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Politics & Security

[Bookmark] China’s Modified Communism: Just Another Shameless Excuse to Go Raiding

Xi Jinping’s China is driven not by traditional communist ideology but the unabashed urge to control more territory. And it appears willing to risk war to get it.

Jason Morgan, Reitaku University

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China Is Already Waging War against Japan

Japan has a pacifist constitution, but it is at war. Not by its own choosing. 

Faced daily with communist Chinese aggression, Japan is under attack. The People’s Republic of China has been deploying a fleet of “fishing vessels” — in reality, communist China’s naval force, being under the direction of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) — to harass Japan Coast Guard ships in the area of the Senkaku Islands.

These attacks have only intensified with the passage of time. In January of 2021, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) all but removed the veil from its belligerency by changing the use-of-force rules for its coast guard. It now allows for small-arms fire and even deck guns to be directed against “foreign organizations or individuals at sea” whenever the Chinese side judges that its “national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon.” This is widely considered to be a threat aimed at Japan.

The Senkakus are a part of Okinawa Prefecture and have been controlled by Japan since the 19th century, with the exception of the period from 1945 to 1972, when Okinawa was directly administered by the United States military. China refuses to accept the Senkakus’ inherent integration into the Japanese archipelago, a fact attested by a bevy of documents and never formally or informally contested by the PRC until the discovery of hydrocarbon deposits near the Senkakus in 1969.

However, as in its dealings with many other countries in the region — Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia, to name just a few — the People’s Republic of China evinces little to no respect for territorial integrity. The islands it wants, it takes. Where there are no islands, it builds them, causing massive environmental degradation and despoiling the seascape in order to create runways long enough to accommodate the aircraft the PRC needs to back up its bullying against its neighbors.

China’s massive Coast Guard vessel cruises in the waters next to the Senkaku Islands, Okinawa Prefecture.

Territorial Expansion

It is clear that the People’s Republic of China wants to dominate the Pacific and all of Eurasia (and beyond). China wants territory, and it is willing to kill to get it. This lust for a “Greater China” extends far past the Senkakus, the rest of Okinawa, and Taiwan, the latter also subjected to near-daily menacing and threats by Beijing. 

China covets the entire western Pacific and beyond, including Guam and Hawaii. It also has been building a “string of pearls,” as Chinese dictator Xi Jinping used to call the network of bases and ports stretching through the South China Sea and into the Indian Ocean to Africa. On land, China subjugates Tibet, Mongolia, East Turkestan (“Xinjiang”), and, indirectly, nations as disparate as Laos, Nepal, and Pakistan through Xi’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

But is the ideology driving this will to power still communism? The short answer is yes, and no. 

The more detailed answer below, which follows the historical changes of “communism” especially under the custodianship of the People’s Republic of China — now making a play for world domination and seeking to swap out the renminbi for the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency — is crucial for an informed understanding of geopolitics in 2021. The world is changing rapidly, and much of this change, for better or for worse, is driven by China, a “communist” state which has at its disposal a set of tools very different from what communists of a hundred years ago had in hand.

It is important to adopt a revised understanding of what is meant by “communism,” because the People’s Republic of China now owns the ideology and is radically modifying it to suit its expansionist agenda. 

Scholars used to speak of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to explain how China had hacked the hard-left concepts imported from the West to meet its own internal needs. It is now more appropriate to speak of “China with socialist characteristics,” because China has so heavily revamped those old concepts as to render them different animals in many ways than before.

The darker blue shows waters inside Japan’s territorial sea based on traditional international law.
Map of China’s aggressive claims in around Taiwan and in the East China Sea

Communism and War

China is the world’s largest nominally communist state. But communism did not begin in China, of course. The foundational premise of communism was worldwide class revolution. 

The ideology began in Europe in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the sharpening of class conflict due to uncontrolled division of labor and exploitation of workers by factory owners. The anti-capitalist dogma developed by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and disciples such as Rosa Luxemburg and Boris Souvarine, as a matter of historical-scientific principle, was that there must necessarily come a clash of the classes, a final showdown between the exploited proletariat and the exploiting bourgeoisie. 

The proletariat would emerge triumphant from this battle and establish a planetary dictatorship, smashing the engines of capitalist oppression and ushering in a time of universal socialism. The state, Marx and Engels predicted, would simply wither away.

This is the opposite of what actually happened. Vladimir Lenin characterized the First World War as a fight, not between states and peoples, but among a cabal of capitalists. While many nations had to fight against socialist unrest at home during World War I — Hungary, Spain, Germany, Ireland, and even the United States — in the end the war remained one of country-against-country. The Bolshevik Revolution that Lenin, with the help of his German handlers, spun out of the wreck of war-torn Europe also hit up hard against the reality of the nation-state. 

People were Russians, or Poles, or Germans, or Englishmen first, and communists second. National sentiment defeated communist ideology, in other words. Abstract theories wrecked themselves on the shoals of basic human attachments.

Internationalism vs Nation-States

Lenin’s response to the stubborn regard by the proletariat for their homelands was the Third International, commonly known as the Comintern. The Comintern was to be the vehicle for realizing what Marx had taught must be true, that the victory of communism would be won only when the whole world was socialized. 

It was the Comintern that would sow the seeds of the Empire of Japan’s disastrous fight against the United States, and also the Comintern that would bolster the fortunes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) against their rivals, the Nationalists (KMT), in the Chinese civil war. The Comintern was the megaphone for communist propaganda, the loudspeaker for rattling the unroused masses out of their nationalist torpor and inspiring them to wage war against the job providers in their own countries, and everywhere in the world.

But with the rise of Stalin after Lenin’s death there emerged a different paradigm for the Soviet Union — socialism in one country. Stalin repudiated Lenin by putting Russia before the revolution. In a reprisal of the “war communism” that Lenin had used to consolidate his rule over Russia, Stalin hoped to use the crisis of the abrogation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the ensuing fight against the Soviets’ totalitarian twin, the National Socialists, to set up a new kind of communist orthodoxy. 

As purist Marxists continue to charge even today, Stalin betrayed the teachings of communism’s founder. Stalin’s socialism in one country initiated an entirely altered vision of communism, in effect nationalizing what from the beginning was held to be, by definition, transnational.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the Showa Emperor in the immediate post-war occupation.

Japan Narrowly Escapes Communist Revolution

However, Stalin’s new, nationalist communism was not accepted by everyone. While the Soviets managed to fend off the onslaught of the Wehrmacht and ensure the survival of socialism in one country, in East Asia communists continued to push for global revolution. 

This was particularly true in China and Japan. The communists in both countries used every method at their disposal — fomenting racial enmity, stirring up class hatreds, waging terrorist war — to spark the conflagration that they thought was needed to usher in the socialist paradise Marx and Engels had promised.

If anything, the Chinese and Japanese communists were even more doctrinaire Marxists and Leninists than the Europeans had been. Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese communists, considered Stalin a traitor to Marx and Engels for having abandoned the dogma of international revolution. Mao eventually broke with Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, over what Mao rightly perceived as a disqualifying deviation from communist orthodoxy. 

Stalin was not communist enough for the Chinese communists. The revolution against the bourgeoisie entered a new and even more virulent phase when communism fell into the hands of the Chinese radicals.

In Japan, too, the communists released by the American occupiers in the wake of Japan’s defeat on August 15, 1945, immediately set to work trying to bring about the overthrow of the Imperial Household and the completion of the Meiji Restoration into a full-blown “freedom and popular rights” communist revolution. Japanese communists after the war enjoyed a brief season of reprieve when a clueless Douglas MacArthur ordered the Japanese prisons emptied of communist anti-social criminals in October of 1945, but he soon realized his mistake and had communist agitators surveilled.

The Comintern, after all, had also focused on Japan as the best hope for a communist revolution, after the utter failure of communist orthodoxy to materialize the anticipated triumph of the proletariat during and after World War I. The Japanese communists tried, and very nearly succeeded, in their drive to overthrow the emperor and win the farthest outpost of the Far East for their cause. In the nick of time, the American Occupation authorities, and especially the temperamentally anti-communist Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), Gen. Douglas MacArthur, reversed course and stamped out the rampant communist insurgency brewing in Japan.

The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 ー for which heavy responsibility must be borne by then-U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who signaled in a speech in January of that year that the United States would not defend Korea or Formosa against communist invasion — was also a catalyst in the transformation of America from wary ally to an implacable foe of communism. 

Americans recoiled in horror at the waves of Chinese communists which poured across the frozen Yalu River to swarm American and South Korean troops fighting against ideological enslavement on the Korean Peninsula. Chinese communist barbarities and the utter depravity of North Korean communists convinced many Americans, if they didn’t realize it already, that communism was a wicked creed and must be resisted and overcome.

Later Japanese communists fully confirmed this reputation for cruelty when members of the Japanese Red Army committed terrorist attacks against innocent civilians in Japan and other countries. North Korean communists outdid their Japanese communist counterparts by engaging in a decades-long campaign of terror, kidnapping possibly hundreds of civilians, including Japanese such as Megumi Yokota, and holding them hostage in the “workers’ paradise” of North Korea.

The U.S. and Japan Force Communism to Nationalize

The American Occupation of Japan and the subsequent fight to keep Japan, Formosa, and the U.S.-administered southern half of the Korean Peninsula out of communist hands had the often-unnoticed effect of changing communism in Asia. It mutated from the earlier “puritan” variety of international socialism to one much closer to the Stalin and Khrushchev variety of socialism in one country, a cordon of imperial absolutism frontiered by an ideological rival. The Iron Curtain had come down in Europe, as Winston Churchill famously declared at a speech in Missouri (U.S.) in 1946, but it was not until the stalemate of the Korean War along the 38th parallel in 1953 that an iron curtain came down in the East, too.

In the course of the bloody struggles of the 20th century, communism had changed, from being originally a relentless drive to remake the entire known universe into a socialist paradise, to the very different crusade to conquer and hold territory, to maintain, if not socialism in one country, then socialism in one place. Geography had won out over ideology — or, to put it another way, ideology had had to come to terms with geography. 

The ideological revolution seen in the wavy fever-dreams of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and called for in the hoarse cries of Vladimir Lenin had become a crusade for territorial conquest. The future was the past — Nietzsche’s eternal return, turned around to twist Marx’s nose.

China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea were rejected as invalid under international Law by a tribunal in The Hague
China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea are intended to extend the country’s maritime territorial claims.

China is Above All a Territorial Aggressor

This condition of territory as the grounds for aggression, which became an irresistible historical process with the defeat of Japan on August 15, 1945, is now the governing paradigm of East Asia. Indeed, the Vietnam War, often billed as a struggle between capitalism and communism, was fought by both sides, North and South Vietnam, as a war for territory. Winning hearts and minds was merely the means to keeping and extending lines on a map. 

Increasingly, what communists have been fighting for in Asia these past 60 years has been land, not ideas. The ideological drapery conceals the naked will to power, the need to dominate cities and villages, and even specks of reef and rock.

Today, the nominally communist People’s Republic of China has so embraced the Stalinist position that it risks world war over tiny outcroppings of volcanic rock barely jutting out of the waves of the South China Sea. This greed is goaded along by China’s unquenchable thirst for oil and other mineral resources, which its perennially-overheated economy consumes with abandon. 

In all of this, it is well to remember that communism is not at all what it used to be. It is hardly a vindication of Maoism to make fake sandbox islands with no peasants on them. It is even less a vindication of Marxism that there is not a single member of the proletariat on the Senkakus. No one is being oppressed there except perhaps the sea bass by the sharks. Communism is now just another unabashed excuse to go raiding.

The Chinese government pays lip service to Mao, but Beijing openly covets territory above all and will deploy any ideological smokescreen to get it. Xi Jinping has his own “thought. But what we should worry most about is his dictatorial menacing of his neighbors, above all Japan.


Author: Jason Morgan, PhD

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.