Socialists Should Side With Workers — Not the Chinese or American Ruling Class

Eli Friedman

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a dangerous escalation in tensions between China and the United States. But our allegiance shouldn’t be with either country’s ruling class — it should be with both countries' workers.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks as President Donald Trump listens during a COVID-19 news briefing on March 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Interview by
Ashley Smith

Amid the pandemic and global recession, the US ruling class has intensified its “new Cold War” with China.

President Donald Trump and his cronies have repeatedly used racist terms like the “Chinese virus,” elevated conspiracy theories claiming that a lab in Wuhan intentionally released COVID-19 to devastate the US, and escalated Washington’s military standoff with Beijing by deploying a flotilla of warships to the South China Sea. Joe Biden has attacked Trump for being soft on China and released a deeply sinophobic ad earlier this month.

On the other side of the Pacific, Xi Jinping’s government has attempted to turn the pandemic — which it too mishandled initially — to its own advantage. Beijing has sent tests, ventilators, and masks to many other countries, attempting to project itself as a benevolent global power even as it refuses to concede basic labor rights to workers at home.

Ashley Smith recently spoke with Eli Friedman, author of Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China, about Beijing’s response to COVID-19, the domestic and geopolitical fallout of the pandemic, and why socialists should reject nationalism in either Chinese or American garb.

Ashley Smith

Trump has whipped up anti-Chinese racism by calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has recirculated various conspiracy theories blaming a Chinese lab in Wuhan for releasing the virus. What is the real explanation for the virus’s emergence, and what has been the impact of Trump’s racism?

Eli Friedman

There is debate about where and how precisely a human first contracted the virus, and I cannot comment on the science. Certainly, the first identified cases of what came to be called COVID-19 were in Wuhan, and that city also experienced the world’s first community spread.

So the virus did indeed first appear in China, and I’ll have more to say in a moment about how medical professionals and government officials responded to this information. But the decision of Trump and most of the rest of the Republican Party to refer to it as the “Chinese virus” (or “Wuhan virus” or most offensively, “Kung Flu”) is transparently an effort to deflect blame in light of their own catastrophic failures.

As evidenced by the relative success of many countries, particularly those in Asia, there was indeed time to prepare for the arrival of the coronavirus after its initial spread in China. The US did not do this, and it is largely the fault of the federal government.

Racialized disavowal of America’s own failures is nothing new to the Trumpian project. Latino and Muslim people bore the brunt of this politics for years, and Chinese people are also squarely in the crosshairs. There are major consequences of the “China virus” rhetoric, both domestic and internationally.

Domestically, there has been a massive spike in racist incidents against Chinese and other Asian people, including both verbal and physical assaults. Within China, it confirms for many citizens the Communist Party’s position that the US is fundamentally anti-China, which in turn makes intensifying nationalist conflict all the more likely. And despite some resistance to this from Democrats, Joe Biden seems to have decided that anti-Chinese xenophobia is a winning strategy in 2020.

This is a very dangerous situation indeed.

Ashley Smith

How did the Chinese state respond to the pandemic? And how has Beijing used its later success to project its power internationally as an alternative to the US?

Eli Friedman

The US does not have a monopoly on severely mismanaging the outbreak. But the specifics of the Chinese government’s mishandling are of course quite different. The fundamental problem was local officials’ efforts to cover up the outbreak, most famously by trying to silence whistleblowers like Dr Li Wenliang (who later died of COVID-19).

This reflects a longstanding dynamic in Chinese politics in which local governments try to prevent higher-ups from learning of local problems out of fear they will be punished. It is also apparent that the central government knew about the outbreak for weeks before publicly acknowledging it.

It seems likely that had the initial warnings from doctors in Wuhan catalyzed immediate action, the outbreak would have taken an entirely different course, a question I’m sure we’ll be pondering for a long time. It is also important to note that the Chinese government has not been fully transparent about the early days of the outbreak, and given how intensely politicized the issue has become, they almost certainly will continue to maintain a high level of information control.

Following the initial bungling that allowed the coronavirus to travel throughout China and the world, the Chinese government took decisive and ultimately effective action. Even given that the reported data certainly contains politically motivated inaccuracies, it is apparent they did a better job managing the spread than has been the case in most of Europe or the US. The government has been eager to elide the initial failure while focusing on their more effective subsequent containment.

It is hard to say how effective this strategy will be. Many other countries in different parts of the world and with varying forms of government have been equally or more competent in their response to the epidemic. Most vexingly for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been Taiwan’s success, with only six COVID-related deaths so far.

Although Taiwan is excluded from the World Health Organization, it has been quite active on the world stage in trying to share its experiences, as well as delivering millions of surgical masks — an effort that has won praise from the European Union and denunciations from Beijing. All of this undermines the argument that China is uniquely positioned to lead on epidemic response. Certainly the US right is obsessed with the initial outbreak, with Arkansas senator Tom Cotton promoting the insane notion that the Chinese government made a conscious decision to let the virus spread globally.

The lane to exercise global leadership on this is wide open. Given its industrial capacity, China could and should provide medical equipment to other hard-hit countries. This will be increasingly important as the virus expands out of Europe and North America to Africa and Latin America. If the Chinese government shows up in poor countries with free or cheap ventilators, personal protective equipment, and medical volunteers, no strings attached, we should applaud it. I don’t think this is likely, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

Ashley Smith

What impact has the pandemic and global recession had on the Chinese economy? Will it be able to get out of this crisis as it did the Great Recession?

Eli Friedman

The impact on China’s economy has been profound. After perhaps the greatest capitalist expansion the world has ever seen over the past generation, the economy shrunk by 6.8 percent in the first quarter of the year. So even though we are just at the beginning of the crisis, it is apparent that this will be very different than 2008-9, when massive stimulus spending allowed China to maintain relatively high growth.

As could be expected, the response to the last crisis shapes the contours of this one, as well as the tools available to the state. Although China escaped relatively unscathed from the last crisis, it did so via a huge increase in debt-financed investment. Much of this was productively employed, as they constructed the world’s largest high-speed rail network, major metro networks in numerous cities, and expanded airports and seaports.

But there were also white elephants and massive overbuilding in certain real-estate markets. Part of the reason China has not yet unveiled spending plans on the scale we’ve seen in the US or Japan is due to concern about a financial crisis.

Notably, while domestic consumption has indeed ticked up in recent years, the state has failed to realize its stated aim of creating a large, high-consuming middle class. This is in no small part due to the political problem generated by political repression of workers and moribund official institutions of labor representation.

Given the depth of the crisis globally, China likely cannot export its way back to economic health. Overseas investments associated with the Belt and Road initiative are also facing major headwinds. Without the aura of revolutionary legitimacy that Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping enjoyed, and not even a fig leaf of democratic process, the Communist Party has been highly dependent on material improvement to justify its rule. This crisis is going to put a lot of pressure on the basic pact between the CCP and society that has existed since at least 1989.

Ashley Smith

How have workers responded amid this crisis? What will this mean for the labor movement in the country?

Eli Friedman

As has been the case globally, workers in China are suffering. With a negative growth rate, there is no question that unemployment has spiked. The official unemployment rate of 5.9 percent is without a doubt wildly optimistic, as it undercounts the tens of millions of rural migrant workers who constitute the backbone of the country’s working class.

Despite living and working in the cities, these migrants are also almost certain to be shut out of even the meager unemployment benefits afforded to urban residents. And it is precisely those workers in the sectors where employment has been robust in recent years — services, hospitality, transportation, digital platform–based work, and construction — who are least likely to have a labor contract and access to social protections.

The central government has called for migrants to be included in unemployment insurance and has made job protection a top priority. But time and again, we’ve seen progressive rhetoric from Beijing without concomitant efforts to fund the very programs they are calling for. The center has not allocated funds for an expansion of unemployment benefits, and I am not optimistic that this recent announcement will meaningfully help migrant workers.

It is difficult to say what impact this will have on worker unrest. The government was lucky in that the initial outbreak came during Lunar New Year, when most migrants leave the cities to go see family. The government then extended the holiday, and various forms of control on mobility were maintained for an extended period of time.

A huge number of private businesses simply declined to bring workers back once the economy began to reopen — the spatial dispersion of the workforce likely helped reduce unrest that could have otherwise followed mass layoffs, particularly in the hard-hit manufacturing sector.

Nonetheless, Chinese workers have continued their longstanding willingness to protest, albeit in a highly fractured and politically circumscribed manner. One stunning example is the construction workers in Wuhan who built a massive hospital on the city’s outskirts in just days — a fact the government proudly trumpeted as indicative of its effective response.

However, it was later revealed that the migrants who had toiled day and night on the construction site were not being adequately paid while kept in quarantine. When hundreds of workers protested, they were met with police violence. If even the workers at this symbolically important site are being treated with such disregard, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country.

Ashley Smith

How has the epidemic impacted other political dynamics in China? Has there been a broader crackdown on dissent, particularly in restive areas such as Hong Kong?

Eli Friedman

The Chinese government is certainly trying to make good use of this crisis. The military has been intensifying its expansionist activities in the South China Sea, angering the Philippines, Vietnam, and others. Unfortunately, very little information has come out of Xinjiang, although there are justifiable concerns that the virus could wreak havoc amongst the hundreds of thousands of Muslims interned in the region’s reeducation camps.

The government is also pressing ahead with longstanding efforts in Hong Kong, where the CCP still has plenty of scores to settle from the 2019 social revolt. The Hong Kong authorities, clearly acting at the behest of Beijing, have recently arrested fifteen prominent democracy activists, purportedly for participation in illegal assemblies the year prior.

This came on the heels of a cringe-inducing series of botched statements in which the Hong Kong government clarified the legal basis of Beijing’s “liaison office” interfering in local affairs. Various officials have recently renewed calls to enact the much-hated “Article 23” anti-subversion bill, which has been tabled since mass protests against it in 2003. This comes at a moment when the kind of public assembly that frequently paralyzed the city last year is not possible, so the state is trying to seize the moment of virus-induced social dispersion.

If it is safe to assume that crises open up previously foreclosed political possibilities, it’s just as important to take stock of what the Chinese government has not done. One thing that has struck me is that there has not, thus far, been an effort to reshape the country’s fractured and wildly unequal health system. Epidemics lay bare the social nature of health, and it would have been an opportune moment for Beijing to establish a national insurance plan, or even more ambitiously, fully public national health care.

While they appear to have done a better job providing testing and care to COVID-19 patients than the US (an admittedly low bar), it is also apparent that Beijing is willing to live with a health care system that is partially privatized, extremely geographically uneven, and provides minimal-to-zero coverage for rural people and migrant workers. It speaks volumes that expanding repression in Hong Kong and military expansion in the South China Sea are the areas where the state wants to make advances during this moment of strategic advantage.

Ashley Smith

How should the socialist movement position itself in this war of narratives and rivalry between the US and China?

Eli Friedman

We are entering an incredibly dangerous period. In addition to the economic and social dislocations wrought by the pandemic, powerful forces in both China and the US are intent on stoking animosity. While Tom Cotton and Trump propagate the notion that China is solely to blame for fallout from COVID-19 in the US, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has peddled the baseless claim that the US military brought the coronavirus to China. Given this hostile and frankly unhinged rhetoric from political elites in both countries, increasingly direct forms of conflict are on the horizon.

Our job is to continually and forcefully reaffirm internationalist values: we take sides with the poor, working classes, and oppressed people of every country, which means we share nothing with either the US or Chinese states and corporations. If we accede to a nationalist framing of the crisis, we advance a zero-sum understanding where China’s loss is America’s gain. This politics puts us on the path to war, be it economic or military. Poor people of both countries have the most to lose if this comes to pass.

It is all the more important for leftists to be vocal on this issue because liberals are so badly discombobulated. While some Democrats have pushed back against the “China virus” rhetoric, they have no vision for what an ethically sound form of interaction with China would look like.

On the one hand, they are haunted by a zombie “engagement politics” that maintains that unconditional interaction will bolster “responsible stakeholders” within the CCP. But even hardcore Clintonites understand at some level that this ideology is defunct. This in turn has left the Democrats unmoored, which is what made Biden’s sinophobic turn possible. There are few things more pathetic and dangerous than tailing Trump on xenophobia.

A major reassessment of US-China relations does present us with opportunities. Rather than basing the relationship on American companies exploiting Chinese labor and US consumers buying Chinese goods, as has been the case for the past generation, we should demand cooperation on global public health, climate change, demilitarization, and economic engagement that privileges workers and the poor. Political elites on both sides of the Pacific are loathe to acknowledge these aims, precisely because their realization is predicated on deep social cooperation rather than ethno-national competition and war.

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Eli Friedman is the author of Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China. He teaches at Cornell University.

Ashley Smith is a socialist writer and activist in Burlington, Vermont. He has written in numerous publications including Truthout, The International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker, ZNet, Jacobin, New Politics, and many other online and print publications. He is currently working on a book for Haymarket Books entitled Socialism and Anti-Imperialism.

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