The great game and geopolitics

For all Xi’s rhetoric, the power struggle between the Communist Party of China and the country’s billionaires is far from decided, writes Paul Demarty

It is not unusual, in periods of great-power tension, for the great questions of the day to be filtered through silly season stories.

So it is with the so-called ‘new cold war’ between the US (and allies) and China, which has recently been diverted into the odd terrain of children’s screen time. The Chinese state, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to drastically restrict the time minors are allowed to spend playing computer games. No more ‘Fortnite’ on a school night (I jest - that particular game was never approved for sale anyway). One desultory hour a night over the weekend is permitted.

The presentation of this in the west has been slightly odd, almost as if it were a random whim on the part of premier Xi Jinping. In truth, like most foreign entertainment and media, games have been under various levels of regulation in the People’s Republic as long as they have existed. Indeed, consoles were entirely banned, with a few exceptions, between 2000 and 2015 (with the result that PC gaming is far more popular in the country than it is in many other places). It is easy to call this sort of thing blundering and heavy-handed, but it has to be admitted that the Chinese state has been doing a rather better job of it than expected. Those who confidently expected the ‘Great Firewall’ to flop have had to watch it not only do its job more or less successfully, but even be transformed, from time to time, into a sort of weapons platform.

Three presidents

The wider context is, of course, important in the framing of the whole issue. And there are two sides to that context - the immediate world situation, and the long-term development of Chinese ‘socialism’ since the revolution of 1949. The international context is fundamentally one of the breakdown of comity between the hegemonic United States and China, which is something of a tale of three presidents.

Barack Obama tried to execute a ‘pivot to Asia’ (meaning, really, the Asia-Pacific). China was a rising rival, and American naval exercises began to be ramped up in the region, especially the South China Sea. A part of that pivot, of course, was meant to involve disentangling the US from the Middle East and, by the end of Obama’s second term, Afghanistan; these were total failures. So in relation to China, his administration was reduced to discreetly testing its strength and building forms of diplomatic encirclement, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Donald Trump was the exact opposite. Rhetorically, he denounced the Chinese for ‘unfair’ economic practices and indirectly throwing American workers out of their jobs. He also instinctively sensed that, so far as those backward workers who voted for him on that basis went, China was merely the biggest dog in a region full of economies that had benefited from US deindustrialisation. So he ditched the TPP, much to Beijing’s relief; his forms of economic combat were more of the dick-swinging variety (eye-catching tariffs on steel, and so on). Like Obama, Trump promised a prompt and honourable exit from America’s ‘forever wars’, and like Obama was too overcome with admiration for generals and CIA grifters to actually pull the trigger. So his reign ended with the US in more or less the same strategic position as at the beginning; but the politics of the thing had changed. Obama’s ‘boil the frog’ strategy to keeping America’s nose in front would no longer do.

And now we have Joe Biden, who explicitly frames his domestic investment plans in terms of competition with China, who has - despite ferocious and apparently unanimous denunciations - succeeded in terminating the Afghanistan war. It is clear enough that ‘the Blob’ objected to the latter, but sooner or later, they will get on with the programme, and that programme - to repeat, of three successive presidents - is great-power competition with China.

The view from Beijing will take account of all this. The leaders of the Communist Party of China are no fools: they will be well aware that the US is ultimately better off without its hopeless Afghan entanglement, and that the defeat of Trump has not been the defeat of those parts of the US foreign policy elite who support a more assertive policy in east Asia. They will also know that - despite the alarmism of American ideologues - they lag far behind in terms of military technology and power (the arms left behind by the Americans in Afghanistan, in theory, give the Taliban the fourth largest helicopter fleet in the world, assuming they can get the birds flying). As the ‘new cold war’ gains steam, therefore, it is not surprising that the bureaucratic and dictatorial character of the regime should sharpen: its cohesion is all the more important.

Chinese road

The idiosyncratic history of the People’s Republic necessarily comes into play here. In its early years, as in many states that became Stalinist regimes, the Mao regime remained somewhat ‘liberal’; this was the period of letting a hundred flowers bloom and so forth. But the reality of Chinese society caught up with them, along with unforced errors. Tensions with the USSR grew - it could not but regard China as a potential rival, with its huge population and prestige after successfully holding back the Americans in Korea. Attempts to increase the pace of industrialisation - particularly the disastrous ‘great leap forward’ campaign - increased the tensions within the leadership, leading to the near-civil war period of the Cultural Revolution.

The by-now open break with the Soviet Union combined with the Cultural Revolution allowed the Chinese regime to pose as a leftwing alternative to the USSR under Leonid Brezhnev, but was not in the end sustainable. An accord was met with the Americans. The ‘three worlds theory’ was announced, which declared that the ‘second’ world - of social imperialism - was more of a danger to the oppressed of the globe than the ‘first’, of open capitalist imperialism. The practical outcome was Chinese support for the right wing of the remaining anti-colonial movements, notably in Angola, and also for blatant provocateurs elsewhere. The reward for services rendered was handsome, in the end: the liberalisation of the economy under Mao’s substantive successor, Deng Xiaoping, brought forth enormous foreign investment, and in the three decades from 1980 China was transformed decisively from a still-mainly-peasant country to a global industrial powerhouse.

The politics of that transformation were deeply contradictory, of course. The party retained power; the state ideology remained ostensibly a kind of ‘Marxism-Leninism’; vast swathes of the economy remained under state control, with state banks making considerable investments in ‘private’ businesses at home and abroad. At the same time, many of the usual features of capitalist society loomed over China. It went from being one of the most equal to one of the most unequal societies, producing a whole class of billionaires. They, as individuals, were long excluded from Communist Party membership, but their money could not so easily be excluded from the decision-making process in elite circles.

Xi’s premiership has seen a certain application of the handbrake on all this. He denounced the evident and pervasive corruption of the state apparatus and the party; jacqueries against corrupt local officials have met with greater or lesser tolerance from the higher-ups. There have, more recently, been clampdowns on the usual means of laundering the great fortunes discreetly accumulated under ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ - through gifts and extravagant spending on one’s children, for example.

Serious contender

Something, indeed, is changing; but what? We might naively call this a more assertive reversion to socialism (or, perhaps, evidence that economic development has made possible a move forward to socialism in some kind of stagist schema). For the editors of Monthly Review, an American left journal with its origins in the Mao-inflected new communist movement,

the anti-colonial Chinese Revolution - which commenced in 1850 with the onset of the Taiping Revolution and, following a ‘Century of Humiliation’, led to a world historic victory with the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 - still continues: in the form of a sovereign national project with socialist (as well as capitalist) characteristics. Today, the Chinese Revolution remains in statu nascendi, the period of its birth, its future still to be determined.1

If there is something to object to in this account, it is clearly the last sentence. Indeed, this is precisely what distinguishes the Chinese case from the various other current and former Stalinist regimes that were vanquished in 1989-91. They, in the end, became irreparably corrupted by the rule of the bureaucracy, but the bureaucracy was not able to reproduce itself as a class - after one or two generations, the bureaucrats preferred to become capitalists. In the Chinese case, the bureaucrats co-exist, and interpenetrate with, a capitalist class; and this arrangement has proven durable for at least one more generation.

How much longer? That is the question. The truth is that western capitalism has many similar features at this point. We have abandoned the idea of detaching our children from their digital amusements, it seems; but nonetheless intrusively spy on their political interests. The largest concerns are essentially run by central planning anyway (Amazon creates price signals infinitely more than it responds to them). The Chinese state’s fear over ‘video game addiction’, alas, reminds us all too much of the endless series of fatuous moral panics not only over violent games, but also gangster rap and heavy metal and so on, as if the CPC has transformed itself into a collective Tipper Gore.

At the end of the road for all modes of production is a period of decline - of its basic laws being supplanted by statism, and of corresponding ideological confusion. The stupidity, censoriousness and chauvinism of western capitalist societies - above all the United States - testify to such decay. In its own way, so does the ‘success’ of China, this peculiar Stalino-capitalist mixture, in that an open and confident avowal of large-scale state control has made it a serious contender in geopolitics.


  1. monthlyreview.org/2021/07/01/mr-073-03-2021-07_0.↩︎