China and the “left”: what planet are these people on?

As China’s ruling elite connives with European and American politicians to promote false climate “solutions” via the international talks, its defenders on the “left” claim it is aiming for an “ecological civilisation”.

A common approach is to foreground geopolitics: to present the trade war between the USA and China as part of the battle between capitalism and “socialism” and to sideline the class struggle in China.

The Chinese elite’s role in driving forward unsustainable capitalist expansion, so obscured and downplayed by its defenders on the “left”, is analysed by Richard Smith in his book China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse, which I discussed in a linked post, that you could read first.

In this post I contrast Smith’s approach to that of John Bellamy Foster, a writer on “ecological Marxism” and editor of Monthly Review, and comment on a review of Smith’s book by Andrew Burgin, a UK-based socialist activist. It’s in the form of five questions.


  1. Does the Chinese elite’s support for renewable electricity generation show that it is leading the way to an “ecological civilisation”?

The Chinese coal-fired boom of the last 20 years has made a substantial contribution to the climate and ecological emergency – and yet prominent “ecosocialists”, without reference to that boom and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s responsibility for it, accept at face value that party’s claims to be moving to “ecological civilisation”.

The role of China remains “crucial and contradictory”, the “ecological Marxist” John Bellamy Foster said in a recent keynote speech.

It is one of the most polluted and resource-hungry countries in the world, while its carbon emissions are so massive as to themselves constitute a global-scale problem. Nevertheless, China has done more than any other country thus far to develop alternative-energy technologies geared to the creation of what is officially [i.e. in China] referred to as an ecological civilisation.

At least, this time round, Foster made passing mention of those carbon emissions – although I haven’t found any other references to them in his writings. More often, he stresses that the renewables investment confirms that Chinese policy is moving the right way.

Foster starts a key 2015 article: “China’s leadership has called in recent years for the creation of a new ‘ecological civilisation’.” After reviewing CCP resolutions on this subject, Foster concludes: “There is no doubt that Chinese leadership has made significant steps toward a more sustainable development.”

As evidence he points to “the massive promotion of solar and wind technology”, “a growing share of non-fossil-fuel energy consumption”, as well as reductions in economic growth targets, new targets for carbon intensity of GDP, farmland protection and anti-pollution measures.

In 2017, in an article presenting “a Marxian view” of “the earth system crisis and ecological civilisation”, Foster pointed to China as a possible site for the launch of a “world ecological revolution”. China stood at a turning point, he argued: while “promoting very high rates of growth with the attendant horrendous economic problems”, it had also “raised the issue of ‘ecological civilisation’ and taken huge steps at shifting resources and technology towards environmental amelioration”. And:

[China] is known for some of the most serious forms of environmental damage on earth, while at the same time no country seems to be accelerating so rapidly into the new world of alternative energy.

“The massive promotion of wind and solar technology.” “Huge steps at shifting resources and technology.” “Seems to be accelerating […] into the new world of alternative energy.”

It is difficult to capture the hollowness of these statements, made in the shadow of the greatest expansion of coal burning in world history.

In 2010, at the end of China’s first decade of accelerated growth, coal production was 3428 million tonnes, compared to 1384 million tonnes in 2000. The incremental output in 2010 – 2044 million tonnes – was more than the entire world’s coal output in 1960, at the height of the post-war boom.

Each year in the decade 2001-2010, China added to its coal output almost twice as much as Great Britain produced in total in 1870 (100 million tonnes), when it was a coal-driven hegemon. Between 2010 and 2015, China’s annual coal output rose by a further 318 million tonnes (about twice Poland’s total) to 3746 million tonnes.

Talk of “the massive promotion of wind and solar technology”, without discussing it in this context, is a monstrous delusion.

And what does “massive” mean, anyway? In 2016, energy supply from renewables in China was one-thirtieth of the supply from coal – a big improvement on 2000, when it was one-thousandth, but in volume terms dwarfed by coal’s expansion. (Those are my calculations from IEA energy statistics.)

Certainly, there have been substantial investments in wind and solar – but as in western countries that have done the same (e.g. Germany, Spain and the UK) these are puny compared to the ongoing support for fossil fuels. Even today, fossil fuels account for more than 85% of China’s primary energy supply.

The graph shows the increase in renewable energy use in China, compared to the increase in fossil fuel use.

The huge ramp-up of coal use in China this century is a factor in the climate and ecological crisis into which international capitalism has plunged the world. Discussion of the CCP’s pretensions to “ecological civilisation”, without taking this into account, plays into a false narrative. It strips words of their meaning. It obstructs discussion about how to resist the effects of that crisis and those who are exacerbating it.


  1. Is the relationship of the Chinese bureaucratic system and capitalism a key factor in the global climate emergency?

The strength of Richard Smith’s book, China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse, is that – in contrast to those who take the CCP’s talk of “ecological civilisation” at face value – he interrogates the way that, in its relationship with capitalism, the CCP has fed into the climate and ecological crisis. (I described some of his arguments in the linked post.)

It’s a great shame, then, that the first substantial review of Smith’s book from the “left” caricatures his attitude to capitalism and avoids serious discussion of the causes and consequences of the coal-fired boom.

The review, by Andrew Burgin on the Public Reading Rooms web site, attributes to Smith the view that a move from bureaucratically-directed capitalism (or whatever you want to call it – I’m agnostic about the labels) to “normal” capitalism is essential:

For Smith, China’s inability to protect its environment lies with state central planning and the absence of the profit motive. Under ‘normal’ capitalism a decline in profits will lead to a decline in production and a limit to growth. For Smith this is a necessary and essential step [from planning to ‘normal’ capitalism] to save the planet.

This parody of Smith’s view might give the impression that he favours “normal” capitalism against China’s bureaucratic-capitalist mashup. But that’s not true.

Smith does indeed point to ways in which bureaucratic, rather than market, incentives, exacerbate the frightful environmental damage done by the Chinese economy. The investment incentives for coal-fired power, and big unnecessary infrastructure projects, are two cases in point.

But while Smith, in his attempts to understand and explain the Chinese mashup, repeatedly compares it to “normal” capitalism, in the political part of the book (chapters 6 and 7) he keeps repeating that he has no faith in any type of capitalism to confront the ecological crisis. For example, on page 194:

One way or another, the CCP is headed for the dustbin of history. […] Yet however it falls, my contention here is that transitioning to capitalist democracy is not enough to save China or the world from climate collapse because no capitalism, green or otherwise, can accept the drastic changes we need to make to save ourselves.

There are other similar quotes in the linked post.

Burgin’s readers, left with the impression that Smith is some sort of advocate of capitalism, may well turn away from the vital questions he raises. Not a good outcome.

The issue Smith points to is that – despite, and/or because of, the elements of state direction of the economy – China has given a massive push to the climate and ecological crisis. Any meaningful description of China’s relationship with world capitalism has to explain this fact.


  1. Is “economic growth” in China a good thing?

Andrew Burgin writes:

Smith appears to be arguing that it is economic growth in itself which poses the central problem for humanity and that the protection of the planet and our future on it requires us to produce and consume less. This may be a possible strategy for sections of the population in the more advanced capitalist economies but it will not work for the impoverished billions in the Global South who understandably seek a better standard of living.

The first sentence sounds right: Smith thinks – and so do I – that humanity, through the medium of the global economy, needs to produce and consume less. But this is

Chinese factory workers

obviously a general statement about the world. It does not imply that I think that billions of people in the global south should not seek a better standard of living. Smith is big enough to talk up for himself, but there is nothing in his book to suggest that he thinks that, either.

Now here are some questions for Burgin.

Is our collective imagination really so barren that we can not envisage a world where the economy produces less (and therefore, in total, less is “consumed” (a word that itself needs to be broken down)), and, at the same time, the living standards of people in the global south – and large numbers of people in the global north, too – improve?

Is our imagination so empty that we can not understand the idea of living better, without that necessarily meaning more stuff (and by stuff I don’t mean food, clothing, shelter or any of the beautiful things in life, I mean the carbon-intensive commodities churned out by the capitalist economy)?

This is not a new conversation in social and labour movements. Hasn’t Andrew Burgin heard of it before?

I recall an incident at the Climate Camp in London in 2009, at a discussion session on capitalism and global warming attended by about 1000 people.

The Marxist writer David Harvie, responding to environmental “minimalists” who advocated restraining consumption, said: “I am not going to go and say to a billion Chinese people, ‘you have to make do with less’. I am going to tell them: ‘you should have more’. [Shocked outrage from a quarter of the audience.] The question is: more of what?”

When I started writing this blog in 2011, I commented on this (here, see section 6):

My answer to “more of what?”, which I think is close to Harvie’s own answer, would be along these lines: 1. The basic means of subsistence (far from guaranteed to all Chinese families in 2011) must be secured for people in China and everywhere else, which can be done more than adequately with the existing level of technology. 2. People will become truly wealthy – i.e. they will lead full, fruitful and creative lives – as consumption is freed from the constraints of necessity and from the deformities of commodification. Abundance will come to be considered as the ability both to produce and consume through unalienated social relationships. Once embarking on a movement towards such an end, people in China and elsewhere will think very differently about what abundance is – in ways that it is hard for us, living under capitalism, to visualise.


  1. Has the Chinese state “developed the productive forces” in a way that weakens capitalism?

Western leftist enthusiasts for China are fond of pointing to the “development of productive forces” achieved under the CCP. Burgin writes:

Despite repressive and authoritarian elements within the political system in China, the CCP maintains support because of the development of the productive forces and the consequent improvements in people’s cultural and material life.

Burgin writes that Marxists who consider China to be a capitalist social formation need to explain “how under capitalism has such a massive development of the productive forces taken place?”

I would suggest we go back a step, and ask what we mean by “development of the productive forces” in the first place. For Marx, the productive forces comprised humanity’s natural surroundings, the instruments of labour used by humans to take what they need from those surroundings, and the people using those instruments of labour (in capitalist society, the working class). Marx envisaged that the more capitalist social relations shaped, mis-shaped and constrained these forces of production, the sharper would grow the tension between them.

Throughout the twentieth century, these meanings were almost lost to Marxists witnessing the travails of the Soviet Union and China. Those countries’ leaders subordinated everything to industrialisation, and to increasing labour productivity, By reducing the idea of “the development of productive forces” to these goals, many western Marxists lost sight of its broader meaning.

It was as though Marx had never written chapter 15 of Capital volume 1, where he explains how capital turns dead labour, in the form of machines, into tyranny over living labour; as though he had never railed against that tyranny and written, “the instrument of labour strikes down the labourer”.

To understand modern China, I think we need to recover this understanding of the way that capitalist social relations corrode, control and pervert the productive forces, in the very process of production turning them against humanity. If this is not what is happening on building sites erecting ghost cities, in prison-like factories producing i-Phones for the international market, and in mines (with the world’s worst safety record) ripping out climate-trashing coal to be wastefully burned, I don’t know what is.

In other words, we need to distinguish between the “development of the productive forces”, and the vastly more complex process of change in China. There has been breakneck industrialisation and breakneck urbanisation. While labour has been cheap enough to flood the world market with Chinese products, the fear of workers’ action – even under an authoritarian, anti-union government – has, as far as I understand, driven up wage levels in many sectors, to the extent that labour in other Asian countries is in some cases far cheaper.

But this economic expansion is two sided. The benefit of Richard Smith’s research is that he examines its destructive, anti-human side: the super-exploitation of tens of millions of newly-urbanised workers; the environmental havoc, on a scale that dwarfs what Marx observed in 19th-century England; and the consequences in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, which was fully understood by the CCP as they ordered the sinking of countless coal mines … but is only now becoming visible to most Chinese people in the form of storms, rising sea level and the desertification of parts of the interior.

It would be a bad mistake to mis-identify China’s economic growth as “the development of the productive forces”. And an even worse mistake to mis-use that Marxist label to justify policies that contribute so much to intensifying exploitation and exacerbating the climate danger.


  1. Does the Chinese state embody something revolutionary or anti-capitalist, to be protected from capitalism? If so, what?

John Foster, writing in October last year (in the introduction to a special issue of Monthly Review on China), claimed that Xi Jinping is “reviving the role of Marxian political economy”, and:

All the signs are that China is seeking to defend the strategic noncapitalist elements of its system as a response to the growing hostility of imperial capital at the centre of the world economy.

These elements were socialist, he suggested in his 2017 article: in contrast to the “capitalist road” taken by former Soviet states, China, while “clearly taking the ‘capitalist road’ to socialism, never completely renounced its socialist goals, nor gave up on the planning system entirely”.

What he does not explain or discuss is how the state control and direction of the economy – which is presumably what he means by “strategic noncapitalist elements” – has not reduced, and, as Smith has shown, is in many respects intensifying, the exploitation of Chinese working people and the natural world in which all people live.

Andrew Burgin contrasts China to the former Soviet states:

China has managed to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union; it has navigated a different course by integrating within the global economy in a way that the Soviet Union never was. It is an economic peer of the US and by 2040 its economy is projected to be twice the size of the US economy.

The first point here is that the frightful prospect of unmitigated economic growth, in the context of the world capitalist economy – with the associated human and ecological damage – does not seem to scare Burgin as much as it scares me.

The second point is that comparisons of China and the former USSR can be facile. Meaningful analysis would consider both the differences and the similarities.

Clearly the horrendous slump and hyperinflation of the early 1990s in Russia and Ukraine, as Soviet industries collapsed, and the exacerbation of the demographic and health crises that began in late Soviet times, were in many ways outcomes of the collapse of the USSR. But the economic stagnation that prepared the ground for them was a Soviet phenomenon.

At that time the Chinese government, having repressed the Tiananmen square generation of protesters in a way the Soviet authorities were unable to do, was preparing for its own opening to the market. Urban workers were always protected from unemployment by the state firms. But that protection persisted in parts of Russia too – not to mention Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, where state institutions were not turned upside down in the way they were in European former Soviet states.

A comparative study of employment, underemployment and precarious employment in the former USSR and China would probably reveal as many similarities and differences. This was two very different versions of opening up to the market – but opening up it was, in both cases.

The comparisons would anyway be limited by the ways in which the Chinese and former Soviet labour forces are worlds apart: the one many times larger, cheaper and less urbanised than the other.

As for the state: the Soviet state collapsed and the Chinese state did not. Even as it opened up to capitalism, the Chinese state retained control of the banking system and some key branches of the economy. But as of 2021, while the manner of its integration into world capitalism is very different from Russia’s, the fact of integration is not.

Richard Smith’s book examines the manner of this integration, in the context of the severe rupture of the relationship between humans and nature of which China’s coal-fired boom is part. The developmental achievements of the Chinese state (gains in health, literacy, electrification, poverty reduction and so on) do not cancel out the harsh reality of this integration, or the Chinese elite’s role in it.

That is what Smith is trying to start a discussion about, and some people are not listening. GL, 15 January 2021.

■ If you have got this far and you have not read the linked post, “China: Xi Jinping’s coal stokes the climate fire”, I recommend it.

Download both posts as a PDF here


On People & Nature:

China’s coal-fuelled boom: the man who cried stop

China: collective resistance against i-Slavery

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2 Responses to China and the “left”: what planet are these people on?

  1. […] (“China: Xi Jinping’s Coal Stokes the Climate Fire,” The Ecologist, January 22, 2021; “China and the ‘Left’: What Planet Are These People On?,” People and Nature, January 15, 2021), Levy promotes Smith’s book and attacks MR editor John […]

  2. Reblogged this on Aleph's Heretical Domain and commented:
    A very good critique of the ecosocialist blind spot regarding China. As someone increasingly interested in ecosocialism and taking it seriously, I’m troubled by their willingness to embrace China as a model for ecological civilization despite it being anything but.

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