WILLIAM BRIGGS. A Trade War is Announced

A new ‘cold war’ has been announced. While some will have it that COVID 19 is at the root of the deteriorating relations between the US and China, the pandemic is but a symptom of a deeper and potentially far more deadly problem; how the US responds to its perceived China threat.

On the 5th May, the South China Morning Post wrote that “a dramatic deterioration in US-China relations in recent days has convinced current and former government advisers on both sides that bilateral ties have plummeted to their lowest point in decades.

“Over the past week, the Trump administration has threatened to scrap the phase one trade deal and increase tariffs on China, backed tough new export controls for Chinese firms buying American tech products, and continued to push theories claiming the coronavirus was man-made and leaked from a laboratory in the city of Wuhan.

“The White House is also ‘turbocharging’ an initiative among ‘friendly nations’ to push manufacturing supply chains out of China.”

The last ‘cold war’ was ostensibly waged around the question of ideology. This one is different and far more disturbing. It is disturbing because there are no ideological issues at stake. It is about who will control the crumbling world economy. Even so, there has been a concerted effort to portray realities quite differently. China, we are told on a daily basis, is ‘communist’, is seeking to spread its influence throughout the world, is seeking to undermine the ‘values’ of western states and so on. It has been a carefully orchestrated campaign and has been remarkably successful, but this cannot be taken at face value.

Is China a communist state or a capitalist one? Capitalism and communism are polar opposites and yet the more capitalist China becomes, the louder become the denunciations of its ‘communism.’ How can this be? Why is it so? Whose interests are served by such confusion? Where is the truth?

To begin with, we need to consider the importance of the words that are so happily bandied about. There is the Communist Party of China (CCP) and then the terms communism, Marxism, and capitalism. The CCP was formed, as were so many others, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. It was a Marxist party in the fullest sense of the term, but things changed and changed rather quickly. Mao saw to that. He came to lead the party almost by accident. The disastrous alliance with the Kuomintang in the 1920s had resulted in the deaths of thousands of communists.

By the time of his death, he had both denounced Deng Xiaoping as a ‘capitalist roader’ and then brought him back into the fold. Deng’s ‘Marxism’ led the party on a path to capitalist restoration. The Chinese were to go forward and prosper. Many in the party studied his words carefully. At last count, the richest 209 delegates to the National People’s Congress had a combined wealth equal to the GDP of Belgium and Sweden. The CCP wields total political control and uses Marxist slogans from time to time but it is not ‘communist’ and nor are the economic structures of the country; structures dominated by the private sector. For political commentators, academics, journalists and governments to continue to make the claim that China somehow represents Marxist, socialist or communist ideals is ludicrous.

But despite that simple fact, we now have a new ‘cold war.’ We need to remember one simple fact. Like it or not the world runs along capitalist rails. China’s ‘crime’ is not that it is ‘socialist’ or threatens capitalism. On the contrary, it has become an integrated part of the global capitalist economy. Before it became glorious to get rich, and when China promoted the ‘iron rice bowl’ system of welfare statism and relative equality, nobody in the west much cared or worried about China or the CCP. It only became threatening when it became capitalist!

China is a capitalist country. The US is a capitalist country. Washington knows this. Wall Street knows this. All world leaders know this and yet on an almost daily basis, the lie is trotted out that China is a ‘communist’ country and, by definition, an enemy of the free market, the free world, and all that is worth defending. The US and its allies, in building and presenting the case against China, are treading a dangerous path, but a path that has been deliberately chosen. It is a path that could so easily lead to war and devastation to both sides and to the world. While China is hardly a paragon of virtue and is hard to defend, the threatening posture of the US is in quite another league.

While the China that we know – the rival to the United States – is a fully functioning capitalist economy, it maintains political power via the agency of the Communist Party. Too many in the government and the media roll out the communist epithet. It serves them well to do so. If China threatens the power and hegemony of America, then it is well to portray it in as black, or in this case as red a light as possible. The world is used to cold war tactics and any rise on China’s part can be dismissed as communist-inspired. There is also a degree of old-fashioned ‘yellow-peril’ racism at work. The two factors work in tandem.

What to do about China occupies the minds of many. Smaller economies, long-time allies of the US move uneasily. Where to jump? Chinese trade is vital and yet the US alliance must never be questioned. It all goes to make for some rather schizophrenic posturing. That might be about to change. It might be about to become less schizophrenic. After all, a new ‘cold war’ is upon us even if there is no ideological justification. Trade wars are once more on the agenda and there are terrible prospects for us all.

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Dr William Briggs is a political economist. His special areas of interest lie in political theory and international political economy. He has been, variously, a teacher, journalist and political activist.

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