|WRITINGS ON CONTEMPORARY CHINA
AND THE CHINESE REVOLUTION,
TAKEN FROM SOLIDARITY PUBLICATIONS
|China’s Ecological Crisis
Also posted on China Study Group-Boston listserve, June, 2005
The River Runs Black:
The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future
by Elizabeth C. Economy
A Council on Foreign Relations Book,
Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004.
350 pp. $29.95 hardcover
ELIZABETH C. ECONOMY, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow of the Council on Foreign Affairs, opens her book on China’s ecological
crisis with a graphic first chapter depicting the late July, 2001 pollution crisis affecting the Huai River. This major waterway in
Central China runs through the city of Nanjing and empties into the East China Sea by Shanghai.
When more than 38 billion gallons of highly polluted water was flushed into it, the Huai River literally turned black, agriculture
and fishing were devastated, pollution-borne disease became rampant with incalculable longterm effects. The Huai’s water was
rendered unfit even for industrial use and agricultural irrigation, let alone human and animal consumption.
Response by Chinese officialdom to this crisis of the Huai River, as had been true of other environmental crises in the past going
back to the days of Mao, was slow, hesitant and half-hearted, and the fate of the Huai River and its fertile Basin still remains
much in doubt.
One positive change was that the loosening of political controls in post-Mao China did enable more publicity and direct protest
on this crisis by the populace than had been previously allowed, albeit still only within the confines allowed by China’s
authoritarian leadership and political structure.
But as Ms. Economy points out in much detail in The River Runs Black, major ecological crises and deterioration of the
environment engendered by the Chinese leadership’s vigorous pursuit of its definition of “economic development” not only goes
back decades, but continues. Whether the deterioration of the Chinese environment by this “economic development” will be
addressed, much less remedied, is very much in doubt.
Pretty words and initiatives from the top are frequently rendered meaningless by local and provincial officials bent on
maintaining their “developmental” prerogatives; and despite some political openings, the workers, peasants and intellectuals are
still expected to remain cowed and acquiescent to the authorities.
Threats to Life and Growth
China’s Gross Domestic Product has grown rapidly -- with the Peoples Republic of China abandoning its previous economic
autarky and now actively “opening up” to the worldwide capitalist market, and with industrialization and new economic projects
advancing at a pell-mell pace.
The very viability and sustainability of this economic growth is now thrown into question, however, by the toll it has been
allowed to take on the natural environment. As Ms. Economy states on the first page of this book: “Today, the environment is
beginning to exert its toll on the Chinese people, impinging on continued economic development, forcing large-scale migration,
and inflicting significant harm on the public’s health.”
Indeed, early in The River Runs Black Ms. Economy lists several concomitant ecological problems that have been engendered
by frantic, supposedly non-ideological emphasis on “economic development.”
Nature’s casualties include the rampant and recurring flooding of the Yangtze and other major rivers; spreading desertification,
with deserts now covering one-fourth of China’s land mass and steadily eating up more and more of China’s arable land, and
causing the skies around Beijing and other northern cities to darken from recurring dust storms; severe and growing water
shortages; dwindling forests, with much of the still-remaining forest areas continuing to dwindle due to illegal logging; and a
massive and still-growing human population, the world’s largest population in any one country occupying an arable land mass
that was never very large to begin with, and one which continuing pollution and environmental degradation continue to erode.
Ms. Economy is somewhat of a free-market meliorist, although far from being a devotee of an unregulated market economy.
While acknowledging that Chinese “economic reforms” since 1976 -- which turned Chinese economic growth toward market
forces and integration into the world capitalist economy no matter what the social costs -- are a major contributor to China’s
current ecological crises, she also thinks that this same dominant market-oriented approach can also be the means by which
China can solve its ecological crisis.
What’s absent from Ms. Economy’s calculation as a solution to China’s ecological crisis is a popular response, culminating in
thoroughgoing economic and social revolution, save in her wish for a more extensive non-ideological democratization of China’s
authoritarian political structure. She conceives a “non-ideological,” technocratic approach that sees the world capitalist market
economy, and China’s participation in it, not only as a perpetual “given,” but also a godsend both for China and the world.
A Market Fix?
In this regard, she sees the funding by the IMF, World Bank and foreign capitalist investors for certain environmental protection
measures and in providing China with non-polluting technology, accompanied by a more serious approach to environmental
regulation by Chinese officialdom, as worthwhile all in themselves, and markets as a non-ideological technical tool to deepen
responsiveness to ecological considerations.
In this, Ms. Economy stands apart from the obsession of the Chinese “economic reform” leaderships from 1976 on, from Deng
Xialping up to and including the current leaders, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, who used and continue to use
markets as a means to promote economic growth as an almost exclusive end in itself.
It wasn’t until over two decades after the “economic reforms” began that independent agencies for environmental protection
were even brought into existence within the Chinese governmental bureaucracy. Prior to that, environmental protection was
always under the control of the ministries for economic development and foreign trade, and remains subject to their objections.
At various United Nations conferences on the environment, the Chinese delegates always insisted that international concern over
Chinese pollution and environmental degradation was a ploy by Western economically-developed nations to stymie the Third
World’s economic development and keep it dependent.
While Ms. Economy too readily dismisses these Chinese objections out of hand, failing to note the half-truth involved that
Western capitalist economic growth produced the initial world pollution crisis in the first place, she is right to note that it was
only from the 1992 Rio de Janeiro conference that China’s leadership took world concerns about Chinese pollution and
environmental degradation seriously.
Grassroots Green Activism
Ms. Economy also documents extensively and favorably China’s growing Green movement, a grassroots movement of citizens
and NGOs that has been allowed to exist, sometimes with official approval and sometimes officially harassed, which has
spearheaded public awareness of China’s ecological crisis and even engaged in action against some of the more flagrant
Politically, this Green movement runs the gamut from the studiously apolitical, who emphasize recycling and other ameliorative
measures, to activists who link official Chinese neglect of the environment to the lack of democracy within the Chinese political
process itself, a process still very authoritarian despite official moves under Hu Jintao toward “transparency” and a considerable
loosening up since the days of Mao Zedong.
Ms. Economy also notes that neglect of the environment in the name of economic growth not only predates the “economic
reforms” of 1976, or even the rule by Mao and the Chinese Communist Party after the 1949 Revolution, but is also a theme with
deep roots in traditional Chinese culture and ethos itself.
Despite Taoist and Buddhist conceptions that emphasized humans living in harmony with nature, the reigning Confucian ethos
saw nature as only a tool to be used by humans as they saw fit to advance their desires, humans as active and nature as only a
passive vehicle. This Confucian ethos was given a Communist face under Mao, and continued after the “economic reforms” of
Concern in Chinese thought for the environment, then, is generally a new phenomenon in a culture that is over 4,000 years old;
and such concern is by no means widespread, not only among Chinese officialdom, but among the Chinese people themselves.
All the above, which I’ve presented in outline, is richly specified, detailed and documented by both English- and Chinese-
language sources and interviews with key actors in The River Runs Black. It is also presented in a way that makes
understanding accessible to the non-specialist in Chinese affairs as well as being informative to the specialist.
A Wider Perspective
In a fascinating next to last chapter, Ms. Economy parallels China’s ecological crisis with the similar ecological crises that
developed in both the command economies of “already existing socialism” in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and in the
developed capitalist economies of East and Southeast Asia (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore).
She roots the emergence of these crises in the paths of economic development chosen by elites unaccountable to their publics in
both cases. She notes that, as with China today, both the command “socialist” economies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet
Union, and the free-market developed economies of East and Southeast Asia shared an ongoing lack of transparency,
democracy and political participation by their ordinary citizens in economic policy and development decisions.
As in China, unchecked pollution and environmental degradation went unaddressed until it reached catastrophic proportions,
because both the “socialist” and capitalist elites favored and were the beneficiaries of economic growth that was preoccupied
solely with GDP and the “success” of industrial projects, and could not be held accountable by the ordinary people who also
supposedly “benefited” from such preoccupation.
Interestingly enough, Ms. Economy gives us much detail on how the Green movements of Eastern Europe undermined the
whole stability of “already existing socialism.” As involvement in supposedly apolitical environmental concerns was the only
form of political participation allowed, within these environmental movements political desire for other changes fermented
Ms. Economy sees similar processes ongoing in Green movements in China today, where some environmental activists are
openly tying the continuing ecological degradation to political questions of democratization and popular participation.
In her final chapter, Ms. Economy outlines three possible scenarios for China’s ecological future, all of which she sees
presently as equal possibilities. The first is continued deepening of ecological degradation in the name of promoting economic
development, until the degradation slams the brakes on such development, perhaps with irreversible ecological damage.
The second is a “greening of China” with a deepening ecological consciousness finally being able to make itself felt in a
democratized Chinese political and economic process, perhaps with the spreading success of local green initiatives such as
those of the Mayor of Shanghai, who has led successful efforts to transform this sprawling, heavily-polluted largest city in the
world into a Green City.
The third scenario is continuation of the present uneasy status quo, where ecological concerns are pressed only hesitantly and
half-heartedly by the officialdom against the claims of “economic development” at all costs, and the public voice remains muted.
What then does the ecological crisis in China detailed in The River Runs Black mean for us, socialists oriented toward rank-and-
file democracy? First of all, we note that ecological concerns do not separate themselves from social, economic and political
concerns, and are not fully addressed apart from them.
Thus, the hoped-for Greening of China is inseparable from the carrying through of socialist measures in China under the
auspices of the Chinese workers, peasants and left intellectuals themselves. This is not a Greening that can, or will come
An Uneasy Hybrid
This must lead us of the left now to address what is the nature of the present regime in China. In the view of this writer, that
nature is still up for grabs, for China is now in an unstable halfway house. Leading market socialist theorist David Schweickart
sees China today as an “authoritarian market socialism,” while to Maoists and some other non-Maoist theorists of the left (for
example, Zhang Kai in Against the Current, 113) China has already “restored capitalism.”
This writer sees China today as essentially an authoritarian economic hybrid of the type that prevailed in the “New Democracy”
period of the Chinese Revolution, 1949-1953. It is a mixed economy of both public and private economic enterprises, albeit one
which has “opened up” to the world capitalist market instead of making a virtue out of the autarky forced upon it by Cold War
hostility and isolation.
Indeed, the “opening up” of China by the Chinese leadership was also concomitant with the “opening up” to China by the
Western capitalist powers, who wanted to integrate China and its vast market potential into the world capitalist market system.
Suffice it to note here that, while the State Owned Enterprise sector of the Chinese economy continues to shrink as these firms
are sold off, most of them were inefficient economic liabilities to begin with. Further, the majority of Chinese firms are
cooperative joint-stock enterprises with the workers in such firms being stockholders themselves, and all foreign investment
ventures in China still require partnership with a Chinese entity.
Certainly, there’s much that smacks of capitalist exploitation in what the Chinese officialdom calls “socialism with Chinese
characteristics.” But, to this writer, calling China “capitalist” on that account is akin to declaring Sweden “socialist.”
In any case we “socialists from below” have never regarded state ownership in itself to be the defining characteristic of
socialism. Socialism for us has always involved a whole panoply of liberatory relationships, economic to be sure, but also
social, cultural and political. We uphold what Marx and Engels expressed in the Communist Manifesto as characterizing
socialism, that it means a social arrangement where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of
Stalin repudiated this, and canonized the notion that socialism meant only one thing, “correct economic relationships,” and too
many anti-Stalinist socialists swallowed this nostrum as uncritically as the Stalinists.
Indeed, as we consider for example the infamous pet project of the Chinese leadership, the Three Gorges Dam project to create
a massive reservoir and hydroelectric power generation by a damming of the Yangtze River that destroys both invaluable
Chinese cultural legacies and the environment -- a project meeting with indignation from both Chinese and non-Chinese alike --
we do look most askance at the “economic reforms” pushed by the Chinese leadership.
But we also look most askance at Maoists such as Robert Weil in his book Red Cat, White Cat, while critical of Chinese
“economic reform,” extolling the supposed “moderate economic growth” under the leadership of Mao Zedong. Long before the
Three Gorges Dam even got underway, Mao-led “economic reform” meant gargantuan monstrosities as well, authoritarian
politically-manipulated violent lurches such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
These disasters not only failed to produce “economic growth,” “moderate” or otherwise, but left economic, political and social
chaos and dislocation in their wake.
We as socialists committed to rank-and-file democracy and participation do not limit ourselves to embracing one or the other
unacceptable “mainstream” paradigm as the only ones possible.
We reject both the idea that “socialism” is something handed down from leaders at the top, and also the doctrine that economic
development can only take place under capitalist auspices. And in our rejection we note that yesterday’s top-down “socialists”
in Eastern Europe and Russia became tomorrow’s capitalists.
The question of China’s direction is an important one for us, both practically and theoretically, for it does raise questions both
practical and theoretical about the viability and feasibility of any form of collective ownership, not just those of a socialism
which is inherently democratic.
So we do, indeed, follow developments in China closely. And from this, we look with interest indeed at the ecological crisis in
China and the emerging Green movement there. Not only for China but in all our political work, we call and work for the
Redding of the Green and the Greening of the Red. In this work we will find Elizabeth C. Economy’s The River Runs Black
valuable and informative.
MY FRIENDSHIP WITH BILL HINTON
FEBRUARY 2, 1919-MAY 15, 2004
“SPEAKING CHINESE” ON THE CHINESE REVOLUTION
Solidarity Member at Large
Published in the Solidarity Internal Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 13, issue 6, May 23, 2005. This article was also posted on the
China Study Group-Boston listserve.
The following was written in memoriam for my friend of over thirty years, Maoist writer William Hinton, author of many books
vividly depicting the course of the Chinese Revolution such as Fanshen, Shenfan, Turning Point in China, Hundred Day War and
The Great Reversal. Hinton lived in China from 1939 to 1953, where he was a journalist and an agricultural specialist after 1945
with the UNRRA. Upon his return to the United States he had his extensive notes on the land reform process in China seized, he
was called before the Eastland Committee as a subversive, and had his later career as a trade union organized ended by being
blacklisted as an “atomic spy.” Now unemployable, he took residence on a family farm in Pennsylvania, where he supported
himself as a working farmer and author. He returned to China regularly from the late 1960s on, served as an agricultural
consultant for the United Nations in China and Mongolia in the 1990s, and was a founding member and President of the U.S.-
China Peoples Friendship Association. Bill Hinton and I began a political odd-couple friendship in 1969, he a Maoist, myself a
Trotskyist, when I was an active member of SDS and a student in Chinese studies at Michigan State University, then and later
pursuing studies in Chinese history and politics at Michigan State, Chinese language at MSU and Washington University, and
East Asian economies at Indiana University-Bloomington, a background called upon for the contribution of a review-essay,
“China’s Ecological Crisis” in ATC#116. Obviously, Hinton and I agreed to disagree on many issues regarding the Peoples
Republic of China, Mao Zedong, and the nature and course of the Chinese Revolution, but we always respected and dialogued
with each other, and because of my friendship with Bill Hinton, I deepened my understanding both of China and revolution. So,
while Bill Hinton was not the typical teacher and mentor for someone always remembering and never renouncing his Trotskyist
roots, he was a most fit teacher, mentor and friend nonetheless, and because of this deep odd-couple friendship I am personally
and politically better for it.
In May, 1999, I received as an unexpected present from my longtime friend, our late beloved William Hinton – a copy of the
bilingual Chinese-English photo-and-text book published by Worldwide Publishers in Hong Kong to commemorate Bill’s eightieth
birthday, the title of which translated into English is, “William Hinton: Old Friend of the Chinese People.” But inside this book
were two other surprises, surprises which told me of how much Bill had valued our friendship of thirty years: for inside this
slim book was both an autographed appreciation of me in English, and an autographed appreciation from the Chinese editor – in
This was not the first time Bill had done such a kindness to me. A few years earlier, when I’d acknowledged to him that I had
not yet read Shenfan, he sent me a hardcover copy to me at his expense – also autographed, with a note of appreciation!
These are but two of the ways I will cherish my memories of Bill over the course of our friendship dating back to 1969. An
interesting, political odd-couple friendship indeed, in that he, very much a Maoist, befriended me while I was a student at
Michigan State studying modern Chinese history and language, an activist in SDS -- and a Trotskyist! And yes, we did disagree
politically at times over the years, very notably in our assessment of Liu Shaoqi, but we were always able to agree to disagree.
Because, most of all, we respected each other as avid students of the momentous 1949 Chinese Revolution, both of us much
aware of how important and monumental it was not only to the development of Marxism, but for the liberation of all oppressed
Both of us understood that, above all, the Chinese Revolution “spoke Chinese” to us, and to all peoples. Lenin once wrote,
“Marxism is the concrete analysis of concrete conditions.” Yet too often we Marxists, especially Western Marxists, have
reduced Marxism to a generic universalizing schema, a one-size-fits-all generalization based too much on Western intellectual
preconceptions, and not on the lived experience of the peoples of the whole world. We too often tend to forget how really
different the lived totality of the world experience is from the standard Western distillation of it. But Bill Hinton didn’t, and he
taught me well. That, indeed, the Chinese Revolution specifically “spoke Chinese” to us. Just as the Bolshevik Revolution had
“spoken Russian” to an earlier generation of revolutionaries, as the Vietnamese Revolution “spoke Vietnamese” to us in the
Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, and as the Cuban Revolution had addressed us in the “Cuban dialect of Spanish.” Right back to
the “concrete analysis of concrete conditions!”
Marx had developed a glimpse of this when, confronted by the differentness of China and other non-Western societies, he
elaborated his theory of Oriental Despotism, an acknowledgement that the linear Western development from slavery through
feudalism to capitalism might just not apply so neatly on a world scale that encompassed all societies. Unfortunately, this insight
would more often than not be overshadowed by our Marxist generic universalizing schema mentioned above, and certainly, I as
a Trotskyist came to realize this as a particular fault within the Trotskyist movement, always an admirable revolutionary
movement to be sure, but one which I saw as highly flawed when, under the tutelage of Bill and more extensive study, I saw
just how much the Chinese Revolution “spoke Chinese.” And for this I soon came to be considered a political pariah by my
Trotskyist comrades, some sort of closet Maoist! But Western Trotskyists were not the only ones who could not comprehend
that the Chinese Revolution “spoke Chinese.” The same vice was also a visible part of Western Maoism as well. Neither
movement could really understand how deeply the Revolution of 1949 “spoke Chinese,” as the Revolution of 1917 had “spoken
Russian,” as the Vietnamese Revolution “spoke Vietnamese,” and as the Cuban Revolution “spoke the Cuban dialect of Spanish.”
Bill’s many important books, Fanshen and Shenfan to name but two, vividly and graphically made us aware of how the Chinese
Revolution did indeed “speak Chinese.” We were taken into the maelstrom of the Revolution through Bill’s writings, made
conscious of what transpired and what was transformed at the grassroots level. Bill stood to us young revolutionaries then not
as a theorist developing extensive and elaborate generalizations, but instead and far more important, as a raconteur and reporter
of daily lived transformation, giving us the raw data and the existential feel that must inform any valid social theory. This was
his great strength, and it captured me then back in 1969, when I first read Fanshen. And it carries within me still, thanks in no
small part to my friendship over thirty-some years with Bill Hinton. For what Bill had to offer us was truly seminal.
My good friend and comrade in the organization Solidarity, noted scholar of Trotskyist leaning like myself, Milton Fisk, said of
Fanshen so tellingly, “It was the right book at the right time.” So true. And that carried through all of Bill’s later writings,
where he shows his love of ordinary people and appreciation of daily-lived struggles to transform both themselves and the
societies they live in. His first-hand knowledge of China and the Chinese people made that come alive for us as we were drawn
deeper into the Chinese Revolution through him, and from that, into deeper understanding of the world revolutionary process.
And this now very much middle-aged Trotskyist and still-student of China and Asia always remembered, always cherished,
that. This is what I took from Bill, this is what always remains within me because of our friendship.