. In part, Washington had hoped that China’s economic reform and the fall of the Soviet Union would lead to political reform in Beijing and the abandonment of Communist Party leadership and socialism with Chinese characteristics, in favour of Western-oriented neoliberalism. History has confirmed that China has no such intention.
Recognizing its own declining leverage and that China will not become “more like us”, Washington is attempting to launch a new Cold War against China. The identification of China as the primary target of U.S. foreign policy originated during the Obama era with the “Asia pivot” seeking to encircle China, shifting 60 percent of U.S. naval assets to Asia by 2020. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton argued that the U.S. must reorient the focus of its foreign policy from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific to ensure “continued American leadership well into this century.” The developments under Trump, mark an escalation of this bipartisan strategy.
The unipolar-multipolar struggle
The importance of U.S.-China relations cannot be overstated, with the two countries at the core of a broader unipolar-multipolar struggle over the shape of the international order. While the U.S. seeks to secure global dominance, China’s rise is central to a multipolarisation trend, in which multiple centres of power are emerging to shape a negotiated, more democratic world.
China’s political orientation has been fundamentally shaped by its history of subjugation to foreign powers during its “century of humiliation” and anti-imperialist struggle for national liberation. Under the leadership of the Communist Party, China has always identified itself as part of the Third World or global South and the collective struggle of formerly colonized and oppressed nations against the global inequality wrought by imperialism.
Under the banner of “South-South cooperation”, China continues to champion this collective struggle today, promoting greater say for developing countries in global governance and the construction of a rules-based international order in place of the unilateral actions of major powers, in particular the U.S. More than mere rhetoric, China provides crucial investment, infrastructure construction, technology transfers, debt forgiveness, and diplomatic support to developing countries. Most importantly, unlike the U.S. and West which engage in destructive foreign interventions, China abides by the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and does not impose conditions on its relations.
China’s respect for the self-determination of other countries has made it an indispensable partner for nations resisting foreign domination and pursuing independent development, including Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Syria, Iran, and North Korea. It is for this reason that the late Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro declared in 2004 that “China has objectively become the most promising hope and the best example for all Third World countries … an important element of balance, progress and safeguard of world peace and stability.” Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Arreaza echoed these sentiments last December, saying “Thank God humanity can count on China,” as his country faces sanctions, economic sabotage, and threats of regime change from the U.S.
Contributing to the declining global authority of the U.S, China’s international relations have prompted Washington to cynically accuse China of fostering dependency in Africa and being an “imperial power” towards Latin America. In fact, rather than behaving in a predatory manner, China provides sorely needed funding, on favorable terms, to African borrowers, and as we have seen above China supports Latin America’s struggle against imperialism. That China is praised by fiercely independent nations of the global South and faces such charges from the U.S.—the most powerful empire in history—reveals the absurdity of such claims. Anxious about its own decline, the U.S. seeks to both drive a wedge between China and the South, and also restrict the right of developing nations to choose their own partners and path. China has demonstrated that its rise is compatible with the self-determination of other nations—whether capitalist or socialist; what it comes into contradiction with is U.S. imperialism.
It is important to recognize that U.S. hostility towards China is not simply a product of narrow competition with the Asian power, it is a resistance to the empowerment of the global South and democratization of international relations. China is the primary target of U.S. imperialism because of its strategic importance at the heart of the world multipolarisation trend, which threatens to bring an end to U.S. international supremacy and 500 years of Western global dominance.
An opportunity for ordinary Americans
For years, the U.S. political establishment has sought to leverage American workers in its struggle against China. Endless rhetoric about how China is “stealing U.S. jobs” seeks to stir up xenophobia and racism in order divert attention from the fact that it was Washington and U.S. corporations that implemented the neoliberal reforms which hollowed out America’s economy. On a near daily basis, the corporate-owned media further promotes hostility towards China with hawkish, sensationalized and dishonest reporting. In recent months, Americans have been told that China, with its “model of totalitarianism for the 21st century”, “has a plan to rule the world”, that its “‘long arm’ of influence stretches ever further”, its “fingerprints are everywhere” as it “infiltrates” U.S. classrooms, colleges, and more. The message is clear: be afraid.
However, for ordinary Americans, multipolarity and the strengthening of international forces, like China, which challenge U.S. imperialism are not a threat. Instead, this offers the potential for progressive advances for the American people in their own struggles. The 20th century provides a historical precedent for this, where the existence of the Soviet Union and a concrete socialist alternative to capitalism along with the wave of Third World national liberation struggles, placed pressure on Western capitalist countries, including the U.S., to respond to their own people’s demands for progressive social and economic policies, such as the welfare state, higher taxes on the wealthy, and anti-racist measures.
Similarly, today, as the U.S. and the world face tremendous social, economic and environmental challenges, Chinese socialism is demonstrating a concrete alternative to the dominant capitalist system: pledging to eradicate poverty by 2020; with wage growth soaring and real income for the bottom half of earners growing 401 percent since 1978 (compared to falling by one percent in the U.S. during that time); declaring healthcare to be a universal human right; praised for having the “best response to the world’s environmental crisis” and reducing pollution in cities by an average of 32% in just four years since declaring a “war on pollution”; becoming “a world leader in wind, solar, nuclear and electric vehicles”; building the world’s longest bullet-train network, spending more on infrastructure than the U.S. and Europe combined; and announcing that inequality, not economic underdevelopment, is now the “principal contradiction” to be addressed in Chinese society.
China is able to prioritize social and environmental policies—while sustaining rapid, crisis-free economic growth for four decades—because, unlike the U.S., the interests of corporations and wealthy do not rise above political authority. China’s wealthy regularly face severe repercussions for criminal behaviour (instead of bailouts). For example, an annual list of China’s richest citizens is commonly called the “death list” or “kill pigs list” because those named are often later imprisoned or executed—according to one study 17% of the time.
While China is not a perfect society and continues to face many challenges, the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics has been able to respond to a number of pressing issues facing the world today, better than the U.S. capitalist system. This is likely why China leads the world in optimism, with 87% feeling the country is headed in the right direction, compared to only 43% feeling the same in the U.S.
The new Cold War that Washington seeks to launch against China requires massive increases in military spending, paid for by ordinary Americans with massive cuts to already inadequate social programs, housing support and health care. If the American people can reject the Cold War mentality of their ruling class and arrogant notions of “American exceptionalism”, China’s rise could offer them the opportunity to learn how to build a society that better meets their needs.