China’s Global Rise and Neoimperialism: Attitudes and Actualities
The Placement of Discussion
When discussing about “colonialism” and “imperialism,” one is immediately related to the policy and practice of domination of Western powerful nations over Africa, America, and many parts of Asia in the past history. Western imperialism and colonialism have been seen by Marxist critical schools of theory, such as the dependency theory and world-systems theory, as the most important factor in causing underdevelopment in the Global South. Underdevelopment is a situation that has been systematically created by colonist exploitation (Frank 1966).
According to critical scholars, one of the distinctive features of Third World industrialization process is the fact that unlike European industrialization, such a process was taking place alongside already industrialized Western countries and was therefore tied to these colonial masters by various socioeconomic and sociopolitical relations. In line with their conceptual understanding, the global system is not a uniform marketplace (free market) with actors freely making mutually beneficial decision and interaction, rather, the system has been historically shaped into powerful central and weak peripheral economies with the former playing an active and dominant role and the latter a passive and reflexive role, i.e., structural asymmetrical relationship. It is thus assumed that imperialism, which is the mechanism of domination, still exists and still keeps Third World countries from developing, leading to worldwide uneven development. The developed economies of the Northern Hemisphere of the world especially Western Europe and the USA have been at the gaining end of the parasitic and asymmetrical relationship between the wealthy North and the impoverished South.
In the case of China, the European “Age of Imperialism” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was driven by similar economic imperativeness. It coincided with the Chinese “Age of Humiliation,” which refers to the “Century of Humiliation” (1839–1949). The period from the first Sino-British Opium War (1839) to the end of the Chinese Civil War (1949) marked the political incursion, economic exploitation, and military aggression by Western imperialist countries, which undermined the historical glory of the Chinese civilization and humiliated the Chinese nation. China itself was a victim of Western imperialism’s pursuit of overseas market and surplus.
The penetration of Western imperialism and the Chinese struggle against imperialism were the central components of its modern history (Ding et al. 1973; Fairbank 1992; Hu 1955). Ever since the last Chinese Qing Empire gradually collapsed as a result of the Sino-British “Opium War,” such a history of humiliation has been embedded in the national memory of the aggression and invasion by Western imperialist powers. “Anti-imperialism” reached its initial political climax in the aftermath of World War I, in which China, the allied winner of the war, had to accept the Treaty of Versailles arrangement by Western imperialist powers to grant Japan the right to take over from Germany the resource-rich province, Shandong, which was also the birthplace of Confucius. Since then, “anti-imperialism” became one of the core national missions and the symbol of the Chinese Revolution (Li 2018b).
“Anti-imperialism” continued to be Chinese Communist Party’s uninterrupted undertaking even after the founding of new China in 1949. The major internal political movements and external international conflicts and wars in the following decades were in many ways inseparable from the anti-imperialism mission, such as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cultural Revolution, the China-Soviet split, the export of revolution to China’s neighbors, economic and political support to African and Third World independent movements, etc. “Anti-imperialism” had been, among others, the most frequently used political terms in China shaping both its domestic and international politics until the economic reform started in the late 1970s.
However, since the 2000s the world is witnessing the rise of a different China: the country’s size, population, and its integration in the world economy have contributed to both prospects and uncertainties; its currency has been a subject of contention; its trade has raised concerns for both developed and developing countries; its demand for energy resources has led to competition and conflict; and the effects of its overseas investments in the Global South have begun to be felt across the world. Beijing’s economic performance and its policies on finance, currency, trade, security, environment issues, resource management, food security, raw material, and commodity prices are bearing worldwide implications beyond its boundary. Suddenly, China, a historical victim of Western imperialism, is finding itself to be a “middle kingdom” surrounded by jealousy, admiration, anxiety, worry, and even resentment. It is in this context that the global attention and discussion on “Chinese imperialism” began to emerge.
Furthermore, since 2013 China’s Belt and Road Initiative has added lots of input into the global debates (Li 2018a). Some observers view it as “an imperial project” or as an imperial move toward “restoring its historical status as Asia’s dominant power (Griffiths 2017; Millward 2018). In addition, China’s industrial policy of “made-in-China 2025” is seen as Beijing’s plan for hi-tech dominance, aiming at rapidly expanding its high-tech sectors and developing its advanced manufacturing base. Even “Chinese Dream,” raised by the Chinese President Xi Jinping, is interpreted as an attempt to restore an “imperial” China (Chellaney 2017a; Daly and Rojansky 2018).
Understanding the Debate on China’s Global Rise and Neoimperialism
How to understand the emergence of global debates and discussions on the relationship between China’s global rise and the Global South? For example, how do we define China-Africa relations: a South-South partnership or North-South dependency? Many intellectual debates on China-Africa relations have been responsive in associating Africa’s past relations with the Global North. Currently, the debates brought about by China’s economic expansion and its economic relations with the developing world are related to three conceptual notions, i.e., “neocolonialism,” “neoimperialism,” and “creditor imperialism.”
“Colonialism” is a historical process through which a more powerful nation takes control of another territory; rules that territory politically, economically, and socioculturally; and exploits the territory’s resources for the benefit of the homeland. The notion mainly refers to the world history, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes: “the process of European settlement and political control over the rest of the world, including the Americas, Australia, and parts of Africa and Asia.” Colonialism is fundamentally tied up with the process of “empire building” or “imperialism.”
Comparing with “colonialism,” a notion denotes the direct control or governance of a nation over a dependent country, territory, or people (various English dictionaries), the essence of “neocolonialism” refers to the practice of using the power of capital, the impact of globalization, and cultural supremacy to influence a developing country in lieu of direct control (imperialism) or indirect political control (hegemony). The modern concept of “neocolonialism” was coined by Kwame Nkrumah, the first post-independence president of Ghana, in the context of African countries undergoing decolonization in the 1960s. He referred it to a phenomenon that “the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside” (Nkrumah 1965). Some Western writers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre (2001), whose Colonialism and Neocolonialism is a collection of his series of essays on colonialism, echoed Nkrumah’s definition. This collection remains a powerful and relevant critique that brings the full force of the author’s intellectual reflections on France’s conduct in Algeria, and its implication is extended to the West’s conduct in the Third World in general. “Neocolonialism” in the current era, which is different from the historical notion of “colonialism,” connotes two core aspects of the policy of a strong nation in seeking (1) cultural imperialism and (2) political and economic hegemony.
In recent years the global debates about “Chinese neocolonialism” have been long standing, and they are re-emerging with new force due to a number of reasons. One of them is the fact that China is playing an indispensable role in strengthening its sociopolitical and socioeconomic ties with the Global South, particularly with the two continents, Africa and Latin America, which were historically Western colonies and under the Western sphere of interest. Depending on one’s perspectives of assessment, Chinese investment patterns and new diplomatic initiatives are bringing about tangible economic and social transformations in these two continents. Another reason is that China’s capital outward expansion to the Global South, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, anticipates billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure projects and resource investments. This will inevitably “affect” and “disturb” the existing “global relationships” and “global arrangements,” i.e., the “structural power” of the existing world order (Li 2018a). Beijing is seen as attempting to redivide the already divided world.
The critique on “Chinese neocolonialism” is essentially founded on the general patterns of China’s economic relations with many developing countries today. These patterns of relationship are claimed to bear close resemblance to the previous European colonial powers’ economic relations with colonial countries in the nineteenth and twentieth century. One of the key features of Beijing’s relationship with developing countries is that it repeats the “unequal exchange” trade relations, i.e., developing countries export their primary products in exchange for Chinese manufactured goods. The outcome is perceived to generate an old situation under colonialism that “the economy of certain countries is conditioned by the development and expansion of another economy to which the former is subjected,” and consequently, “some countries (the dominant ones) can expand and can be self-sustaining, while other countries (dependent ones) can do this only as a reflection of that expansion” (Dos Santos 1970: 231). The eventual consequence is alleged to be that developing countries are becoming heavily indebted to China, China is able to exert greater weight on local political, cultural, and security dynamics.
In a close analogy to “colonialism,” the notion of “imperialism” characterizes a period of global colonial expansion by European powers from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century driven by the pursuit of overseas territorial acquisitions and new overseas markets and resources. Likewise, the USA and Japan did in the similar way during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
“Neoimperialism,” derived from the historical legacy of the old “imperialism” concept, can be defined as “a collection of thoughts and principles whose advocates critically examine the current social, political and economic implications that structurally result in uneven power relationships in international relations within distinct categories of winners versus losers in a capitalist world economy (Lumumba-Kasongo 2011: 245). It is essentially important to understand the nexus between the inherent unequal structures of the world system conceptualized by imperialism theories and the continuous vulnerabilities and inferior positions of countries and regions in the world system. In line with the world-systems theory’s understanding, the system’s embedded inequalities have never been changed.
Today, the portray of China as “neoimperialism” power is widely covered in Western media (Harper 2017; Larmer 2017; Manero 2017; Okeowo 2013), which reflects the change in the perceptions of China in the Western mind. The crude stereotypes of the “Yellow Peril” (an xenophobic theory of colonialism imaging the danger of Oriental hordes overwhelming the West) that dominated Western culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have given way to a fear that China will follow in the West’s imperial footsteps and dominate the world. In other words, the legacy of imperialism underpins today’s Western and certain developing countries’ perceptions of China’s foreign policy and development objective.
“Chinese creditor imperialism” is a quite new notion. This concept refers to the fact that Chinese global outward expansion, in the Global South in general, and in South Asia in particular, is facilitated through financial credit. The concept implies that in order to finance and build the infrastructure that poorer countries need, China demands favorable access to their natural assets, from mineral resources to ports (Chellaney 2017b). It is also posited that unlike International Monetary Fund and World Bank lending, Chinese loans are collateralized by strategically important natural assets with high long-term value (even if they lack short-term commercial viability). It is a good comparison between China’s current “imperialist expansion” and the Chinese own history when China had to lease its own ports to Western colonial powers due to the loss of the Opium War (Britain leased Hong Kong from China for 99 years in 1898). It is claimed that China is now applying the similar imperial “99-year lease” concept in order to access to geopolitically and geoeconomically import resources and ports, such as Hambantota and Djibouti (Chellaney, ibid.). In addition, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative is perceived as an imperial project aiming to use its financial power to have weak and small states caught in debt bondage to China so that these countries “risk losing both their most valuable natural assets and their very sovereignty” (Chellaney, ibid.).
Faced with the above varieties of discussions, debates, and opinions, the author intends to (1) point out that it requires more complex inquiries than any simple verification of the two interrelated concepts – neocolonialism and neoimperialism – whose stems were originated centuries ago and (2) provide a framework for understanding these discussions and debates in the current context of the rise of China and the impact it has brought to the existing world order.
This chapter aims to argue that, on the one hand, China’s economic success signifies Beijing’s movement toward a more positive structural position in the distribution of global wealth, while at the same time it also challenges many “enduring aspects” and “global arrangements” defined by the core powers of the existing world order. On the other hand, the rise of China’s capital and trade expansion in developing countries of the Global South provides them with both opportunities and challenges. China’s global rise represents capitalist world system’s new rhythmic cycle of the rise of a new hegemon. It offers an opportunity to developing countries in terms of enlarging their “room for maneuver” and increasing their “upward mobility” (Vadell et al. 2014). On the other hand, China’s rise also poses a great challenge to many developing countries in terms of outcompeting their market share and technology development and causing their economic “de-industrialization” and “primarization.” It is in the latter context that China-associated “neocolonialism” and “neoimperialism” emerge to become a catchy phrase.
Conceptually and theoretically, the study of imperialism can be approached from different perspectives and at different levels of analysis. Metrocentric theories focus on the internal necessity of imperialist states to export their surplus capital. Like Marx, Hobson, Lenin, Wallerstein, and many others, the author intends to emphasize the organic link between growth in capitalism and the expansion of imperialism. In other words, the driving force behind the expansion of imperialism is historically linked with economic factors in terms of capital, wealth, market, resource, and trade. Whereas, systemic theories of imperialism, often identified by realist theories of IR and IPE, see imperialism as an unavoidable competition between great powers (Cohen 1973). Interstate struggle for survival and dominance leads core powers to seize territories, and peripheral territories become target for competition over resources in order to maintain an effective balance of power. The so-called race for Africa was a classic case of imperialism driven by systemic competition in the late nineteenth century.
…. for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system. It’s universal not only in the sense that it’s global, not only in the sense that just about every economic actor in the world today is operating according to the logic of capitalism, and even those on the outermost periphery of the capitalist economy are, in one way or another, subject to that logic. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximization, competition – has penetrated just about every aspect of human life and nature itself…. (Wood 1997: 1)
Other scholars, such as Hobson, see imperialism as resulting from a capitalist inherent pursuit of additional/overseas markets (Hobson 1965). As productive capabilities in mature capitalist countries increased over time, and following harsh competition among Western nations on existing and emerging industries, Hobson believed that overproduction would sooner or later outgrew the needs of domestic market. In addition, the rise of financial capitalism also began to look for foreign markets for investment so as to increase the profit margin – “surplus capital” (Hobson, ibid.: 82). As Hobson sharply states, “Imperialism is the endeavor of the great controllers of industry to broaden the channel for the flow of their surplus wealth by seeking foreign markets and foreign investments to take off the goods and capital they cannot sell or use at home” (Hobson, ibid.: 85). Accordingly, newly occupied overseas markets would provide financiers a golden opportunity to further expand their investment operations (Hobson, ibid.: 29). Colonialism (direct political dominance) provided the basis for protecting these overseas expansions.
Chinese Capitalism and Imperialism: From a World-Systems Perspective
Being fundamentally in line with the Marxist and Leninist worldview on the expansion of capitalism and imperialism, the world-systems theory (WST) developed by Wallerstein (1974, 1979, 1997, 2004) provides a comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding the historical evolutions and transformations involved in the rise of the modern capitalist world system. Seen from the WST, the world system expanded over a long historical spectrum and brought different parts of the world into its division of labor. It is the rigid division of labor imposed by Western imperialism that has led to a perpetual condition of economic core-peripheral relations. Under this single division of labor within one world market, a political structure consisting of sovereign states and multiple cultural systems interacts within the framework of an interstate system (Wallerstein 1974).
The world system is conceptualized as a dynamic one in which changing positions within the system’s structural stratifications is not easy, but possible by taking advantage of the “upward mobility” and “room for maneuver” brought about by global capital mobility and relocation of production. Historically, capital mobility and redivision of labor within the capitalist world economy have been taking place continuously, which have periodically brought about and resulted in flows of commodities, labor, and capital across different geographical areas through chains of production, exchange, and investment. China and India are seen as the last reserves (unexploited areas) that have been integrated in the capitalist world system (Li 2008). The WST explains the system’s embedded inequalities in which nation-states have quite different development stages within a seemingly unified global economy. In other words, different countries are located at different stratifications of the capitalist world system
According to the WST, the world capitalist system is understood to be embedded with fundamental features, characterized by a series of cyclical rhythms – economic prosperity or crisis, upward or downward mobility, and rise and fall of new economic powers. More importantly, this series of cyclical rhythms was followed by the rise and decline of new guarantors (new hegemons) of the world system. The new and each one had its own unique pattern of control (Wallerstein 1997). In line with this understanding, the emergence of China is perceived as a good example of the system’s rhythmic cycles in the upward mobility. Despite the fact that China is politically ruled by the Communist Party, China is believed to continue to follow the core features of the capital accumulation and the law of value. Seen from the perspective of liberalism, emerging powers, such as China, are currently the winners in the era of globalization because their economic growth and wealth accumulation are generated from within, not from without, the world capitalist system under the US-led liberal world order (Ikenberry 2008, 2011). It is thus believed that due to its economic integration and market dependence in the system’s mode of production and capital accumulation, China will continue to shape and constrain the system’s law of value.
When this chapter, like other literatures, establishes the nexus between the expansion of capitalism and the extension of imperialism, it argues that the establishment of capitalism and its global expansion is the outcome of a political economy project (Li and Hersh 2004). The capitalist mode of production was born in Europe, and its starting point was the imposition of ruthless coercion through the compulsory enclosure and enforced formation of new property relations and legal systems. With the restrictive access to land accompanying industrial transformation began a new form of production relations based on capitalist accumulation. Europe’s expansion overseas, which began with military conquests and imposed trading relationships, resulted in the imperialist extension of the capitalist system of production. The globalization of the capitalist world system was realized through slave trade, colonialization, “free trade,” and world wars, including three historical development phases: a merchant phase of trade, a phase of industrial expansion, and an expansive period of financial capitalism. The capitalist world system has been maintained through fixed “social, political, and economic arrangements” (Strange 1988, italic added). These imperialist arrangements are what we know as the current “world order.” They “are not divinely ordained, nor are they outcome of blind chance,” but rather, they “are the result of human decisions taken in the context of man made institutions and sets of self set rules and customs” (Strange 1988: 18).
Is the global economic and political rise of China represents a contemporary new round imperialist expansion of the capitalist world system? The author, in his newly published ed. volume Mapping China’s One Belt One Road Initiative (Li 2018a), argues that on the one hand, the economic rise of China is an integral part of the continuously historical process of the global expansion of capitalism, while on the other hand, Chinese production and capital outward expansion would unavoidably challenge the status quo of the patterns of relationships shaped by the existing global arrangements (world order).
The Kautsky-Lenin Dichotomy
In his article in 1914 on “Ultra-imperialism” (Kautsky 1914), Kautsky argued that core capitalist countries were able to find a way out of vicious competition and destructive wars among the industrial powers. He believed that there would emerge a new stage, termed by him as “super-imperialism,” in which monopoly had reached such a high stage that it could effect “the joint exploitation of the world by internationally united finance capital” (Kautsky, ibid.). According to Kautsky’s analysis, the only way that could enable core capitalist countries to sustain the basic profit of the exploitation system, while avoiding economic stagnation, was for powerful core nations to form a “cartel” in order to maintain their export markets and super-exploitation. As a result of capital alliance, he postulated that war and militarism were not necessarily the inherent features of capitalism and that a peaceful “ultra-capitalism” (imperialism) was likely. In the stage of ultra-capitalism, core powers understood the importance of coalition and cooperation as well as the necessity of subsuming their economic contradiction and antagonism to a system of coordination, whereby they would jointly exploit the underdeveloped world.
Contrary to Kautsky, Lenin in his The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Lenin 1948) strongly opposed Kautsky’s postulation of an “ultra-imperialism” world order. He understood capitalism as being in the transition from the stage of free competition to the stage of monopoly. In a similar manner to Hobson’s analysis, Lenin argued that capitalism had transformed itself from being a nation-based competitive system in Marx’s day into imperial capitalism characterized by huge monopolistic or oligopolistic corporations. As capitalist corporations continued to grow over time, Lenin was convinced that financial banks and industrial companies were quickly developing into monopolies involving “cartels, syndicates and trusts” that would expand and “manipulate thousands of millions” across the globe (Lenin, ibid.).
Lenin added another aspect to Marx’s theory of capitalism, i.e., a “fourth law” of capitalism – the law of capitalist imperialism. According to Lenin’s analysis, “Imperialism is capitalism in that stage of development in which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital has established itself; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun; in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed” (Lenin, ibid.). It is precisely in this connection that Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative is perceived as the coming dominance of monopolies of Chinese financial capital. It is also seen as a means to reintegrate Africa and the Middle East into China’s system of accumulation, as a countermeasure or an alternative system to the dominant Western-led system of accumulation (van der Merwe 2018).
In Lenin’s view, as industrial nations at the core of the world economy competed to expand their exploitative profit sphere, their interests intersected and conflicted, leading to inevitable wars over overseas markets and sources. Thus, colonialism and imperialism were the consequence caused by economic competition between core states. It is also in this regard that major Western countries, particularly the USA, are resistant to China’s Belt and Road project worrying about Beijing’s long-term hegemonic objective. An Australian professor even straightforwardly declares that China’s One Belt, One Road is a challenge to the US-led order (White 2017).
Both Kautsky and Lenin intended to raise Marx’s analytical level of domestic capitalism to a level of international economic relations among capitalist core states. Ironically, the Kautsky-Lenin debate is perhaps more relevant today than in their time. Kautsky’s notion of ultra-imperialism perhaps fits better today’s globalization and transnational capitalism in terms of capital alliance not only between national and multinational capitals but also between state companies and state elites of both developing and developed countries. Lenin’s comprehension of the crisis of “imperial capitalism” characterized by monopolistic or oligopolistic corporations integrated with financial capital depicts today’s financial crisis and global competitions more actually than his time. What we are witnessing today is the fact that inter-capital competition is intensifying not only between core capitalist countries but also between them and emerging powers.
For example, the China-led financial institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the new Silk Road Foundation, intend to support Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative.” Almost all Western powers (excluding the USA and Japan) joined the AIIB. The situation reflects Kautsky’s ultra-imperialism theory: Chinese and global capitals intersect and merge in order to jointly extract profits from the rest of the world in a form of amalgamated finance. Ironically, one scholar even argues that the rise of China/BRICS will not lead to any substantial change in the capitalist world system; rather, what we are witnessing is a process of adaptation and co-optation of emerging powers, especially their economic elites, by existing core powers and leading transnational economic classes (Taylor 2016). Today the world has entered into a new age of “imperialism of the corporate state” (Kapferer 2005:12). The incorporation of Chinese capital and its outward expansions is leading the world into a stage of oligopolistic imperialism in which core capitalist countries, including China, are accelerating both bargaining and conflict over profit distribution, market share, and resource security. In this context, China is obviously torn between coalition and cooperation with the USA and other core capitalist countries on the one hand and competition and conflict with the very same countries on the other. The China-USA trade war since early 2018 seemingly proves Lenin’s arguments on inter-imperialist rivalry right.
The Complexities of China’s Multifaceted Positions in the Capitalist World System
To put China in the context of the variety of discussions and debates on imperialism presented in the previous sections, the author maintains that China’s global economic rise and expansion reflects the key theoretical tenets both by metrocentric theories in terms of internal necessity and driving force and by systemic theories of imperialism in terms of interstate competition for survival and dominance. However, the Chinese case indicates a complexity in which China’s economy simultaneously occupies all three stratifications (core, semi-periphery, and periphery) of the world system, and the country is having economic relationships with different countries at different stratifications of the capitalist world system. This implies that the Chinese situation embodies a dual complexity underlining the Kautsky-Lenin dichotomy. Who is right: Kautsky’s capital coalition and joint exploitation or Lenin’s capital conflict and war? Or the Chinese case actually represents two sides of the same coin?
China: From a Victim of Imperialism to an Imperialist Comprador?
During the following decades of China’s economic reform in the late 1970s, China had been a victim of Kautsky’s “joint exploitation of Ultra-imperialism.” The Chinese elites believed that economic mobility in the hierarchical structure of the world economy entails dramatic structural changes and requires higher levels of production and technology. This implies that China had to push forward greater vertical linkages to the capitalist market place and deepen its internal accumulations through exploitation of surplus labor. Rapid industrialization, in the view of the Chinese neoliberal elites, must attract foreign investment by providing “favorable” concessions to global capitalists and multinational companies and by reducing welfare costs. By doing so, it is hoped that the external linkage of the Chinese economy with the global economy could reinforce the ruling elites and promote internal expansion. Beijing had been acting as a comprador for global imperialist capitalism during the early reform period. The country was seen as the biggest savior of the capitalist world system by subjecting its economy and vast population to the capitalism’s “law of value” and labor exploitation as well as by taking over the low-end, labor-intensive manufacturing in the global supply chains. The penetration of imperialism into the Chinese society and economy was achieved through “(i) investments by transnational corporations, (ii) the activities of global finance, (iii) the influence of international financial institutions like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, and (iv) the channels of culture and ideology” (Lotta 2009: 29).
Today, China’s four-decade capital accumulation has enabled it to create its own alternative financial institutions, such as the New Development Bank (the BRICS Bank), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the new Silk Road Foundation. These institutions purposefully aim to facilitate China’s emergence as a global power. Not denying the anti-imperialism and counter-hegemony elements that underline these China-led global financial institutions, they also reflect Kautsky’s ultra-imperialism theory in which Chinese capital and the capital of others core countries merge and intersect in order to jointly exploit the rest of the world in a form of amalgamated finance. The decision by the International Monetary Fund to include the Chinese currency (RMB) in the Special Drawing Rights (SDR) basket paved the way for a broader use of the RMB in global trade and finance, securing China’s standing as a global economic power.
But, it will be a mistake to draw an analogy between China as an emerging power and the bloc of Western developed countries. China’s accumulation of surplus value extracted from its enormous proletariat and through trade surplus with the USA is also leading in international aid and foreign investments in Africa and Latin America.
China: A Rising Counter-Imperialist Force?
The rise of China with its global economic expansion is invariably “affecting” and “disturbing” a number of established imperialist “global relationships” and “global arrangements” as well as imperialist “structural power” of the existing world order.
After a high economic growth for four decades, China is increasingly becoming an integral force of Lenin’s global “financial oligarchy” and “imperial capitalism.” Beijing is now engaging in competition with the core capitalist states in terms of capital expansion, overseas resource acquisition, and periphery labor exploitation (Li 2016). Consequently, the incorporation of Chinese capital and its global economic expansions leads the world into a stage of oligopolistic imperialism in which core capitalist countries, including China, are accelerating the conflict over profit distribution, market share, and resource security. The “menace” of the world’s most populous country in commodity consumption and wealth collection has largely reduced the profit margin of the traditional core states. China’s struggle to move its position up in the global supply chains and to take a larger share of global wealth and resources is perceived as an attempt to redivide the already divided world. To put it more directly, Beijing’s rampant capital and wealth accumulation together with its rising military power potentially challenges the capacity of the core countries of the capitalist world system to defend gross inequalities in the world order and the tremendous privilege and power this global disparity of wealth has brought for the core countries in general and the USA in particular.
While most analyses focus on the economic arena (hard power), the Chinese challenge is definitely not only material but also ideational. The Chinese state-led development model is ideologically unacceptable to the defined norms and values of the liberal order. Even today China is not recognized as a “market economy” by many of the existing core powers of the liberal world, such as the USA and EU. The “Beijing Consensus” (Ramo 2004), in opposition to the “Washington Consensus,” is a message China sends to the Global South: developing nations must not be constrained by the modernization paradigm defined neoliberal imperialism, and they should establish their own path of development according to their challenges. “China is writing its own book now. The book represents a fusion of Chinese thinking with lessons learned from the failure of globalization culture in other places. The rest of the world has begun to study this book” (Ramo, ibid.: 5). “The Beijing model has grown to become an unavoidable process which can only be neglected at the cost of standing on the wrong side of economic history” (Asongu et al. 2018). As one commentator points out in The Times, the global debate some years ago was about whether the Chinese authoritarian-capitalist model would be able to survive in a global free market, and today “China’s political and economic system is better equipped and perhaps even more sustainable than the American model” (Bremmer 2017).
Through a double-track strategy in joining and modifying the existing international institutions while setting up its own international financial institutions, China’s economic rise is changing Beijing’s position from a passive rule-follower to a proactive rule-maker leading to an emerging world order “with Chinese characteristics.” In other words, China has two optional choices today: First, it can choose “to operate from within existing institutions to enhance its position through seeking the redistribution of decision-making authority, or by using its influence to obstruct and contain the progressive evolution of the liberal rules, practices, and norms of an institution in ways that threaten China’s interests” (Ikenberry and Lim 2017: 2). Second, if the first choice does not give Beijing the expected result, and then Beijing can create its own international institution. Both choices are affecting in different degrees the patterns of global relationships that generate gross inequalities in the world order and tremendous privilege and power this global disparity of wealth and power have brought for the core countries, especially the USA. Currently China is implementing both choices at the same time.
One of the Chinese ways to modify the existing world order which is historically shaped and maintained by Western imperialism is to form across regional alliance, such as the BRICS (Li 2014, 2019, forthcoming). Despite its many weaknesses, the five BRICS countries are playing an important role on the global political stage as they are coordinating foreign policy positions on key issues and are providing direction to different aspects of global and regional governance. BRICS has been converted to an “institutional agency” (Contipelli and Picciau 2015: 93). Many of BRICS’ policy positions on, among others, climate change, poverty reduction, nuclear proliferation, etc. are legitimized as an active voice in the claim for a transition toward a multilateralism in global governance. In particular, the rise of BRICS as a new actor within the international system accelerates the evolution of a new agenda within global governance, such as the G20, the IMF, etc. (Duggan 2015).
The entry of China into the aid system is changing this power of the traditional aid system to shape the development route, as it offers a new set of ideas and practices that, first, is breaking the monopoly of Western aid to define, and second, is also proving attractive to aid recipient countries, particularly in Africa. (Opoku-Mensah 2009: 12)
China: An Emerging Imperialist?
In the Global South, China has one historical advantage when discussing about imperialism and colonialism. That is China has no history of imperialist aggression or colonial domination, and the country itself was a victim of European imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This shared history with many countries in the South puts China in a good position to project the image of rising China as a benevolent power.
Although it is against China’s long-standing self-identity as a leader of developing countries, China’s new status as a world economic and political power is paradoxically and inevitably turning Beijing into an image of a global hegemon, a perceived imperialist. Today, the debate about whether China is an emerging colonialist predator or development partner to the Global South is still going on, and the majority of the discussions in both media and academia have been ideologically and politically guided by West-dominated opinion makers. Economic relations between China and the Global South are increasingly portrayed as “neocolonialism” for “neoimperialism” (The Economist 2008; Sharife 2009).
Numerous literature point to the fact that China’s global competition is causing the peripheralization of existing semi-periphery countries within the current world system. One Chinese researcher within the field bluntly predicted more than a decade ago, “China’s competition will completely undermine the relative monopoly of the existing semiperipheral states in certain commodity chains. The value added will be squeezed, forcing the traditional semi-peripheral states to accept lower wage rates close to the Chinese rates [which they cannot do it]” (Li 2005: 436, 2008). China’s competition breaks down the relative monopoly of the existing semi-peripheral states in certain global commodity chains and causes a certain degree of deindustrialization or peripheralization of many existing semi-periphery countries due to the change of their position from being an exporter of manufacturing goods to being a commodity supplier.
This above line of thinking and argument is shared by many scholars in Latin America (Bernal-Meza 2012; Dussel Peters 2016; Guelar 2013; Sevares 2015). Although trade relations between China and Latin America and Africa brought about “commodity boom” in the regions during the 2000s, the stimulation of the trade was largely due to the fact that China’s internal capacity to produce commodities was much insufficient to satisfy its worldwide “made-in-China” development. Following the type of trade pattern, China’s capital and production expansion in the Global South unavoidably brings about a new circle of “unequal exchange” reflected in the conventional North-South dependent relationships. Some analyses conclude that China is simply implementing a pragmatic mercantilist trade policy that reconfirms Africa’s economic position in the world economy as a commodity supplier and a modest consumer market (Holslag 2006; Taylor 2016). The logic goes: when China moves to the core position, it still needs the periphery.
Given by the above arguments supporting Chinese “neocolonialism” or “neoimperialism” which focus on a few economic indicators, such as natural resources and trade, it must be emphasized here that these arguments are too econocentric, and they often ignore other important transformative role China is playing beyond the economic realm. Beijing is using its influence in the Global South, particularly in Africa, as a leverage to influence economic and political decisions in global governance (Kofigah 2014). In many situations China has repeatedly and increasingly been seen as the leader championing the concerns of the South, for example, at the WTO during the Doha round negotiation.
Another critical aspect to remember is that when Western neoliberalism has been shaping and dominating the global development of both theory and practice since the end of the Cold War under “the end of history” paradigm (Fukuyama 1989), China’s “economic success with Chinese characteristics” seemingly offers an alternative economic development model to the Global South. Regardless of the depiction of China as imperialism, China’s emergence as an alternative aid donor, investor, and economic partner seems to be one of the major sources of attraction for developing countries. According to a report from the World Economic Forum, “To become more like China” has turned the African continent to a positive direction: “The top 10 performing African countries have a combined growth rate that averaged 7.6% over the past decade. Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Mozambique, Angola and Zambia also have a combined population of around 700 million people” (Borg 2016).
Africans are generally receptive to China’s developmental approach, and they treasure the long-standing historical connections built over decades with their Chinese partners; and they feel that China shows Africa far more understanding, sympathy, and respect than paternalistic Western countries (Brautigam 2010). On the one hand, China is indeed investing on and exploiting Africa’s natural resources based on economic motivation and market dictum, but this must not be automatically identified as the foundation of “neoimperialism.” On the other hand, as one research article sharply points out, “based on the data available, there is no tangible evidence that supports the view that consciously China’s intention is to control Africa politically or that China has a hidden agenda to divide some African territoriality for its political gains” (Lumumba-Kasongo 2011: 259).
If neoimperialism refers to the use of economic, political, and military pressures to control or influence other countries, China is arguably a very different world power who stands in stark contrast to Western powers. The Chinese principles of “non-conditionality” and “noninterference,” among others, have laid the foundation for China’s aid and foreign policy strategy since the 1950s. The pillars, which support Beijing’s international aid and financial loan principles, deviate in many ways from those of traditional Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donor countries and international banks and stand upon noninterference, mutual benefit, and non-conditionality. Despite the challenges to the long-term feasibility and sustainability of these principles, they have strong “symbolic power” and “norm diffusion” effect that disassociates China with the notion of neoimperialism.
Concluding Remarks: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Very often media tend to apply eye-catching and sensational terms such as neocolonialism and neoimperialism in discussing and interpreting China’s recent surge of influence on the Global South, without even understanding the historical context and the very nature of these terms. Even in the imperial history of the Chinese empire characterized by the Chinese historical imperial “tributary system” in Ming and Qing dynasties, the Chinese system was fundamentally different from that of European imperialist relationship with the colonies. The notion of Chinese “tributary system” was coined by Fairbank to refer to “a set of ideas and practices developed and perpetuated by the rulers of China over many centuries” (Fairbank, cf. Lee 2017: 29). It consisted of a network of loose international relations with China as the center, and the “tributary states” were largely autonomous and virtually independent. A worldwide consensus in China is not historically and culturally a Western colonial type of core country that is coercive to impose a relationship between political entities characterized by hieratical core-periphery relations driven by either metrocentric or pericentric interest.
A heuristic way to understand the discussion about “Chinese neoimperialism” is to contextualize China’s rise and expansion as part of and within the logic of the capitalist world system’s uninterrupted cycles of capital mobility and redivision of labor. In other words, China’s global economic rise and outward expansion must be conceptualized as an inevitable consequence of capitalist world system’s modus operandi.
Lenin (1917) understood imperialism as a capitalist country’s endeavor to find overseas markets and investment opportunities when its domestic economy reached to a maturity with excess surplus and production overcapacity. According to Lenin’s theoretical assumption, unless the country were able to keep finding new markets abroad to swallow its domestic overcapacity, it would face an economic implosion, causing internal socioeconomic and sociopolitical instabilities. This is exactly the kind of situation China is facing today. The circumstance is, in line with Lenin’s expectation, pushing China toward one option – outward expansion. Beijing’s gigantic expansionist “Belt and Road” project was first and foremost designed to sustain domestic economic growth.
When we place China’s recent rise in the context of discussing imperialism and anti-imperialism, definitive conclusions do not exist, because we are still in the midst of the process we seek to comprehend and assess. Yet multiple phenomena can be observed, and multiple implications can be generated. The difficulty to make a convincing conclusion is the fact that multifaceted phenomena and multidimensional interpretations are intertwined, which makes it impossible to answer questions, such as “is China a rising imperialist power?” “is China’s economic relations with the Global South north-south or south-south?” “is China’s Belt and Road initiative an imperialist project?” “does China’s global financial role lead to Chinese credit imperialism?” and so on.
When decomposing the Chinese economy, it is not difficult to find that the country is simultaneously occupying multiple positions in all three stratifications of the capitalist world economy – core, semi-periphery, and periphery – by taking into consideration global supply chains (GSCs) and global value chains (GVCs). China’s multiple positions are enabling the country to challenge and compete with core countries in high-tech sectors and financial institutions and with semi-periphery and periphery countries in manufacturing and commodity industries.
In a word, China’s capital and trade expansion in developing countries of the Global South represents two sides of the same coin, with one side showing great opportunities in terms of political and economic room of maneuver and upward mobility and another side exhibiting serious challenges in terms of the risk of being outcompeted.
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