In June, I was one of the recipients of the Special Book Award of China, of which the official description is:
The Special Book Award of China, sponsored by the National Press and Publication Administration of the People’s Republic of China, is the highest national award given to those who have made outstanding contributions in introducing contemporary China and promoting Chinese publications and related cultural products overseas. It is awarded to international translators, publishers and authors.
Since its establishment in 2005, the award has been given to 188 people from 62 countries. This year’s awards were presented by Li Shulei, a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
The Special Book Award of China is a state prize. However, my book Don’t Misunderstand China’s Economy was selected in June 2018 in the Catalogue of China’s Key Publications by the CPC. Key sections of that book were published in English in China’s Great Road: Lessons for Marxist Theory and Socialist.
To have received recognition for my work both from the Chinese state and from the CPC is something of which I am simultaneously proud and humbled. It poses issues of relations to China’s state and to the CPC, which form part of the reflections which follow. These issues, as will be seen, are relevant for both socialists and non-socialists.
What is important in this is, naturally, not me, but the international issues involved and therefore people’s relation to and responsibilities regarding them—although at the end I will give one purely personal observation. Discussing these questions for audiences outside China has the aim of attempting to clarify the sheer scale of China’s present development in terms of global impact—a world-shaping event. For audiences inside China, because I am not Chinese, discussing these questions is aimed at trying to advance the issue of clarifying what is not only China’s indispensable “national regeneration” but what is universal in its achievement for humanity.
In reality, these two issues are inseparably connected. As Xi Jinping precisely put it in his first public speech after being elected General Secretary of the CPC, as regards China itself: “Our responsibility is…to pursue the goal of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, so that China can stand firmer and stronger among the world’s nations, and make new and greater contributions to mankind.”
China’s Universal Human Achievements
To start with the decisive facts of international significance: China has lifted more than 850 million people out of internationally defined poverty. This is more than twice the population of the United States, more than the population of the European Union, more than the entire population of the continent of Latin America. When this was accomplished, it was over 70 percent of those lifted from such poverty globally. This is by far the greatest contribution made to real human rights by any country.
Turning from the poorest to the average for its people, China has achieved by far the most rapid increase in living standards of the greatest number of people in human history. To grasp the scale of this, in 1949 China was almost the world’s poorest country—only ten states had a lower per capita GDP. Next year or the following one, China will achieve “high income” status by international classification. The effect of this for China’s people’s lives is not only a question of their immediate living standards but of all the advantages it means in terms of education, health, culture, travel, ability for social interaction, real ability to make choices in life, and innumerable other aspects of human well-being.
To grasp the scale of what this means for humanity as a whole, the existing population of high-income economies is only 16 percent of the world. China by itself is 18 percent. In short, the People’s Republic of China will have lifted more people to the advantages of high-income level than all other countries in human history put together.
The claim, sometimes made by those who wish to criticize China, that these incredible achievements, which have no parallel in scale in human history, were purely economic and at the expense of China’s people is easily and factually shown to be a simple falsification. The best indicator of people’s overall well-being is average life expectancy—because this takes not only economic development, per capita GDP, but all positive factors (decent income, education, good health care, environmental protection, and so on), subtracts negative ones (poverty, poor health care, lack of education, environmental damage, etc.), and produces a single number. Such data shows people in China live significantly longer than would be expected from its per capita GDP—demonstrating China’s overall conditions are even better than its economic ones.
China’s National Regeneration
Such achievements are immediately internationally and universally understandable in every country. But there are others that are specific to China. Every Chinese person knows these, but it is impossible for those outside China to understand them without grasping these facts and the enormous efforts made to conceal them—precisely because of their significance. Therefore, at the expense of repeating things which those in China already know, it is necessary for an audience outside China to understand them, and so they will be restated here.
For more than a hundred years before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, following the shameful anti-human war waged by Britain to force China to import opium and seize Hong Kong, China was a country trampled on by foreign powers and armies. Between fifty and one hundred million Chinese people died as a direct or indirect result of these attacks by foreign powers and the armed invasions, civil wars, famines, and chaos they produced.
It was directly to end this enormous human and national suffering that China took the road of socialism. Because practice on the greatest possible scale demonstrated that only socialism was capable of doing so. As Xi Jinping succinctly summarized:
In 1911, the revolution led by Sun Yat-sen overthrew the autocratic monarchy that had ruled China for several thousand years. But once the old system was gone, where China would go became the question. The Chinese people then started exploring long and hard for a path that would suit China’s national conditions. They experimented with constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarism, multi-party system and presidential government, yet nothing really worked. Finally, China took the path of socialism.
To add details over and above the human suffering, China for that century did not even have the legal right to control its own territory, with significant parts of it handed over to foreign powers in hypocritically named “concessions”—which were in reality extorted colonial land grabs.
Consequently, Mao Zedong’s famous words in 1949—that “the Chinese people have stood up”—resonated so precisely and completely in China and internationally because they perfectly encapsulated that the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, created by the Chinese people through the victory of the CPC, would put a decisive end to the Chinese nation’s “hundred years of humiliation.”
But note carefully that what Mao Zedong said stands in clear and excellent contrast to the arrogance we hear every day from another county. Mao Zedong did not proclaim that “China will now lead the world,” “China first,” “the world needs Chinese leadership,” or any other similar assertion of China’s superiority to other countries—and therefore of the inferiority of others. It was a statement that in every sense—national, cultural, social, moral, economic, and any other—China would never accept to be regarded as less than an equal by any other country. But it was not an assertion of China’s superiority, and therefore others’ inferiority, unlike declarations made every single day by United States leaders.
China expressed no desire or path to arrogantly impose its model on others. China certainly understands that it is different from other countries—indeed, it knows and openly states that every country is different from every other and that they are equal. Thus, equal, different, cooperating—not leader, led, superior, inferior—are the essential concepts expressed by China, in stark opposition to the arrogance of the United States.
As Xi Jinping put this theoretical concept in more directly human terms:
As early as over 2,000 years ago, the Chinese people came to recognize that “it is natural for things to be different.”… Civilizations are equal, and such equality has made exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations possible.… No civilization is perfect on the planet. Nor is it devoid of merit.… All civilizations are crystallizations of mankind’s diligence and wisdom. Every civilization is unique.… History proves that only by interacting with and learning from others can a civilization enjoy full vitality.
In this international framework, China having achieved gigantic progress in its own “national rejuvenation” and the well-being of its own people, who constitute almost one-fifth of humanity, China is also now certainly playing a key role in addressing universal challenges to humanity. A key example is one of the two threats with the ability to eliminate the current basis of human civilization: the climate crisis. The struggle against it involves not only China’s domestic policies but, for example, that it is China’s manufacturing prowess and progress that has internationally made renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels, laying one of the indispensable bases for a struggle affecting all humanity.
Socialism and the CPC
To summarize these issues—and many more could be added—in just over seventy years, a single lifetime, China has gone from being almost the world’s poorest country to one that has achieved the advantages of high-income standards for its people. It has ended one hundred years of national humiliation and oppression, and is playing a crucial role in the decisive challenges facing the whole of humankind. Such an achievement is of the type that every developing country, which includes more than 80 percent of the world’s population, aspires to achieve. And if they did make such similar achievements, a gigantic step forward would be taken for all of humanity.
In terms of what this means for the Chinese people, it was well-put by a Chinese friend when she said that for young people it means “how incredibly lucky [it is] to be a Chinese person in this era.” It is completely impossible to understand China, or its dynamics, without clearly grasping what a gigantic step forward for the Chinese people the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and its development has been. Compared to what had existed for a century before, young people are indeed “incredibly lucky to be a Chinese person in this era.”
For Western capitalist commentators, this means that they completely fail to understand the internal dynamics within China, and the attitude of China’s population to the CPC. The international socialist left equally cannot understand the dynamics of the left in China, and its attitude and orientation to, and positive evaluation of the CPC unless they grasp what a huge step forward has been achieved by the Chinese people.
All this was achieved by a socialist country. It shows that in the real world, socialism is not some “pie in the sky” idea for the future, but the most successful solution to today’s problems. As an open socialist myself, this is a decisive vindication of the argument regarding socialism’s superiority for humanity. For non-socialists, the extraordinary scale of these processes, which affect the whole of humanity, also means that no accurate view of the world can be formed without absorbing and evaluating them.
There is also no ambiguity as to which organization has led this. It is the CPC. Therefore, any view of the CPC is inseparable from an accurate evaluation of these processes. The CPC makes no claim to omniscience and infallibility. On the contrary, the 1981 Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China and the 2021 Resolution of the CPC Central Committee on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party Over the Past Century contain more objective self-evaluation than any comparable documents produced by major Western political parties. But it does rightly note the “great success” in achieving the goals of China’s “national rejuvenation.” Some, but far from all, of these have been noted above.
Those outside China should state a true objective fact that the CPC itself does not claim in these resolutions, which are concerned primarily with national domestic questions. Because China is such an enormous country, that the CPC has improved the position of by far the largest number of people of any political party in human history is a reality that must be faced up to. This is not a statement of an overheated Chinese patriot, or even a socialist. It is just a statement of fact. Anyone who wants to comprehend either China or the world, or wishes to engage with China, has to understand this fact. Otherwise, they are not accurately understanding or engaging with reality.
The First Challenge in “the West”: The Threat of War
The processes noted above are obviously world-shaping facts. They consequently also pose extraordinary challenges to those outside China both in practice and ideas. Only some of these can be dealt with here, but even by themselves they show the scale of the issues involved and the responsibilities that every person outside China faces.
First, the single most urgent and greatest threat to the world is the consequences of the reality that governments and media in the Global North refuse to admit and to face up to the facts. By doing so, they are in denial of reality. This, in its geopolitical consequences, literally threatens humanity with catastrophe. Most specifically, the threat of a world war whose nuclear consequences would dwarf every other conflict in human history combined.
To understand this threat and its relations to misrepresentations, inaccuracies, and falsifications regarding the reality of China, simply recall the disastrously ignorant miscalculation with which Adolf Hitler rationalized his decision to attack the Soviet Union in 1941: “We only need to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure would come crashing down.” This ignorant miscalculation was used to unleash the largest war in human history—producing incredible human suffering before the total destruction of Hitler’s own regime. Today, refusal to face the facts of China’s success, repeated nonsense with no factual basis in the United States about impending “crashes” in China, deliberate exclusion of the U.S. population from accurate knowledge about China, the open contemplation by some U.S. circles of a war with China, and similar trends threaten humanity with a similar miscalculation—but one that would have consequences many times worse than Hitler’s.
Regarding U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s recent trip to China, state department spokesman Matthew Miller noted that “the secretary emphasized the importance of diplomacy and maintaining open channels of communication across the full range of issues to reduce the risk of misperception and miscalculation.” This is correct and wise advice. But it is not sufficient to safeguard humanity from great risks if an accurate assessment of the situation is confined to a small handful of diplomats if, every day, U.S. politicians and media pours out falsifications and misinformation about China and tries to further reduce the chances of any recognition of its reality by visa bans, limits on U.S. figures visiting China, refusal to allow Chinese political analysts and scholars into the United States, and more.
Nuclear war is the second great threat to the existing basis of human civilization. It would directly annihilate the bulk of the population of the Global North, and its indirect consequences would devastate the Global South and the entire planet. This threat of a war from the United States against China, which has every chance of becoming nuclear and is openly discussed by circles within it, is made much more possible by the systematic refusal of the United States to acknowledge or face the facts. Today, this is one of the most urgent existential threats that face humanity. It is for this reason that I devote my personal political energies to the international “No Cold War” campaign—because the New “Cold” War waged by the United States is the first step toward a hot war.
This also means that, against such falsifications, China is defending not only itself but the common human value of truth. It therefore has a common interest with all who are interested in this, whether socialist or non-socialist, and it should, therefore, prize all those who are willing to find and state this. The U.S. media and government are devoting enormous resources to falsification and attempts to conceal reality. China, on the contrary, has an interest in the truth—not in exaggeration but in accuracy. While in people we consider modesty a virtue, in very serious matters there is no virtue in overstatement or understatement, no virtue in arrogance and no virtue in excessive modesty, no virtue in optimism and no virtue in pessimism—there is only a virtue in realism and accuracy. China’s interests, which correspond to that universal human reality, is not to exaggerate in any direction but simply to state the truth.
The Responsibility to Find Out and Tell the Truth
Second, this global reality and situation pose the responsibility of all those outside China. I dislike the term intelligentsia, as it implies that those in a certain social layer think more than others. But to find out and state the truth is certainly the most fundamental job of thought, of intellectual work to be carried out by everyone. The reality is that large parts of governments and media of the Global North devote their energies not to trying to find out the truth but instead to try to hide it—which is not merely wrong in itself but also has extremely dangerous consequences for humanity, as noted above. And they viciously persecute those who find out or publicize the truth. This applies not only to the lies about China but to other revelations of reality. We may take as immediate cases that of Daniel Ellsberg, who just died, who was charged with espionage for revealing in the Pentagon Papers the truth about U.S. policy in Vietnam, or Julian Assange, threatened today with life imprisonment for revealing the truth about U.S. war crimes. These, and other analysts and writers, are people who do real “intellectual” work in the West.
Third, there is a group that is much smaller, but that relates to a key development for humanity and is of particular importance to the present writer: economists.
Of any economy in human history, China’s is by far the most rapidly growing, and most rapidly improving the lives of its people. Following the method of science, as China puts it, to “seek truth from facts,” it follows that learning the reasons for this success (while, of course, not attempting to impossibly mechanically copy it) is the most crucial job for economists in the world today—and is particularly urgent for developing countries. As always, it is from the most successful that the most can be learned. Instead, we have the bizarre situation of Western economists attempting to tell the world’s most successful developing economy, China, that it is doing something wrong and that it should change and become more like other less successful economies.
Both academic journals and supposedly serious economic and business media such as the Economist, Financial Times, and Wall Street Journal are full of statements that are factually inaccurate and analyses that entirely fail to accurately predict factual trends. It is true that this, particularly by the mass media, gives personal opportunities to make money—the present author for many years made an income by providing more accurate information than in the Western economic/business media. But this does not alter the much more serious matter of the damage that such media do by providing inaccurate information and analysis, both in hindering countries in how to develop their own economies and in creating the lack of information regarding the real situation in China. It is therefore necessary to counter such behavior with accurate information.
Socialists in Different Parts of the World
Socialists live in a world where, in a single lifetime, the people of the world’s almost poorest country can advance to having the advantages of a high-income economy, national independence, and dignity—the dream of every developing state. Socialists therefore do not have to make purely theoretical arguments; they can point to what has already been achieved by one-fifth of the world’s population.
At a mass scale, it has also been clear for over a century that it is the socialist countries and Global South that have driven progressive developments, or lack thereof, in the Global North—the imperialist countries, to give them their proper name. Looking at the last century, the working class in the Global North failed to stop European fascism—this was, above all, achieved by the Soviet Union. Socialist revolution in China was the first gigantic step forward for progressive forces after the Second World War—the most powerful step in an entire new era in the struggle against colonial empires and imperialism. It was the defeat of the United States in Vietnam, a victory by the Vietnamese people, in which China’s support played a key role, that led to the great advance of progressive forces in the Global North.
There continues to be no evidence that the working class and other progressive forces in the Global North are by themselves capable of defeating, or in most cases even successfully resisting, the attacks on them by the powerful imperialist ruling classes—as successive defeats of progressive forces in the Global North demonstrates. It is only in the socialist countries, of which by far the most powerful is China, and in parts of the Global South, that progressive forces have been able to advance. It is only further advances by these socialist countries and forces in the Global South that will lead the development of progressive forces in the Global North. A directly practical conclusion follows from this: it is one of the most important tasks of forces in the Global North to make it as difficult as possible for their own ruling classes to attack the socialist countries, in particular China, and the Global South.
Socialist Discussion in the Global North
To conclude on the region where I was born, but not where I had my most important intellectual and political experiences: the Global North. The above realities also determine in this not only positive trends and accurate analyses of events, but also regressions and confusion. These are precisely determined by how much these forces relate to the most fundamental trends on a world scale. We may take as examples the trajectory of the two most historically well-known socialist journals in the Global North—the British New Left Review (NLR) and the U.S. Monthly Review (MR). Their differentiation is inseparably linked to the way they are relating to China and the Global South.
One of the editors of the NLR dedicated their book on Russia to Boris Yeltsin, who went on to lead the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union. Now, the pages of the NLR feature Victor Shih, of Chinese descent but a pro-capitalist opponent of China, and Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong leader of anti-Communist forces with links to Taiwan separatists. The NLR is repeating with China its inability to understand, and in the end cheering for the wrong side, the forces that led the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union.
In sharp contrast is MR. In earlier decades, this magazine played a key role in making China’s development, as well as Cuba’s revolution and numerous other significant struggles, extensively known to a wide audience. Today, MR is one of the key independent places in English seriously analyzing China. Its columns also carry frequent analysis of the Global South from the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, which has become the most influential international center in a non-socialist country systematically explaining the progressive trends in the Global South. Tricontinental itself, both in its own pages and in its English-language edition of Wenhua Zongheng, is in systematic dialogue with pro-socialist forces in China.
To summarize, this understanding of the role of socialist China is now a mass political trend in the Global South—as statements by numerous political leaders indicate. It is also the link to the most advanced currents in the Global North. In short, the relation to China’s socialism is reshaping progressive trends on a global scale—an international result that is not in contrast or contradiction to China’s national regeneration but is an outcome of it.
Finally, in the context of these gigantic events and social forces, how is an individual to situate themselves? This is a purely personal note and observation on receiving the prize from China. But every human being without exception has their own personal thoughts and to not acknowledge them is to not deal with all of reality—even if one’s own thoughts are entirely peripheral to the main forces of the world.
I may explain my personal reflections in the following way. There are two places in the world, of those to which I have been, that whenever I am there, I cannot control my emotions—and tears inevitably come from my eyes. The first is the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Beijing, because I know that tens of millions of Chinese people gave their lives to take their country from its “century of humiliation” to its present situation—a small part of which has been described above. The second is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, because I know that twenty-seven million Soviet people died not only to save their own country and socialism but to play the decisive role to liberate the whole of Europe from the threat of Nazism.
Flowing from these events there is a Russian custom I greatly admire, in which, on their wedding day, a couple goes to the war memorial to lay flowers. It signifies: “Our happiness today is only possible because of what those people did, so that our people may have a future and be happy. So, in our happiness we also want to link to them, because it was only they who made it possible.”
No person chooses where they are born. All they can do is their best in whatever situation they find themselves. Many tens of millions of people have paid with their lives so that humanity could advance. In the last one hundred years, overwhelmingly the greatest number of these were in China and the former Soviet Union. Today, the incredible suffering and heroism of the Chinese people, to repeat with the sacrifice of fifty and one hundred million lives, has created a party and then a state that in a single lifetime has taken their country from almost the poorest in the world to everything that has been described above. This is a gigantic victory not only for the Chinese people but for all of humanity.
What anyone in the West today is asked to do is almost trivial in comparison. It starts simply from the need to tell the truth, to organize, and to let people know the truth. That is what I tried to do: to analyze as accurately as I could the reasons for China’s success and to tell it to as many people as I was able. If I have played any role in helping other countries understand China and its incredible achievements, then I am very satisfied. The fact that I received this award from China means that, within the limits of my abilities, they think I did a good job—which is a source of deep personal satisfaction.
There remains one frustration. One of the great things for a human being about a political party is that it does not only have leaders, but others can try to join it to contribute whatever ability they have. What any Chinese person can do is to try to build the organization, the CPC, that brought such steps forward not only for the Chinese people but for humanity.
But, legally, only a Chinese citizen can be a member of the CPC. That means not only in substance but formally the views I express are certainly only mine, and not those of the CPC. But I make no secret of the fact that if I fulfilled the legal criteria, I would immediately apply to become a CPC member.
However, I certainly agree with the rule that only a Chinese citizen should be able to be a CPC member. So? I will have to be content with the prize as a second best!
The Chinese version of this article was published at Guancha.cn.