contemporary china



Commentary on the recently released book, organized by Ricardo Musse

contemporary china features six essays by seven prominent Brazilian researchers in studies on China. Presenting different views (and, at times, divergent, which enriches the dialogue), the texts address political economy, international relations, geopolitical dispute, culture and the pressing environmental issue. First and foremost, this is a necessary book.

Polybius, classical historian, opened his History, in the second century BC, with a classic passage: who would be so simple as not to want to understand how, in such a short time, Rome had become the mistress of the Mediterranean? Today, we could rephrase the question with the most provocative dilemma of contemporary times: who, in good conscience, can deprive themselves of trying to understand China, which, in 1970, was one of the poorest economies on the planet, is on the way to being the first? How could it, in such a short time, have lifted 750 million people out of poverty, gone through intense urbanization in a planned and controlled manner, built an unparalleled infrastructure, mastered cutting-edge technology from aerospace to cybernetics if, in the 1940s, as Wladimir Pomar reminds us in his essay, did capitalism even have developed? And, above all, what contradictions advance with this process?

Certainly, China is the big issue of our time. Understanding the world necessarily involves reflecting on it. This central problem unfolds in others, deep and dense, that the authors of this work face with propriety: how to define the “Chinese model”? Capitalism, socialism, state capitalism, market socialism or another concept? Would China's success be a clear demonstration of the superiority of the analytical tools brought by Marxist political economy? Would it be today in a position to face the US, or rather, would it have the same objective conditions that the United States met at the end of World War II to redefine the international arena politically and economically? Is the distance that separates us from the Chinese really so great, or are there more cultural affinities between us and them than we can imagine? How concrete is Beijing's commitment to the environment and the concept of "ecological civilization" that was constitutionalized by Xi Jinping?

These and other questions are discussed in this work with analytical depth by the authors Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa, Elias Jabbour, Alexis Dantas, Wladimir Pomar, Bruno Hendler, Francisco Foot Hardman and Luiz Henrique Vieira de Souza. They all benefit from direct experience with China, having done research or even taught at universities in the Asian country.

“Searching for the truth in facts”, and not in concepts, was one of the slogans of the Reform and Opening up inaugurated in China in 1978. And Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa starts from his observation of a mismatch between concepts and reality. Chinese rise and the capitalist world-economy: a historical perspective, opening rehearsal of the work. The analyzes produced on China on that side of the hemisphere would adopt concepts that were as rigid as they were inadequate, “as if China should conform to its models”, says Barbosa. Concepts such as “state capitalism”, “political capitalism” and even the official “socialism with Chinese characteristics” would not, for him, be enough to describe that reality, much less to explain how the Chinese rise led to the current process of reorganization. of the capitalist world-economy.

Between the elaboration of the authors with a westernizing bias, very contaminated by the geopolitical dispute, and the thought of scholars linked to or close to the Chinese Communist Party (PCCh) project, would a more precise conceptual path be possible? Barbosa's analysis, proposing the resumption of the discussion around the concepts of “market”, “capitalism” and their relation and application to China, tells us that yes.

The text does not present – ​​nor would it fit – a conclusion in definitive terms, but points out conceptual paths and a hypothesis based on the dense bibliographical analysis that goes from Fernand Braudel to Giovanni Arrighi, passing through Immanuel Wallerntein and classics of Marxism, to authors who have focused on specifically about the Chinese experience, like the Japanese Kaoru Sugihara. For Barbosa, supported by his knowledge of this vast bibliography, in China there was a market economy without capitalism.

Today, there would be capitalism in interaction with the market economy that surrounds it and from which it draws its dynamism, under the political direction of the State and in tense coexistence with the core of the capitalist world-economy. The idea remains for readers that the notions of “socialism” and “capitalism”, taken in an abstract, metaphysical way, are unable to explain either the complex structures of the world-economy or the rise of contemporary China.

Extending the debate (and part of the richness of the book lies in the many perspectives presented), Elias Jabbour and Alexis Dantas also affirm the need for a profound conceptual revision in order to understand China. at rehearsal Notes on China's geopolitics, they present their already established interpretation of Chinese “market socialism” as a new social-economic formation. In China, a dominant socialist mode of production would have been built historically, based on nearly a hundred large state-owned companies, development banks and the leadership of the CPC, coexisting with a capitalism articulated to it and directed by the ultimate purpose determined by the communist leadership. in what would be a stage in the development of socialism.

The theoretical novelty presented by Jabbour and Dantas comes in the concept of “New Design Economy”, defined as the superior stage of development reached by China. It would be the product of the possibilities opened up for new forms of economic planning thanks to the dominance of 5G, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data, in addition to the consolidation of a powerful productive sector and the very organization and expression of the political will of the Chinese working class. This “projector” State, in the conceptual language constructed by the authors based especially on the work of Ignácio Rangel (Design Economics Elements) would be the “internal” element of Chinese geopolitics.

In turn, the “external” would come from the so-called “Institutionalized Globalization by China”, a new paradigm of international relations embodied in the agreements that make up the “One Belt, One Road” Initiative, or “New Silk Road”. The “New Design Economy” and the “Institutionalized Globalization by China”, inserted in that ancient tradition and history, would lead to the conclusion that Chinese geopolitics will open space for a new global geopolitics, “popular, anti-colonialist and of national liberation”, in the authors' view.

On the other hand, Wladimir Pomar, in Comments on Chinese political economy, analyzes the Marxist political economy used and formulated by the Chinese communists in their history since the Revolution of 1949. In principle, he reiterates that the scientific methods of that political economy remain fundamental, whether to understand China or to understand the world. It would have been the application of the theoretical instruments of Marxism that allowed the leadership of the CPC to build the current economic power that is China, having as a starting point a backward country (by capitalist standards, the author emphasizes), impoverished and destroyed by atrocious wars.

The text seeks to present the magnitude of the challenge of carrying out a stage of development that, for the Marxist political economy, would be the task of capitalism, at the same time that it was necessary to consolidate the path to socialism. Economic modernization, the agrarian revolution, the expansion of salaried work, among other transformations that China has experienced since the second half of the XNUMXth century, were conducted under the leadership of the Communist Party and not of a Chinese bourgeoisie, recalls Pomar.

How was that possible? And furthermore, is it still correct to say that China is or is moving towards being socialist? The answer is not obvious. The 1978 Reform and Opening, which Pomar interprets as a reaction to the failure of the Cultural Revolution, would have consolidated the coexistence of private economic activity with public property, both conducted by state planning. Agreeing with Jabbour and Dantas, Pomar sees here a socialist market economy that Chinese theorists have called “the first stage of socialism”.

And why is this not capitalism, critics say? For Pomar, precisely because the existence of this public sector guarantees the primacy of the workers' class interest. This finding, incidentally, would be demonstrated by the reduction of inequality and poverty in a short time and on a gigantic scale. Coexistence with capitalism would indeed bring, says Pomar, pitfalls for market socialism, such as corruption, for example. However, he concludes, until now, the Marxist political economy applied by the Chinese leaders has proved to be efficient in disarming the dangers it encountered along the way.

The complex subject of the dispute between the USA and China is approached by Bruno Hendler, in US-China Hegemony Crisis and Rivalry. This is a very timely text in this scenario where anti-China propaganda presents Beijing as the great challenger to US hegemony. Even clearly reactive and defensive movements, such as the military exercises in the China Sea, are presented as aggression. This rhetoric, which wears the old clothes of Cold War bipolarity in a very different scenario and, according to some, even more complex, was adopted by both candidates in the last American election. It is present in the underground streams of information of the many hybrid warfare mechanisms in vogue today and plays an internal mobilization role in the United States, making the focus not fixed on its own internal contradictions.

Hendler's essay objectively questions whether, in fact, China meets the necessary conditions to displace the US and redesign the international system. Would we be witnessing, in other words, the transition to a new hegemony, centered in Beijing? In order to look for ways to answer this question without starting from the sublimations that usually populate the texts of scholars/politicians from Foreign Affairs, Hendler establishes as an analytical parameter a comparison between the post-World War II United States and today's China.

It uses four objective indicators: capital exports; the quantity and competitiveness of each country's global brands; the position of each currency in the international financial system; and, finally, the domestic market's import capacity, indicating its greater or lesser role in global economic growth. The choice of such indicators, supported by statistics presented in the text, proves to be more refined than the simple comparison of GDP or military power.

The conclusion of the analysis escapes the temptation to endorse the commonplace of current interpretations of this rivalry. For Hendler, if it is true that US hegemony has entered a crisis, it is also true that China does not meet the necessary conditions to replace it. At least for the time being... For now, it would not be possible to speak of a transition from one hegemony to another, but rather of an “intensification of rivalries”.

In a thematic expansion (another of the richness of the book), Francisco Foot Hardman discusses contemporary Chinese culture in Simultaneism and fusion in Chinese landscape, culture and literature. For him, who taught at the prestigious Peking University, there are more intercultural affinities between Brazilians and Chinese than a biased common sense could imagine.

The mention of Gabriel García Márquez at a certain point in the text, one of the most widely read foreign authors in China, reminds us that this analogy can be extended to all of Latin America. Despite the enormous differences in size, the phenomena of recent industrialization, intense and accelerated urbanization, the effects they have on the social fabric, memory and culture, form a historical process parallel to the Brazilian and Latin American XNUMXth century.

It is not by chance that the survival of the land, of the countryside, as a reference for the Chinese also touches us, brings us closer together, in the same way that Jia Zhangke's films present images that are reminiscent of Brazilian metropolises, as stated by Hardman. However, to see these relationships up close, it would be necessary to break the epistemological frontier built by the so-called “West”. Foot Hardman proposes overcoming what he calls world-system binary dichotomies, incapable of explaining the current conformation of global capitalism.

The essay sensitively presents the works of two Chinese artists who represent the aesthetics and witness of this changing reality that also has so much to say to us: the writer Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, and the renowned filmmaker Jia Zhangke , whose works would configure, as well as those of a whole group of artists, “new utopias in which hope, equality and solidarity are not just empty words”.

Finally, the book also brings the contribution of Luiz Henrique Vieira de Souza regarding the environmental debate and the role assumed by China in this matter. Today, China projects an image of commitment to the preservation of the environment. In the vacuum left by the Trump administration, Beijing stood out by assuming a leadership space. It maintained the climate agreements and presented bold goals, in addition to carrying out effective qualitative transformations towards a green economy.

However, in your Ecological Civilization or Environmental Collapse, Souza seeks to carry out the task of criticism and see beyond: first, he asks about the origins of the new posture of the Chinese government, and then, he tries to discuss the internal contradictions that it implies and hides. Thus, his narrative recalls that, before being an official goal, preserving the environment was a requirement of Chinese society.

Since the 1990s, climate-related protests have risen 30% a year, reaching 50 with this theme in 2005 alone. They were resistance movements against the construction of major works that would compromise the environmental heritage, protests against the installation of polluting factories, demonstrations in favor of improving air quality, among others. This movement even reached members of the PCCh and the government, making, the author concludes, that the leadership of the State needed to present a response. Thus, the concept of “ecological civilization” officially mentioned for the first time in 2007, at the XVII Congress of the CPC, and already constitutionalized under Xi Jinping would have a popular matrix, would come from collective organization.

However, despite the advances already achieved, “ecological civilization” also involves contradictions, recalls Souza. First, much remains to be done for China to have a healthy environment, starting with ensuring good air quality in all its regions. Secondly, the action of the State, although focused on establishing the parameters it considers appropriate for the goals towards an “ecological civilization”, clashes with traditional rural communities, causing new conflicts. Thirdly, the great Chinese demand for commodities would lead to the reproduction of a destructive pattern in the countries that export them to China... as an alternative to “sustainable development”. This is an important critical effort.

An attempt has been made here to briefly present some aspects of the arguments in the essays of this important work. Evidently, as with books rich in density, each reading will reveal other interpretations and, without a doubt, will instigate to seek more. I dare say that the book edited by Ricardo Musse is one of the most important books published in the country to study the Chinese phenomenon. Fundamental and, above all, necessary reading!

*Alexandre Ganan de Brites Figueiredo is a postdoctoral researcher at FEA-Ribeirão Preto at the University of São Paulo.


Ricardo Musse (org.). Contemporary China – six interpretations. Belo Horizonte, Autêntica, 2021, 208 pages.


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