The threat that the American Left sees in China aligns with the white supremacist underpinnings of American exceptionalism.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the contradictions of U.S. imperialism, including those that continue to render the American left politically isolated and ineffectual. China has found itself at the center of this process. U.S. imperialism has successfully convinced many of its so-called “citizens” to believe that the U.S. government is the principle arbiter of bourgeois freedoms such as the right to individual liberty and free speech. China, on the other hand, has long been depicted by the U.S. ruling class as an “authoritarian regime” where the rights of individuals are crushed under the weight of a centralized state. This Cold War era dichotomy persists into the present day. A strong yet often unspoken belief in the ideology of American exceptionalism within the American Left has created a massive double standard when it comes to China.
First, a word of caution. The term “left” is used in this article not to describe liberals, Democratic Party politicians, or even social democrats or followers of Bernie Sanders. Democratic Party loyalists traditionally side with the right wing and the CIA on questions of international politics. The “American left” referenced in this article is more of a marker of class politics. It includes socialists, Marxists, and liberation organizations and activists that claim to oppose capitalism and imperialism. However, many of these forces have pledged loyalty to the tenets of American exceptionalism through an inconsistent application of the principle of self-determination toward China as opposed to the rest of the world.
For as small and divided as the left remains in the United States, a lot of progress has been made in shifting public opinion of U.S. imperial aggression against smaller nations around the world. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan sparked huge protests that helped sink John McCain and the Republican Party in 2008. American Left opposition to sanctions against Cuba played a small but significant role in the Obama administration’s decision to soften its stance toward the socialist nation beginning in 2014. In the year prior, majorities of Americans opposed the Obama administration when it drew a “red line” and contemplated a full-scale invasion of Syria. In each case, the anti-imperialist left capitalized on a popular distaste for war to defend the self-determination of oppressed nations.
Fewer activists and organizations within the American Left have been willing to defend China from U.S. imperialist aggression. Unlike Syria, Cuba, or Venezuela, China is rarely considered an oppressed nation. China is viewed by most leftists more as an equal competitor to the United States in a broad struggle for global domination. This view makes it fashionable to wield slogans such as “oppose the Chinese and American ruling class.” There are a good number of American leftists who believe that workers in China and workers in the U.S. are united in their shared aim of bringing down two different forms of empire.
American exceptionalism lies at the foundations of these assumptions. American exceptionalism assumes that the U.S. is a force for good in the world and thus has the right to decide which nations or peoples have the right to exist and which do not. The American Left is not immune to the deep influence of ruling class ideology. Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela pose no economic or political threat to U.S. hegemony and thus have a right to exist. China, on the other hand, is understood as an immediate threat to U.S. interests and the right of the American Left to claim a monopoly on the political direction of the working class and oppressed.
Hegemonic and exceptionalist impulses are evident in the fact that while U.S. corporate media slander against Venezuela and Syria has been rejected by a section of the American Left as part and parcel of a larger military intelligence plot to build the case for war, the same slander is generally accepted as fact when it is directed toward China. Yet China has more in common with the Global South than it does differences. China, Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba have all been characterized as “authoritarian dictatorships” and demonized for their supposedly undemocratic character. Each of these governments has been accused by the most violent imperialist regime in world history, the U.S., of placing a great deal of suffering on the citizens of their respective nations. Despite impressive economic gains, China remains a developing country alongside its counterparts in Latin America and the Middle East. Five hundred million people in China still lack basic services such as flushable toilets and per capita GDP in China is still but a sixth of the United States at 10,000 USD. In many ways, China faces a similar struggle against U.S. imperialism as its Cuban, Syrian, and Venezuelan counterparts yet is subject to the least solidarity from the American Left.
The ideology of American exceptionalism has complimented the U.S. military doctrine of Great Power Competition to render the American Left blind to imperialist aggression toward China. Great Power Competition is just the latest strategy to maintain U.S. hegemony. It builds on the Obama administration’s “Pivot” to Asia which shifted more than fifty percent of all military assets to the Pacific to “contain” China. American exceptionalism feeds U.S. military aggression toward China by arming the American Left with an ideological basis for its anti-China orientation. Just as the U.S. foreign policy establishment has labeled China an existential threat to the military and economic supremacy of U.S. capitalism, so too has the American Left adopted a worldview that positions China as an existential threat to their goal of a better world.
The American Left is caught within an inherent contradiction of treating China like a class enemy comparable to the United States while also believing that it has the right to dictate China’s economic and political system in the interests of “Chinese workers.” The threat that the American Left sees in China aligns with the white supremacist underpinnings of American exceptionalism. White supremacy has been a key force in driving U.S. hostilities toward China for well over a century. Fear of a “Yellow Peril” and a communist takeover of the United States has indeed played a role in preventing the American Left from making a concerted effort to understand China from the perspective of the Chinese people. China is a non-white country. The thought of such a country not only defying U.S. imperialism but also becoming a global superpower is an unacceptable outcome even for the most radical of leftists in the U.S. that claim to oppose war.
Still, the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated China’s rise and the U.S.’ decline on the world stage. China’s rapid and effective response to the COVID-19 outbreak preserved countless lives and laid the basis for the extension of solidarity in the form of masks, test kits, and medical experts to 194 countries worldwide. U.S. imperialism proved incapable of containing the virus and has treated the medical crisis as an opportunity to reap enormous profits for private banks and corporations. Workers find themselves mired in an economic crisis that The Washington Post has admitted is worse than the Great Depression while the U.S. military continues to direct aggressive war policies against Iran, Venezuela, and China. The U.S. has increased its military presence in contested waters surrounding China. China’s central government has been briefed by its top intelligence ministry that the country should militarily prepare for the worst of what the U.S. has to offer.
China and the U.S. currently stand on the opposite end of the struggle against COVID-19. China has successfully contained COVID-19 and has shifted its focus toward providing solidarity to the world’s people in the fight against the pandemic. In stark contrast, U.S. imperialism has offered nothing but war and economic plunder. The need to overcome the limitations of the American Left has become even more dire in this moment of crisis. Adherence to American exceptionalism has ensured that workers and oppressed people are without the leadership necessary to become an organized force for peace in the fight against the virus. Two thirds of the United States hold a negative view of China and more than half believe that China should pay reparations to the world for the COVID-19 pandemic.
The American Left’s China double standard does nothing to reverse this trend. In fact, by claiming superior insight into China’s development process, American Left organizations have reinforced CIA talking points about the dangers of Chinese “expansionism” and the consequences that China’s rise possesses for a Western-oriented “human rights” framework. U.S.-based organizations and activists are duty bound to defend the self-determination of all oppressed nations, including the People’s Republic of China, and should turn their attention to the war aims of their own government. Furthermore, a material basis exists for stronger relations between workers in the U.S. and China, but only if the wishes of the people of China and their rightful government are respected. Over eighty percent of people in China report satisfaction with the direction of the central government while favorability ratings of U.S. Congress range in the low teens.
All too overlooked is the fact that working class and oppressed peoples in the United States seek the very changes that have contributed to the trust that the people of China possess with their government. China has lifted 800 million people out of absolute poverty since 1990. In contrast, fifteen percent of the U.S. population is considered poor and this number is two to three times higher in majority Black cities such as Detroit. China has expanded healthcare to 95 percent of people while the U.S. continues to lead the world in bankruptcies due to medical debt. Wages for the bottom half of income earners in China have increased by 400 percent since 1978 but have declined by 1 percent for U.S.-based workers over the same period. Furthermore, on the critical issue of climate change, the U.S. leads the world in fossil fuel production while China leads the world in the production of renewable energy . Climate change, living wages, and healthcare continue to be the most important issues on the minds of U.S.-based workers and China’s experience, while profoundly different from the U.S. context, offers important lessons into what is possible when private profits are not in command of society.
Peace, poverty reduction, and the preservation of the natural environment have the potential to create a very lasting bond between the people of China and the working class in the United States. However, what is critical to the future of humanity is viewed as anathema to the preservation of U.S. imperialism and the ruling class that profits from this system. Much of the socialist-oriented American Left has sided with their ruling class’ view of China despite claiming concern about the future of humanity. Combatting the American Left’s China double standard requires a reengagement with the principles of solidarity and self-determination and the application of democratic centralism in all organizational work.
Democratic centralism in the case of China necessarily means that socialists focus on building strong unity within their organizations through democratic criticism and debate around critical questions such as how to approach China. This must be coupled with a centralized public position that unequivocally defends China from U.S. imperialism and upholds the right to self-determination for oppressed nations. COVID-19 has brought the crisis of U.S. imperialism to a breaking point. Now is the time to correct ideological and organization errors in our movement so that revolutionary possibilities can emerge from a present rife with economic and political devastation.