#1 Carlos Martinez | The Chinese System

welcome to the first episode of the oriental despot I’m your host Jay Tharappel. Today I’m going to be talking to my good friend Carlos Martinez about China from where he recently returned he’s someone who has greatly influenced my thinking particularly on the complex history of actually existing socialism. Carlos good to see you Likewise buddy, how you doing? Good good good so I wanted to have you on my show to talk about your latest trip to China how long were you there for? I think it was like 12 days, we went on the 27th of December and came back on the 8th of January. Back to gray miserable Tory London. This is, the only time I’ve ever been to China before is on stopovers, on the way to Australia. In fact though this is the first time I spent any serious time in China and that we’ve looked around, like it was part of a tour, a Silk Road tour, that was, it was headed by Cynthia McKinney who I’m sure you’re familiar with the former US Congresswoman, and at a practical level it was put together by a Chinese-American activist by the name of Lee Siu Hin, so and yeah I was sort of, I found out about it from a mutual friend of ours Danny Haiphong who’s based in New York City he writes for a Black Agenda Report and there was like 20 of us on the delegation. Mixed bag politically, you had our leftist kind of socialist communist anti imperialist contingent and then you had some I guess you would say libertarians on a different end of the political scale but uh I guess if there’s anything that United us politically it would have been an anti-war sentiment and in particular and specifically opposing this kind of new cold war that’s directed very much against China and also Russia at the moment It’s funny that you mention libertarians because one of the big criticisms that I’ve had of the Left for a long time is that when you ask libertarians about China, they claimed all of its successes for capitalism but we on the Left, we don’t do that, right, so we on the Left we tend to look at China and nitpick and say, you’re not perfect enough and we have such a perfect abstraction of what socialism or communism is that we don’t actually see the benefit in claiming it for our ideology. In a sense do you think that our enemies on the right, those who defend capitalism are a lot more pragmatic than we are? I mean we collectively on the Left. Yeah sure I mean though you go to China there’s really the the way people talk about socialism is completely different and there’s you know people in China don’t really seriously doubt that their system is socialist, yes, yeah it’s a it’s a market economy but its market socialism People understand that it’s not capitalism because capitalists aren’t in control. They don’t define policy and the priorities of the government are manifestly not those of capital you know in the U.S. in Britain in Australia in capitalist countries you’ve got a political system that is is actually I think was the US economist Joseph Stiglitz he defined it as, for the one percent, by the one percent you know that’s our political system right that’s that’s capitalist democracy essentially and manifestly that’s not what exists in China where government policy is very so so heavily focused on the needs of the people the you could say there’s three major priorities for the Chinese government they are poverty alleviation literally eradicating poverty to environmental protection cleaning up the air and helping to avert climate catastrophe on a global level and three protecting you know the unity and integrity of China and and those three priorities are the same as the top three priorities generally speaking of the average Chinese person which is a completely different political situation to countries like Australia or countries like Britain where the privacy’s the government are totally at odds with the priorities of ordinary people. Yeah I remember this one quote and I forget who said it but maybe you’d be able to refresh me but the quote goes something like this in China capital exists at the mercy of the state and in the West the state exists at the mercy of capital so you know this is this is one of the big questions for me the question for me has never been in in what kind of abstract

ideal universe is China communist and socialist the question for me is are the power relations between workers and capitalists more tilted in favor of workers in China relative to the West because if it’s relatively tilted in favor of workers moreso in China then that means that we can advocate the successes of China’s economic system to socialism relative to our own society so for me it was always a relative argument it was never an absolutist argument Absolutely I mean the the quote is is was Eric Lee he’s a Shanghai-based entrepreneur and and I think that was from John Pilger film the coming war on China Pilger asks him you know well China’s got billionaires China’s got wealthy people China’s Got inequality China’s got private business no isn’t it a capitalist country well you know what makes it different from the US and I know really kind of laughs he said like he doesn’t doesn’t quite get the question he says well you know yeah you know you’ve got billionaires in China but they can’t tell the Politburo what to do and the Politburo tells them what to do and that’s the difference between the US the US you’ve got twenty thirty forty extremely rich people and they can essentially tell the White House what to do yeah the other thing to bear in mind is that well there’s lots of capitalist countries in the world including in the developing world you’re India is a capitalist country the Philippines is a capitalist country Thailand is a capitalist country South Korea is a capitalist country but those countries haven’t been able to solve the problems that China has been able to solve you know you can walk around Beijing you can walk around Xian you can walk around Urumqi and you don’t see any homelessness you don’t see any you don’t see any begging the streets are very clean everything is very well organized we were in a pedestrian tunnel under West Chang’an Avenue in Beijing just we were about to go into Tiananmen and one of the delegation from New York said do you notice anything anything really strange about this tunnel and we said I said what said it doesn’t stink of urine you know well when was the last time you were in a tunnel in New York or you know London or Sydney for that matter and it didn’t think of urine but yeah because there aren’t people sleeping rough and also because in Chinese cities there are public toilets everywhere there’s no need for tunnels to think like that so and you know I’ve been to India and numerous times I know you’ve been to India numerous times you step out the airport in Delhi and the first thing that strikes you is just the most intense poverty your people without a roof over their heads That brings up one of the comparisons that has been talked about for a long time which is the comparison between India and China so sometimes when I when I talk to people especially on the Left to have have like an excessively idealistic criticism of China that they’re not living up to the abstraction of what they think socialism is I say look an alternate history could have been far worse just look at the India in India Communists did not seize power and in terms of life expectancy I think they’re 15 below China but that’s just not even the full picture I mean the full picture is that yeah I mean just basic sanitation doesn’t exist in many Indian cities and that’s something that the Chinese now take for granted so that means that it’s like the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs they can focus on on other things now. I mean in India there isn’t much freedom for people who are poor to achieve social advances and a lot of that’s because of the caste system but in China the the question that I wanted to ask you is do you think that there’s like more of a history of rebellion in China that we in the West don’t really know about because a lot of people forget that China the the current government came to power on the back of a rebellion, right, came on the back of a revolution whereas Western societies haven’t had revolutions since before European colonialism began and so maybe the Chinese are actually better at rebelling at their own system than we are whereas we’re stuck in this way of thinking that we’re the only ones who are enlightened and capable of rebelling whereas in China you just have two populations there you have tyrants and you have mindless lemmings who have no no no say in the system but really we’re just projecting our own weaknesses in our own impotence on another country because that serves the geopolitical interests of our government, so what do you think about that do you think that says something about the psychology of

the Western Left? Yes it’s a complicated question I mean this China for ever since prom I guess the emergence of the Qin Dynasty in what 200 BC they’ve had this cycle of imperial dynasties that work well for a certain amount of time and then when they’re not meeting the needs of their people the people overthrow them and something else comes up in its place you know the the cycle of dynasties is maybe two three hundred years so there’s definitely this culture of oh you can maintain legitimacy as long as you’re doing a good job you know you maintain the the heavenly mandate right and and you can lose that you know that’s not a given if people aren’t eating if you know if people are starving that they don’t have their basic needs met then you’re not going to keep the the heavenly mandate. Indeed and I remember just about the Mandate of Heaven a lot of times it gets compared to the Divine Right of Kings and I always thought that was a bad comparison because the Divine Right of Kings basically says I’m the king because God has given me this mandate to rule over you whereas in China the Mandate of Heaven is actually a mandate for rebellion, yeah exactly, saying you’re allowed to rebel in the name of heaven yeah It’s the it’s pressure in the opposite direction, the Divine Right of Kings is downward pressure from the elite saying we will rule over you no matter what whereas their heavenly mandate is pressure from below saying you’re the rule must be benevolent and effective and governance must be good otherwise we’ll overthrow you yeah yeah there is that that revolutionary revolutionary tradition you know I mean I think there’s that’s there to some degree in India as well but the fact is China won its liberation in 1949 through a revolutionary process and was able to do away with feudalism in a very short period of time they were able to completely transform the land relationships and the countryside at a time when 90% of China’s population plus lived in the countryside so the land revolution laid the basis for everything that China’s done really because old you know Chinese peasants owned their own land so they have their own home like that’s their starting point right so even though even the poorest Chinese peasant in a lot of societies in the developing world would be considered middle-class purely on that basis that they own something they’ve got their own land they’ve got their own home they’re not paying the the bulk of their income even in a lot of places it’s more than 100 percent of their income on on rent which is which is a huge freedom right you know even if you’re a low income even if you’re in international terms in extreme poverty under one dollar seventy five a day or whatever it is at the very least that money is going towards meeting your needs rather than paying landlords so in Indian terms or in a lot of sub-saharan African countries but you do it alright you know your middle class so that that’s a huge difference between China and India and then which which links into all the other differences you know everyone in China now has access to education like there’s nine years of compulsory education from ages 6 to 15 that’s free and it’s universal everybody has access to clean water everybody has access to modern energy in India one-fifth of population two hundred and fifty million people don’t have access to modern energy millions still suffering from malnutrition from homelessness as you said life expectancy much lower than it is in China so massive differences and we’re talking about a country that defines itself as a democracy that has has followed a path the path set out for it essentially by the West yeah that has you know the West has got this very broad normative narrative around what is democracy and what is ruled by the people and it’s it’s this sort of fetishization of certain procedures around multiple parties and elections run in a particular way and all the rest of it yeah but that’s that strips out the content of the political system that strips out the content of the democracy which in China’s case is for us by us on behalf of the 99% and in capitalist countries case is for us by us on behalf

of the 1% you know ultimately that’s the big difference. That brings me to Zheng Weiwei so he’s a Chinese professor I know you’re familiar with him I uploaded a video of a few snippets of what he had to say and what I found amazing about his talk is that for the first time I’m starting to see the Chinese looked down on the Western system You didn’t see that in the past, if you went to China in the late 80s there would have been a lot of enthusiasm for abandoning their own system within the party and moving towards a liberal democracy but now you’ve got the Chinese basically the Chinese Communists in particular looking into their own ancient civilizational past and saying, yes, we are the rightful successors, we are the continuity of everything great in Chinese history. So how important do you think do you think that’s been a revolution in itself the idea that the Chinese are now starting to look towards their ancient history for vindication rather than a far more orthodox Marxist approach? Yeah you know I mean socialism with Chinese characteristics means socialism and Marxism but taking on board this kind of huge weight of thousands of years of Chinese history which is just an obviously smart and sensible thing to do in China because people can relate to it you know it’s it kind of reminds me of the way that the Chavistas in Venezuela leverage the the legacy of Simon Bolivar you know Bolivar is not any kind of socialist but there are aspects of Bolivar that you can take in that are very popular among the population of South America in order to promote progressive politics and I think that’s exactly what the Chinese do you know if you wanted to really look into it there’s elements of Confucianism that you wouldn’t agree with whatsoever or that seem that are very outdated that relate to essentially a feudal society

which is exactly what Chinese have got rid of but there’s also elements of Confucianism that have built into Chinese culture and that can be leveraged towards a socialist project which is which is exactly what they do and it’s definitely helping them as you say in this situation where a China is rising be the West is in decline you know Chinese people would like we, Danny and a couple of others and I had a meeting with with a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Marxism in Beijing and she was talking we would talk about Trump and she was saying you know Chinese people are completely confounded and baffled the Americans can elect a kind of buffoon like Donald Trump as their President you know she said if Trump in China couldn’t get elected as a village prefect never mind never mind a president and it and it really shows off the kinda imperfections of the Western system that all you need let’s see Zhang Wei Wei who you just referenced he talks about not being so much a democracy but a money talk-ocracy see because money talks money to fight money defines the running of Western politics right you know all someone needs to win a US election is a lot of money and effective marketing campaign the backing of a few billionaires you know you don’t have to have any political experience whatsoever compare that to China where there’s absolutely no that liked to be in the top circle like the top seven or eight right to get into the the Standing Committee of the Politburo there’s no way you could do that without having at least two or three terms behind you as a minister or as a provincial governor and you know to be the governor of a province isn’t a small thing you know Chinese Provident provinces have an average population of forty five million people that’s that’s to Australias right if you’re if you’re governor of Guandong that’s about a hundred million people and you have to have not just done that job you have to have done it very well you have to have a serious record of serving the people of making millions of people’s lives better in order to do that you need to be an incredibly committed an incredibly capable an incredibly competent person then you know if you fulfil those criteria and you’ve worked hard for the masses for 30 years plus then you’re in with a chance of getting to the getting to the top table you know Donald Trump doesn’t get a look-in. So I was looking at China’s laws and if you’re responsible as a politician for grafting sums above $ 400,000 dollars you’re liable for the death penalty now I always looked at that and I thought that’s democracy for me the fact that the laws can punish high officials with the most severe crime (should be “severe sentence”) for economic offences against the general population for me that’s democracy but unfortunately we in the West have a very kind of liberal individual rights based version of what democracy means rather than a consequential collective version of what democracy means would you agree that these debates or this debate about what morality actually (is) exists in China where as here in history here in the West the question the very question about what constitutes democracy is is completely pushed to the side and we’re kind of we’re already told this is what democracy is yeah absolutely we you know we we’ve got a there’s one single narrative about democracy no matter how ridiculously flawed it is you know we there’s the classic Winston Churchill a quote that people really cling to you know well democracies though the worst political system except for all the others that have been tried you know that that really makes us feel comfortable right it’s like yeah okay democracy has got its flaws but it’s the best thing that’s around and we can use that to justify a Donald Trump presidency or racist buffoon like Boris Johnson being Prime Minister of Britain and the governments of Britain of the United States of France of Australia paying next to no engine next to no interest in the needs of ordinary people you know you live in somewhere somewhere like Britain you can see things get it literally getting worse all the time life expectancy is decreasing racism is getting worse there are there are more

racist violent incidents on the streets than there were five years ago or ten years ago it feels like everything is going in the wrong direction employment unemployment is increasing casualisation is increasing in work poverty is increasing homelessness is increasing so but we don’t think about making the connection between all of these problems that we’re facing and the decline of our societies and the fact that our political processes don’t work because we’ve got this kind of magic wand of democracy and that makes us feel good and we feel like they’ll well we’ve got the best thing it doesn’t occur to us to ask well how come increasingly ordinary people in China are living better than we’re living and that’s that is a question that I think we’re gonna find ourselves asking a lot more over the next few years as that difference becomes more stuck you know on average the quality of life in China is still below that of the average quality of life in the West but that’s the the gap is getting a lot closer that’s changing very fast for example if you take the showpiece cities in the US the obviously New York City is the big showpiece city you take showpiece cities in China we’re talking Shanghai Beijing changjun Shenzhen Guangzhou the the Chinese cities have a much better quality of life that they even have a higher life expectancy you know if you’re in Beijing or Shanghai life expectancy is 83 84 in New York it’s 78 79 the buildings are better the infrastructures better of the infrastructure in China you’ve been to try and have you to that this was part of my trip to North Korea so I was I was in Beijing for a few days just saw the city that’s it and then went to DPRK so I saw DPRK fairly well I mean to the extent that you can on guided tours I guess and and then came back to China for a few days in Beijing but everything that I saw was pretty impressive. Yeah the infrastructure is really phenomenal I mean Sydney is a long way behind you know I don’t have to tell you traveling Sydney is an absolute nightmare yeah in Beijing the Metro gets you everywhere it’s clean it’s very cheap I think the your typical journey costs maybe 30 40 cents Australian it runs throughout the city as the city expands as cities will expand it’s not doing so in sprawling suburbs but in but you have these groups of apartment buildings and as soon as they’re built a new metro station is built the line is extended and the new areas immediately connected to the rest of the city via Metro over the last 10 years or so they’ve they’ve built their high-speed rail network throughout the country thousands and thousands of miles of high-speed rail it’s by far like I think two-thirds of the world’s high-speed rail now is in China so we took the train from Beijing to Xian which is a it’s a decent distance it’s the equivalent of going from New York to Chicago and in Australian terms it’s like going from Sydney to Brisbane like it’s quite a long way yeah on the high-speed rail in China it takes four hours and 15 minutes they’re very very comfortable you know like we were sitting in second class which is the the lowest class that you can sit in but it felt like being in I don’t know premium economy on a plane or something like that ran in a crew, cruised at 300 km/h the whole time ran completely on time by the way for you know for the for the hardcore socialists around it state-owned the trains were built by a state-owned enterprise the rails are operated by a state-owned enterprise so all of those things increasingly they’re better in China than they are in the West and that’s gonna be I think that’s really gonna help to transform the conversation that we have about what socialism is and and ultimately though it was Deng Xiaoping who said in at the start of the reform period, what we should aim to do is to catch up with and surpass the West by the by the middle of the 21st century and to become the biggest developing country the sorry the biggest developed country and if we can achieve that then we will have proven

incontrovertibly the superiority of socialism and that’s you know that’s what they’re that’s what they’re really trying to do and we in the West are gonna have to you know on the western left in particular are gonna have to really face up to that question yeah yeah and that’s for me that’s the burning question because my argument has always been very very simple China is the next superpower they’ve lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty they say they’re doing so in the name of socialism now whether you agree that it meets it meets the abstract definition the utopian definition of socialism we’re not supposed to be utopians by the way right but um I mean whether you whether it whether it meets your idea of heaven right that doesn’t matter what matters is that we can claim the achievements of China for socialism like for me I mean it sounds almost cynical right it sounds like a kind of propaganda exercise that I’m that I’m encouraging Western leftist to engage in but it’s also something it reminds me of something Vijay Prashad said So let’s talk about the current debate among the the Anglo left and that refers to the left in Britain and its Anglo settler offshoots, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and so and of course the United States so usually the discussion is you know is China socialist or capitalist but I’ve always felt that such discussions get you nowhere for the simple reason that to quote Michael Parenti the imperfect reality will never live up to the imaginary ideal. You know, we’re in the Western left we’re having these debates about what is socialism is China socialist etc etc I think it would be helpful to to remember that nobody in the Western Left has actually figured out how to have build socialism yet and therefore we should start from a place of humility yes and you know if the Chinese say that they’re building socialism and what they have unarguably achieved is to make life better for hundreds of millions of people they’re completely focused on eradicating poverty and developing their country developing the productive forces encouraging science and technology and increasingly becoming a world leader in that field and furthermore playing a progressive role on the global level in terms of developing a multipolar world system where countries around the world are going to have the opportunity to choose an economic and political system that suits them rather than having to play ball with Western imperialism you know that’s a that’s it that’s a huge contribution to global humanity into socialism so you know I think starting from a place of humility we should say okay Chinese say they’re building socialism they’re building socialism because we’re not we haven’t and that brings me to something that I’ve been thinking about as well which is that you mentioned that we should show a little bit more humility now often people like yourself and myself we’re referred to on the Left as Stalinist now I always thought that a better term instead of Stalinist would actually be just humble Marxists, you know, like we haven’t gone through the struggles that Mao Zedong has or Zhou Enlai or any of the great leaders of the of the Chinese Communist Party we haven’t gone through their kind of struggles and so let’s look at that society let’s look at countries where communist parties have achieved what we haven’t achieved which is to actually take power and and be in charge of their entire civilization let’s look at them with a little bit more humility that’s always been my approach and so people say you’re a Stalinist I say no I’m just humble and you’re arrogant that’s the difference between you and me Yeah I mean like in in terms of how we talk about other socialist countries it it feels like we’re kind of where it’s

it’s a bit of a losing battle do not I mean because you’re facing a sort of permanent McCarthyism in terms of the dominant narrative in terms of the media portrayal everything negative that ever happened in a socialist country is is amplified in the education system in academia in the media to a level of complete hysteria and everything positive people keep quiet about you know. Was there political persecution in the Soviet Union? Yes absolutely you know did it go too far? Almost certainly. Did Stalin order the deaths of millions of people? Clearly not. Did the incarceration rate in the Soviet Union ever get anywhere near the the incarceration rate in the modern United States of America? You know, not a chance so there’s this this skewed narrative that you’re always up against yeah but that’s what people learn to think about in relation to socialism in relation to the Soviet Union like how about the fact that the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany without which Europe would probably only just now be emerging from from the horrors of fascism right and with which probably most of the then colonial world would still be the colonial world if it hadn’t been you know how about the fact that Russia went from being a very backwards country with widespread policy with routine famines with an endless racist anti-semitic pogroms to being the world’s second largest economy to being an industrial powerhouse a leading force in the world of science a place where where famine was abolished and where for all its limitations and flaws and things that they got wrong and you know they were obviously in a very difficult situation with a lot of pressure on them but they did manage to solve certain problems that capitalism still hasn’t been able to solve right you know they were able to provide a decent dignified minimum to everyone even if we can look back at it and say well that minimum turned out not to be enough it was still you know everybody ate and everybody had a roof over their head and it really everybody got educated you know it’s a very highly educated society everybody had access to culture to music to theater they printed books in there you know tens of millions and they were able to get rid of unemployment they were able to get rid of homelessness you know these kind of scourge ah’s of modern capitalist society that Australia can’t fix Britain can’t fix the u.s. can’t fix right so but we’ve been trained not to think about these things so when we talk about them we we we our starting point is very low and we’re fighting this this losing battle the other thing is that all of the countries that have experimented with socialism so far have been relatively poor relatively backward countries like yeah an awful lot of people in the West still live better than their counterparts in the socialist countries and therefore in a sense is difficult to advertise some of those successes you know well great people have homes well I’ve got a home people learn to read you know I can read you know so and obviously one of the big reasons that we have relatively high living standards is that a lot of that’s based on colonialism and imperialism – the Red 20th Century – yeah yeah exactly it forced it both Western countries to give their citizens some concessions in the form of a welfare yeah because a country like the Soviet Union existed absolutely but I think that brings us to to what you were talking about earlier like that dynamic is gonna change as China continues to race ahead you know once once China is actually ahead once ordinary people in China clearly living better than ordinary people here in Britain in Australia we’re gonna have to ask ourselves you know how they done that and ultimately the only available answer is well they’ve got a socialist political system and that’s enabled them to prioritize the interests of their people and to move move forward at an unprecedented pace without having access to colonialism without having access to to imperialist looting you know it’s a peaceful country it doesn’t go to war it’s not it’s not exploiting other countries but it’s still been able to build a better lifestyle for its people than we have. And that concludes our first episode thank you very much for joining us unfortunately we couldn’t get decent video streaming today which I will blame on the awful state of Australian internet these days in the late stage of the Anglo Empire in its terminal decline but in future I hope on

making the video stream happen by purchasing the software that I need. You can find my work on theorientaldespot.com and to find Carlos Martinez it’s very easy just google “invent the future dot org” see you next time