GaWC Research Bulletin 332

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A shorter version of this Research Bulletin has been published in Political Geography, 30 (4), (2011), 175-177.


Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Thesis on Labour Imperialism: How Communist China Used Capitalist Globalization to Create the Last Great Modern Imperialism

P.J. Taylor*


I suspect we all have our globalization moment; an experience that confirms the inherent excessive globality of our contemporary society. To be sure there is nothing new about worldwide capitalism but there does appear to be a particular intensity of far-flung relations that penetrates everyday life in our heady consumerist world. This realization came to me on a trip to South Africa some years ago. I had promised to buy my grandchildren presents from Africa – for them this meant toys of Africa's exotic large animals. I asked my hosts for some shopping time and explained to them my particular needs. They whisked me off to a mall and took me to the Disney Store so that I could buy toy spin-offs from the film Lion King. I pointed out that there was little point in buying such gifts because they were all readily available at home: I needed toys designed and made in Africa, not designed in the USA and made in China. My hosts suggested going to the local market to buy wooden ornaments of animals especially carved for tourists. Ornaments were not on my grandchildren's consumption wish list. Once again they had to make do with ‘exotic' (i.e. place-identified) T-shirts as presents from a far away land.

Let us move on from anecdote to some related facts. Toys are big business: they make up 1% of worldwide exports. In the series of Worldmapper ( world maps showing countries proportional to different activities, there is both a Toy export map and a Toy import map. Comparing the two maps is visually quite eye-catching. The first map is totally dominated by China ; the second map dominated by the USA and western Europe. This glaring difference is the main point of the exercise but letting our eyes move away from the East-West contrast is also instructive. On the export map Africa appear as little more than a geographical string (i.e. no exports equals no area on the map) but on the import map the string converts to a narrow strip. For sure Africa is not a major toy importer but it appears to have similar import/export ratio as the USA and western Europe. As far as the global toy business is concerned, therefore, Africa is part of the same production/ consumption process that is undergirded by Chinese labour: hence my Sino-American Lion King experience in South Africa. And, of course, this process applies to much more than toys, it is the great Chinese ‘economic miracle' of double-digit annual growth rates that has come to dominate economic globalization.

I think there is a conundrum here that needs especially careful consideration from independent socialists. How can it be that the prime economic beneficiary of the great global expansion of capitalism in the last 40 years has been communist China? We should stop and think how astounding this is. In 1964 during a trip to Africa Zhou Enlai famously declared that Africa was ripe for revolution. Clearly we are in a very different world-system today. In fact the 1970s ushered in two revolutions completely at odds with the new front for communism that Zhou envisaged. In the West, the combination of two industries, computers and communications, provided the enabling technology for industrial capital to seek out and manage cheap labour on a global scale producing the ‘New International Division of Labour'. With industrial production moving to poor countries, this laid the foundation for contemporary globalization. In hindsight, we know now that, at about the same time, a similarly auspicious global change was beginning: the People's Republic of China was embarking on a new economic policy of ‘openness'. The 1978 reforms ushered in the development of a private sector and thereby released the economic potential of Chinese cities. Having experienced state policies generating de-urbanization in the 1960s, in the 1980s China joined the global urban boom so that by the 1990s the Chinese economic miracle was being led by three great multi-nodal, mega-city regions: the Pearl River Delta Region (Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzchen, Dongguan and Zhuhai), the Yangtze River Delta Region (Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi and Ningbo), and the Bohai Rim Region (Beijing, Tianjin, Qingdao, Qinhuangdao and Yantai), In the mid-2000s these regions were the new ‘workshops of the world' generating about 80% of Chinese exports. Thus has the economic ascent of communist China coincided with the broader rise of economic globalization. Obviously these are closely related, but how?

There are several ways to begin answering this question and I will start using Wallerstein's world-systems analysis. My choice is because this approach incorporated the erstwhile communist ‘second world' into a single world-systems framework before the demise of the USSR and COMECON. This makes the current communist China conundrum less surprising and therefore can provide the tools for understanding it. In this argument there is a single world-economy defined by a structural division of labour. The latter results from economic polarizing processes generating a core-periphery space-economy. However, the distinguishing feature of Wallerstein's analysis is the addition of a semi-periphery where core-making and periphery-making processes are relatively balanced. And it is states in the semi-periphery that provide the political dynamism of the system. Historically it has been through the semi-periphery that the core-region has expanded: the USA, Germany, and Japan have been important cases of semi-peripheral states rising to core positions in the world-economy. The state economic policies pursued championed national capital incorporating a deal of protectionism. Wallerstein interpreted the USSR as just such a semi-peripheral state in the twentieth century whereby its economic autarchy was ultimately about repositioning the USSR in the world-economy. Ultimately the USSR failed but it is tempting to interpret the success of the other communist super-state, the PRC, as a semi-peripheral strategy that worked. But such an explanation is actually unsatisfactory for the historical analogy being used here. Other semi-periphery states rose on the back of the relative closure of their economies and openness became desirable only after reaching a core position. The PRC, on the other hand, are currently rising to a core position on the back of their new openness following an era of autarchy associated with relative economic decline. To be sure this is a carefully managed openness but nevertheless PRC economic growth does represent a reversal of the sequence of past semi-peripheral successes.

But there are other reasons to doubt the PRC represents the latest semi-periphery success. The most important is the simple matter of size: China's demographic magnitude has meant that the economic impact of its rise is out of all proportion to economic successes of other non-core states at other times. This has been an ‘economic miracle' like no other, and which continues to be immensely influential: it may even turn out to be the saviour of the capitalist world-economy after the great 2008/09 crisis. And so we are back to the conundrum of the relation between communist China and capitalist globalization.

Let us therefore pursue another part of world-systems analysis's repertoire of tools, antisystemic movements. Organized into parties with the goal of winning state power, the three components of the ‘old left' were impressively successful in twentieth century politics of the world-system: after 1945 social democratic parties alternated in power in core states, communist parties were in power in key semi-periphery states, and national liberation movements were successful in decolonizing most of the periphery. In their respective rises to power in the first half of the twentieth century these movements worked out the theoretical and practical ideas and activities that provided the base for future success. The most important decision was to work through the existing interstate system; despite their universalist theories and international organizations, the focus of their politics was ‘state capture'. This is an expression of one of the major antinomies of world-systems politics: universal ideals jostling with particular socialist/nationalist practice. However the strategic decision for state politics was generally deemed necessary in a situation where mobilising support was the paramount task. But inevitably it was to have profound impact on the nature of the politics that was possible when political power was gained: state politics is intrinsically discriminatory.

Political movements mobilised locally as trade unions, local societies and parties, which were successfully built into national organizations. And herein lay an inherent problem. They had built up their support based solidly on domestic political issues, notably jobs and housing, and this was fundamental to their goals for government. But once in government they also had responsibility for state foreign policy; an area where most new governing parties were ill-prepared. Let me use British experience as an example. The British Labour Party that formed in the early twentieth century as a collaboration between socialist societies and trade unions inherited a strong free trade stance from its radical liberal roots bolstered by the supposed link between free trade and world peace. But in the 1920s when the party became a candidate for government and formed minority administrations on two occasions, the question “what is a socialist foreign policy?” came to a head. If the party were to form a majority government what Labour foreign policy would it pursue? Not an unimportant question, there appeared to be three options available each of which was sorely wanting. First, there was a continuation of the traditional imperial policy but with a ‘progressive' agenda, for instance, with respect to Indian independence. This policy option had its origins in early Fabian Society thinking; they had found ‘imperial policy' to be a lacuna in their socialist agenda and up-scaled the society's domestic policies to argue for a more fairly and efficiently managed empire. Second, there was a strong pacifist component to the party's socialism, which traced its roots back to membership of the Second International: the latter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 for its promotion of world peace. But this option had been discredited by the ease and popularity of war mobilization in 1914 and was generally viewed as impracticable in the decade after the war. Third, there was the possibility of joining the Third International to defend the Soviet socialist homeland with a promise of international communality replacing international rivalry. But this was practically unthinkable even for Labour Party Marxists like James Maxton: subordinating British sovereignty to a foreign state in a relation much more hierarchical than cooperative would be electoral suicide. This was Labour confronting the universal/particular political antimony and finding no satisfactory answer. As it happened the party did not form a majority government until after the second world war when it chose option one, continuation of imperial policy.

What are the lessons to be drawn from this story from the rise of one section of the antisystemic movement and its inevitable absorption into the system? The first point to make is that the party in question was an amalgam of socialist and trade union politics; in the discussion above the phrases ‘socialist foreign policy' and ‘Labour foreign policy' have been used interchangeably and were viewed as such at the time. But they can also be viewed as quite distinctive: the world-system political antinomy is catastrophic for the former but not necessarily for the latter. The self-interest of labour is essentially about jobs, their availability, their renumeration and their conditions. Opponents of antisystemic movements recognised this in their support for national capital through protectionist policies; the latter would include protecting jobs. In the British case this was certainly true of the tariff reform movement (for imperial protectionism) whereby Birmingham liberal unionists (in the Conservative Party) attempted to supersede traditional Manchester free traders (in the Liberal Party) at the beginning of the twentieth century. After all, in world comparative perspective, labour in the core were the ‘labour aristocracy' whose political self-interest could be mobilized for reactionary politics as well as progressive politics. Labour and socialism has always been politically an uneasy alliance, and not just in Britain.

My thesis is that the contemporary Chinese Communist Party have untangled their theoretical socialism from their practical attachment to Chinese labour to finally provide a definitive answer to the question ‘what is a Labour foreign policy?' The answer is labour imperialism, the aggressive policy of taking jobs from the rest of the world.

There are two conditions that have made the creation of Chinese labour imperialism possible. First, it derives from the political self-interest of the party elite. They can only expect to maintain their one party monopoly through tangible economic results. For Chinese labour this means, above all, jobs. Hence the party's draconian domestic policy of population control, the one child per family prescription to curtail demographic growth. Traditionally high growth rates are treated positively by states but in this case it was seen as destabilizing since there was no guarantee that job creation would be able to keep pace with massive population increases. Labour imperialism complements this domestic policy, limiting the number of jobs required, with a foreign policy that imports the manageable number of jobs that are nevertheless still needed. The agency for both policies is party self-interest in full employment to produce a relatively quiet political life.

Second, agency is never enough on its own, there has to be a suitable context for the policy to be successful. Here we return to the scale factor within economic globalization. This is a matter of the policy autonomy that states have within the interstate system under conditions of contemporary globalization. In their influential book The Global Trap (Zed, 1997), Martin and Schuman argued that only the USA has preserved its national sovereignty. I think that experience since the mid-1990s suggests that their US exceptionalism claim needs revision, the PRC has to be recognised as a second state that has also maintained its national sovereignty. Therefore China has the policy autonomy to take advantage of globalization processes built upon consumerism.

Now let's return to the non-core sections of the world-system and apply this Chinese exceptionalism. For the last century these regions have been experiencing a massive de-peasantization process as population leaves the land to create large mega-cities throughout the erstwhile ‘third world'. This rural-urban migration has been distinctive in that movement of people into the cities has totally overwhelmed the capacity of the cities to create jobs for the migrants. The result is described vividly in Mike Davis' Planet of Slums (Verso, 2006). He lists the largest 30 ‘megaslums' that are found worldwide: 14 in Africa, 10 in Latin America, 6 in Asia and none of the latter are in China. This does not mean that Chinese cities do not have any slums, but it does indicate that the urban structure is fundamentally different from the ‘third world' mega-cities whose landscapes are dominated by shantytowns, bidonvilles and favelas. The key point is that despite the greatest national rural-urban migration ever recorded, Chinese city-economies have largely keep abreast of the urban population explosion through what Davis calls their unique ‘jobs-and-income boom'. This urban-economic achievement is truly remarkable. As well as the three great multi-nodal mega-city regions, there are more than 150 other cities with populations topping a million. All this success is the result of labour imperialism.

What has been happening is that Chinese policies have been sucking industrial jobs from all other erstwhile ‘third world' countries. Thus although contemporary globalization started with the new international division of labour (NIDL) leading to deindustrialization of large swaths of core countries, it has culminated in a Chinese division of labour (CIDL) leading to deindustrialization of large swaths on non-core countries. This is labour imperialism. This is what keeps China under communist party control. As China scours the rest of the world, notably Africa, for raw materials to fuel its great industrial revolution, one wonders what Zhou Enlai would have made of this last great modern imperialism?


*Peter J. Taylor, Department of Geography, Loughborough University, email:


Edited and posted on the web on 11th January 2010

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Political Geography, 30 (4), (2011), 175-177