The twentieth and twenty-first centuries marked a time of dramatic changes in Chinese culture, politics, and the nation as a whole. During the twentieth century, China’s struggle for national liberation was closely intertwined with the world socialist movement. The Chinese proletariat, and with it the Communist Party of China (CPC), confronted the same questions of “power” as their counterparts in other countries: namely, how to conquer—and hold onto—state power? Moreover, once in power, how should Communists address concrete internationalist challenges?
Sun Wei works as a project manager in the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Beijing Office, where she is responsible for developing, facilitating, and evaluating collaborations and political projects around China.
China’s experiences over the past decades are representative of the typical difficulties socialist movements face in dealing with and resolving contradictions between nationalism and internationalism. Generally speaking, the last 100 years of internationalism in Chinese history can be divided into three distinct periods.
This period spans the founding of the Communist Party of China in 1921 to the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. The CPC was founded on two main ideological principles: the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and proletarian internationalism, as Cai Hesen, one of China’s foremost revolutionaries and the first person to propose the name “Communist Party of China” to Mao Zedong in 1920, emphasized. Nationalism, the guiding motif behind the CPC’s drive to mobilize the Chinese people for national independence, was deeply intertwined with internationalist thinking.
Founded by the Soviet Union in 1919, the Communist International or “Comintern” was actively involved in jumpstarting the CPC, which then became a national section of the International. With a strong belief in the Comintern’s claim to represent the global proletariat, the CPC demonstrated its loyalty by even standing with the Soviet Union during negotiations over Mongolian independence in the 1920s.
Over time, the Comintern gradually became a kind of extended arm of Soviet foreign policy. The Soviet Union’s domination over internationalism led to increased conflicts between the CPC and the Comintern, embodying a typical example of the relationship between the Comintern and its respective national sections in individual countries. The CPC began to question its relationship with the International as the tensions between different interests grew more obvious, attributing the failure of the 1927 revolution to poor advice from Soviet leaders in Moscow who sought to mechanically impose Russia’s revolutionary experience onto the Chinese context.
While the Western European proletariat at the time fought solely against capitalism, the proletariat in the developing world (including China) fought against not only capitalism but also imperialism and colonialism. This drove Chinese Communists to view nationalism as a precondition for a successful internationalism. In his 1938 speech on the CPC’s position in the civil war, CPC General Secretary Mao Zedong clarified that “every Chinese Communist must be internationalist”. He criticized the so-called “patriotism” of German and Japanese fascists, responsible for the catastrophe plaguing the peoples of those two countries and their neighbours. In this sense, he emphasized that Chinese patriotism was indeed practical internationalism, expressed in the form of the war for national liberation.
This period spans the founding of the PRC to the beginning of the “reform and opening-up” policy under Deng Xiaoping. Internationalism shifted in this period, obtaining a new status. Liberating the developing and decolonized world became a major issue in the global proletariat’s fight against Western capitalist hegemony. With this, a new question arose: namely, how could the proletariat unite against exploitation in a world dominated by capitalism?
Facing hostility from both the US-led capitalist West as well as the socialist bloc dominated by the Soviet Union since the 1950s, China gradually upgraded its position in the world by establishing a number of partnerships with countries involved in their own national independence struggles. At the 1955 Bandung Conference, the first international conference bringing together mainly Asian and African countries, China proposed “five principles of peaceful co-existence” as the basis for dealing with international relations: mutual respect of territorial sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality, and mutual benefit. Although ideological disputes did arise at the conference, delegates welcomed the five principles and added them to the ten principles constituting the “Spirit of Bandung”.
China proactively supported anti-imperialist and anti-colonial movement in Asia and Africa during this period, including various development projects. Possibly because these projects gradually became less ideological and more pragmatic over time, in 1971 the People’s Republic of China was elected to serve as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Chairman Mao is said to have remarked, “It is our African brothers who carried us into the UN.” This development prompts another question: did internationalism perhaps shift in this period to promoting global justice between the developing and developed countries?
In China, the current period is characterized by implementation of the “reform and opening-up” policy and the construction of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Believing “that poor socialism is not real socialism”, the CPC initiated a series of market-oriented reforms steered by the state. During the initial reform period, i.e. the 1980s and 1990s, the CPC’s attitude towards its long-time Asian and African “friends” shifted to being more economically oriented. Concentrating on economic growth, China cut aid to its “brothers” on the one hand, while on the other hand perceptibly recognizing them as potential markets and providers of needed resources.
China sped up its efforts to follow the “universal” rules of trade in hopes of being integrated into the global market. Initially applying to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1986, the PRC was finally confirmed as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001—paving the way for the country to become more vigorously involved in the world economy, particularly in exploring foreign markets for capital, resources, and technology. The “Going Global Strategy” adopted by the ninth session of the National People’s Congress in 2000 was prioritized as the national economic orientation.
Rather than passively following the “universal rules” drafted primarily by the developed capitalist countries, China began to proactively play the role of a “rising nation” by exerting influence not only over purely economic matters. Besides the Belt and Road Initiative, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China also vowed to take more responsibility in dealing with climate change. In this sense, the “community of shared future for mankind” proposed at the nineteenth CPC Party Congress in 2017 represents a new interpretation of internationalism.
China’s Global Future
Is China’s foreign policy embedded in an internationalist discourse, and can we view internationalist ideology as its backdrop? Although the West regards Chinese foreign policy as strictly pragmatic, driven purely by national interest and economic gain, scholars and party officials within China argue that the “Going Global Strategy” in fact represents a new vision of internationalism.
Rooted in the united solidarity of the world proletariat and the realization of human liberation from exploitation, internationalism has been challenged by the rise of nationalism and the fragmentation of the working class. On its path from a poor and oppressed nation to the world’s second economic power, China—and particularly the CPC as its leading party—has wrestled with ideological theories of nationalism and internationalism when dealing with contradictions and challenges. The “China Path”, as proclaimed by the CPC, has raised vital questions of state power with regard to internationalism. How can the state differentiate internationalism from foreign national interests? Where exactly are the contradictions between nationalism and internationalism situated? Furthermore, how—when bestowed with resources of power—can the proletariat practice internationalism?
No definitive answers to these questions exist, but rather must be continually resolved and posed anew in China and the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the Chinese experience can teach us at least one thing: there is no such thing as a static, trans-historical internationalism, but rather a constant reinterpretation and renegotiation between the needs of an individual country in its developmental path, and those of the international socialist movement as our common political struggle and shared international future.