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Imperialisms in our times

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Chinese Imperialism?

Making sense of ‘Chinese characteristics’. Is it time for the Pakistani Left to start talking about Chinese ‘imperialism’?


by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar


Into the third decade of the 21st century, what does it mean to talk of imperialism(s) and empire? Can every unequal relationship of exchange, power and cultural diffusion be considered imperialistic? How do we sift through the complexities of imperialist power in a rentier state like Pakistan whose ruling bloc has cultivated multiple foreign patrons?

Such questions beget no simple answers, not least of all if one is attentive to temporal and spatial variation. In this essay, I focus on the specific problem of China as an emergent superpower and the deepening of Chinese capitalistic and territorial imperatives in Pakistan since the turn of the millennium. In counterposing the expanding Chinese footprint to the historical role that the Pakistan state has played as a ‘frontline state’ of the American Empire, I interrogate the extent to which the Sino-Pak relationship exhibits imperialistic characteristics. As such, I hope to contribute to the deepening of theoretical debates on the operation of imperialist power within Pakistan’s structure of power.

To fully grasp the nature and operation of imperialism(s) in the current conjuncture, it is essential to move beyond the unreflexive practice of regurgitating canonical Marxist texts, or at least to engage with classic conceptualisations dynamically, and Lenin’s early 20th century formulations most of all.

Pak-China Friendship Tunnel” over Attabad Lake. Image: Jamhoor/Pakistan Today

Furthermore, I want to emphasise that there are various, dialectically connected moments that must be considered in the identification of contemporary imperialism(s). Only in acknowledging these interrelated moments can we meaningfully analyse the nature of Pakistan’s multifarious relationships with various regional and global capitals, as well as states that articulate imperialistic tendencies.

Anti-Americanism and its discontents

Let me start with some brief impressions about the series of political events triggered by the US exit from Afghanistan in August 2021. While the US corporate media depicted the withdrawal as the closing act of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, it can be expected that ‘terrorism’ will remain a convenient bogeyman for the American Empire and its lackeys. It is worth noting that 20 years of imperial bloodletting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Palestine and beyond has effectively strengthened right-wing political forces across most of the Muslim world. In Pakistan, (right-wing) anti-Americanism is now widely conflated with anti-imperialism.

Indeed, Pakistan’s then-prime minister Imran Khan greeted news of the last American troops leaving Kabul with the refrain that the Afghan people had broken the shackles of slavery, thereby equating the Taliban’s reconquest of the country with a victory against Imperialism. Rewinding two decades to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan (when Imran Khan was not yet a megalomaniac active at the highest echelons of organized power), one finds the religious right, led by Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), organizing street protests against then-military dictator General Pervez Musharraf’s decision to support Washington’s War on Terror. In fact, a six-party alliance of religious parties, inclusive of the JI and JUI, enjoyed considerable leeway to operate in contrast to other mainstream parties and subsequently triumphed in the 2002 general election in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Scene from a 2006 protest in Islamabad organized by the six-party religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), against a drone attack in Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan. The MMA governed the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (then NWFP) from 2002-2008.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to delve into more detail about the shadowy relationship between Pakistan’s powerful military establishment and the religious right. Suffice it to say that the militarised state apparatus has consistently patronised religious militancy since at least the early 1970s; under the War on Terror regime, relations between Pakistani generals and militant organizations certainly did not follow a linear trajectory.

In any case, anti-Americanism has been prominent on Pakistan’s political landscape since at least the turn of the millennium, via different right-wing political players. But earlier this year, Imran Khan ratcheted up anti-American rhetoric to previously unheard levels during and after the deposal of his government through a parliamentary vote of no confidence. He directly accused Washington of colluding with his domestic political opponents in a ‘regime change operation’ ostensibly triggered by Khan’s visit to Russia on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine. 

In the weeks and months that followed, Khan’s every utterance has been lapped up by millions of supporters both at home and abroad. It is the first time that a politician of such stature has polemicized about the American Empire since former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto while on death row in the late 1970s. Yet unlike Khan, Bhutto at least rhetorically laid claim to left-wing politics in an era when socialism was an ideology of global import. 

That Imran Khan was able to whip up substantial popular support by deploying anti-American rhetoric reflects the relative obscurity of left-progressive politics in Pakistan. In a related vein, superficial and culturalist discourses thrive within the Pakistani polity and society at large. A significant segment of the population is suspicious of Washington’s machinations in Pakistan, but the role of US imperialism is deliberately obfuscated by those posing as champions of national sovereignty and ‘the people’. A popular expression of anti-American sentiment, in a nutshell, remains trapped within a civilizational register of ‘us versus them’.

Returning to the question of China, it is noteworthy that throughout its three-and-a-half-year tenure, Imran Khan’s government did not necessarily deepen relations with Beijing or other significant contenders in the regional political economy like Moscow. Khan’s visit to Russia on the eve of its invasion of Ukraine became controversial due to its provocative (and coincidental) timing, not because it represented a substantive deepening of Russo-Pak ties. In fact, Khan’s government dragged its feet in implementing landmark China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects. On the other hand, it made no attempt to redress discontent at the social and environmental costs of Chinese-backed ‘development’, intensifying rapidly in peripheral regions, most importantly in insurgency-wracked Balochistan province.

In any case, mainstream Pakistan remains largely enamoured of China, and CPEC in particular. Indeed, if the US is despised for its on-again, off-again attitude towards Pakistan, then China is considered an all-weather friend that is concerned at least as much with Pakistan’s prosperity as its own.

Need for nuance

I have written previously that interrogating the potentialities of China’s emergent leadership on the global stage must include consideration of the concrete effects of interventions like CPEC and other country-specific projects which comprise the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). This means eschewing both what the peerless Samir Amin called the dominant trend of ‘China-bashing’ in the western mainstream and the simplistic equation of China’s challenge to US dominance in the world system with the transcendence of the logic of capital.

Thousands came out to the ‘Haq Do Tehreek’ in Pakistan’s most militarized region to protest, among other things, the displacement of people due to CPEC projects. Image: Dawn

Thus, the meaningful conceptualization of imperialism(s) in the current conjuncture demands that we neither overlook the substantial contradictions of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, nor understate what many on the western Left have called the ‘New Cold War’ against China. It is in this spirit that I draw upon two recent articles written by Chinese scholars in the New York-based Monthly Review magazine in May and July 2021.

Cheng & Lu offer a succinct reformulation of Lenin’s theory of imperialism by identifying five major characteristics of what they term (contemporary) neoimperialism, which ‘features economic globalisation and financialization of monopoly capitalism’. The world they describe is dominated by the United States and its vast network of retainers—“an international monopoly capitalist alliance between one hegemon and several other great powers”. Financial hegemony is reproduced by the US dollar as a global reserve currency, ensuring that the rest of the world, China, in particular, funds every indebted American household, the aggregate US deficit running into tens of trillions of dollars. Cultural power is reproduced through the universal projection of ‘Western values. Where the various branches of the hegemonic power structure do not suffice in maintaining an adequate level of consent, US military power (through alliances like NATO) is deployed freely and frequently. War-making is both a form of capital accumulation and a means of coercion to sustain the international monopoly capitalist alliance.

While Cheng & Lu only engage fleetingly with the question of China’s positionality in this neoimperialist order – essentially arguing that China and its people are unequivocal losers – Mingqi Li is far more direct in analyzing the extent to which China has been integrated into the capitalist core and is thereby exhibiting imperialistic tendencies.

“China is no longer a peripheral economy in the capitalist world-system …”

His argument is simple. On the one hand China’s investments in non-western regions — under the guise of projects like CPEC — reflect imperialist tendencies insofar as they exacerbate the debt burden of recipient countries and “exploit the peoples in Asia, Africa, and Latin America of their labour and natural resources”. On the other hand, however, the transfer of capital to these peripheral regions constitutes a small fraction of total Chinese investment abroad. Crucially, Li notes that “a country may simultaneously engage in exploiting relations with some countries but have exploited relations with others”. He demonstrates that outsourcing and offshoring in the era of neoliberal globalisation have, on the whole, reinforced historical patterns of unequal exchange on the world stage to the benefit of the US and other western imperialist countries.

In short, China is no longer a peripheral economy in the capitalist world system as it has developed exploitative relations with many Asian and African countries and because its ‘labour terms of trade’ with the core capitalist countries have improved in relative terms (i.e. Chinese workers earn a greater share of global income than they did at the onset of the neoliberal era).

But Li makes a compelling argument that China has not graduated beyond semi-peripheral status on the world stage. Ensconced in a complex interdependent relationship with the core capitalist countries, particularly the US from whom it purchases trillions of dollars of government bonds, China on the whole suffers a net loss of surplus value to the western metropolitan regions.

The question, as ever, is whether the benefits of capital accumulation in China and by Chinese capitalists abroad will over time flow increasingly towards the mass of the Chinese population. If this were to happen, Li notes that we will tend towards a situation in which the majority of the world exploits a minority – a notional equilibrium that simply does not make sense to call ‘imperialism’.

Indeed, for this notional equilibrium to come to pass within the context of existing developmental patterns, China must remain one of the world’s biggest importers of non-renewable energy and mineral resources, a contradiction in terms for a country where the ruling party claims to be transitioning towards an ‘ecological civilization’.

The crux of the matter

This brings me to the specificities of Chinese developmental projects in Pakistan, which have largely exacerbated class, ethnic and other forms of social polarization, not to mention ecological despoliation. In late November 2021, these fallouts were underlined in stunning fashion when a movement which became known as ‘Haq Do Tehreek’ brought tens of thousands of local people onto the streets in the coastal town of Gwadar in Balochistan, home to the deep sea port widely viewed as the crown jewel of CPEC. The unprecedented protest brought to light how corporate fishing trawlers – many of them Chinese – have displaced local fisherfolk and destroyed marine ecology, while also revealing the extortionary and repressive practices of Pakistani paramilitary personnel in the region.

While the movement secured temporary successes, anger and resentment amongst both working masses as well as an educated youth in Balochistan subsequently deepened, culminating in a sensational suicide attack against Chinese teachers in Karachi by a white-collar Baloch woman in April 2022. In short, secular Baloch separatism continues to retain significant space within mainstream Baloch politics.

Sahiwal Coal Power Plant has been blamed for the decrease in the groundwater table and an increase in breathing problems for residents. Images Dawn

Intriguingly, however, the Haq Do Tehreek was led by a religious cleric rather than Baloch nationalists. This has generated comment that the movement was afforded space by Pakistan’s preeminent political-economic power, its military establishment, in an effort to insulate against too much Chinese influence and avoid antagonizing the American Empire. Even if such speculation is accurate, organic grievances against Chinese developmentalism in Pakistan remain substantial, and all indicators suggest that they are intensifying with time.

Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman led the Haq Do Tehreek in Balochistan in November 2021. Image: Twitter

Indeed, the very fact that secretive geopolitical games are playing out under a backdrop of exploitative regimes of accumulation and expropriation of the commons confirms the tragedy of contemporary Pakistani politics. Imperialist power wrecks the innards of society and brutalizes the wretched of the earth, yet our political life is dominated by intra-ruling class intrigues in which empty signifiers like ‘regime change conspiracy’ are bandied about reckless abandon.

“Mainstream Pakistan on the whole consents to the Pakistani state’s indiscriminate suppression of the Baloch nation”

Bear in mind that mainstream Pakistan on the whole consents to the Pakistani state’s indiscriminate suppression of the Baloch nation – as evidenced by the longstanding epidemic of enforced disappearances – which is both cause and consequence of an increasingly fragmented and violent Baloch society and polity. In such a context, progressive, internationalist principles are likely to remain conspicuous by their absence in both metropolitan and peripheral Pakistan.

Yet it is precisely because hateful politics from above is increasingly mirrored from below, along with the fact that the political mainstream has little to offer beyond spectacular palace intrigues, that progressives must coalesce around a renewed anti-imperialist vision: one that affords primacy to Pakistan’s extremely vexed national question while also positing imaginaries of class emancipation, ecological regeneration, and a world beyond patriarchy.

It is possible to be attentive to the structuring force of the US military-industrial-media establishment within Pakistan as well as Chinese capital, and articulate meaningful political positions. Left politics within Pakistan cannot be viewed only through the prism of regional and global geopolitics; to be uncritically supportive of a putative China-Russia bloc in opposition to the American Empire, for instance, is naïve inasmuch as there is little concrete evidence that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is leading the rest of the world into a defining revolutionary struggle with western imperialism.

A few more grounded examples of CPEC projects are instructive in this regard. A large amount of ‘early harvest’ funding under CPEC was directed to the construction of coal-fired thermal power plants in Punjab and the Siraiki Wasaib, as well as coal mining in the remote region of Thar in Sindh. Not only does this contradict China’s own claims to be phasing out coal – President Xi Jinping explicitly announced at the United Nations in September 2021 that Beijing would no longer support coal production abroad – it also amounts to the externalization of the environmental costs of capital accumulation to a satellite country in a manner reminiscent of European colonial empires.

Moreover, the construction of many coal-fired power plants has been accompanied by standard corporate-speak about guaranteeing local communities’ welfare, claims betrayed by decidedly less rosy outcomes. The US$1.9 billion Sahiwal coal-fired plant was constructed after many local farmers were forced to give up their lands; total arable land in one of the affected villages decreased from 2,150 acres to 1,150 acres, while more than 9000 trees and three natural water channels were uprooted. Most smallholders have been thrust into poverty as a result, while present and future populations in the area will have to cope with the medium and long-term effects of air and water pollution.

Remarkably, more than 95% of Pakistan’s total coal-based electricity generation capacity – almost 5000 MW – has been installed since 2018, while another 6000 MW is in various stages of development. These plants are projected to cause 29,000 air pollution-related deaths over a 30-year period, exacerbating a host of other health conditions like asthma, whilst also depositing 1400 kg of mercury in affected regions on an annual basis.

Meanwhile, a conventional macroeconomic cost-benefit analysis of Sino-Pak trade since the turn of the century illuminates a highly unequal exchange relationship. Pakistan’s small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly in the manufacturing sector, have been badly mauled by the rise in far more competitive Chinese imports, contributing to a dawning trade deficit and dwindling manufacturing capacity. Needless to say, the situation in geographical peripheries like Gilgit-Baltistan, which shares a border with China, makes for a particularly grim reading.

These examples are but the tip of a very large iceberg. In a nutshell, to speak of Chinese imperialism as a global phenomenon is to engage in unhelpful polemics given the dynamics of the global political economy in the current conjuncture. It can nevertheless be argued that the purportedly ‘developmental’ interventions being made by Chinese capital and state in concrete cases such as that of Pakistan exhibit imperialistic characteristics.

Resisting Chinese-tinged expressions of imperialistic power, especially with regards to the rights and resources of historically oppressed ethnic nations within Pakistan, as well as the increasingly central question of ecological destruction, is therefore non-negotiable if the Pakistani Left wants to be worthy of the name.

Conclusion

For much of its history, Pakistan’s ruling class, with its all-powerful army at the helm, has served as a faithful client of the American Empire. The relationship has ebbed and flowed, largely corresponding to Washington’s whims, but US imperialist power in various cultural, political, military and economic guises remains deeply entrenched in Pakistan’s structure of power.

Moreover, one of Washington’s most prominent allies, Saudi Arabia, also exercises considerable influence within Pakistani society, economy and polity. The ideological affinities between the Saudi regime and the Pakistani state — especially during and after General Zia ul Haq’s ‘Islamisation’ through the ‘80s — have tended to garner more attention but the economic relationship between the two countries is at least as significant. Millions of unskilled Pakistani workers have made their living in Saudi Arabia since the mid-1970s, remittances still constituting one of Pakistan’s major sources of income. The kingdom remains one of Pakistan’s major suppliers of oil and successive Pakistani regimes have relied on Saudi largesse to offset short-term economic pressures due to the ever-growing oil import bill. An exhaustive and critical analysis of Pakistan’s tryst with imperialism(s) demands acknowledgement of all such unequal exchange relationships, alongside an understanding of the complex and dynamic nature of geopolitical rivalries.

In closing, the growing Chinese footprint in Pakistan cannot be supported or opposed on the basis of surface-level phenomena. So, for instance, the fact that China enjoys comparatively greater public support in Pakistan than the US is not a sufficient condition for the Left to argue that Chinese developmentalism represents a form of anti-imperialist pushback, especially when such a position neglects the concrete effects of Chinese ‘assistance’ on the most exploited and oppressed segments and on nature.

Can there be a left position that remains organically connected to the struggles of the wretched of the earth whilst also remaining cautiously optimistic of the increasing Sinification of the world? I am not convinced that we must confine ourselves to such thinking. To borrow from the provocative authors Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann who offer us a ‘political theory of our planetary future’, I prefer to imagine a Planet X than a Planet Mao. What the proverbial Planet X would look like and the social forces – and potentially states – that will bring it to reality will be contingent on the extent to which anti-imperialist internationalism informs Left projects, in Pakistan and beyond. This essay was originally published in Jamhoor online blog.


Imperialisms of our times

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is an associate professor of political economy at the National Institute of Pakistan Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Pakistan. He is the author of The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan: Fear, Desire and Revolutionary Horizons.

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