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.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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