Why the fake Left is against China
Lausan Collective as a case in point
(Part one of two)
The biggest geopolitical confrontation concerning the interests of the international working class today is that between the US and China. No longer able to tolerate the growth of the Chinese economy, which is making inroads into sectors traditionally dominated by western powers, the US has escalated its provocation of China into all areas of culture and economy just short of a ‘hot’ war.
That the ‘left’ in western countries is broadly against China should not be news to anyone. From petty-bourgeois ‘radical’ academics to trade union bureaucrats, there is pretty much a consensus that China must be defeated in the name of social progress. A similar dynamic occurs in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where there is much less pressure to maintain a ‘leftist’ guise because these societies are permeated with rightwing ideology.
A peculiar group that operates across this geographical divide is Lausan Collective, a self-styled ‘decolonial leftist’ group with members in the US and Hong Kong amongst other places. With the advantage of understanding the Chinese language, one of their aims is to introduce left-sounding perspectives on Hong Kong and China to their political allies in the United States.
With members contributing to publications such as Jacobin and also joining reformist organisations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Lausan is in a good position to expound ‘leftist’ views on China and Hong Kong with a ‘guarantee of genuineness’. However, as we shall see in this article, their politics on the Chinese question are symptomatic of the theoretical errors and political betrayals of the majority of the ‘left’. We will unpack this by looking at the Hong Kong protests and the claims that China is colonial and imperialist, and present our critique of the politics of Lausan and their co-thinkers.
While their politics are mostly identical to many other ostensibly leftist groups and publications such as Jacobin, New Bloom and Made in China Journal, we chose to take Lausan as a case in point due to their stated focus on Hong Kong. In what may be our only praise for the group, their output is prolific and hence provides us with much material to analyse.
The right-wing essence of the Hong Kong protests
The protests began ostensibly against an extradition bill between Hong Kong and the Mainland which the opposition camp touted as a way for the Chinese government to capture and extradite anyone in Hong Kong back to the Mainland at will. It quickly descended into a right-populist carnival of anticommunist demonstrations, McCarthyite persecution of pro-Chinese individuals, beatings against people who opposed the protests, ‘vigilante’ destruction of shops deemed to be pro-China and repeated open calls for US intervention.
Jimmy Lai, owner of the influential local ‘pro-democracy’ tabloid Apple Daily and whose establishment has been promoting pro-market, xenophobic and sexist vitriol throughout the years, proclaimed that the Hong Kong protestors are fighting ‘the same war [that the U.S. has] with China’.
The idea that the protests are ‘leaderless’ is spurious—the overall anti-communist outlook and the widespread acceptance and even pursuit of US imperialist intervention amongst the protestors are products of years of anti-communist mainstream propagandising by the media and the ‘pan-democratic’ parties.
It is unfortunate that the working class in Hong Kong, which have no skin in this game and should be mobilised to fight back against this right-wing rampage, remains atomised. The claim that the working class supports the protests is a lie. The only ‘evidence’ for working class support is a one-day ‘mass strike’ in August 2019, a farce mostly consisting of protestors stopping people from going to work by blockading roads and jamming public transport.
Lausan reluctantly recognises the right-wing nature of the protests, citing the appeals to US imperialism (although for them US imperialism only means the Republicans and Trump, effectively letting the equally war-mongering Democrats off the hook) and the entrenched xenophobic identity politics.
While Lausan is at pains to explain how these factors are just on the ‘fringe’ of a movement which is actually ‘not ideological’, self-proclaimed leftists have admitted that there is no independent role they can play as ‘leftists’ and ‘have no choice but to go with the flow’. What then is ‘the flow’ that forces our dear ‘leftists’ to keep silent about their politics? Could it possibly be the overwhelmingly right-wing nature of the protests, which ‘virtually erodes any possibility of anti-capitalist leadership’?
Having acknowledged the protests’ right-wing nature, Lausan’s ‘leftists’ remain all the more enthusiastic and supportive. They find one source of justification for their support in the supposed ‘radical and transformative nature’ of the movement which has somehow ‘threatened again and again [Hong Kong’s] ingrained neoliberal ethos’. While economic grievances may have motivated some segments of the protesting masses, they have been channeled into a Judenboykott-like persecution of Chinese-affiliated businesses. One should note that while Chinese banks were freely destroyed and set on fire last summer, an HSBC branch was spray-painted with the words ‘SORRY’ when blackshirts accidentally vandalised its exterior. We fail to see anything remotely challenging Hong Kong’s capitalist order both in the key demands of the movement as well as the vast quantities of agitprop published throughout the protests. The whole ‘economic’ demand of the protests is to replace ‘Chinese capital’ with… local and western capital.
Yet Lausan still does not give up on this magnificent proletarian upheaval-to-be, culminating in this plea from one of its chief writers, Promise Li:
It should never be the strategy of the local and international left to embolden the nativist and nationalist sentiments in the movement. But we must also never forget about the powerful democratic impulse that characterizes a people’s right to self-determination—a radicalism that may exceed the lure of ethnonationalism and separatism.
We will return to Li’s ‘theories’ on self-determination later, but the logic here is the same: there is neither existence nor possibility of emergence of any independent proletarian demand, let alone leadership, in this right-wing movement. But we will muster all our vocabulary to paint a picture as though there is.
In other words, Lausan’s hot air around being ‘radical’ is really only about giving nihilistic anti-China, pro-imperialist violence a ‘progressive’ cover. This has nothing to do with socialism.
Chinese colonialism in Hong Kong?
The other source of justification, or excuse, that Lausan and their friends find to support the protests is the accusation of China being a colonial power in Hong Kong. Hence their support for ‘Hong Kong self-determination’, although they take great care to underscore that such a programme cannot be based on ‘exclusionary politics’.
So what is this ‘exclusionary politics’ that Lausan is fretting about? Despite their mental gymnastics to attempt to prove otherwise, they know very well that the whole basis for ‘self-determination’ in Hong Kong is right-wing anticommunism and anti-Mainlander chauvinism. This is what offends the sensitivities of Lausan’s writers. But how can one maintain respectability in the American reformist liberal-left milieu that their members mostly operate in, if they sound like they are opposing ‘Hong Kong self-determination’ for petty reasons such as being a rightwing movement? Therefore they must make the case for Chinese colonialism and imperialism, and through this find justification to continue supporting the demand for ‘self-determination’ ostensibly from a leftwing position.
Lausan characterises China’s recovery of Hong Kong from British colonialism as the ‘handing over of one capitalist-colonial state to another’. As to why China is itself colonial, Lausan gives only the explanation that Beijing now occupies the political structures left by Britain. This they call the ‘appropriation and perpetuation of colonial paradigms established under British rule’.
The continuation of capitalism in Hong Kong has unnecessarily extended the immiseration of the working masses by both local and western capital after the handover, with the populace suffering from high income inequality and diminishing job prospects, similar to financialised economies elsewhere. The resulting economic oppression has allowed sections of the bourgeois politicians—the ‘pan-democrats’ and the ‘localists’—to ascribe the source of capitalism’s ills to the spectre of ‘Red Capital’ and immigrants from mainland China, using rhetoric identical to that deployed by far-right movements in the West. However, the PRC’s appeasement of capitalist interests in Hong Kong cannot be conflated with colonialism. Such equivocation falls apart once we ask what imperialism and colonialism actually are, and how it compares to the political economy of the Mainland-Hong Kong relationship.
In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin described imperialism as not simply the ‘aggression’ and ‘expansion’ of one state or another, but an economic relationship which is particularly voracious and brutal as it is
at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.
‘Classical’ colonialism evolved out of the expansionary needs of the nascent capitalist economies in the 17th and 18th centuries (such as Spain and the Netherlands) and the industrial capitalist economies of the 19th and 20th centuries (such as Britain, France and America). Driven by the need to export capital elsewhere for resource extraction and goods production under extremely exploitative circumstances, imperialists divided the world into colonies and spheres of influence, allowing the capitalist class in imperialist nations to reap enormous profits of such levels as cannot be realised domestically. For example, British rule over India allowed British industrialists to secure imports of cheaply produced cotton and command a ready market for British textiles.
‘Neo’-colonialism developed off the back of the national liberation movements in the 20th century at a time when direct conquest was no longer possible nor desirable for the imperialist bourgeoisie. Most newly liberated countries, with the exceptions of those like Cuba and Vietnam, replaced the foreign rulers with either proclaimed ‘nationalist’, or overtly comprador capitalist class that were still tied to their old imperialist masters by a thousand strands. Following the earlier example, the Indian economy continued to be dependent on selling low-end produce to the West after independence, running large trade deficits and saddled with low economic growth. In both cases, the hallmark of an imperial/colonial relationship is the net transfer of value from the dependent country to the master nation, enabling the latter to develop at the expense of the subservient countries.
This relationship does not exist between Hong Kong and mainland China. Unlike countries under colonialism or neocolonialism, Hong Kong’s terms of trade, representing its position on the value chain, is comparatively high. Most of Hong Kong’s tangible, material wealth is created in mainland China and elsewhere in the developing world. Hong Kong purchases these things with the money it earns from services it provides to large, transnational conglomerates when they need to move goods or capital to and from China and beyond. In exchange, its bankers, accountants, lawyers, brokers and salesmen get a cut of the huge profits pocketed by these enterprises.
In other words, Hong Kong is a profitable mediator in the commerce between mainland China and the West. Its capitalist class not only relies on the extraction of surplus value created by Hong Kong workers, but also depends critically on actively helping other capitalists extract surplus value created elsewhere—mostly in mainland China. In fact, the extraction of surplus value from mainland China was why ‘Hong Kong’ was created in the first place—as a place where British merchants could warehouse its opium before selling it on to mainland China, and from where Chinese silver flowed back to Europe in vast quantities. In any serious Marxist analysis, Hong Kong would not be classified as a colony of an imperialist Chinese state. Hong Kong is an advanced informational, financial economy (albeit one which suffers from high inequalities), while mainland China is still largely driven by industrial and agricultural production and hence pays tribute to international finance led by US imperialism of which HK is a major base.
To say Hong Kong is a ‘colony of China’ is about as absurd as saying that Manhattan is a colony of the USA. In fact, Hong Kong occupies a much more privileged position than Manhattan, because Hong Kong has the impunity and the autonomy it inherited from the era of extraterritoriality. It is a Manhattan with its own borders, its own immigration department, its own police, its own currency, its own (US-determined) monetary policies, its own taxes and its own budget. The call for ‘self-determination’ that animates the Hong Kong protestors comes not from supposed exploitation by the Mainland, but rather from the impression that their privileges earned from being a conduit for international capital, which has historically placed them above the mainland Chinese, are being gradually eroded.
Having reluctantly accepted the absence of ANY social demands since the beginning of the ‘movement’, these ‘leftists’ raise the argument that capitalism in Hong Kong with wider political liberty is still better than capitalism with no liberty. Indeed, socialists should demand basic bourgeois democratic rights in countries that lack them to grow the workers’ movement against bourgeois rule and win popular support for the socialist revolution. However, the real question of democracy in Hong Kong today is not whether these ‘leftists’ should have the right to be elected into office. Rather, it is the question of whether pro-US candidates should have the right to control the state apparatus of Hong Kong. The ‘pan-democrats’ and ‘localists’ have equated themselves with democracy, on the ostensibly ‘valid’ ground that they constitute the majority of the politically-active in Hong Kong, and pose the purge of ‘communists’ and unwanted Mainlanders as the just and natural consequence of ‘true democracy’. Similarly, the demand to ‘disband/re-organise the police’ is not due to any Marxist appreciation of the role of the police in the maintenance of capitalism, but a naked wish to fashion an anti-communist, nativist police force.
To bolster the acceptability of the Hong Kong protests in the US, Lausan also attempts to equate the protests with the black struggle in the US. This is extremely rich, as the tendencies and demands of the two movements are polar opposites. If the oppressed black masses of America were to take the lead in overturning US capitalism (which unfortunately is not on the agenda today as the BLM movement channels much anger into support for the Democrats), this would represent a historic liberation and gain for the international working class. On the other hand, if ‘Hong Kong self-determination’ were to succeed with the destruction of the People’s Republic of China, the resulting social-economic collapse would deepen locally the oppression of the Mainlander ‘new immigrants’, most of whom take the lowest paid jobs, after South East Asian domestic workers, and globally deal a hammer blow to the cause of working people everywhere.
To be continued.