How the emergence of a nation rejecting neoliberal dogmas and building the Common could shake a Western world grappling with inequality, economic stagnation, environmental devastation, and fascism. A chronicle of a journey
Located 2,400 kilometers from Beijing, but only two hundred from the border with Vietnam, the Nanning railway station is one of the jewels of infrastructure that populate the Chinese landscape. Inaugurated in 1951, two years after the revolution led by Mao Zedong, it was completely rebuilt in 2013. The main hall area is equivalent to that of six soccer fields, with a ceiling height of 48 meters. Nowadays, also pass throug there some of the lines of the world’s largest high-speed trains, which covers 35,000 kilometers and is twice as extensive as all others combined.
However, the gigantism doesn´t overshadow the delicacy. Passengers await trains in comfortable seats – many of them with massagers. They access to the trains, which depart from the underground floor, through boarding gates similar to those at airports, but silent. There are restaurants and shops, but no advertising panels. The architecture is inspired by the balconies of the Guangxi region. The air is pleasant.
Despite the immense volume of the structure, the scorching summers of the city (temperatures can reach 39°C and the humidity produces a constant greenhouse sensation) are eased by a system that combines air conditioning and electronic wind curtains. Two metro lines connect the station to the city. The energy is supplied by photovoltaic panels.
Outside the station, everything in Nanning seems new: the buildings – some very tall – of apartments or offices, public transportation, the systems that keep the waters of the wide Yong River clean, the asphalt of the streets, and even some of the trees, supported by stakes indicating recent planting. The city´s reurbanization – which had 1 million inhabitants in 2002 and reached 8.5 million last year – is a small part of the movement that has lifted the equivalent of three Brazils out of poverty in the last three decades.
The action became intense starting in 2015. Bordering prosperous Guangdong – the heart of China’s great economic opening in 1992 – the province of Guangxi had fallen behind. There, 32% of the population is of Zhuang origin (the largest ethnic minority in the country), and 44% lived in rural areas. Its per capita GDP was only 60% of the national average; 10.5% of the population (or 6.4 million people) lived in poverty. At that time, Xi Jinping enunciated the goal of “common prosperity,” which revised, at least in part, the pattern of development that had prevailed until then.
The foundation for Guangxi’s revival was massive public investment, which extended far beyond urban transformation. The state launched a meticulous effort to identify the focal points and causes of rural poverty – often hidden in remote corners – and a unique movement to overcome it, which we will examine in detail later. Small peasant property was preserved. Among other activities, the processing of tea, Chinese herbal medicine, and fruits was encouraged in Guangxi. Five years later, the process was completed throughout the country.
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The strength of the Chinese dragon is well known. Starting in 1977, the economy underwent an unprecedented process of industrialization, urbanization, and technological advancement. The country became the world´s factory, evolving from the production of textiles and cheap electronic gadgets to sophisticated goods and services. Its exports are nearly 50% higher than those of the US and triple those of Japan. Material wealth production, when measured by GDP, went from less than 3% to over 20% of the global total and surpassed that of the United States, according to the criterion that disregards artificial currency valuation and considers real production.
But predictably, almost no one talks about the dragon´s new flight – the one that could inspire the West grappling with multiple crises and besieged by fascism. The elimination of poverty, transformations like the one in Guangxi, new leaps in education and science, or successes in combating pollution and energy transition are not solely due to GDP growth. They derive from a political turn that put China at odds with neoliberal orthodoxy and allowed it to avoid the rentier trap.
From the global financial crisis of 2008 – and especially after Xi Jinping took office four years later – Beijing embarked on a new course in its project. This shift could become, over time, as profound and relevant as the one led by Deng Xiaoping after 1978. But the direction is different. In a formerly state-owned economy, Deng led the opening to market logics, private enterprise, and transnational corporations. This approach saved the country from the collapse that ended “real socialism”. The new turn, on the contrary, reverses the weight of market relations as the driving force of the economy and social relations. Instead, it emphasizes the need to build the Common, based on decisive state action to promote equality and prosperity for all. It establishes innovative mechanisms for planning and economic direction, not based on the bureaucratic statization that characterized the Soviet experience.
Xi’s turn does not entail a radical rupture compared to Deng’s. China does not intend to get rid of foreign capital or private companies. The state continues to attract and stimulate them. But the two main features of the development process are different now. The first is massive public investment focused on the well-being of the majority. It largely overshadows the reproduction of capitalist relations because, unlike these, it produces equality and decommodification of social relations.
It´s easy to understand. When state healthcare policies, for example, rely on private insurance, access to medical services becomes mediated by money and thus unequal. Each individual gets what they can afford – from hospitals with five-star hospitality to precarious popular clinics. But if the same state provides public networks of family doctors and excellent hospitals to all, it guarantees equal access and dismantles private protection – rendering it unnecessary.
Chinese public investment is complemented by new planning – or what authors like Elias Jabbour prefer to call “projetamento“. Even in moments of greater openness, the Chinese state has not ceased to define general conditions for private company operation. But since Xi´s time, this action has become more intense – partly because in a wealthier society, the power of large private groups and capitalist relations grows. Part of the state´s action is defensive. Unlike the West, Chinese Big Tech companies are controlled. In 2021, the Alibaba Group was prevented from launching what could have been its own digital currency, capable of subjecting social relations to its own logic. In 2022, the state shut down the then-widespread and exuberant business of private tutoring. It considered it gave advantages to the children of the wealthier families in accessing the best public educational institutions.
The main aspect of “projetamento”, however, is to guide economic agents. Marx referred to the “anarchy of production” as the chaos that inevitably arises when capitalists, driven by their individual interests, invest in activities that tend to be destructive socially and environmentally. In China, private companies are everywhere. They account for 80% of urban employment. But the state works to guide them through a range of mechanisms such as credit (concentrated in public banks), taxes, infrastructure creation, and the action of state-owned enterprises, dominant in strategic sectors.
One of the results is to limit the exploitation of workers. The average hourly wage in the Chinese industry tripled between 2005 and 2016, according to the International Labour Organization, reaching $3.60. It's still on the rise (see the graph below, from the same source, for the period 2008-2022). Seven years ago, it was 33% higher than in Brazil and 71% higher than in Mexico. The improvement in living conditions and the transformation of infrastructure, results of the new flight of the dragon, spread across the Chinese landscape and will be examined in detail in future texts. It’s worth pointing out at a glance the effects of the same movement on a crucial point of the
current political debate: the relationship between human beings and the environment.
The years of great economic openness led to increased contamination and CO² emissions in China. The use of coal, the historical basis of the energy matrix, intensified. The country became known for images of masked and distressed citizens under Beijing or Shanghai´s perpetually smoggy skies. Ecological disasters erupted, such as soil contamination, desertification, droughts, and extraordinary floods in major rivers like the Yangtze and Yellow.
The script is a classic one. From England in the early 19th century to contemporary India and Vietnam, industrialization has always been marked by an alienated relationship that views nature as a “resource” to be tamed and exploited. The causes vary: from a lack of ecological awareness to the capital´s blackmail – accepting to relocate its industries as long as it´s granted lax environmental rules.
What´s not in the script is a country in the Global South taking the lead in depolluting its society and transitioning to clean energy. The first signs of ecological concern in China date back to the early 1970s, with limited internal policies and a timid participation in the UN´s Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (1972) and Rio-92. Significant change began a little over a decade ago, during Xi Jinping´s time. In 2012, the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China stated that building an “ecological civilization” was one of the five “objectives of national development”.
Again, the results are achieved through public investment and the state´s guidance of private agents. In the first quarter of 2023, China´s solar energy generation capacity reached 228 GW – more than the combined capacity of all other countries in the world, according to the American organization Global Energy Monitor. An additional 379 GW is being installed. Wind power generation has exceeded 310 GW, twice that of 2017 and equivalent to the sum of the next seven countries. In 2022, the country manufactured 80% of the world´s solar panels and 57.4% of electric vehicles.
The political results of public investment in favor of well-being are noteworthy. There is a wide debate to be had about the institutional systems of the West and China. What follows is not a simplistic attempt to present Chinese forms of government as superior – this theme will be revisited. However, the facts need to speak. In March of this year, the Alliance of Democracies Foundation (AoD) surveyed the perceptions of the populations in 53 countries about the character of their respective political regimes. The survey is called the “Democracy Perception Index“. Founded by Anders Rasmussen, until recently the Secretary-General of NATO, AoD is openly pro-Western. However, the poll revealed that 73% of Chinese consider their country “democratic”, while the percentage drops to 54% in the US, 53% in the Netherlands, and 49% in France. One central cause seems to be that 58% of Americans believe
their political system serves “the minority”. In China, it´s only 10%.
“There is no alternative”, said Margaret Thatcher, coining the phrase that became a symbol of neoliberalism. In the midst of the civilization crisis that the planet has plunged into, could there be a country where the majority believes that the state acts in its favor – and where this option is successful?
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Over time, Chinese leadership has learned how to take advantage of foreign ideas whenever they deemed them suitable for their project. In an idyllic world, free from class struggle and its miseries, Chinese solutions would now be examined by Western elites with attention and interest, and then adapted and incorporated, at least in part.
But there´s a reason why this doesn´t happen. China advances primarily because it contradicts the dogmas that underpin the neoliberal ideological structure; and especially because it has avoided rent-seeking, the ultra-parasitic form of capturing collective wealth that characterizes contemporary capitalism. The collective wealth in China takes the form of public investments, infrastructure modernization, wage appreciation, and energy transition. In the West, it transmutes into multiple displays of individual extravagance and privileges. But it is primarily expressed in the “irrational exuberance” of financial markets; in mega global investment funds that accumulate wealth exceeding the GDP of the US; in tax havens where the very rich stash their money to avoid taxes; in the constant corruption of the political system by economic power, the root of the crisis consuming democracy.
Learning from China would mean, for the rentier class that now governs capitalism, giving up their privileges and deconstructing themselves. Therefore, instead of looking to the Chinese experience, curious efforts are made to prevent it from being examined. They seek to isolate it, block the paths it advances on and, if possible, provoke its demise.
In the economic sphere, the US and its allies do so through a trade war that denies globalization – their most cherished project for decades – in an attempt to prevent Beijing from accessing the most advanced chips and potentially taking the lead in technologies such as artificial intelligence. On the geopolitical front, the US has pivoted to Asia since Barack Obama´s time. To achieve this, they were accepting to give up control over the Middle East – their central strategic objective until then. The movement intensified under Donald Trump and hasn´t receded under Joe Biden. In their most recent move, Washington attempts to lure China, in Taiwan, into a similar trap as the one they set for Russia in Ukraine.
However, it is in the arena of ideas that the anti-China offensive becomes intense and daily. And a revealing shift occurs. China was praised by politicians and ideologues of the Western establishment for many years. Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher visited and admired it. In the narrative of neoliberals, the country was seen as evidence of the inevitability of capitalism. The Soviet Union had fallen. China´s openness to private enterprise supposedly confirmed that it was futile and foolish to challenge the supremacy of markets. The Communist Party ruled, it´s true. But the end of this Maoist vestige and the emergence of a liberal democracy were just a matter of time. Furthermore, the Chinese used their gigantic trade surpluses to finance the US´s trade deficit by buying massive amounts of treasuries…
The honeymoon soured when it became clear that China didn´t intend to submit – and had a different project. Now, the familiar weapons of demonization are back. To prevent its anti-neoliberal policies from “contaminating” the political debate, Beijing is presented in Western media as a kind of inferior, incommunicado world. Data like the ones mentioned above, about the significant increase in real wages and the advancement of energy transition, would have an impact if they were part of the current debate. To block this risk, prejudices are mobilized. The country is portrayed as an authoritarian dictatorship where the population works without rights, doesn´t enjoy basic freedoms, and is forced to swallow orders imposed from above.
Books like the recent “How China Escaped Shock Therapy” by Isabella Weber describe the intense and sometimes prolonged controversies that precede crucial decisions in Beijing. Anyone reading newspapers and articles from Chinese think tanks available in English becomes aware of how problems like youth unemployment, reduced post-pandemic economic growth, or risks to privacy posed by facial recognition are openly and extensively discussed. However, it´s of no use: for Western media, China remains a desert of debate of ideas.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Jesuit missionaries who went to China brought Confucius’ thought to the West. They translated and published it. They believed that, by advocating an ethics which was godless and fantasy-free concerning the afterlife, the philosopher didn´t compete with Christian beliefs. They imagined that his ideas could be incorporated into the hegemonic doctrine, making it richer. In the 21st century, a neoliberalism converted into dogma is incapable of doing the same with Chinese ways of dealing with the global crisis…
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The political poetics projected by China also bothers the left, when it´s romantic.
Beijing seems impure to them: it accepted the dirty logic of markets when it was necessary. And even today, when it´s a clear counterpoint to capitalist beliefs, the Chinese process doesn´t fit into the mold of old revolutionary ideas. Xi Jinping seems likable and good-humored. But how can one compare him, according to a certain aesthetic, to Lenin and Trotsky, celebrating the victory of the revolution at the Smolny; or to Fidel and Che, amidst guerrillas, cigars, salsa, and rum?
Romantic illusion has a price. More than thirty years after the Soviet Union´s collapse, the left in the West has not been able to formulate an alternative project. It rarely acknowledges that such a project is needed, given the immense changes that have occurred, since the post-World War II period, in wealth production and capture, class structure, the nature and composition of political power, and social relations. It’s divided between blind electoral pragmatism and nostalgia for a working class that no longer exists and revolutions that rest in the past.
China’s poetics, on the other hand, is antropophagic. It seems not to believe in idealism. It swallows and transforms what is needed. It doesn´t see itself as a model. It recognizes experimentation and error. Its trajectory is transforming the world. By rejecting perfection, it’s a fascinating invitation to political creation.
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I visited Beijing and the Guangxi region between July 12 and 26, invited by the Chinese embassy in Brasília and the International Communications Group of China. This is the first in a series of texts stemming from the trip and a long-term observation of the country´s reality that is ongoing. The political goal is explicit: to investigate how Chinese policies can serve as a counterpoint to the wave of regression and pessimism that marks the West.