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The China challenge

Part six in an eight part series investigating the crisis in Canada-China relations


A view of Chongqing Central Business District from across Jialing River. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Amid the wreckage of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have turned their sights on China. University of Victoria professor emeritus and historian John Price examines the rise of the coalition of Anglo settler colonial states of Canada, the United Kingdom, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, and how they are today fomenting conflict in the Asia Pacific. You can read the series in its entirety here.

The first five articles in this series exposed the hypocrisy and racism of the US-led Anglosphere in its attacks on China, and the settler-colonial roots of the Five Eyes spy alliance.

But that doesn’t mean letting China off the hook.

Across the political spectrum, discussion is taking place about the repression being employed by the Chinese state in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Is there much, if anything, left of China’s supposedly socialist traditions?[1] Are we seeing a new model of developmental capitalism?[2] Is China getting caught in a capital-ecological trap, irrevocably binding it to a global regime of resource exploitation that is actively imperilling the planet?[3] Is China a new imperial power?

I don’t have answers to these questions. Addressing them requires an anti-racist and decolonial approach to foreign policy analysis—requiring us to dispense with universalist, Eurocentric lenses.

Here are some questions, and impressions, that come to mind.

A capitalist economy?

The scale of China’s recent development may be a useful starting point for looking at the dramatic changes taking place there today.

In 1968, I rode Japan’s high-speed train, the Shinkansen, from Tokyo to Kobe. A young lad of 18, I was blown away.

In 2000, when I visited China for the first time, there were no high-speed trains. Just eight years later, in 2008, I rode China’s first high-speed train from Qingdao to Beijing, built in time for the Summer Olympic Games. I was impressed, though the train station at Qingdao was ancient.

Today, China operates more than 30,000 kilometres of high-speed rail lines, more than the rest of the world combined. In 2019, more vehicles were built in China (25.72 million) than in the United States, Japan, and Germany put together.[4] Over half of all cement manufactured in the world is produced in China. Crude steel made in China accounted for 57 percent of the world total in 2020. Energy consumption in China is nearly five times that of India, and clean energy projects are proliferating quickly.

What is happening in China today requires increasing our view settings to warp scale, for better or worse.

China’s population is 1.4 billion people. That means major economic changes are bound to have mega-scale implications. Getting a grip on such things requires comparative perspectives. For example, despite the huge increase in cars operating in China, Canada has three times as many personal vehicles per family.

What’s more, although China’s “economic miracle” has also now given it the largest ecological footprint in the world, on a per capita basis, Canadians consume three times as much electricity.[5]

Like most social change, there can be positive and negative impacts.

Rapid economic development has “created one of the most dynamic economies in the world, while helping more than 800 million people to lift themselves out of poverty—the greatest anti-poverty achievement in history,” declared the head of the United Nations in 2019.

Yet, feminist scholars in China report a widening gender gap and a glass ceiling in the political sphere. Sound familiar?

Just as Japan’s rapid growth stimulated major discussions thirty years ago, China’s turbocharged development is sparking lots of debate inside and outside China.[6] Has the world’s emerging superpower turned completely capitalist? Are workers now more or less exploited than in the past? What’s happening in the countryside? What has been the role of the state and the Communist Party?

Ecology: Nightmare or model?

China has recently seen significant ecological improvements that will help mitigate the effects of pollution on human health. According to a 2020 Lancet study, solar power generation is growing at an unprecedented rate of 26·5 percent per year, rising to 26·8 gigawatts of newly installed capacity in 2019.

Meanwhile, investments in low-carbon energy are now nine times greater than those in fossil fuels (rising from a 1:1 ratio in 2008). In 2018 the renewable energy industry employed 4.1 million Chinese, and the sector now employs more people in China than fossil fuel extraction industries.

As a result of strong policy measures, severe air pollution has also decreased, with a 28 percent reduction in annual average particulate matter concentrations in cities from 2015 to 2019, resulting in 90,000 fewer premature deaths annually.[7]

Nevertheless, China’s current footprint per capita, if it were to become a global standard, would require 2.3 Earths to sustain it. What’s more, the growth paradigm creates feedback loops that forces countries to increase their footprint, regardless of policies to the contrary.

A case in point is the current energy crisis in China that has forced factory shutdowns in 20 of China’s 21 provinces because of the rising cost of coal, which still provides over 50 percent of China’s energy despite efforts to reduce reliance on that fossil fuel.

The fact that the COP26 Glasgow conference ended with an agreement to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal production is just one indication of the challenges ahead. There is already a shift towards blaming China for the lack of progress in talks, a theme that is likely to grow as the ecological crisis deepens even though the Global North is responsible “for 92 percent of emissions in excess of the planetary boundary.”

Nevertheless, China, with its growth-based market economy will be challenged if it is to avoid the pattern of ecological destruction that has been a hallmark of the Global North for so many years.

Residential buildings constructed by Evergrande, the second largest property developer in China, in Pingyuan New Area, Yuanyang. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

China: Settler colonial state?

The Chinese state that was declared in 1949 came together during a period of global decolonization in the twentieth century based on the resistance of oppressed peoples to imperial domination.

But the state that consolidated after the triumph of the Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War did not start from scratch; it inherited much from the Ming and Qing eras which oversaw China’s expansion into a prodigious continental empire.

According to historian James L. Hevia, the “Qing domain was multinational, multi-ethnic, and multilinguistic, comprising all of what had been Ming China and much, much more… by the time Lord Macartney arrived at the Qing court bearing George III’s letter [1793], the Qing empire was the largest, wealthiest, and most populous contiguous political entity anywhere in the world.”[8] This history is important to consider in light of contemporary criticism regarding PRC policies in Tibet or Xinjiang.

Indeed, China may have to come to terms with its own history of settler colonialism, but this is a complicated process and should not be mixed up with the domination of European settler colonialism that emerged out of the imperial world and now enters its third century as the leading force of empire.

The anti-colonial roots of the Chinese revolution, and the nationalism that it has inspired, requires acknowledgement of how such issues have been weaponized. For example, when Japanese imperial troops invaded and occupied China’s dongbei (which translates to “northeast” and is known by its colonial name, Manchuria) during the Second World War, their campaign was accompanied by propaganda that persistently argued that the region had never really been a part of China.

Just as the Qing dynasty was critically impaired and declined in the face of continuing colonial encroachment from 1842 to 1945, many people in China today perceive similar threats emanating from Washington. Thus, the way in which these issues are raised is as important as the content. State weaponization of such criticisms, as seen in the genocide resolutions coordinated by the Five Eyes, is a devoted instrument of settler colonialism and unhelpful, to say the least.

The policies of the PRC towards what it terms its “national minorities” have varied over time.[9] This requires research and study to avoid facile conclusions that can easily be appropriated for use in the geopolitical wars now taking place. Unlike most settler colonial states, China voted in support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2008 but then distanced itself from UNDRIP by declaring that there were no Indigenous peoples in China.[10] Really?

Even though the Xinjiang issue may have been weaponized, it cannot be dismissed with facile or simplistic explanations regarding population growth. Again, a comparative framework can be useful to those who care to set aside their ideological biases and engage in constructive discussions for change. Lessons can be learned from the long fight against Canada’s own (mis)treatment of Indigenous people, historical Anglo discrimination against Québec, exclusionary immigration laws, and the persistence of systemic racism.

A new Empire?

We should not lose sight of the fact that China’s global reach pales compared to the US empire with its hundreds of military bases worldwide, its global alliances, and its control over financial markets.[11] Nevertheless, China’s economic acceleration has meant seeking access to raw materials, outlets for capital surplus, and markets for higher value-added products—an expansionist agenda in which the Belt and Road initiative is an integral component. This issue is one that cannot be simply dismissed as American propaganda.

Writing from a decolonizing perspective, Li Mingqi, for example, suggests that China has become a “semi-peripheral country” in the global capitalist system, but that the real question is whether it will advance into the “core of the capitalist world system in the foreseeable future.” Atul Kohli recently argued in his book, Imperialism and the Developing World, that it is too early to tell whether China’s expansion represents a new variant of imperialism, even though it may have exacerbated the economic dependence of some developing countries. “China,” he also concludes, “has resisted the use of military power to take economic advantage abroad.” On the other hand, the PRC has aggressively defended what it considers to be its current borders; the recent changes in Hong Kong are a tragic reminder of that fact.

Parts of the Qing empire might have been incorporated, forcibly or otherwise, into the PRC in 1949 and may point to the continuation of a type of settler colonialism from a previous age. But it would be disingenuous to suggest that this equates to the transgressions of Euro-American global empires based on dispossession, slavery, indentured labour, and white supremacy. Nor does it prove the existence of modern imperialism, even if Xi Jinping invokes China’s imperial past in exhortations about the country’s future.

How China and its peoples handle the challenges ahead demands close and critical attention, but it’s time to lose the attitude. As Noam Chomsky recently suggested, either the “US and China will work together on the critical issues that we all face, or they will expire together, bringing the rest of the world down with them.”

The Canadian government has a choice to make—persist in egging on the US empire, or take a step back and warn the US against a dangerous misadventure.

Isn’t that what friends are for?

Part 7: Alternatives in Canadian foreign policy and the racism of ‘The National’

John Price is professor emeritus at the University of Victoria, author of Orienting Canada, and a member of the Advisory Board of the newly formed Canada-China Focus, a project of the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute and the Centre for Global Studies (University of Victoria).

[1] An easily accessible collection of materials in this regard are those published by Monthly Review, including China 2020, Monthly Review 72, no. 5 (October 2020), and New Cold War on China, Monthly Review 73, no. 3 (July-August 2021).

[2] For one perspective see Yun Wen, The Huawei Model, The Rise of China’s Technology Giant (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020), 184-191.

[3] The notion of a capital-ecological trap derives from L. E. Eckert, N. C. Ban, S.-C. Tallio, and N. Turner, “Linking Marine Conservation and Indigenous Cultural Revitalization: First Nations Free Themselves from Externally Imposed Social-Ecological Traps,” Ecology and Society 23, no. 4 (2018).

[4] “Car Production by Country 2021,” World Population Review, accessed December 11, 2021. Statistic from the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, 2019.

[5] For broader comparative perspectives, see XuGuang Wang, Liang Yan, XiaoGuang Zhao, “Tackling the ecological footprint in china through energy consumption, economic growth and CO2 emission: an ARDL approach,” Quality & Quantity (February 2021).

[6] See as a starting point, the references from footnote 1.

[7] Wenjia Cai et al., “The 2020 China Report of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change,” Health Policy 6, no. 1 (January 2021): e-64.

[8] James L. Hevia, Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 30-31.

[9] Xiaohui Wu, “From Assimilation to Autonomy: Realizing Ethnic Minority Rights in China’s National Autonomous Regions,” Chinese Journal of International Law (2014): 55-90.

[10] Michael C. Davis, “China & the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: The Tibetan Case,” E-International Relations, (May 2014).

[11] Jodi Kim, Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and the Cold War (University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Gerald Horne, The White Pacific: US Imperialism and Black Slavery in the South Seas after the Civil War (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007); Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Setsu Shigematus and Keith L. Camacho, Militarized Currents: Toward a Decolonized Future in Asia and the Pacific (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). For US imperialism in the Pacific, the sources provided are among the important works in this field.


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