Is China imperialist? A Marxist theoretical inquiry

Notes for a talk by Walter Daum presented at the conference of the International Initiative forPromoting Political Economy (IIPPE) in September 2021

In the past several decades China has undergone tremendous changes. It has become a major economic power and is the new “workshop of the world.” It has also increasingly asserted its economic and military power internationally. As a consequence, many observers claim that China has become a growing threat to the predominant United States and a potential rival superpower. 

On the left this claim takes the form of saying that China has become an imperialist country. This is not just a theoretical question. There is a growing “New Cold War” driven by both Republican and Democratic U.S. administrations, both threats and actions. The socialist left needs as much clarity as possible.

Many leftists claim that China is imperialist are made without any serious theoretical argument. “It’s economy is so huge, how can it not be imperialist?” Others try to shoehorn China into what is said to be Lenin’s definition of imperialism, but Lenin had no such fixed formula. 

In any case, the question is more complex. China exhibits characteristics of both imperialist and imperialized countries. It behaves like an imperialist power, or a would-be one, in many ways: 

* it suppresses the rights of minority peoples within its borders; 

* it  bullies its neighbors in the South China Sea region – rather than allying with them to resist imperialist domination;

* it exports capital across the world, to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Africa and Latin America; and in its relations with “developing economies” on balance it extracts surplus-value from them;

* its military build-up challenges the U.S. in the nearby seas, as it seeks to be recognized as a full member of the imperialist club.

On the other hand, China overall is not a wealthy country, despite its total GDP and its many wealthy capitalists and politicians. 

* Its GDP per capita is of the same order as Thailand or Montenegro, not the imperialist powers.

* Imperialist as well as Chinese capitalists have profited off China’s low wages, repression of labor rights and lax environmental regulations.

* Importantly, a key characteristic of imperialist countries is that they share in the domination and exploitation of the rest of the world. Typically this means that on balance they import more surplus-value produced by workers of other countries than they yield to capitalists abroad – they are more exploiter than exploited. 

China does not fit this pattern. Overall it is more exploited than exploiting.  It yields more surplus-value to imperialist capitalists than it gains from its investments abroad. (Minqi Li has recently published calculations to this effect.) 

Moreover, China’s foreign investments do not bring it the high rates of profit that imperialists extract. China’s growth and wealth depend on the super-exploitation of its own proletariat, not others.

Hundreds of millions of migrant workers are a major source of the surplus-value China exports. In the cities where they work, under the hukou system they are denied the health care, housing and education  rights that enable the working class to reproduce its labor power. That is the definition of super-exploitation.

The Chinese industrial working class regularly engages in protests, strikes and other forms of struggle  – and it has raised its wage level to something like 10 or 20 percent of average wages in the West. But China’s ruling class  cannot afford to allow its workers to improve living standards much further. Again, it is China’s internal labor exploitation that has brought about its extraordinary economic gains.

To continue and expand its role as workshop of the world, China needs unimpeded access to raw materials from every corner, and to the shipping lanes and other transit routes for importing the materials it uses and exporting the goods it produces. So it necessarily seeks to expand and defend those sources and routes. It acts in an assertive and often aggressive fashion – that is, like an imperialist power– in defending its interests. 

But while it seeks to move up the value chain, China’s interests include continuing its workshop role, which serves to maintain the imperialist structure of the world and therefore its own intermediate status as on balance an exploited country.

Sub-imperialist?

For the classical Marxist theorists of imperialism a century ago – Luxemburg, Lenin, Bukharin etc – the world was relatively easily divided into oppressor imperialist and oppressed countries. But there were exceptional cases. Tsarist Russia was universally regarded as imperialist even though it was probably not a net importer of surplus-value. Today China, like a few other countries, exhibits characteristics of both imperialist and imperialized countries. So the classical analysis has to be built upon and extended.

One advance that has been made is the theory of sub-imperialism originated by Ruy Mauro Marini. He analyzed Brazil in the 1970s as “sub-imperialist,” meaning that although it was economically and geopolitically subordinate to imperialism, it dominated weaker countries in its region, extracting surplus-value from them which it shared with the imperialists. 

Marini’s analysis of Brazil has been extended by others to South Africa and other countries. Some  say it applies to all the BRICS countries. But in my view it doesn’t fit for Russia (which because of its geopolitical role should be seen as imperialist, as Tsarist Russia was) and is unconvincing for China. 

At first glance, it may seem plausible to regard China as sub-imperialist in Marini’s sense: 

* its economy is still technologically subordinate to imperialism, 

* arguably its oppression of the Uyghurs, now including the used of forced labor in factories serving imperialist capital, looks like sub-imperialist behavior: China acts as a local imperialist in the service of imperialist profits.

On the other hand, China’s economic reach is more global than regional, and it can stand up to imperialism in ways that most oppressed countries cannot, even the strongest. 

And students of Marini argue that China’s economic relation to Brazil and South Africa, the model sub-imperialist countries, is that of an imperialist exploiter.  China’s manufacturing underprices other dependent countries and reduces their manufacturing, leaving them to depend on raw material export. That makes it problematic to apply the same sub-imperialist label to China.

Semi-peripheral?

Some writers argue that China is semi-peripheral: e.g., Minqi Li in the summer Monthly Review. I find this term unhelpful. It was introduced by the world-systems theory school founded by Immanuel Wallerstein and referred to countries that are both exploiting and exploited in terms of “surplus extraction.” This criterion could apply to almost every country – and did, since Wallerstein included not only countries that might fit Marini’s definition of sub-imperialist – but also super-exploited countries like Algeria, Mexico, Vietnam and Zaire at one end, and smaller imperialist countries like Australia, Canada, Italy and Norway at the other. 

Minqi Li saw the problem and proposed narrowing the range to include only “the truly ‘middle’ stratum that includes the Latin American and East Asian ‘new industrializers,’ as well as those of eastern Europe and western Asia. … the ‘well-to-do’ semi-periphery.” But he too based his category on per capita GDP, an approach that ignores social and international relations and seems to draw arbitrary lines in a GDP-ordered list. Marini’s classification, taking into account a country’s geopolitical role, has the added advantage of avoiding the euphemistic word “semi-periphery” that conceals the imperialist aspect of that layer of countries. 

Conclusions

In sum, China cannot be shoehorned into traditional Marxist categories. It is a capitalist country with imperialist aspects and aspirations. It is perhaps best labeled semi- or quasi-imperialist.

China like any capitalist country is driven by class struggle and by competition, including international competition, to act increasingly like an imperialist power. (And to Michael Roberts, that drive is a clear indication that it operates under capitalist laws of motion.)

One aspect is that it is driven to upgrade technologically. There is a way to go:  China may produce the most automobiles and almost all smart phones, but Western capitalists capture most of the profits because of their monopoly of technical knowledge. China may seek to advance its role to become not just the world’s workshop but also a high-tech leader, but it is far behind behind in high-tech innovation. It has little presence at the top the global supply chains, which dominate industrial production today. Holding China back in this regard is a key aim of the stepped-up Cold War the U.S. is waging.

Some say that China is not yet imperialist but is becoming so. Chinese capital may seek to restore higher levels of profit by moving production to lower-wage countries and exploiting workers there at a higher rate than at home. A bonus would be to undercut the class struggle and rising wages at home. 

But  it is impossible for Chinese capital to find hundreds of millions of cheaper workers elsewhere. India has an equally huge population but lacks the trained work force and the modern infrastructure of China. Other countries are too small. So Chinese capital remains dependent on super-exploiting its own workers. 

What about the “New Cold War” between the US and China? A key driver is that US wants to defend its intellectual property rights by keeping advanced technology out of China’s hands. Witness Trump’s sanctions, continued by Biden. The aim is to maintain imperialist control over the globalized economy. 

Socialists do not defend imperialist monopolies or prerogatives, including such property rights. Just as with the coronavirus vaccines, intellectual and productive advances should be made available to all.

At times the imperialists claim to defend democratic rights and the rights of the nationally oppressed. Their proclaimed sympathies for the rights of China’s neighbors in the South China Sea, for example, are hypocritical, as is their championing of the oppressed Uyghurs, from whose exploitation they benefit.

But imperialist hypocrisy does not prevent socialists from supporting the struggles 

*of workers against capitalists in China, 

* of oppressed peoples’ right to national self-determination, 

* for the national rights of China’s neighbors. 

When China acts imperialistically, socialists stand opposed. When China is defending itself against imperialist prerogatives, socialists side against the imperialists. 

These are just a few possibilities illustrating the complex situation presented by China’s quasi-imperialist role in the world.