Irreconcilable Differences on the Left
Foreign Policy issues occupy a peculiar position in Left-wing politics. In some cases, they have put substance to the existence of a potentially unified political community of “The Left”. The Iraq War acted as a shibboleth and divided Marxists, social democrats, and anarchists from the neo-liberal centre-ground and right-wing. The peculiarity of these issues is that while those on the far-left in Europe and North America have very little input into the foreign policy of their states (bound by a carefully fostered geopolitical consensus tied to NATO and other supranational commitments), it’s international crises, rather than domestic bread-and-butter issues of housing, employment and healthcare, that most acutely highlight the differences that exist between progressives. The history of international relations since the break-up of the Soviet Union has been the history of repeated interventions by the US and the UK, with the implicit backing of other OECD states, for the purpose of enforcing the neoliberal commandments of the Washington consensus on developing nations.
While (mostly) unified protests met and provided a pushback against this predatory and jingoistic adventurism in the 90s and 2000s, it largely dissolved and gave way to a more fractured Left-wing mentality in the aftermath of the Arab spring events in 2011. This was largely the result of imperialism’s refinement of its methods in response to the domestic destabilisation that accompanied commitments of ground forces and traditional tactics. It became clear after the coalition forces’ experience in Afghanistan that if it was to succeed in the future it would need to apply more decentralised methods. This process occurred also with the ongoing ascendency of the soft-power camp of influence that reached its heyday with the Obama administration, its philosophy of financial incentivisation through NGOs, media organisations, and funded academia paving the way to the kind of economic environment the US wanted for its markets abroad.
This led to a rhetorical problem for the Left, because the easily identifiable imagery of American or British boots on the ground no longer provided the clear rallying call it did before, and with “ulsterisation” of various conflicts around the globe, the violence needed to remove non-compliant authorities was being committed by local political forces backed by NATO members, a situation where “anti-authoritarian” leftists have felt much more at home supporting whichever side happens to be fighting the police, regardless of their political programme or lack of one. Soft power elements, in the form of sympathetic journalists, pursue a carefully controlled flow of information that provides the right narrative for intervention, and many on the Left make their excuses and shuffle along with it, taking the accounts at face value. With the internet and the rapid proliferation of recordings and testimonies, there is a cacophony of voices in conflict zones that are manipulated to fit into pre-existing political paradigms and prejudices, with the result that the Left has in many cases become theoretically reactive to whatever response the news cycle elicits.
We’ve seen a blueprint develop of protests that are chimeric, being at once Trotskyist revolutionary communist movements, far-right nationalist separatist movements, and centrist-neoliberal movements, all simultaneously. A blueprint of false flag attacks, of endless op-eds flowing from the pens of well-heeled and politically braindead commentators which could with a find+replace function easily be re-used for any number of situations. At the heart of the gullibility towards this plámás is a belief in the emancipatory potential of decentralised information, without the maturity of realising that decentralised information is totally malleable in the hands of those who control the media through which it flows. Facebook and Twitter have now banned advertisement from “state media” outlets outside Europe and North America, while continuing to allow “publicly funded media” from appropriate counties. Chinese accounts are being censored from the same platforms for disinformation or for being labeled “bots”. This should be a familiar screed to anyone who has ever spoken to an American liberal, to whom dissenting opinion is so impossible to imagine that automation can be the only explanation for social changes and trends occuring around them daily.
China has become the latest target of the new modus operandi by which foreign affairs is being conducted, and it has evoked one of the most passionate and heated debates on the Left since Libya and Syria, the steps of which are now probably all too familiar to the participants. Even moreso because China’s socioeconomic and political development since the 1980s has been of the most controversial and debated issues in the Left anyway, there are more facets at play than in the traditional “US democracy” vs “autonomous statehood” dichotomy surrounding the Hong Kong crisis. This is ultimately far more than an academic exercise, but a clear divergence of views about the nature of who the Left represents and how it should represent them.
This article will examine and debunk three of the primary myths that are forwarded by Left-wing apologists for the protests and separatist movement in Hong Kong:
After this, it will attempt to analyze the prevailing geopolitical situation in China and Hong Kong and extract lessons of organisation and governance.
I will paint a purely hypothetical picture to make a rhetorical comparison: imagine if Britain had invaded Ireland, and after the military conflict ended, forced Ireland to cede the most brutally colonised part of its territory to Britain. Imagine if Britain then treated the Irish inhabitants of that colonial outpost as second class citizens, denied crucial access to social services, and concentrated economic development in the hands of elite financiers. Imagine if, under the scrutiny of the world and the deepest and most long-held aspirations of the Irish people, it permitted re-unification of the island, but demanded that for 50 years the island remain divided in law and economic system.
This is a situation that the next generation of Irish political activists may be faced with the challenge of making sense of. Last year the Connolly Youth Society in UCC hosted a talk by Tommy McKearney where he discussed the shift in the establishment narrative on re-unification since Brexit. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement has recently been engaged in prospective analyses of potential implementation timelines that a United Ireland could follow. The dramatic political changes surrounding Brexit have led to a re-appraisal of the possibility, and a group of politicians led by Mark Daly seem to be working to basing their “preparations” for Northern Ireland around the almost Hegelian idea of a reciprocal transformation of Irish society to more easily facilitate an integration.
Fine Gael has mirrored this line of thinking, as Leo Varadkar recently stated in a panel discussion at Féile an Phobail 2019 that a united Ireland would be a “different state”. Varadkar is very much correct in his analysis, but the “new state” he has in mind is not a 32 county socialist republic set on a constitutional basis of cherishing all the children of the nation equally. Varadkar explored the option of putting the protected status of the Irish language up for grabs, which is line with Fine Gael’s general approach of neglect and contempt for language protection. As Tommy McKearneyexplored at his talk, the appointment of Drew Harris and all of these other motions seem to point towards a “Hong Kong model” for Ireland. Further afield, there have even been repeated calls for Ireland to rejoin the commonwealth from that ancient and faithful knight of crown and country, The Irish Times op-eds.
It’s not the first time that the southern establishment has explored the possibility of a Hong Kong type solution to end our troublesome partition. The New Ireland Forum in 1984 suggested as one of its proposals for a solution to the conflict, a “federal/confederal state” that would consist of either joint authority of Ireland and the United Kingdom over the six counties, or else the continued function of Stormont under a United Irish Republic. Margaret Thatcher promptly rejected these unsolicited suggestions in the “out, out, out” speech. The thought process of the Irish right-wing hasn’t changedmuch since then, from the nominally green gombeenism of Fianna Fáil to the newfound pan-European enthusiasm gripping a blueshirt dog that has found a new master. The establishment preparation for the dramatic change in status of Northern Ireland after Brexit seems to be slouching towards the Hong Kong model. Simon Coveney has explicitly suggested it as a basis for a transitional government.
As Communists and Republicans who ascribe to the concept of national autonomy and a workers’ republic, we have to make our own preparations for how to appropriately react to the potential outcome of internalised partition on this island, of two systems of law continuing during a “phased withdrawal” where a new devolved government could create a totally new host of contradictions or the erosion of sovereignty, language and economic rights as we are pulled closer to Britain.
It would help us at this point to examine the basis of the arrangement between Britain and the Chinese government that has led to the current protests. The Sino-British Joint Declaration led to the establishment of what Deng Xiaoping termed “One country, two systems”. Britain had colonised Hong Kong during its invasion of China in 1841, an invasion motivated by its desire to subjugate Chinese central authority in order to extract its resources by exporting opium and promoting consumption and dependency on the drug. A policy of racial segregation followed, and several Chinese attempts to rebel against British rule on Hong Kong were crushed by military force. Britain expanded the Hong Kong area by leasing further territorial expansions from compliant regimes prior to the Communist Party’s ascension. After that ascension, there was considerably greater pressure both from the trade union and socialist movement within Hong Kong, and the Chinese communists without, to cede the territory after the expiry of Britain’s lease in 1997.
Britain returned the former colony peacefully, on the condition that it would continue to practice the capitalist system, that it would have a separate legal system, judiciary and legislature to the mainland, and that it would act as a separate entity in many international organisations. This status quo was to continue for 50 years, after which it was undecided what would occur next. Hong Kong has continued as a financial powerhouse in East Asia since then, with a wealthy financial elite, a massive Gini coefficient representing high levels of inequality, and an underclass of workers from the mainland who are day workers in the city proper, suffering from a now-informally segregated housing situation, low pay, poor conditions, and the other hallmarks of any good neoliberal posterchild.
The political mise–en–scène of Hong Kong, much like the institutions and legal system of the Irish free state, was inherited from Great Britain, with a Chief Executive replacing a Colonial Governor. Hong Kong’s political parties also received seats in the PRC’s legislature. In Hong Kong’s own legislature, some of the seats are directly elected, and others are elected by the trade unions and other representative bodies in the city. This has led to the allegation that Hong Kong lacks universal suffrage, but it is inevitable in that a country which should be undergoing a political transformation to worker control, a political transformation that is prevented by an agreement with a former colonist, that some placeholders to ensure that the interests of the common nation and the workers will be protected from attempts to separate again.
Britain has created the perfect trap for a nation’s aspirations in China, as it did in Ireland. Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, the essential wisdom of using colonies rather than garrisons to enforce political power. By selecting some parts of the population, and giving them the land, the houses, the opportunities of the others, the invader could establish a permanent and loyal garrison, while keeping the dispossessed too impoverished to represent any political threat. We can see that this tactic creates a long-standing division of communities long after the material difference between them has evaporated, with only cultural traditions of relationship to the colonising power enabling its divide and conquer tactics. Critics of China refuse to acknowledge that a process of decolonisation is occurring, instead falling back on the same excuse they have to hand in Ireland of “self-determination”. Their argument revolves around the idea that, in a system of universal suffrage, colonial supporters should benefit from salami tactics, where you reduce a constituency piece by piece until a small and concentrated part of the whole will give you the “50+1” which you need isolate it. But this logic is actually against national self-determination, because it reduces a nation to arbitrary demography. If a supermajority of a whole organic nation wants autonomy and freedom, as Ireland and China chose in the 20th century, it is its inalienable right, but for colonial nations to attempt to dismember it using artificial and gerrymandered areas is a crime.
Some advocates of this point of view will post polls making various outrageous claims that none of the youth in Hong Kong consider themselves Chinese, but these polls are rigged by producing false dichotomies to create a simple binary between 100% Chinese or 100% Hong Kongese. This is what an actual peer-reviewed publications on self-identity in Hong Kong shows:
As can be seen, it is about a 1/3 split between Chinese only, Hong Kongese only, and some mix of the two. The role that Western soft power outlets have played, and the continuing British population, and its financial power in Hong Kong, cannot be underestimated. The protests started out in opposition to an extradition bill that was brought about due to the outcry after a man who murdered his girlfriend fled to refuge from the law in the Hong Kong Basic Law jurisdiction. There are many corrupt officials, crooked businessmen, and other wrteched articles who have found shelter due to that lack of an extradition arrangement. It is in the interest of American and British foreign policy makers to keep Hong Kong’s society split along lines of identity, much as it is in the interest of the British capitalist class to keep its closer colony rift along the same lines. It is in the interest of the Chinese foreign policy to unite the people in the process of decolonisation. This should showcase what end each camp is working towards. It brings to mind the brief consideration of “two-nationism” that emerged in Irish political thought in the mid twentieth century where one of the solutions to the identity crisis in the North was a new and ersatz “Ulster Nation” separate from both Ireland and Britain. Left-wing support for this concept was based on a strange reading of Stalin’s “Marxism and the National Question” which didn’t make any distinction between organic nationhood and nationhoods of colonial expediency.
This whole situation reveals a cross-purpose in the Marxist analysis of nation and state in Ireland, with trotskyists both domestically and abroad basing their analysis on radical self-determination of minority identities, no matter how reactionary the interests it serves are. The Workers’ Party supports the Chinese government abroad, on the other hand, while at home taking the point of view that a border poll would be too sectarian. For many Western leftists the project of working class emancipation, which in so many countries went forward arm and arm with anti-colonial struggle, no longer requires a critique of imperialism and its historical role, but only a patient wait under neoliberal capitalism for world revolution to make national injustices redundant. Such a cowardly form of socialism can only alienate the people it’s supposed to represent for fear of stepping on the toes of the reactionaries who divide our class with arbitrary walls of partition.
I think the best way to think about the nation is in terms of a national project – a goal which has crystallised based on common suffering and a common understanding of what you collectively value, that you then strive towards with anyone else you wants to join in its pursuit. Thus you can have national projects that are right wing and exclusionary in their vision, or you can have a left wing national project which is inclusive in its cultural vision.
National autonomy and class emancipation are impossible, one without the other, all the more in a world where “international police” are more reckless than ever in enforcing capitalist law. We may soon have to deepen and update our understanding of the intersection of class and national identity if we find ourselves in a similar situation to China. Will these apologists for partition continue to stoke pro-British separatist protests and violence when the consequences are a little closer to home?
All Cats are Beautiful
One of the central canards in the debate around Hong Kong has been the anti-authoritarian argument that Leftists should automatically oppose police and military actions, regardless of context. This is either based on an anarchist-libertarian misunderstanding of the Marxist position of total opposition to security actors as enforcers of property relations and colonial interests as being a universal principle. Materialist leftists do not regard power, and power relations, in universal moral terms as being inherently bad actions. Rather, materialists analyse actions in their context and class character. Class warfare is inherently the imposition of the will of one class over another, and this requires the utilisation of force. Unnecessary, cruel and unusual force is contradictory to the ideals of peace and fraternity that socialism is deeply connected to, but force in the advancement of class interests is crucial to preventing loss of autonomy to those representing other interests.
Liberals, further, will add to this mix a sort of selective pacificism, arguing that against peaceful protestors, state intervention is the ultimate crime, and to save this sea of brolly toting humanitarians from a bitter fate, the freedom tanks will need to be sent in, or in the left-liberal case, the freedom embargoes. Since the prevention of any type of state repression seems to rely on force, it becomes clear that those who cry “cop lover!” are all in favour of any kind of violence except, for some reason, that committed by the state, regardless of the motivations. Anarchists will in turn advance the idea of the democratic militia as an acceptable purveyor of force, but as we can see in the United States where directly elected sheriffs are the norm in some states, this is not a particularly progressive or logical idea, and ultimately it is the class context the police (or militia, if we’re calling the stick a different name) operate in that defines them, not a list of operational procedures or democratic accountabilities.
In fact, the protests are anything but peaceful. Several incidents have already transpired, and they specifically target mainlander civilians, journalists, or diplomatic personnel, rather than police. People have been attacked and badly injured, and emergency services have been held off to continue the beatings. Insurrection is no dinner party, so let’s not pretend or hold any illusions that the protestors are purely interested in a peaceful civil rights approach, or that there’s anything wrong with illegal militancy in of itself, just as there is nothing inherently wrong in the state applying a proportional response, but sustained violence against bystanders is surely something that should be viewed with suspicion. The question of “Who should we support?” shouldn’t revolve around “Who is the least violent?” or “Who is the most opposed to the state?”. It should revolve around “Why are these groups combating the state?” and “Why is the state combating these groups?” to achieve a nuanced analysis that goes beyond simple comforting slogans.
A Concrete Analysis of the Concrete Situation
The basic analysis by the cheerleaders of the protestors goes something like this: “China is a state capitalist repressive authoritarian dictatorship with no regard for human rights, and who can blame people for wanting to get away from such a mess?”
This is a gross simplification of the complex internal and domestic political situation in China, and it underplays the immense achievements that China has reached, and is in the process of reaching. Many of the elements of the “human rights” agenda being advanced by humanitarian arguments are fundamentally at variance with building a stable socialist society, free from religious extremism and cults, as well as insincere attempts by NGOs to use finance to manipulate the political sphere. Every nation chooses which rights it emphasises or curtails based on its values. In America, which provides tax breaks for cults instead of crackdowns, people have died in restricted compounds owned by groups like these. The Chinese state’s attitude to political dissent is strict, but strict by necessity. Xi Jinping has spoken of the necessity of learning from the example of the Soviet Union and its destruction by dishonest actors. There have been reports in the media that Xi asked party members to study a six-part documentary on the break-up of the USSR.
On the economic side, there is no such thing as “state capitalism”. Every country in the world has some form of state-operated enterprise, it is just a feature of regular capitalism that some industries that are sensitive or non-profitable but useful (which is a strong argument for socialism in of itself) are in public ownership. What’s happening in China doesn’t fit into this mold, and is somewhat novel in its dimensions. I am hesitant to ascribe any definite label to it, other than that the Communist Party is in power, that capitalism is the principal mode of production in China, but there are immense qualitative differences to the political economy of China compared to other countries. It’s certainly more progressive and publicly owned than even the most “social democratic” of nordic economies.
China is currently involved in a series of key goals that are intended to lead the transition to socialism, including a focus on green production that is swiftly bringing China to the forefront of research on renewable energy, renewable batteries, lowered pollution and low carbon footprint industrial activity. Electric buses are now the standard in many Chinese cities, but this isn’t to paint over social injustice with a “green capitalist” coating. Inequality is rising in China and the population is beginning to pay the price of the party’s dangerous reliance on private enterprise. There is an ever-present risk involved in pursuing projects that do not directly invest the people in attacking capitalism, but instead rely on state arms. Xi Jinping’s leadership has now adopted Artificial Intelligence and Automation as key goals for economic development, and this strategy seems aimed at alleviating these contradictions concurrently with reduction of poverty and a shift from an export economy into an internal consumption–led one.
Not enough people are talking about this, and the huge potential for a path to socialism through technology that is being developed in China, the huge potential for a viable and sustainable alternative to the chaos and environmental damage we’re seeing in the neoliberal economies at the moment. China has its problems like any country, but it also has visionary aspects for the future that many capitalist-ruled countries have lost completely in short sighted avarice and hyper-consumption. There needs to be more discussion and more information about these developments and special features of the Chinese economy that mark it out from the rest of the world, which are often at risk of being buried under human rights accusations that pale in comparison to the industrialised torture and profitised incarceration that their own countries are engaged in.
Many make a great ado of the presence of billionaires and millionaires and “princelings” in the Communist Party, and indeed, the media has even speculated on several occasions (to no result) that someone of enormous wealth would end up on the central committee, but these members are so few as to not even form any bloc of influence in the party, most of whose members and delegates come from low or middle income backgrounds. More interesting still, is the necessary presence of communist party representatives on the board of directors of corporations in China. Additionally, corporations in China must provide their trade secrets to the government, which is one of the justifications used by America for the trade war, as in some cases, the government then jettisons these corporations and transfers the expertise to state owned enterprises which will utilise them in a more socially responsible way. Moreover, in many state–owned companies, workers receive dividends from the profits of the companies they work in.
But worker dividends do not make a socialist economy . The Chinese Communist Party is playing a precarious game of selectively utilising private enterprise for targeted economic growth while also maintaining a lock on class power. This long game is extremely vulnerable to inroads and destabilisation, and as a result it carries with it a need for strong controls on pro-capitalist political dissent. This is no different to the methods of information control regularly applied in countries like Ireland, where CYM activists have been harassed or arrested on both sides of the border as acts of harassment and deterrence. With private enterprises employing a greater and greater share of the workers in the country, there is always a risk that the balance may tip, and that will manifest their economic power in the form of political power. Anti-corruption drives, imprisonments and executions of billionaires have gone some way to deter and control the most pro-reform sections of society, and it is into this context that the protests in Hong Kong interlock as one of the most vocally pro-reform political forces in China.
Hong Kong is largely reliant on China for trade and for supplies and labour from Guangdong, and an independent and separate Hong Kong in polar opposition to China would be a disaster for all its citizens. It would be in a state of abject reliance on Britain and the US, and it would strongly destabilise China and support calls for the restoration of capitalism. It would entrap its citizens in a continuing neoliberal regime, whereas the status quo for the end of the two systems and the potential implementation of socialism in Hong Kong is getting closer and closer, arriving at 2047, three years before the date the party has set to be firmly on a socialist grounding. Regardless of your thoughts and feelings about the Chinese economy and party, Hong Kong is on a firm footing united with the rest of the country, moving together towards one goal. The point stands that it is better to start from a point of socialist control of the political institutions and against reformers, than to start working towards socialism while firmly under the lock of colonial vultures like the US and Britain and a neoliberal elite.
Socialists in Ireland would do well to start considering future problems early, on a national level in coping with a Hong Kong model in Ireland, or on an economic level in navigating the problems and contradictions of what it means to build socialism in a global economy dominanted by cold and calculating military powers. Some caution and some sense is helpful before jumping forward to support interventionist agendas without considering all of the factors at play. Rather than look at the world through the black and white lens of allegiance to protest, we should dig deeper into the nature of asserting autonomy and independence in the modern world, which grows more difficult with each year, as finance capital’s reach becomes more monolithic and unbreakable through each technological advance. We should stop crying victim at every application of power, and instead learn to wield it better than our oppressors to lead our class to victory.