Solidarity with China doesn’t mean closing our eyes to painful realities
In this Dec. 3, 2018, file photo, a guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a section of the 'Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center' in Artux, in China's Xinjiang region. | AP

It’s no wonder that China is in the crosshairs of imperialism, both U.S. and European. Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, the nation has over the past few decades built itself up from poverty to become the world’s second-largest economy, with an incredible rise in living standards. With its expanding trade and influence, it is now the chief counterweight to imperialism, much as the Soviet Union was for decades.

So it’s no surprise that the U.S. and the European Union are moving to “contain” China, attacking it on ideological, political, economic, and even military fronts. Progressives, therefore, have a clear duty to exercise their solidarity with China and to defend its legitimate interests and the place it has earned in the world. This includes standing up for China’s rights in the South China Sea and for its “Belt and Road” program that has the potential of pulling many other nations out of poverty.

In exercising that responsibility, however, progressives, and above all Communists, need to heed the lessons that we learned—or should have learned—from our history with the Soviet Union and its allies. From the very beginning of Soviet power, imperialism and its flacks in the mass media attacked the Soviet Union on the issue of human rights and civil liberties. This ideological campaign against Soviet socialism—and socialism generally—did not shrink from fabrications, going as far, in the Soviet Union’s early days, as accusing Lenin of “nationalizing women.” There’s no question that the capitalist world’s reportage on the USSR was heavily biased and inaccurate.

Communists, and many other progressives, responded to this “human rights” campaign by flatly denying all allegations against the Soviet Union on issues of human rights, civil liberties, and democracy. In our eyes, the Soviet Union, and later its allies, including (for a considerable time) China, were models of democracy and freedom. All reports of repression, labor camps, and the like were rejected and discounted as fabrications of imperialist propaganda.

The text of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ denouncing the crimes of Joseph Stalin, printed in the June 5, 1956 edition of the Daily Worker, predecessor of People’s World. Henry Millstein argues that Communists and progressives cannot make the same mistake of turning a blind eye to uncomfortable situations in socialist countries today that they made with respect to the Soviet Union under Stalin. | People’s World Archives

When in 1956 the Soviet leadership finally admitted the truth (or at least a substantial part of it), we learned—or should have learned—an important lesson: that we could not assume that negative reports in capitalist media about the socialist world were necessarily false. Anti-Soviet and anti-Communist outlets did not always have to fabricate their reports on negative aspects of socialist reality. Many people in the Communist movement, including in the Communist Party USA, must have felt they had to eat crow, and many in fact left because of the 1956 revelations.

While the CPUSA of course survived, it did suffer considerable losses in membership and credibility. And apparently the lesson from these events was only partially learned: During the period of Soviet glasnost in the 1980s, we once again found that we had to admit that much of what we had strenuously denied about the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc, especially in regard to democracy and civil liberties, was in fact true.

That does not mean, of course, that everything the capitalist media claimed about the socialist world was true—far from it. We had, and have, good reason to view capitalist reportage about socialism with a critical eye. Nor can we become so preoccupied with the faults of the socialist world that we forget the terrible evils committed by the U.S. government and ruling circles, including its massively destructive—one could even say genocidal—wars against China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia and the Korean peninsula (and elsewhere) and its long history of racism, enslavement, and genocide against Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and others, up to the present day police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others—and the list could go on and on. We must never forget that, as progressives in “the belly of the beast,” our first and overriding responsibility must be to combat the crimes committed by U.S. imperialism and its allies and surrogates.

Nonetheless, the lesson of the history I just summarized is that the “critical eye” with which we must view capitalist reportage about socialist countries is not the same as automatic denial. When we read or hear reports about negative features of socialist reality, even from sources that we rightly view with some skepticism, we need to sift them to determine their truth or falsity; to label them fabrications or distortions out of hand can be as perilous as swallowing them wholesale.

In light of this problem, I want to discuss the Sept. 16 article by Daniel Renken published by People’s World titled “Media narratives about China endanger world peace.” I applaud the intent of this article: to warn against imperialist intrigues against China and call for resistance to them. Unfortunately, however, Renken falls into the trap I mentioned concerning controversial actions by the Chinese leadership.

Here I will focus on one issue: the imprisonment of up to a million Muslim Uyghurs and the suppression of their culture and religion. Renken attempts to refute this allegation; he believes, and wants us to believe, that all the reports of this affair stem from one anti-Communist writer or from the CIA propaganda outlet Radio Free Asia.

Recent articles on China and Xinjiang:

Why the sudden interest in the Uighurs of China’s Xinjiang region?

Will Trump blunder into a war with China?

China: 70 years of building socialism in the People’s Republic

U.S. public gets fake news about China’s alleged anti-Muslim campaign

Unfortunately, Renken’s contention is quite simply false; the painful reality of the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghurs has been amply documented by a great variety of sources, not all of which can be dismissed as outlets of imperialist propaganda. The UN Human Rights Commission maintains that it has credible reports that one million or more Uyghurs are being held in what resembles a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.” These reports stem from interviews from former inmates of the camps and from satellite photos of a multitude of camps in the Uyghur region as they were being constructed and afterwards.

BuzzFeed News has a lengthy investigative report on the situation of the Uyghurs, including both interviews with former detainees and photos of the camps. The former inmates reported that they they were subjected to torture, hunger, overcrowding, solitary confinement, forced birth control, and a range of other abuses, including being forbidden to speak their native language and forced to work without pay. There is no shortage of reports from other sources quite consistent with this one, based on first-hand testimony and photographic documentation.

There is virtually no doubt as to the reality of this situation—and I have not included all that could be said.

In this Aug. 31, 2018, photo, children play outside the entrance to a school near a sign which reads “Please use the official national language” indicating the use of Mandarin, in Peyzawat, western China’s Xinjiang region. | Ng Han Guan / AP

In fairness to the Chinese leadership, it must be admitted that China faces a real and serious problem with extremism and terrorism among elements of the Uyghur and other Muslim peoples; extremist attacks in the region have over the past decade caused several hundred deaths. The Chinese government maintains that all its measures are in response to this threat and that the camps are simply for benign re-education and job training.

Reports from former inmates and photos of the camps—obviously prisons with guard towers and tightly-packed cells—belie such claims. I would argue that the reality of the threat of terrorism cannot justify the magnitude and the intensity of the toll on the Uyghur population. Former Communist Party USA Chairman Henry Winston argued decades ago that China’s then-Maoist leadership was influenced by Han Chinese nationalism (“Maoist Violation of the Right of Self-Determination,” in Strategy for a Black Agenda, 1973); I’d argue there’s room to wonder if the current Chinese leadership might to some degree still be similarly encumbered.

What are we as progressives and partisans of socialism to do in this situation? It should be obvious that simple denial will not do; nor, if we are to be true to our principles, including Leninist standards on the treatment of nations, we cannot simply acquiesce in the Chinese government’s actions in this case.

Somehow, we must balance our duty of solidarity with socialist China against imperialism and an acknowledgement of—and, I would argue, protest against—the painful reality of its wrongs. How can we acknowledge both the great accomplishments and the failings of China, or for that matter of other socialist countries? I wish I had a definitive answer to these questions. I am sure, however, that we must start by being willing to face up to awkward realities.

Like all op-eds published in People’s World, this article represents the opinions of its author.


Henry Millstein
Henry Millstein

Hank Millstein is a long-time peace and labor activist. He's a fiction writer and journalist and a member of the National Writers Union.