China has always been the last frontier of Western capitalism. Since the British East India Company first penetrated the Chinese market in the second half of the 18th century, exporters have dreamt this ancient civilisation harboured vast numbers of consumers for their products.
This dream – drastically out of line with the reality of a society impoverished by its incorporation into the capitalist world economy – led the US to fight, with utter lack of success, to dominate China in the middle decades of the 20th century.
Now the dream seems to be coming true, though in a different form. China’s significance to the world economy today is as a producer, not a consumer, flooding markets with cheap manufactured goods.
Not that consumption doesn’t come into the picture. When I paid a brief visit to China last week, I saw cities that have been transformed by the headlong economic growth of the past three decades, packed with palaces of consumption sporting all the familiar Western brands.
My visit coincided with the final sessions of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 17th congress. The contrast between the stilted parade of Politburo members on the official English-language TV channel and the game shows, soaps, and Hollywood movies on the other channels was surreal.
Indeed, the contradictions in Chinese society are of increasing concern to the CCP’s leadership. They continue to claim that the party is building “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
But the breakneck process of capital accumulation that has overwhelmed China over the past generation has generated huge inequalities. The wealth gap between coastal China and the rest of the country is particularly stark.
I heard a lot about the plight of China’s rural population, still the majority. They have seen their living standards stagnate over the past 20 years but are denied the right to move from the countryside.
Many move illegally to cities, swelling China’s army of 100 million migrant workers. They are fodder for employers seeking ultra-cheap labour and liable to arrest and deportation back to their homes.
At the congress, president Hu Jintao sought to straddle these contradictions. He said that maintaining rapid economic growth remains the CCP’s “top priority” but proclaimed the party’s commitment to “harmonious development” and to “putting people first”.
These tensions are registering in China’s intellectual life. The reason for my visit was to participate in an academic conference on Marxism.
A few years ago this wouldn’t have been an interesting thing to have done. As in the old Soviet Union, Marxism-Leninism was the official ideology, a required part of the education curriculum whose content was normally sterile and dogmatic.
Now things are changing. There is an interest among some Chinese intellectuals in Marxist, and radical and left-liberal thought in the West.
Some of this interest seems purely academic. I was a little bemused by the attention that the recently deceased French postmodernist writer Jean Baudrillard seems to be attracting in China.
But there is a real interest in the more critical strands of Marxism and liberalism.
This is partly because people are looking for tools to help them understand the huge and often violent struggles China experienced under Communist rule.
But there’s also a desire to make sense of the present and future. For some this is turning Karl Marx from an icon of a decaying ruling ideology into a critical thinker who still speaks to our times.
This is a completely different situation from the one that prevailed in the Soviet Union and its satellites during the death agony of the Stalinist regimes at the end of the 1980s.
Then the identification of Marxism with a discredited ruling class drove intellectuals and working people alike to embrace an idealised picture of Western market capitalism.
But in China market capitalism has co-existed with the Communist Party regime for decades. No wonder then that some have begun to think that there is no better guide to a country being turned upside down by capitalism than the author of Capital.