In the documentary American Factory directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, Chinese billionaire Cao Dewen announces that his main mission is to show Americans that the Chinese can run factories in the US. Cao’s company is set up on a former General Motors (GM) site in Dayton, the closure of which in 2009 was charted by the same Dayton-based filmmakers in a heart-breaking documentary The Last Truck. Prior to the closure, GM jobs were unionised and paid $29 per hour. It took four years for Cao’s company, Fuyao America, to turn a profit in 2018. The company pays many of the same workers less than half the GM rate and brought in a union-busting consultancy firm to make sure workers voted against unionisation.
Is this the Chinese Dream replacing the American Dream? The precursor to a ‘new cold war’ viewed through a labour lens? Or is it the outcome of three decades of neoliberal processes that drove a new international division of labour, changed the topography of global production, and integrated the Chinese and US economies in a web of accumulation unthinkable during the post-war Cold War heralded by Churchill’s 1946 Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri? Trade between the US and China is worth half a trillion dollars and China owns US$1 trillion of US debt. Steve Tsang at the SOAS China Institute has argued that it is precisely this integration of the two economies that makes the new cold war a viable and dangerous threat to current world order.
The Oxford Concise Dictionary defines a ‘Cold War’ as a “state of hostility between nations without actual fighting”. Presumably, a ‘New Cold War’ infers the same thing. If we are entering a new cold war, we can observe that Sino-US relations worsened significantly under the Trump administration and Xi’s leadership in China. Neither shied away from underpinning their support base with nationalist rhetoric. On the one hand, Xi Jinping has developed the China Dream, combining a narrative of a powerful, global China assuming a leadership position in international affairs and embracing globalisation. In this scenario, “Party, government, army, society and education – east and west, south and north, the party leads on everything”. Shored up by what Jude Howell and I referred to as an evolved and stronger shade of authoritarianism compared to the Hu Jintao period of 2002-2012, the narrative is not publicly challenged in China although privately, some Chinese scholars are referring to the current political configuration as a form of totalitarianism [jiquanzhuyi 极权主义].
For his part, Donald Trump rejected globalisation in a quest to “Make America Great Again”. The plan was premised on a largely isolationist position in international affairs that promised to bring back to the US jobs he argued had been stolen by China. With an eye to the competitive challenge from Chinese tech firms in particular, Trump claimed companies such as Huawei and Tik-Tok were undermining US national security and were supported by the Chinese government. He imposed major tariff barriers on a wide range of imports from China while closing off access to selected technologies to Chinese firms – adding in the process a mainstream momentum to what was already a pre-existing toxic wave of patriotic Sinophobia. Xi responded in kind, deploying tariffs on US exports to China. The Chinese media ratcheted up nationalist rhetoric as a trade war emerged followed by early signs of a ‘new cold war’ in which economic performance is weaponised as a measure of system superiority. Thus, the new cold war presents a different global political configuration. Here, John Barry’s scholarship on the genealogy of the Cold War and the “political ideology of growth” is instructive, despite the relative strength and integration of Global China compared to the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, although the recently elected President Biden has started to reverse many of Trump’s policies – the US has already re-joined the Paris climate accord known as the Paris Agreement – he has been more cautious towards China, not least because he vied with Trump in the presidential election cycle over who was ‘tougher’ on China. On his end, Xi has called for multilateralism to fight the pandemic and climate change but the CCP’s repressive policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong mitigate against any immediate return to a pre-Trump era of accommodationist co-existence with American characteristics i.e. an ever-present anxiety over China’s growth. Of course, it is quite possible that overt tensions will reduce over time. But the globally competitive and capitalist forces that drove US capital to seek out a cheaper, more easily disciplined labour force in China, and, in his turn, Mr Cao to establish a non-union Fuyao America, will remain.
Hot and Cold Wars
The original Cold War did indeed avoid direct hostilities between the US and the USSR – though the sides came very close to outright confrontation during the Bay of Pigs crisis in 1961. But the avoidance of direct hostilities between two competing nations did not mean the avoidance of hot wars elsewhere – not least in Asia. In 1949, long before the Bay of Pigs, the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the nationalist Guomindang brought the Cold War as a series of hot wars to Asia. Led by the US, Western powers embarked on attempts to contain the spread of Communist Party rule across Asian countries emerging from colonial shackles. Imperialist wars ensued and millions died, mostly civilians. On the Korean peninsula, the Cold War included direct confrontation between Chinese and US troops while nuclear components were flown by the US to Guam in preparation for a possible nuclear strike at Korea and/or across the Yalu River, in China. The US was also a core player in the bloodbath in 1965 that ‘flipped’ Indonesia into its sphere of influence. Commenting on evidence from recently released files, historian John Roosa has argued that “the U.S. was part and parcel of the operation, strategizing with the Indonesian army and encouraging them to go after the PKI [Partai Komunis Indonesia]” – up to the point of handing over lists of PKI members compiled by the US embassy in Jakarta. Almost one million people were murdered by Suharto’s thugs. A further three million people died before the US defeat in Vietnam created a ‘Vietnam syndrome’ that was finally to be overcome when George Bush announced that Operation Desert Storm in Iraq would usher in a New World Order. It is precisely this world order that China’s emergence from ‘containment’, integration into the global economy, outward investment – especially the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – alongside concomitant increases in diplomatic influence and military strength is said to now threaten.
China’s emergence as a global player has generated important debates on the left. On the one hand are those who defend “socialist” China as a challenger to the US-led hegemony over a capitalist world order characterized by military adventures and the maintenance of post-colonial domination. On the other hand, there are those who interpret China as having transitioned from state socialism to a form of state-led authoritarian capitalism. In this interpretation, the strikes and struggle pursued by the Chinese working class are class struggles against China’s state-capital domination in a capitalist economy that faces the challenges of accumulation and over-accumulation identified by Marx. In the former interpretation, it is the US state that is the primary enemy in the struggle for socialism. For the latter, China’s integration into the global capitalist system dictates that both Beijing and Washington are obstacles blocking the path to socialism. And if the latter is correct, then it follows, for Marxists at least, that ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists’ is a prerequisite for progress. That is why in this essay, I want to suggest that the class struggles for union recognition, a living wage, collective bargaining and safe working conditions at Fuyao America in Dayton are not radically different from the class struggles for union recognition, a living wage, collective bargaining, and safe working conditions waged by workers at Shenzhen Jasic Technology or the Lide Shoe Factory strikes and campaign for a range of compensations in Guangzhou documented by Kevin Lin. That is, it does not take a seasoned political economist to recognise that capitalist relations of production exist in China and that these are regulated by an authoritarian state in which the Communist Party of China remains unchallenged since it crushed the 1989 Democracy Movement. These capitalist relations are now even more similar to those in the US than they were in 1989.
In 1989, there was a demand – summarily crushed – for the right to form independent trade unions such as the Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation [北京工人自治联合会]. This was important not least because in 1986, state-owned enterprise directors had been granted power over the hiring and firing of employees. This turned out to be the opening salvo on the road to the 15th Party Congress in 1997 out of which came the slogan ‘zhua da fang xiao’ [抓大放小: grasp the big, release the small]. This was a policy of restructuring, privatization or closure of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) – especially small and medium-sized ones – in preparation for China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation. Formally at the heart of the state socialist project, by the early 2000s up to 50 million SOE workers lost their jobs. Many resisted, but with the only legal trade union cowed by Party leadership and the right to strike deleted from China’s Constitution in 1982, the odds were stacked against them. The legacies of the crushing of 1989 are thus present in the current anti-union, anti-worker configurations found in China and in Chinese companies abroad, such as Fuyao America. These legacies are of course mediated through local class forces.
The flipside of this neo-liberal inspired informalization of urban employment was the emergence of a reserve army of off-farm peasant labour who have since engaged in a long march towards recognition: first as members of the working class – the All-China Federation of Trade Unions did not recognise them as such until 2003; and second, as citizens with equal access to urban rights that are still denied by the residential permit system of hukou [户口]. This ongoing march has been marked by legal struggles, protests, strikes and ever-present repression as migrant workers have demanded – and to some extent won – wage increases, improved health and safety, social security and injury compensation.
Cao Dewen at Fuyao would recognise these pressures – he has many factories in China. Yet in an interview in 2017, he appeared to agree that the problems he encountered in Dayton could be explained by cultural clashes [wenhua chongtu 文化冲突] exacerbated by language barriers and even the use of so-called slang [liyu 俚语] , or that is, the form of English used presumably by American workers at the plant. While cultural considerations are relevant, I think Mr Cao’s cautious answer serves as a smokescreen serving to hide his unwavering prioritising of the bottom line at Fuyao America. As in Dayton now, so it was in China in 1997, it is workers who must adapt to capitalist economic and cultural priorities. For example, during the class struggles from above and below that accompanied the aforementioned privatisation of China’s SOEs, workers were characterised by the capitalist and political authorities as lazy, overly-reliant on the comparatively high levels of enterprise-provided welfare inherited from the state socialist era, and in need of liberating from state socialist mindsets [jiefang sixiang 解放思想] in order to jump into the sea [xia hai 下海] of entrepreneurial endeavour. Two decades on and the narrative is being deployed in the inverse: stereotypes of Chinese workers’ capacity to ‘eat bitterness’ – to work very long hours in poor working conditions in pursuit of a long-term gain such as a small business or putting a child through college – abound and are internalised as an idealised contrast to American factory workers, Tanzanian copper miners or Ethiopian garment workers, all of whom are depicted as relatively lazy or coddled. And yet, as the skilled Chinese shopfloor engineer Mr Wong at Fuyao America points out, American workers eat their own share of bitterness, often working two poorly paid jobs just to put food on the table, pay the mortgage or get a child through college. The conflicts that emerge in global capitalist workplaces may have cultural expressions and specificities, but they are not in essence cultural, even if owners such as Cao Dewen resort to cultural explanations for economic phenomena. Nationalists, patriots and scoundrels may attempt to frame them as evidence of the ‘other’, an essential component of Cold War rhetoric. But they arise from the antagonistic interests of capital and labour. They are components of class struggle.
New Colonial Wars?
Often portrayed by the right as ‘red capital’, China’s state and private capital now reach across the globe, facilitated in part by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Marx recognised capital’s tendency to seek a ‘constantly expanding market’ to ‘nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere’. By the same token, China and its capital investments have again become the subject of debates on the left. Does China’s expansion constitute a new colonialism or do the absence of conditionalities to loans present new opportunities to developing countries? Viewed through a right-wing new cold war lens, there is only threat accompanied by a possible deterioration to conflict, proxy wars and worse. Viewed from a labour lens, we can see different interpretations and alternatives involving the possibilities for global solidarities and global struggles.
Tolga Demiryol presents Chinese capital’s ‘going out’ [zouchu qu 走出去] not as a grand plan of world domination as caricatured by new Cold War warriors but rather as an ‘attempt by the Chinese state to manage internal problems of capital accumulation by externalizing development on a trans-regional scale’. Overaccumulation has been underpinned by wage increases in turn driven by class struggles that Hao Qi and Tim Pringle explain as a combination of three interacting factors: labour shortages, labour militancy and a pro-labour policy driven by CCP anxieties over rising industrial militancy domestically. And while C. K. Lee argues that Chinese state capital can behave in ways that go beyond the pure profit maximisation that drives global private capital, Carlos Oya’s research suggests a ‘multiplicity of outcomes in labour relations in Chinese enterprises in Africa (and elsewhere)’. These scholars do not exclude forms of resource colonialism or appalling labour rights violations that can reproduce neoliberal priorities in their analyses. But the variegated data their research provides suggests that Global China is more complex than the anti-China rhetoric imagines; it also suggests that the reports singling out and demonising Chinese labour practices in Africa are largely inaccurate.
The savage repression of the Hong Kong Democracy Movement and the imposition of a National Security Law have gifted hawkish Conservatives in the Global North with another huge hammer to bash China. The New Cold War rhetoric emerging from these corners is an unreliable if popular refuge for Hongkongers who organised the most militant, sustained and widely supported challenge to Beijing’s authoritarian rule since the British colonialists shipped out in 1997. In the conclusion to his book Hong Kong in Revolt, Au Long-Yu points to online debates among Hongkongers in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US. Au finds evidence of the right-wing Hong Kong localists’ support for Trump being questioned by activists horrified by the kind of police violence in the US that echoed their own clashes with a recently militarised Hong Kong police force. Again, a labour lens is instructive as a conduit for solidarity. I have argued elsewhere for the centrality of organised labour to the movement’s survival and progressive goals. A labour lens reminds us that Rebecca Sy, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Dragon Airlines Flight Attendants Association has been fired for supporting universal suffrage; veteran unionist Lee Cheuk-Yan of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), faces four separate trials this year for activities supporting the Democracy Movement; and Winnie Yu, chairwoman of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance and Carol Ng, chairwoman of the HKCTU ae among 47 pro-democracy activists charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion” under a new National Security Law. It is important to build international solidarity for these union leaders who organized against capitalist exploitation and now face the consequences of connections between state and capital.
As serious as it is, the state violence in Hong Kong pales in comparison with the emergence of what Darren Byler has called terror capitalism against Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. Byler’s term captures the technologies of repression that generate enhanced profits for private capitalist firms: state contracts to build surveillance equipment are tendered to private corporations and deployed against target groups, in this case mainly the Uyghurs. The data thus collected facilitates repression in Xinjiang and the technologies are further refined for sale to other countries, for deployment in whichever surveillance context those countries are engaged in. Uyghurs are frequently allocated to work for capitalist enterprises all over China upon release from the camps in Xinjiang, in conditions analogous to forced labour as defined by the ILO. There is evidence that some factories ‘employing’ Uyghur labour are part of supply chains headed by major international brands.
The new Cold War narrative is an opportunity for those on the right and even far right to adopt the language of human rights and solidarity in response to repression in China. This in turn allows the concealment of racist and Islamophobic tendencies in the West and even affords the newest outbreaks of Sinophobia a certain ‘respectability.’ We have seen this during the pandemic. In this context, the debates on the left on the nature of the Chinese state, US hegemony, the emergence of a new Cold War and the struggle for socialism are important. But these debates should not occlude calls for action against capitalist exploitation and workers’ struggles, regardless of the cultural clothing or territorial space in which they occur. Deploying a labour lens across states recognises class struggle for what it is: “the history of all hitherto existing society” and a driver of positive social change. It reveals that the ambition of Fuyao America’s boss Mr Cao to demonstrate that Chinese can run factories in the US is essentially a capitalist-nationalist stance – hardly a position that will send the New Cold War hawks packing. An internationalist response premised on working class solidarity has the potential to reject such warmongering and much more; and this is the truly gargantuan task we face. I am on this side.
Special thanks to the students of the SOAS Labour Activism and Global Development Film Club for inspiring this essay and to Rebecca Karl’s suggestions on improving it.
Tim Pringle is Senior Lecturer in Labour, Social Movements and Development in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS, University of London. He is the editor of China Quarterly.