What Should the Left Do About China?

What Should the Left Do About China?

Progressive thinkers are developing a foreign policy approach that opposes military confrontation while acknowledging Beijing’s oppressive policies.


Since March 2019, Hong Kong has confronted the greatest challenge to its relatively free and open civil society since it was transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997. In incidents spanning more than a year, local police faced off against enormous crowds of young demonstrators fighting a losing battle to maintain the city’s autonomy within the People’s Republic of China. Using batons and more than 10,000 canisters of tear gas, officers crushed the protest movement in 2020, but the repression has continued: By February 2021, more than 10,000 Hong Kongers had been arrested in connection with these demonstrations, and over a quarter of those had been prosecuted, while tens of thousands more had sought asylum in Britain, Canada, or Australia.

For Promise Li, a young member of the Democratic Socialists of America born in Hong Kong, China’s crackdown was personal. “I have contacts and friends who are either imprisoned or under threat right now,” said Li, a cofounder of the Lausan Collective, which runs a site highlighting left-wing activist voices in Hong Kong. During the unrest, Li proposed that DSA’s International Committee put out a statement condemning the shuttering of Hong Kong’s largest independent labor organization. But the effort was rejected after a straw poll spanning the IC’s subcommittees. According to Anlin Wang, an American-born Chinese DSA member and cochair of the Asia and Oceania subcommittee, there was an overwhelming three-to-one consensus against saying anything. “We tried our hardest to make sure that this was as maximally democratic as possible,” said Wang. “I think there are strong arguments on both sides.”

To Li, the incident reflects the influence within the DSA of “tankies,” a derogatory Cold War–era term for defenders of authoritarian communist regimes, which is often used now to call someone a China apologist. “There’s a big group of people who aren’t exactly tankies but see the tankie side as equally valid and try to preserve the unity of the left,” Li said. For his part, Wang acknowledges that such views circulate on Twitter, but he said he’s never seen them in his subcommittee Slack. “When we started the subcommittee, I was very committed to making sure that it didn’t devolve constantly into ideological fights where one side gets called ‘tankies’ and the other side gets called ‘liberal sellouts,’” Wang said.

This might all seem like inside baseball, and the DSA is riven by disagreements over many topics. But it serves as a microcosm of an unresolved debate on the left that carries global implications, not only for human rights but for the climate, labor, and questions of war and peace. With 1.4 billion people and a gross national product that by some measures now exceeds that of the United States, China is seen by Washington’s foreign policy “Blob” as the first true threat to US global hegemony since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tensions between Washington and Beijing have been increasing on every front—military, economic, diplomatic, cultural—as observers across the ideological spectrum warn of a new Cold War that could reshape the world. President Joe Biden has characterized the confrontation with China as a battle between autocracy and democracy and is carrying out a strategic pivot to Asia—quietly boosting the US troop presence in Taiwan, announcing a new defense pact with the United Kingdom and Australia, and justifying his ambitious domestic economic proposals as part of “a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century.” If the US left hopes to have any influence over this looming conflict, either via the Democratic Party or via non-electoral action, it will have to figure out a consistent stance on China.

Many people on the left who work on China or on broader foreign policy issues are trying to navigate the space between the two caricatured poles Wang describes. They are attempting to develop an alternative to a new Cold War—a position that opposes military confrontation in the Asia-Pacific while being open to increased cooperation with Beijing on issues like climate change. They are willing to denounce China’s oppressive policies from Hong Kong to Xinjiang and also stand against the neoliberal trade order that has benefited American and Chinese corporate elites at the expense of American and Chinese workers. For this article, I talked to a range of left-leaning policy makers, activists, and intellectuals to better understand how these issues are dividing progressives and what a coherent and principled left-wing approach to China might look like.

Everyone I spoke with could agree on one thing: Further escalation between the United States and China would be a disaster. Among the widely cited risks of a new Cold War—beyond the obvious risk of actual military conflict involving nuclear-armed belligerents—are the lost opportunities to work together on climate change and other transnational threats; squandered resources; increased discrimination and hate crimes against Asian Americans; a more repressive political climate in both countries; and the end of valuable civil society interactions. “I hate losing people-to-people diplomacy because of rising tensions,” said Keisha Brown, who teaches modern Chinese history and Afro-Asian diasporic identities at Tennessee State University. Brown is a cofounder of the Black China Caucus, an organization for China specialists from the African diaspora. “It’s very discouraging to know that if we do a study-abroad program, it might be difficult for students to go to China because of the state of affairs right now. I’m losing the opportunity to get more Black students to go.”

“For people actually involved in China policy, the debate isn’t whether China is a good or bad actor,” said Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The question is: What is the US going to do about it?” Wertheim is a cofounder of the Quincy Institute, a nonpartisan, anti-interventionist think tank in Washington, which he left last year. “I think China hawks want to believe that there is a larger position on the left that is apologetic for China’s repression than there actually is,” he added. “There are also people on the right who say things about China that are totally unwarranted and racist, and I see them occupying more prominent positions in our government than any fringe people who want to defend China.”

Some on the left, while wary of a new Cold War, are trying to advance non-militaristic and humanitarian foreign policy goals within this new context. “Any policy maker invested in a competition between Western and Chinese models should be pushing to show that the US will do right by the world in this time of crisis,” said David Segal, the executive director of the activist group Demand Progress; he suggests policies such as a more robust vaccine diplomacy and pushing the International Monetary Fund to issue more special drawing rights, which are desperately needed reserve assets that can allay economic suffering in the Global South. “Those who fan flames and are not advocating such measures betray their jingoism.”

There is also the case, advanced by Biden and by liberals like Matthew Yglesias in his book One Billion Americans, that competition with China can be used to spur needed domestic improvements in the US. But other progressives see engaging in the language of international competition, even to justify good policies, as counterproductive. “We don’t need China as a justification to strengthen our democracy, rebuild our industry, and create a better life for Americans,” said Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders who serves as a key link between left-leaning foreign policy thinkers and the policy-making process. “We should do those things because they’re the right things to do.”

One reason China confounds the left is that it’s hard to classify in terms of its basic ideology: Is it a doctrinaire Maoist people’s republic or an integral part of the globalized neoliberal order? Does it represent an alternative to American economic hegemony, or does it undergird that hegemony? Should it be credited with lifting hundreds of millions of workers out of rural poverty or blamed for using its cheap and politically powerless workers to undermine organized labor andanti-corporate regulatory regimes worldwide? Is it, in short, communist or capitalist?

Isabella Weber, a German political economist whose recent book How China Escaped Shock Therapy traces the origins of the economic liberalization implemented by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and ’80s, rejects these simplistic labels. “I think of China as a state-constituted market economy that relies on a strong capitalist dynamic,” she told me. “This is a new kind of economic system that we have to study on its own terms.” In Weber’s analysis, over the past four decades China’s powerful one-party state has created enormous markets that have reintegrated the country into the world economy (enriching capitalists and undermining unions in the process), but it has always done so in pursuit of China’s long-term economic development and political sovereignty.

This analysis is echoed by Duss, who noted that Sanders himself was an early critic of the 1990s consensus that opening trade relations with China would benefit American workers. Duss’s perspective on China is also shaped by conversations with Tobita Chow and Jake Werner, two young activists who are cofounders of Justice Is Global, a Chicago-based grassroots organization pursuing structural reforms that would result in a more sustainable and equitable global economy.

“I originally got involved in building worker solidarity between the US and China,” said Chow, who currently directs Justice Is Global. “Unfortunately, I got involved just as the Chinese government was ramping up its crackdown on labor activists to the point where that kind of work is really no longer possible to do safely. I was able to see some of the fruits of the opening up of Chinese civil society, and to see them very quickly disappearing.”

Werner, who does research on modern Chinese history at Boston University, identifies the 2008 financial crisis as a turning point. China rode out the crisis with an economic stimulus of unprecedented scale and developed domestic corporate giants that now compete with Western firms. “It has put the fear of God into the US political elite,” Werner said. “If Chinese companies take over the high-profit sectors, that threatens US power over the global system as well as the US economy, which depends on quasi-monopoly industries like tech, finance, and pharmaceuticals. If China starts to push them aside, what’s going to happen to us?”

China, in other words, has ceased to be a passive player in the development of global supply chains dominated by Western companies and is pursuing an industrial policy that challenges the US-dominated international order. It’s in this context that the Washington establishment is becoming more critical of China—and it’s also in this context that some on the left might feel inclined to defend it.

Multiple interviewees mentioned the Qiao Collective, a cryptic organization that emerged seemingly as a counterpoint to Li’s Lausan Collective in early 2020. In an e-mailed statement, the Qiao Collective—which said it reaches decisions collectively and did not identify any individual members by name—described itself as “a group of students, artists, researchers, and young professionals in the US, UK, and Canada who contribute as volunteers in our spare time. Our members all belong to the broader Chinese diaspora, with family connections to mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and throughout Southeast Asia.” It further said it is funded solely through Patreon and has no formal ties to any political party, including the Chinese Communist Party, but did not respond to queries regarding the size of its membership, how it is governed, or who specifically is responsible for organizing it.

“Despite this lack of institutional support, we are thrilled by the rapid growth and attention we have gained in the less than two years since our founding, which we attribute to the hunger in English-language media spaces for critical left commentary on China that challenges dominant Western media narratives,” Qiao wrote in its statement. The narrative that the group propagates in left-wing circles aligns closely with Beijing’s. On its website, Qiao describes the Hong Kong protests as driven by “fervent anti-communism and a fetishization of abstract liberalism, British colonial nostalgia, anti-Chinese racism, and appeals to Western intervention” and accuses activists like Li of “leftwashing” what it characterizes as right-wing protests. Qiao has rapidly become popular on social media and has contributed an article warning against a US-China war to the Progressive International, a left-wing global wire service. (Progressive International’s general coordinator, David Adler, told me his group aims to provide a diversity of perspectives.) Code Pink, the established anti-war group, cites Qiao on its China FAQ page. Monthly Review, an independent socialist magazine published in New York, has also republished the Qiao Collective—and has been criticized for doing so by Critical China Scholars (CCS), a group of young academics that is pushing back against Qiao’s narrative.

CCS defines itself as being against any government’s ethno-nationalist agenda and tries to find a middle ground between demonizing the People’s Republic of China and reinforcing its propaganda. Last year, CCS published an open letter to Monthly Review that drew the line at its collaboration with Qiao; the signatories included Li, Werner, and Andy Liu, a Taiwanese American historian at Villanova who cohosts the left-wing Asian American podcast Time to Say Goodbye. Liu says CCS has had experiences analogous to Li’s in trying to engage with the DSA. “We’ve had ongoing conversations with DSA about doing a webinar, but we got a mixed response from them, and we’re still not sure what exactly went on behind the scenes,” Liu said. “It was a bit of a surprise that DSA was not more welcoming.”

Liu added that he understands why Qiao’s message resonates with some DSA members. “We don’t want to completely alienate these people,” he said. “We understand a lot of this comes from a suspicion of US foreign policy and a critique of corporate media, and we are sympathetic to that. But I think the leftist, internationalist position should be critical of all governments.”

Li is harsher. “I think the Qiao Collective holds an authoritarian, fascistic position that has nothing to do with socialism,” he said. “The quality of their content and the caliber of their information is no better than InfoWars. But there’s been an influx of their fans into DSA, especially in San Francisco’s Red Star caucus.” Even if Qiao’s viewpoint isn’t fully mainstream within the DSA, Li added, “these outlets have sowed enough confusion with their disinformation that we can’t do much with DSA committees without it being blocked.” And Qiao has proved to be particularly effective in stifling the left’s discourse over another human rights crisis nearly 3,000 miles northwest of Hong Kong.

Xinjiang is a region in China’s far west where ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have experienced discrimination and cultural erosion amid a state-directed influx of Han Chinese migrants. Under President Xi Jinping, China has intensified its repression of the Uyghurs, building an enormous network of prisons, reeducation centers, and labor camps in what many foreign observers have described as a cultural genocide. The situation in Xinjiang is opaque, as the Chinese government tightly controls information and movement in and out of the region, but testimony from refugees and émigrés paints a bleak picture.

According to a widely circulated 18,000-word resource list published by Qiao, however, the lack of reliable information out of Xinjiang suggests that these accounts are “Western atrocity propaganda.” This is also more or less what Vijay Prashad, the director of an internationalist organization called Tricontinental and a Marxist intellectual who did an event with Qiao in May 2020, told me when I asked him about the Uyghurs. “The ‘cultural genocide’ charge is one that I’m not entirely sympathetic to,” said Prashad, who has visited China numerous times but has not been to Xinjiang. “Education policy is a big part of poverty alleviation,” he added. “The fact is that most modern societies have forced people to have an education.” In his telling, what is happening to the Uyghurs is analogous to what countries like the United States and Australia did to their Indigenous populations, or what the British Empire did in his native India—but somewhat to my surprise, he didn’t mean that in a bad way. “That’s the price that people pay,” Prashad told me. “You can’t preserve some cultural forms and alleviate or eradicate absolute poverty.”

To Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur human rights lawyer from Urumqi—Xinjiang’s capital—currently teaching at Yale, this stance is morally abhorrent. Asat’s brother has been imprisoned in Xinjiang since he returned from a business trip to the United States in 2016. “I don’t know what hurts more,” she told me, “the tormentors of my brother or the tankies who are enabling it and denying my pain and suffering.” Asat said she is against a US military buildup in response to the situation in Xinjiang; she acknowledged that after its wars in Iraq and elsewhere, the United States has a credibility problem on human rights. Her preferred approach would be to utilize the Global Magnitsky Act, named for a Russian anti-corruption activist who died in prison in 2009—in other words, that the US should apply targeted sanctions against individual Chinese officials complicit in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Duss, the Sanders adviser, independently mentioned that this could be an appropriate response to the situation confronting the Uyghurs. “Broad-based sanctions have a very bad track record of making policy better and a very clear track record of helping immiserate populations,” Duss said. “There is some evidence that Magnitsky-style sanctions targeted at specific government actors who are implicated in human rights abuses can work. But we’re going to be much more effective in making these points if we are consistent, rather than raising these concerns as a cudgel against our adversaries while giving our allies a pass.”

Aside from Prashad, everyone I spoke with for this article unequivocally condemned China’s policies in Xinjiang. But Wang, the cochair of the DSA’s Asia and Oceania subcommittee, acknowledged that some on the left feel constrained in what they can say about China’s human rights record. “It’s important to think about the real-world impact of what we do,” Wang told me. “It’s really important that we, as a leftist institution, be staunchly anti-imperialist. So if we issue a statement about China, I want to make sure that it’s done in a way that can actually help working people and not hurt their cause.” Referring to Li’s proposed statement on Hong Kong, Wang said, “We are Americans, and our country is in the process of a cold war with China. Signing on to the statement carries a serious risk that it could be used as left-wing support for the broader anti-China effort.”

Other progressives see a downside to not speaking out. “Trying to make excuses for or defend the Chinese government’s violations of human rights and aggression against its neighbors is not a winning political strategy,” Chow told me. “We’re not going to be able to bring the majority of the US population over to that position. We’re not going to find any allies among progressives in Congress for that position.”

“If you’re doing apologies for China’s treatment of ethnic minorities, you’re betraying everything the left stands for,” Werner said. “It discredits the left.”

Chow and Werner expanded on this point in a joint interview for the fall 2021 issue of Socialist Forum, a DSA publication that reached out to them for a proposed forum on the left and China. “The original idea was to address both sides,” said Chow, referring to the other side of the debate as “tankies.” “We gave them some suggestions [for an interlocutor], but they didn’t get a yes after a number of weeks.” The main pushback they did see from defenders of the Chinese Communist Party was, as is so often the case, on Twitter.

On his last day in office as Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo accused China of committing genocide in Xinjiang. For someone who served in an openly Islamophobic administration to co-opt the just cause of Uyghur human rights is perverse, but one danger of ceding criticism of China to the right is that the US response to a legitimate human rights crisis ends up being led by xenophobes and warmongers.

Lausan and CCS are two groups on the left that aren’t shying away from these debates. In December 2020, they held a roundtable together, later republished by the Marxist journal Spectre, to discuss Qiao’s resource list and how it might be countered. One participant—David Brophy, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney—recalled an argument made by E.P. Thompson: that during the final years of the Cold War, “the cause of freedom and the cause of peace seemed to break apart,” with the US monopolizing the former and the Soviets the latter. Brophy suggested that something similar is happening now, with China’s apologists prioritizing peace while its critics prioritize human rights. The questions for the left, then as now, are whether and how those priorities can be reconciled.

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