Steve Bannon, the Machiavellian agit-prop commissar of the alt-right and the insurgent nativist populism current within the GOP, has made another move in his effort to rattle the saber towards Beijing. We’ve been tracking his behavior for a while now and this is not an accidental development, instead it demonstrates a further escalation of tensions between the neocon faction within the governing-bureaucratic class of America and Beijing.
Read Our Prior Coverage of this Ongoing Story:
- Bannon the Hutt
- A Media Study of Steve Bannon’s Rhetorical Terror
- Babylon at the Movies Special: Stephen K. Bannon’s Keynote Address at the Western Petroleum Marketers Association
- Bannon Goes Publicly Neocon with Committee on Present Danger
There are many aspects to recent developments in China, its foreign policy, and American reactions towards those policies that need to be hashed through. At the outset, it seems worthwhile to recall what Frantz Fanon said in his classic The Wretched of the Earth, “…Decolonization is always a violent event.”
What is happening this year in Hong Kong is one episode in a timeline spanning over half a century, beginning back in 1966-67 when subjects of the British colony began a popular movement that eventuated the divestment of London from direct administration in July 1997. The fact that there had been an epochal shift within the Chinese Communist Party during those three decades, from Mao’s Soviet-styled Communist social policy to Deng’s neoliberal agenda, cannot be underestimated.
David Harvey writes in his historical primer on neoliberalism “We may never know for sure whether Deng was all along a secret ‘capitalist roader’ (as Mao had claimed during the Cultural Revolution) or whether the reforms were simply a desperate move to ensure China’s economic security and bolster its prestige in the face of the rising tide of capitalist development in the rest of East and South-East Asia. The reforms just happened to coincide—and it is very hard to consider this as anything other than a conjunctural accident of world-historical significance—with the turn to neoliberal solutions in [Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s] Britain and the United States [under neoliberal Presidents Jimmy Carter and then Reagan]. The outcome in China has been the construction of a particular kind of market economy that increasingly incorporates neoliberal elements interdigitated with authoritarian centralized control. Elsewhere, as in Chile, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, the compatibility between authoritarianism and the capitalist market had already been clearly established.” [Emphasis added]
That final point is especially important to grasp. Today there are many progressive-Left news outlets that are trying to offer analysis on China and Hong Kong that juxtaposes Western imperial finance capitalism against Chinese socialism. However, it just is not that simplified. Chinese President Xi Jinping comes from a family that always subscribed to Deng’s theories of building Chinese society. Indeed, paterfamilias Xi Zhonghun was purged from the Communist Party by Mao in 1962 and then was subject to further prosecution during the Cultural Revolution. After being rehabilitated in 1979 by the Deng government, the elder Xi created so-called “special economic zones,” localities that granted foreign direct investors substantial socio-political leeway at the expense of Chinese worker rights and protections.
Why this was undertaken is one of the major elements of conventional wisdom about Chinese Communism in the past fifty years. For many, the CCP embraced capitalism without shame and now functions as a Marxist-Leninist party in name only. Deng was a the schismatic heretic who finally took over and accomplished the re-establishment of capitalism after Mao’s futile attempts to the contrary.
But this rather Romantic, Western-flavored narrative of an ascendant evil-doer that mimics an operatic political comic book misses the mark entirely. Deng was part of a longer tradition within Communism, dating back to the 1920s, that argued for a slow, steady path that would build an economy over the course of decades, including a petit bourgeoisie whose growing purchase power would be a viable middle class.
An interesting counter-example for such a discussion is the rather astonishing career of Bo Xilai, who was a real deal neo-Maoist in the CCP leadership angling for the heights of power. With a program that included increased social safety net spending, revival of Cultural Revolution ethos, and high acclamation from the Chinese New Left, Bo, like President Xi, hailed from a veteran Communist family dating back to the roughest days of the Chinese Civil War. The circumstances of Bo’s meteoric rise-and-fall, itself the stuff of a Machiavellian epic novel, are far too complex for elaborating in these contexts. Needless to say, Bo was railroaded into a lifetime prison sentence in 2013, all done with the tacit approval of the newly-ascendant President Xi. Whether Bo was on the verge of making a serious bid to challenge Xi or not is as viable a call as reading tea leaves, Beijing party politics are infamously opaque at such levels and historically Western efforts are quite fickle (case and point this Bannon video, which is one of a long tradition of forecasting the impending implosion of Chinese Communism and therefore an East Asian social collapse of magnificent proportions, which reliably has yet to occur…), but the point remains, Xi was and still is the striking opposite of Bo. (This video by the reliably-hypocritical Wall Street Journal is pretty astonishing not just in summarizing Bo’s ouster but also demonstrating that apparently WSJ Asian writers have certain Maoist sympathies…)
In this sense, President Xi has far more in common with Franklin Roosevelt. Consider this passage from David M. Kennedy’s epic history of the Great Depression and World War II, Freedom From Fear:
…Roosevelt was in fact a rather diffident champion of labor, and especially of organized labor unions. If he was the worker’s patron, it was also true that his fundamental attitude toward labor was somewhat patronizing. Like Secretary of Labor Perkins, he was more interested in giving workers purchasing power than in granting them political power. He believed that passing pension and unemployment laws, as well as wage and hour legislation, rather than guaranteeing collective bargaining rights, was the best way to improve the workers’ lot. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that he had offered only episodic and inconsistent guidance to the NRA administrators charged with implementing 7(a). In March 1934 he personally broke the back of a drive to unionize the automobile industry. He imposed a settlement that disallowed the principle of majority rule in determining labor’s bargaining representative and that endorsed the hated company unions, thus perpetuating management’s ability to divide labor’s ranks and dominate the bargaining process… As for the Wagner National Labor Relations Act, Roosevelt only belatedly threw his support behind it in 1935, and then largely because he saw it as a way to increase workers’ consuming power, as well as a means to suppress the repeated labor disturbances that, as the act claimed, were “burdening or obstructing commerce.” Small wonder, then, that the administration found itself bamboozled and irritated by the labor eruptions of Roosevelt’s first term and that it moved only hesitantly and ineffectively to channel the accelerating momentum of labor militancy. [Emphasis Added]
Do common complaints about labor relations raised by outlets like China Labor Watch (funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, a soft power American foreign policy project) bear resemblance to the complaints regarding our own labor market, such as the intentional, racist exclusion of domestic and agricultural workers (aka the majority of the BIPOC workforce in the 1930s) from the right to unionize by Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation? One is forced to wonder if the Politburo in Beijing has been circulating these insights about economic history while formulating Xi’s Chinese Dream policy and issuing statements that repudiate calls for the CCP to engage with and support foreign revolutions like Mao did in the past century.
Meanwhile, here is what the Chinese embassy in Washington is posting online as its own PR campaign:
Juxtapose it against this older American film about our Navy:
While Bannon and these nutty expats perpetuate a delusional claim that the Chinese apocalypse akin to the USSR in 1989-91 is nigh, President Xi is overseeing the birth of an economy and attendant beneficiary middle class whose Chinese Dream mimics our own American Dream circa 1955.
Is is loaded with contradictions and even forms of ethnic chauvinism that breeds unrest? Of course.
But as an American, I don’t feel like I have any right to comment in a way that endorses either side.
Hong Kong residents have a distinct, unique socio-political identity because of their postwar autonomy from mainland politics up until very recently. That identity has included for a long time now civil libertarian currents that British colonial magistrates created allowance for in some instances. While mainland cinema was a bit of a schizophrenic mess in the past 70+ years due to political whims of the CCP (have you ever actually tried to watch a film made during the Cultural Revolution?), Hong Kong fostered one of the most interesting, nuanced, and artistic national cinemas from the Global South. John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai, and the Shaw Brothers would have never been able to produce and direct some of the greatest titles in Hong Kong film history if they had been operating under mainland jurisdiction.
These days, mainland cinema, like its forebear in the Stalin-era Soviet Union, is a very mixed bag. Some of their pictures are really astonishing, such as Hero (2002) (even though it bashes you over the head with its One China propaganda line with all the grace of a police truncheon). But the Huang Jianxin and Han Sanping duology Founding of a Republic and Founding of a Party, which tells the history of the CCP and the People’s Republic, is melodramatic piffle, the Mandarin equivalent of a Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay testicular adrenal shot disguised as a motion picture.
This may seem like a digression but it actually underwrites a true grasp of this Bannon video, a text that is one of many Chinese-generated media that was produced for New Tang Dynasty Television, a US-based outlet connected to the controversial Falun Gong religious movement, which Beijing increasingly cracks down on as a fundamentalist cult. In this 2008 press release (a bit of a case study in CCP neuroses writ large), the Chinese Embassy in Washington proclaimed:
The “Falun Gong” organization preaches anti-humanity, anti-science and heretical fallacies and exercises extreme mental manipulation on followers. It is nothing but a cult. Li Hongzhi, the chief ring leader of “Falun Gong”, says that the mankind has been destroyed 81 times, that the earth is about to explode very soon, and that he is the only savior of man. He says that the earth is the biggest dumping ground in the universe, with the United States being the largest of all on earth, and that by practicing “Falun Gong”, one could cure any disease without the need to seek medical assistance or medication. He even claims that the Holocaust of Jewish people by Hitler was a result of the changes in celestial phenomena. While preaching “Falun Gong” cult doctrines, Li Hongzhi committed numerous crimes that endangered the society, violated human rights and destroyed lives. According to incomplete statistics, over 1,000 practitioners died because they followed Li’s teachings and refused to seek medical treatment for their illnesses. Several hundred practitioners committed self-mutilation or suicide. Over 30 innocent people were killed by mentally deranged practitioners of “Falun Gong”. These facts show that “Falun Gong” is a cult organization harmful to the society and violating human rights. It is a cancer of the modern, civilized society.
This from a political party that acclaims Mao Zedong-, Deng Xioaping-, and Xi Jinping Thought as part of their mission statement…
Ultimately I would recommend this interview with Sean Starrs, a Professor at City University of Hong Kong, for a useful insight about how diverse and multi-tendency the protest movement is. I do not necessarily subscribe to his particular opinions but I do think he offers some key insights about what the complexities and nuances are like here.