Solidarity from below: A leftist’s guide to the U.S.-China rivalry

Making a high-stakes visit to Taiwan two years ago, then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stressed America’s ironclad determination to preserve democracy in Taiwan. China responded with aggressive military exercises, including firing missiles over Taiwan and into Japanese waters.

The visit and reaction were not simply a clash between Chinese nationalism and a U.S. commitment to liberal democracy, Eli Friedman, associate professor of global labor and work in the ILR School, and co-authors argue in a new book, “China in Global Capitalism: Building International Solidarity Against Imperial Rivalry.” Rather they reflected Taiwan’s status as a critical node in the organization of global capitalism, which makes it an increasingly dangerous flashpoint.

To avoid a potentially catastrophic conflict, the authors suggest, workers and socially marginalized people in both countries must both oppose leaders ratcheting up rivalry and also pursue solidarity “from below.” Through snapshots of China’s growing social movements – from labor struggles to feminist campaigns – the authors outline steps needed to build a movement that centers international solidarity across borders.

Friedman discussed the book with the Chronicle.

Question: You argue that growing antagonism between the Chinese Communist Party and the U.S. (under both the Trump and Biden administrations) is not an ideological one. What’s it about, then?

Answer: The Biden administration has been even more direct than Trump’s in posing this conflict as one between democracy and authoritarianism. In reality, elements of the U.S. and China are deeply intermingled. Indeed, America’s largest corporations – from Apple and Amazon to Tesla and Walmart – could not survive without China’s factories and consumers. And these companies relocated production to China precisely because of its lack of democracy: Workers can be thrown in jail for trying to unionize. Rather than an “ideological” issue, the U.S.-China conflict is driven by a each state’s desire to ensure the supremacy of its own nation’s corporations. This struggle is so intense because it a zero-sum game, particularly as there are few places of dynamic growth today.

Q. If both countries are fundamentally capitalist, why aren’t their values better aligned, and why isn’t there more opportunity for cooperation?

A. It is precisely because both countries are capitalist that the present conflict takes the shape that it does. This is in many ways reminiscent of the dynamic leading up to World War I, in which the rising power of Germany was brought into conflict with the established powers, especially the U.K. Today, as in the early 20th century, there are only so many opportunities for profits. The U.S. wants to ensure that its companies develop the newest technologies and products that can secure high levels of profitability, and today Chinese companies pose a real threat. Electric vehicles are a clear example: BYD has recently overtaken Tesla as the world’s largest producer, and by many accounts the former makes better vehicles at lower cost. Neither the U.S. nor China are willing to cede ground in these economic battles, which has really intensified the political conflict.

Q. Does the interdependence between these two major economies create or limit potential for change?

A. Interdependence is quite complicated, as the China and the U.S. depend on each other in distinct ways. The U.S. is an essential market for China, especially given that China has continually failed to increase domestic consumption. On the other hand, many U.S. corporations depend on China as a manufacturing base. This intertwining of the economies is no longer deepening, but “decoupling” is not possible or remotely desirable for either side. So this conflict has much greater complexity than was the case in the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviet Union had hardly any economic exchange.

Q. You’re critical of the Biden administration and “mainstream” liberals. What are they doing wrong?

A. The Biden administration is correct, in a narrow sense, that the Chinese state is guilty of atrocious labor practices, egregious human rights violations in place like Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and that China poses an existential threat to Taiwan. There are two problems with how they approach these issues. The first is that, especially with respect to labor issues, they have no account of the complicity of U.S. corporations in those problems. If factories producing goods for the U.S. relocate to India or Vietnam without improving working conditions, that hardly represents a victory. The second issue is that the U.S. seems to treat human rights as a bargaining chip. China has been threatening Taiwan and oppressing Uyghurs and Tibetans for years, but it wasn’t until the trade war heated up under Trump that the U.S. government began taking these issues seriously. And it’s worth noting that the U.S. often overlooks oppression of ethnic minorities in countries that are allies, notably India. So moral principles are often being subsumed by geopolitics.

Q. What is “internationalism from below,” and how could it be achieved?

A. Our aim should be to achieve peace and social justice for people in China and the United States, and there are different ways of thinking about how to accomplish this. For many years, people believed that China would become more democratic if it embraced capitalism – that theory is of course fully discredited today. Some people today believe we should not criticize the actions of the Chinese state, since it makes cooperation impossible. Our position is that we need to build people-to-people connections to fight for the shared interests of the large majority of people in both countries, including a just green transition, reductions in inequality, demilitarization, reproductive rights and justice for ethnic minorities. We do not have faith that either the U.S. or Chinese governments will accomplish these things of their own volition, so we will need to pressure them to do so – from below.

Q. What’s at stake if the movement you’re proposing does not materialize?

A. Across the political spectrum, there is consensus that we are living in dangerous times. The U.S. remains the world’s most powerful country, but China is catching up quickly. If these two countries cannot behave in a more ecologically and socially sustainable manner, we will increasingly face grave threats to humanity. Current issues including climate change, development in the global south, and new technologies such as AI are major global challenges. These questions cannot be managed effectively if U.S.-China competition shapes the political terrain of the 21st century. Of course, the possibility of direct war between these two superpowers should not be ruled out, an outcome that would prove disastrous for all nations.

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Adam Allington