In June 2023, John Ross was one of the recipients of the Special Book Award of China.
John Ross is a senior fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He was formerly director of economic policy for the mayor of London. He has written extensively on China’s development and its path to socialism.
My Thoughts on Receiving China’s Top Book Award for Foreign Writers on China
In June, I was one of the recipients of the Special Book Award of China, of which the official description is:
“The Special Book Award of China, sponsored by the National Press and Publication Administration of the People’s Republic of China, is the highest national award given to those who have made outstanding contributions in introducing contemporary China and promoting Chinese publications and related cultural products overseas. It is awarded to international translators, publishers and authors.”
Including this year, the award has been given to 188 people from 62 countries since its establishment in 2005. This year’s awards were presented by Li Shulei, a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
The Special Book Award of China is a state prize. However, my book “Don’t Misunderstand China’s Economy” was selected in June 2018 in the Catalogue of China’s Key Publications by China’s Communist Party. Key sections of that book were published in English in “China’s Great Road: Lessons for Marxist Theory and Socialist.”
To have received recognition for my work both from the Chinese state and from the CPC is something of which I am simultaneously proud and humbled. It poses issues of relations to China’s state and to the CPC which forms part of the reflections which follow. These issues, as will be seen, are posed both for non-socialists and socialists.
What is important in this, naturally, is not me but the international issues involved and therefore people’s relation to and responsibilities regarding them – although at the end I will give one purely personal observation. Discussing these questions for audiences outside China has the aim of attempting to clarify what is the sheer scale in terms of global impact of China’s present development – a world shaping event. For audiences inside China, because I am not Chinese, discussing these questions is aimed to try to help in progressing the issue of clarifying what is not only China’s indispensable “national regeneration” but what is universal in its achievement for humanity.
In reality these two issues are inseparably connected because, as Xi Jinping put it precisely in his first public speech after being elected as General Secretary of the CPC, as regards China itself: “Our responsibility is… to pursue the goal of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, so that China can stand firmer and stronger among the world’s nations, and make new and greater contributions to mankind.”
China’s universal human achievements
To start with the decisive facts of international significance. China has lifted more than 850 million people out of internationally defined poverty. This is more than twice the population of the United States, more than the population of the European Union, more than the entire population of the continent of Latin America. When this was accomplished, it was over 70% of those lifted from such poverty globally. This is by far the greatest contribution made to real human rights by any country.
Turning from the poorest to the average for its people, China has achieved by far the most rapid increase in living standards of the greatest number of people in human history. To grasp the scale of this, in 1949 China was almost the world’s poorest country – only 10 states had a lower per capita GDP. Next year or the following one China will achieve “high income” status by international classification. The effect of this for China’s people’s lives is not only a question of their immediate living standards but of all the advantages it means in terms of education, health, culture, travel, ability for social interaction, real ability to take choices in life, and innumerable other aspects of human well-being.
To grasp the scale of what this means for humanity as a whole, the existing population of high-income economies is only 16% of the world. China by itself is 18%. In short, the People’s Republic of China will have lifted more people to the advantages of the level of a high-income than all other countries in human history put together.
The claim, sometimes made by those who wish to criticise China, that these incredible achievements, which have no parallel in scale in human history, were purely economic and at the expense of China’s people is easily and factually shown to be a simple falsification. The best indicator of people’s overall well-being is average life expectancy – because this takes not only economic development, per capita GDP, but all positive factors (decent income, education, good health care, environmental protection etc), subtracts negative ones (poverty, poor health care, lack of education, environmental damage etc), and produces a single number. Such data shows people in China live significantly longer than would be expected from its per capita GDP – demonstrating China’s overall conditions are even better than its economic ones.
China’s national regeneration
Such achievements are immediately internationally and universally understandable in every country. But there are others which are specific to China. Every Chinese person knows these, but it is impossible for those outside China to understand it without grasping these facts and enormous efforts are made to conceal them from those outside China – precisely because of their significance. Therefore, at the expense of repeating things which those in China already know, it is necessary for an audience outside China to understand them – so they will be restated here.
For more than a hundred years before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, following the shameful anti-human war waged by Britain to force China to import opium and to seize Hong Kong, China was a country trampled on by foreign powers and armies. Between fifty and one hundred million Chinese people died as a direct or indirect result of these attacks by foreign powers and the armed invasions, civil wars, famines and chaos they produced.
It was directly to end this incredible human and national suffering that China took the road of socialism. Because practice on the greatest possible scale demonstrated it was only socialism which proved capable of doing so. As Xi Jinping succinctly summarized:
“In 1911, the revolution led by Sun Yat-sen overthrew the autocratic monarchy that had ruled China for several thousand years. But once the old system was gone, where China would go became the question. The Chinese people then started exploring long and hard for a path that would suit China’s national conditions. They experimented with constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarism, multi-party system and presidential government, yet nothing really worked. Finally, China took the path of socialism.”
To add details over and above the human suffering, China for that century did not even have the legal right to control its own territory with significant parts of it handed over to foreign powers in hypocritically named “concessions” – in reality extorted colonial land grabs.
Consequently, Mao Zedong’s famous words in 1949, “The Chinese people have stood up” resonated so precisely and completely in China and internationally because they graphically expressed that with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, created by the Chinese people through the victory of the CPC, a decisive end would be put to Chinese nation’s “hundred years of humiliation”.
But note carefully what Mao Zedong said as it makes a clear contrast and excellent contrast to the arrogance we hear every day from another county. Mao Zedong did not proclaim “now China will lead the world”, “China first”, “the world needs Chinese leadership”, or any other similar such assertion of China’s superiority to other countries – and therefore of the inferiority of others. It was a statement that in every sense – national, cultural, social, moral, economic and any other – China would not ever accept to be regarded as less than the equal of any other country. But it was no assertion of China’s superiority, and therefore others inferiority – unlike declarations made every single day by United States leaders.
China certainly understands it is different to other countries – indeed, it knows and officially states that every country is different to every other. China expressed no desire or path to arrogantly impose its model on others. China openly states every other country is different from one another and that they are equal. Therefore “equal”, “different”, “cooperating” are the essential concepts expressed by China – not the “leader”, “led”, “superior”, “inferior” arrogance of the U.S..
As Xi Jinping put this theoretical concept in more directly human terms:
“As early as over 2,000 years ago, the Chinese people came to recognize that ‘it is natural for things to be different.’… civilizations are equal, and such equality has made exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations possible…. No civilization is perfect on the planet. Nor is it devoid of merit… All civilizations are crystallizations of mankind’s diligence and wisdom. Every civilization is unique… History proves that only by interacting with and learning from others can a civilization enjoy full vitality.”
In that international framework, China having achieved the gigantic progress in its own “national rejuvenation”, and the well-being of its own people, who constitute almost one fifth of humanity, China is also now certainly playing a key role in universal challenges to humanity. A key example is one of the two threats with the ability to eliminate the current basis of human civilization – climate change. The struggle against this involves not only China’s domestic policies but, for example, that it is China’s manufacturing prowess and progress which has internationally made renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels, laying one of the indispensable bases for a struggle affecting all humanity.
Socialism and the CPC
To summarize these issues, and many more could be added, in only just over 70 years, a single lifetime, China has gone from being almost the world’s poorest country to one which has achieved the advantages of high-income standards for its people, it has ended one hundred years of national humiliation and oppression, and is playing a crucial role in the decisive challenges facing the whole of humankind. Such an achievement is of the type which every developing country, which include more than 80% of the world’s population, aspires to achieve. And if they did make such similar achievements a gigantic step forward would be taken for all of humanity.
In terms of what this means for the Chinese people, it was well put by a Chinese friend when she said for young people it meant “how incredibly lucky to be a Chinese person in this era”. It is completely impossible to understand China, or its dynamics, without clearly grasping what a gigantic step forward for the Chinese people was created by the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and its development. Compared to what had existed for a century before young people are indeed “incredibly lucky to be a Chinese person in this era”.
For Western capitalist commentators this means that they completely fail to understand the internal dynamics within China, and the attitude of China’s population to the CPC, if they fail to understand what a gigantic step forward in the lives of China’s population has been achieved. For the international socialist left, it equally cannot understand the dynamics of the left in China, and its attitude to, and positive evaluation of, and orientation to the CPC unless they equally grasp what a huge step forward has been achieved by the Chinese people.
All this was achieved by a socialist country. It shows that in the real-world socialism is not some “pie in the sky” for the future but the most successful solution for today’s problems. As an open socialist myself this is a decisive vindication of the argument regarding socialism’s superiority for humanity. But also for non-socialists the extraordinary scale of these processes, which affect the whole of humanity, means that no accurate view of the world can be formed without absorbing and evaluating them.
There is also no ambiguity as to which organisation has led this. It is the Communist Party of China. Therefore, any view of the CPC is inseparable from an accurate evaluation of these processes. The CPC makes no claim to omniscience and infallibility. On the contrary the 1981 “Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China”, and 2021’s “Resolution of the CPC Central Committee on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century”, contain more objective self-evaluation than any comparable documents produced by major Western political parties. But it does rightly note the “great success” in achieving the goals of “national rejuvenation” of China. Some, but far from all, of these have been noted above.
Those outside China should state an objective fact which the CPC itself does not claim in these resolutions, which are concerned primarily with national domestic questions, but which is true. Because China is such an enormous country it is a reality which must be faced up to. It is that the CPC has improved the position of by far the largest number of people of any political party in human history. This is not a statement of an overheated Chinese patriot, or even a socialist. It is just a statement of fact. And anyone who wants to comprehend either China or the world, or wishes to engage with China, has to understand this fact. Otherwise, they do not understand or accurately engage with reality.
The first challenge in “the West” – the threat of war
The processes noted above are obviously world shaping facts. They consequently also pose extraordinary challenges to those outside China both in practice and ideas. Only some of these can be dealt with here, but even by themselves they show the scale of the issues involved and the responsibilities which every person outside China faces.
First, the single most urgent and greatest threat to the world is the consequences of the reality that governments and media in the “Global North” refuse to admit and to face up to the facts. By doing so they live in a world of denial of reality. This, in its geopolitical consequences, literally threatens humanity with catastrophe. Most specifically the threat of a World War whose nuclear dimension would mean that its consequences would dwarf every other conflict in human history combined.
To understand this threat, and its relations to misrepresentations, inaccuracies and falsifications regard the reality of China, simply recall the disastrously ignorant miscalculation with which Hitler rationalised his decision to attack the USSR in 1941: “We only need to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure would come crashing down.” This ignorant miscalculation was used to unleash the largest war in human history – producing incredible human suffering before the total destruction of Hitler’s own regime. Today, refusal to face the facts of China’s success, repeated nonsense with no factual basis in the U.S. about impending “crashes” in China, deliberate excluding of the U.S. population from accurate knowledge about China, the open contemplation by some U.S. circles of a war with China, and similar trends threatens humanity with a similar miscalculation – but one that would have consequences many times worse than Hitler’s.
It was noted regarding U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s recent trip to China that: “’The secretary emphasised the importance of diplomacy and maintaining open channels of communication across the full range of issues to reduce the risk of misperception and miscalculation,’ state department spokesman Matthew Miller said.” This is correct and wise advice. But it is not sufficient to safeguard humanity from great risks if accurate perception is confined to a small handful of diplomats and if every day U.S. politicians and media pours out falsifications and inaccurate information regarding China and when they try to further reduce the chances of any recognition of its reality by visa bans, limits on U.S. figures visiting China, refusal to allow Chinese political analysts and scholars in the U.S. and other means.
Nuclear war is the second great threat which would destroy the existing basis of human civilization. It would directly annihilate the bulk of the population of the Global North, its indirect consequences would devastate the Global South and the entire planet. This threat of a war from the U.S. against China, openly discussed by circles within it, and which would have every chance of becoming nuclear, is made much more possible by the systematic refusal of the U.S. to acknowledge or face facts. Today this is the most urgent existential threat which faces humanity. It is for that reason that I devote my personal political energies to the international “No Cold War” campaign – because the new “cold” war waged by the U.S. is the first step towards a hot war.
This also means that against such falsifications China is defending not only itself but the common human value of truth. It therefore has a common interest with all in all interested in this, whether socialist or non-socialist and it should, therefore, prize all those who are willing to find and state this. The U.S. media and government is devoting enormous resources to falsification and attempts to conceal reality. China, on the contrary, has an interest in the truth – not in exaggeration but in accuracy. While regarding persons modesty is a virtue, in very serious matters there is no virtue in over statement or understatement, no virtue in arrogance and no virtue in excessive modesty, no virtue in optimism and no virtue in pessimism – there is only a virtue in realism and accuracy. China’s interests, which corresponds to that universal human reality, is not to exaggerate in any direction but simply to state the truth.
The responsibility to find out and tell the truth
Second, this global reality and situation poses the responsibility of all those outside China. I dislike the term “intelligentsia” as it implies that those in a certain social layer think more than others! But it is certainly the most fundamental job of thought, of intellectual work which can be carried out by everyone, to find out and to state the truth. The reality is that large parts of the governments and media of the “Global North” devote their energies not to trying to find out the truth but instead to trying to hide it – which is not merely wrong in itself but with the extremely dangerous consequences for humanity noted above. And they viciously persecute those who find out or publicise the truth. This applies not only to the lies about China but to other revelations of reality. We may take as immediate cases Daniel Ellsberg, who just died, charged with espionage for revealing in the Pentagon Papers the truth about U.S. policy in Vietnam, or Julian Assange, threatened today with life imprisonment for revealing the truth about U.S. war crimes. These, and other analysts and writers, are people who do real “intellectual” work in the West.
Third, to speak about a much smaller group, but one which relates to a key development for humanity and is of particular importance to the present writer – economists.
China’s is by far the most rapidly growing, and most rapidly improving of the lives of its people, of any economy in human history. Following the method of science, as China puts it to “seek truth from facts”, it follows that learning the reasons for this success (not of course attempting impossibly to mechanically copy it) is the most crucial job for economists in the world today – particularly urgently for developing countries. As always, it is from the most successful that the most can be learned. Instead, we have the bizarre situation of Western economists attempting to tell the world’s most successful developing economy, China, that it is doing something wrong and that it should change and become more like other less successful economies.
Both academic journals and supposedly serious economic and business media such as The Economist, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal are full of statements that are factually inaccurate and analyses that entirely fail to accurately predict factual trends. It is true that this, particularly by the mass media, gives personal opportunities to make money – the present author for many years made an income by providing more accurate information than in the Western economic/business media. But this does not alter the much more serious matter of the damage that such media do by inaccurate information and analysis both in hindering countries in how to develop their own economies and in creating the lack of information regarding the real situation in China that has already been referred to. It is therefore necessary to fight to counter such behaviour with accurate information.
Socialists in different parts of the world
Regarding socialists, they live in a world where, as already noted, it has been demonstrated in practice that in a single lifetime the people of almost the world’s poorest country can advance to the advantages of a high-income economy, national independence and dignity – the dream of every developing state. Socialists therefore don’t have to make purely theoretical arguments, they can point to what has been achieved by one fifth of the world’s population.
At a mass scale it has also been clear for over a century that it is the situation in the socialist countries and Global South which has driven progressive developments, or lack of them, in the Global North – the imperialist countries to give them their proper name. Looking at the last century, the working class in the Global North failed to stop European fascism – that was above all achieved by the Soviet Union. It was socialist revolution in China which was the first gigantic step forward for progressive forces after World War II – the most powerful step in an entire new era in the struggle against colonial Empires and imperialism. It was the defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam, a victory by the Vietnamese people but in which China’s support played a key role for that country, which led to the last great advance of progressive forces in the Global North.
There continues to be no evidence that the working class and other progressive forces in the Global North are by themselves capable of defeating, or in most cases even successfully resisting the attacks on them, by the powerful imperialist ruling classes – as successive defeats of progressive forces in the Global North demonstrates. It is only in the socialist countries, of which by far the most powerful is China, and in parts of the Global South, that progressive forces have been able to advance. It is only further advances by these socialist countries, again of which by far the most powerful is China, and by forces in the Global South that will lead progressive forces in the Global North to advance. A directly practical conclusion follows from this: that it is the most important task of forces in the Global North to make it as difficult as possible for their own ruling classes to attack the socialist countries, in particular China, and to attack the Global South.
Socialist discussion in the Global North
To conclude with the region where the author was born, but not where he had his most important intellectual and political experiences – the Global North. The above realities also determine in this not only positive trends and accurate analyses of events but also regressions and confusion. These are precisely determined by how much these forces relate to the most fundamental trends on a world scale. We may take as examples the trajectory of the two most historically well-known socialist journals in the Global North – the British New Left Review (NLR) and the U.S. Monthly Review (MR). Their differentiation is inseparably linked to the way they are relating to China and the Global South.
One of the editors of NLR dedicated their book on Russia to Boris Yeltsin – who went on to lead the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union. Now the pages of NLR feature Victor Shih, of Chinese descent but a pro-capitalist opponent of China, and Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong leader of anti-Communist forces with links to Taiwan separatists. NLR is repeating with China its inability to understand, and in the end cheering for the wrong side, the forces that led the restoration of capitalism in the USSR.
In sharp contrast is MR. In earlier decades this played a key role in making extensively known to as wide an audience as possible China’s development – as well as Cuba’s revolution and numerous other significant struggles. Today MR is one of the key independent places in English seriously analysing China. Its columns also carry frequent analysis of the Global South from Tricontinental – which has become the most influential international centre in a non-socialist country systematically explaining the progressive trends in the Global South. Tricontinental itself, both in its own pages and in its English language edition of Wenhua Zongheng, is in a systematic dialogue not with pro-capitalist but with pro-socialist forces in China.
To summarise, this understanding of the role of socialist China is now a mass political trend in the Global South – as statements by numerous political leaders indicate. It is also the link to the most advanced currents in the Global North. In short, the relation to China’s socialism is reshaping progressive trends on a global scale – an international result which is not in contrast or contradiction to China’s national regeneration but is an outcome of it.
Finally, in the context of these gigantic events and social forces, how is an individual to situate themselves? This is a purely personal note and observation on receiving the prize from China. But every human being without exception has their own personal thoughts and not to acknowledge them is not to deal with all of reality – even if one’s own thoughts are entirely peripheral to the main forces of the world.
I may explain my personal reflections in the following way. There are two places in the world, of those to which I have been, that whenever I am there I cannot control my emotions – and tears inevitably come towards, or frequently into, my eyes. The first is the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Beijing. Because I know that tens of millions of Chinese people gave their lives in order to take their country from its “century of humiliation” to its present situation – a small part of which has been described above. The second is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow – because I know that 27 million Soviet people died not only to save their own country and socialism but to play the decisive role to liberate the whole of Europe from the threat of Nazism.
Flowing from these events there is a Russian custom I greatly admire. It is the one that on their wedding day a couple go to the war memorial to lay flowers. Because it signifies: “our happiness today is only possible because of what those people did, so that our people may have a future and be happy. So, in our happiness we also want to link to them, because it was only they who made it possible.”
No person can choose where they were born. All they can do is their best in whatever situation they found themselves in. Many tens of millions of people have paid with their lives so that humanity could advance. In the last one hundred years overwhelmingly the greatest number of these were in China and the former Soviet Union. Today the incredible suffering and heroism of the Chinese people, to repeat with the sacrifice of fifty and one hundred million lives, has created a party and then a state which in a single lifetime has taken their country from almost the poorest in the world to everything that has been described above. This is a gigantic victory not only for the Chinese people but for all humanity.
What anyone in the West today is asked to do is trivial in comparison. It starts simply from the need to tell the truth and to organise and to let people know the truth. That is what I tried to do: to try to analyse as accurately as I could the reasons for China’s success and to tell it to as many people as I was able. If I have played any role in helping other countries understand China and its incredible achievements, then I am very satisfied. The fact that I received this award from China means that, within the limits of my abilities, they think I did a good job – which is a source of deep personal satisfaction.
There remains one frustration. One of the great things for a human being about a political party is that it does not only have leaders, but others can try to join it to contribute whatever ability they have. What any Chinese person can do is to try to build the organisation, the CPC, that brought such steps forward not only for the Chinese people but for humanity.
But legally only a Chinese citizen can be a member of the CPC. That means not only in substance but formally the views I express are certainly only mine not those of the CPC. But I make no secret of the fact that if I fulfilled the legal criteria I would immediately apply to become a CPC member.
However, I certainly agree with the rule that only a Chinese citizen should be able to be a CPC member. So? I will have to be content with the prize as a second best!
Source: Monthly Review, 3 July 2023. https://mronline.org/2023/07/03/thoughts-on-the-significance-of-the-cpc-for-the-global-left/
The Chinese version of this article was published at Guancha.cn.
Also by John Ross
- Why China’s socialist economy is more efficient than capitalism by John Ross June 06, 2023
- “Peak China” – a new low in Western attempts to persuade China to commit suicide by John Ross May 23, 2023
- The First International issue of Wenhua Zongheng is a landmark event for the Global Left by John Ross April 15, 2023