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Conflict in China. 1949 to Now— Recording and Reading List

The recording of a panel discussion hosted by the DSA SF Education Committee that took place on September 18, 2021, can be watched online. The panel explores the social and political conflicts that have driven China’s history since the 1949 Revolution and the current situation in the PRC today. Speakers include Yige Dong, Yueran Zhang, Ralf Ruckus, and Christopher Connery.

A Reading List by the DSA SF Education Committee.


As working people of the world continue to suffer from multiple intersecting armageddons, there currently appears to be no organized force in existence capable of toppling global capitalism, much less ending the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, growing interest in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its apparent conflict with the United States has produced critical questions for socialists today.

Over the last 50 years, China has gone from a poor country with limited inequalities and where private property was severely restricted, thanks to an egalitarian guiding principle, to the world’s second largest economy where hundreds of millions have been pulled out of abject poverty amidst exploding wealth and social inequality. It is only natural for there to be interest and confusion around this seismic transformation. The question of whether China is socialist or capitalist tends to be the entrypoint for leftists into current discussions around the PRC. This question, as tired as it may seem to those who have participated in these debates, is important to the extent that it can propel further inquiry into the current conditions of global capitalism and how we may overcome its interlocking forms of inequality, exploitation and oppression that immiserate the masses of working people. 

Underlying the debate of how to think about China today are another set of questions: by what methods of analysis are we to understand the twists and turns of modern Chinese history and the disparate social and political forces that produce the current situation? And how do we perform our analysis without being misled by state media, government officials and forces of US imperialism, including the western media, intelligence agencies, and plain old liberalism? In other words, consensus on China requires the socialist left to make a collective political decision and an endorsement of legitimate methods of social, political, and historical analysis.

Whether one takes the position that China is socialst or capitalist, a number of difficult questions emerge that require a great deal of further study. If China is socialist, how do we explain the significant qualitative changes that have occurred within Chinese socialism over this time? How do these changes challenge foundational ideas and principles that have played important roles in socialist movements outside of China? Does the construction of Mao era socialism mark the end of class struggle within China? If so, how do we understand the vast changes and reversals of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”? If class struggle remains the motor of history in China, then how do we understand the balance of class forces today and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) role amongst them? For those of us outside of the PRC, how do we organize ourselves in relation to this apparent Chinese socialism? Can this model be repeated elsewhere? Is this ever-changing Chinese socialism even a model at all?

If China is capitalist, then we must similarly explain how this has come to be and how this transition challenges our understanding of the development of the capitalist mode of production. How do these adjustments change our theories about capitalism today and the current balance of forces in the crumbling neoliberal order? How do we account for China’s period of primitive accumulation, in which the wealth is built to engage in capitalist production? How do we understand China’s unique situation in which substantial state ownership of land and major enterprises has occurred alongside rapid marketization? If workers of the world must still unite to overthrow global capitalism, how do we organize when the world’s largest and most powerful Communist Party has exercised the spectre of universal emancipation in favor of a technocratic regime in which 5% of the population rules the rest? Is the PRC the harbinger of new technologies of global capitalism, or perhaps the beginning of a new social system that is neither capitalist or socialist?

We hope this text and the included readings contribute to the growing discussion and debate around the PRC and the proper orientation that socialists should take up in relation to it. While the DSA SF Education Committee does not have a defined position on China, this reading list explores the question, or engages the hypothesis, of China’s transition to capitalism. Under no circumstances should this text be construed as a definitive resource. We welcome other members in DSA to create or provide additional study materials to advance necessary discussions and debates on this important and complex issue.

China and Capitalism

Below are three articles that provide different perspectives on China’s purported capitalist development. First, Eli Friedman argues that the logic of capital has become the primary determinant force in China today with reference to Marx’s value theory. Second, Yiching Wu interrogates the notion of “market socialism” through a historical reassessment of China’s capitalist turn that challenges traditional leftist understandings. Finally, Chris Connery argues that the capitalism that developed in China emerged as a “homegrown” variant of the neoliberalism that has defined the world order.

China and COVID-19

Below are three articles that make for a lively discussion of China in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Andrew Liu addresses the anti-Chinese rhetoric that emerged as the pandemic developed while showing the interconnectedness of China with the rest of the world through the global market. The following Jacobin and Chuang articles produce critiques of global capitalism and neoliberalism, though present conflicting accounts of the CCP’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Weber, Qi and Li present the CCP response in terms of a mostly positive, large-scale public mobilization. Meanwhile, the Chuang collective provides an analysis in which socio-economic and biological forces meet; they pose the questions of Chinese state capacity and what expanded state control over everyday life in the name of the public safety means for potential political insurgencies. This last article appears to have been expanded into a forthcoming book.

China and the World

The US-China rivalry continues to grow, leading to assertions that we are either in or entering a “new Cold War.” While it is clear that socialists must fiercely oppose all military actions, economic sanctions, “humanitarian interventions,” and other forms of US imperialism, it is not clear if the “new Cold War” framing is appropriate to the current situation. What was the first Cold War? To what degree does the “Cold War” framing reinforce dangerous US and Chinese nationalisms? These questions are taken up by the Chinese Marxist feminist Dai Jinhua in the first piece. In the latter two articles, the question of China’s alleged imperialism is posed to investigate the real effects of China’s foreign policy on the world, including the Belt and Road Initiative. Sociologist Ching Kwan Lee provides an in-depth study of China’s relationship to Zambian copper and construction industries, which is also available as a book. Finally, Argentine Marxist Claudio Katz assesses China in relation to Lenin’s theory of imperialism and China’s activity in the Global South.

The Mao Era and After

It’s hard to imagine a more famous and divisive historical figure than Mao Zedong. After Mao’s death in 1976, even the CCP decreed that he had been 70% right and 30% wrong. So what went right in the Mao era (1949-1976) and what went wrong? And how did the developments of the Mao era inform the Reform and Opening Up period starting in 1978, Tiananmen Square in 1989, and all that has come after? First, historian Maurice Mesiner draws up a balance sheet for the Mao era. Then Wang, Karl, and Russo briefly discuss essential Maoist concepts, including their history and status in the PRC today. Finally, Yueran Zhang argues that Tiananmen Square was more than a liberal student protest: it was a mass worker uprising for socialist democracy that contains important insights for today.


China is often referred to as the “workshop of the world.” Naturally, questions of labor conditions and worker organizing follow. The first piece is the personal narrative of a Chinese worker who engaged in labor organizing, excerpted from a book-length collection. In the second piece, Pun Nagi provides an analysis of the composition of the contemporary Chinese working class and their potential for future labor organizing and action. This piece also includes analysis of the Jasic struggle of 2018 that drew international attention. Finally, in an interview translated and republished in Chuang, two labor organizers in the PRC discuss the success and failures of the Jasic struggle and the future of radical labor organizing amidst heightening social contradictions.

Gender and Feminism

As Wang Lingzhen shows in the “Women’s Liberation” chapter above, in 1927 Mao articulated that a socialist revolution must also be a feminist revolution. Yet as Wang Zheng discusses in her reflection on Chinese feminism, in 2015 detention of feminist activits on International Women’s Day marked the first time a Chinese government had openly suppressed feminists since 1913. In the second article, Yige Dong provides an analysis of intersectional gender and class relations in the PRC today. Finally, Nellie Chu situates migrant women workers in South China’s jiagongchang household workshops and their attempt to navigate the contradictions of care work and industrial labor.

Rural China

Perhaps the greatest, lasting achievement of the 1949 Revolution was the sweeping land reform that redistributed roughly half of the land in China to the peasants and effectively abolished the once-powerful landlord class. Today, more than 40% of the people in China still live in the countryside, while another 167 million migrant workers rely on small landholdings as a safety net against the precarity and instability of urban employment under the household registration, or hukou, system. While land policy has changed many times since 1949, it remains a pressing issue and leading cause of contemporary rural protest. Mobo Gao gives us a look at what life is like in a typical rural village. Then, Shaohua Zhan sketches out the different competing positions on the land question in China today along with possible future scenarios.

Environmental Politics

China’s rapid economic development has come with significant environmental destruction, a fact that has been recognized by the CCP. In 2007, President Hu Jintao put forward the notion of “environmental civilization,” which in addition to being the central concept of China’s greening policies, was elevated to the level of a constitutional principle in 2018. Below are four articles that give a sense of the immense environmental challenges that China faces and the new economic and social contradictions that have been produced through environmental reform. First, Chiara Pivoani provides a jumping off point for understanding the changes that have occurred in the Chinese economy and environment since 1978. Second, Coraline Goron provides an analysis of the different political and theoretical meanings that have been invested in the concept “economic civilization,” thereby indicating the limits of the concept for Chinese researchers committed to environmental sustainability. Third, Edwin Schmitt and Daniel Fuchs show how China’s environmental policies have affected business owners and workers in the city of Chengdu. Finally, John Aloysius Zinda poses the question of who will do the actual work necessary to implement the policies of environmental civilization and what conditions this labor will occur within.

Xinjiang and Beyond

Located in the northeastern region of China, Xinjiang (“new frontier”) came under Qing rule in the 18th century as part of the dynasty’s expansion into Central Asia. In 1955, the CCP made multiethnic Xinjiang an “autonomous region” and granted certain forms of cultural, linguistic, and religious self-rule in exchange for loyalty to the party. Since 1979, conflicts have emerged with the development of new forms of agribusiness and state-sponsored Han migration. In 2009, ethnic and religious tensions boiled over into the Urumqi Riots. More recently, there have been increasing reports of Turkik-speaking, Mulsim Uygher people being forced into reeducation camps and various assaults on cultural, linguistic, intellectual, and religious identity. While some of these reports are more factual than others, the situation is disturbing and should inspire solidarity with the ethnic and religious minorities facing persecution in the PRC. First, Guldana Salimjan reveals the combination of political-economic forces and environmental policy at work in Xinjiang and connects this situation to familiar logics of settler-colonialism in the Americas. Then, David Brophy shows that analysis of Xinjiang must be situated within the US’s War on Terror and global patterns of Islamophobia. Finally, Nitasha Kaul shows that we can benefit from comparative studies of racist, carceral regimes around the world through her study of recent events in Kashmir. Taking these articles together, we might see how the situation in Xinjiang is similar to racist and islamaphobic, carceral, settler-colonial regimes in Kashmir, Palestine, and the United States. It is our position that all wars, economic sanctions, and “humanitarian intervention” must be fiercely opposed. International solidarity and organization are the only means through which the masses can liberate themselves.

Further Reading

Below are a few books that may be helpful to begin studying modern China. The first two are concise and accessible histories by Rebecca Karl. The first text shifts between the life of Mao Zedong, including introductions to some of his important texts, and the formation and history of the PRC. The second puts the concept of revolution at the center of the history of modern China. This “interpretative” decision generates both a longer view of Chinese history while also connecting the concept of revolution more firmly to the present. The third text by Maurice Meisner is a classic history of the PRC that is widely cited in China scholarship. In the fourth and final text, activist Ralf Ruckus discusses the history of China from 1949 to the present and its interpretations, with particular emphasis on struggles from below and the ways the CCP has attempted to contain them.

The Communist Road to Capitalism: How Social Unrest and Containment Have Pushed China’s (R)evolution since 1949