China Has Changed, Kremlinology Has Not

Benjamin Ostergaard

During the Cold War, Western academics and journalists had little access to the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. There were many reasons for this but most of them related to legitimate security concerns of the USSR. This lack of access meant that most Western reports on the Soviet Union’s politics, economics, and society were highly speculative at best and complete fabrications at worst. Since these Western journalists lacked any education in Marxist theory, they resorted to extrapolating grand conspiracies from minuscule details such as where Soviet leaders were sitting during public events. The field of “Kremlinology” was often derisively referred to as “Kremlin astrology” for frequently making vague or incorrect predictions. Yet, despite the silliness of Kremlinology, Western journalists and academics still use the same sweeping generalizations, attention to irrelevant minutiae, and wanton speculation to construct a false image of China that aligns with U.S. ruling class interests. This kind of journalistic malpractice is even more appalling considering that China is a very open country when compared with the Soviet Union.

Indeed, this kind of “journalism” is a microcosm of Western discourse on communist ideology as a whole. Since the illegal, undemocratic dissolution of the Soviet Union, communist doctrine has changed to take account of new realities. Capitalist doctrine, on the other hand, has remained stagnant. The only change in capitalist countries was the elimination of the external pressure that enabled Western countries to dismantle their social safety nets and begin neoliberal programs of mass privatization without fear of mass civil unrest and revolution. This doesn’t really count as a change in doctrine, as this is what capitalists wanted to do the entire time. Meanwhile, starting in 1978, China under the leadership of the Communist Party of China began drafting and implementing a doctrinal shift within Chinese communism. This process of “reform and opening up” was ultimately what allowed the Chinese revolution to survive the global collapse of socialism in the late 80s and early 90s. Sino-U.S. relations were quite good at this time for two reasons. One, the U.S. saw China as a useful ally against the Soviet Union, and two, China’s reform and opening up gave U.S. capitalists access to China’s huge market. So aside from occasional comments on “authoritarianism” and “human rights violations,” the U.S. capitalist media was mostly friendly to China up until 2012 when Xi Jinping was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of China.

Xi’s presidency has been defined by a number of high-profile policy campaigns. Firstly, targeted poverty alleviation led by the end of 2020 to China becoming the first civilization in human history to completely eradicate absolute poverty. This campaign shouldn’t have come as a surprise as this was the plan all along. The chief architect of China’s reform and opening up and former paramount leader of China, Deng Xiaoping, said, “To uphold socialism, a socialism that is to be superior to capitalism, it is imperative first and foremost to eliminate poverty.” Xi has also launched a massive anti-corruption campaign, which has led to many convictions of both high- and low-ranking government officials. Economically, Xi has emphasized the importance of state-owned enterprises, and cracked down on the real estate sector in favor of manufacturing. Regarding foreign policy, Xi has championed the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a massive global infrastructure project. The Western intelligentsia, and thus by extension Western media, had always assumed that China’s reform and opening up was a departure from communism. In reality, a cursory reading of Deng’s writings shows that Xi’s policies are not a “return to the Mao era” as often claimed by Western newspapers, but rather that this was the plan all along. Now increasingly confronted with a new socialist China, Western propagandists fell back to their old anti-Soviet tactics. But the policies of reform and opening up have morphed this Kremlinological style of reporting, which was already divorced from reality, into something completely absurd.

Unlike in the Soviet Union, where movement of Western nationals was restricted, foreigners in China have almost complete free range of travel, the main exception being the Xizang Autonomous Region (Tibet) which requires a special permit. The only thing needed for unrestricted travel throughout China is a Chinese visa, which can be for work, journalism, business, study, tourism, etc. In fact, China has recently entered into visa-free access agreements with several countries, so this already small barrier is now removed for some people. And unrestricted travel means just that—you can go anywhere and talk to anyone all while being unaccompanied by a government tour guide. I have only been in China for about four months at the time of writing this and I have already been making travel plans with my friends, both Chinese and other international students. We’ve discussed traveling everywhere from our university in Yangzhou to Hainan Island in the south to Harbin in the north to Xinjiang in the west.

Yes, travel to Xinjiang is completely unrestricted for foreign visitors. Aside from extra counter-terrorism security measures, such has removing your shoes at airports or metal detectors in mall entrances, travel in Xinjiang is little different from travel in the rest of China. The biggest difference you will notice is that all the street signs are written in Uyghur as well as Mandarin. Indeed, all areas of China with significant minority populations will have bilingual street signs. If you live in the U.S. can you remember the last time you saw a street sign written in an indigenous language? If you are still so concerned about the Western propaganda story of the “Uyghur Genocide” or that China is somehow oppressing its Muslim population, then I encourage you to travel to Xinjiang and talk to the people there yourself. I guarantee they won’t know what you are talking about. Many Chinese media outlets often run stories featuring the cultures of China’s 55 minority ethnic groups. Some Western media might somewhat meekly claim that these free expressions of minority culture don’t prove that China isn’t eradicating minority culture (note that Radio Free Asia is funded by the U.S. government). For example, a Tibetan friend of mine brought me to Yangzhou’s famous Dongguan Street, where we witnessed cultural dances of the Miao and Uyghur ethnic groups. Since the Chinese government had no idea I was going to be there, it’s hard to believe that it was just a government show for foreigners and not a genuine celebration of China’s diversity. Indeed, it would be even harder to believe that the halal restaurants my Pakistani Muslim friends brought me to were just for show too. But these facts do not deter the Kremlinologists; as shown above, they simply construct a new line of reasoning that leads to their old conclusions. Michael Parenti called this particular Kremlinological phenomenon a “non-falsifiable orthodoxy.”

Let me give an example of such non-falsifiable orthodoxy. Western media frequently claims that any critics of the Chinese government are “disappeared” or otherwise punished. Yet, I’ve had conversations with a few Chinese people who have expressed disapproval of their government and the CPC. The Kremlinologist might claim that this is indicative of widespread, repressed anti-government sentiment. Yet these people disclosed their opinions to me in public spaces as opposed to private ones. The Kremlinologist constructs an ideological framework such that all evidence leads towards their pre-determined conclusion. The non-falsifiable orthodoxy is as follows: if a Chinese person openly disapproves of their government, then this proves that all Chinese people hate their government and want to violently overthrow it. If a Chinese person openly approves of their government, it is because they are either too scared to openly disapprove or they are a victim of government brainwashing. In either scenario, the Kremlinologist asserts that true public support for the Chinese government is non-existent and there is no evidence you can produce to convince them otherwise. Of course, the simplest explanation, and the one that aligns with empirical data, is that the Chinese government has between 85 to 95% public support at any time and thus most people you encounter will support the government but you will still encounter some who don’t. And given that China’s government has lifted over 800 million people out of poverty and consistently improved the living standards of its entire population, we shouldn’t find it surprising that it is popular.

And I would argue that the Chinese government isn’t far away in an abstract sense. The Communist Party of China is hardly a distant and secretive organization, as it is so often portrayed by Western media; in fact, it has over 98 million members! That’s almost 7% of the total population! If you visit China you are almost guaranteed to meet a CPC member, although they might not tell you unless you ask. On the few occasions where I have mentioned that I am a member of the Communist Party USA, I have only received very positive responses. Most people I’ve talked to, including CPC members, did not know that the U.S. has a communist party, but there have been multiple events in the past few years that may start to change that. The CPC sent a delegation to the CPUSA’s 2023 International Conference on Imperialism. In December, CPUSA co-chair Rossana Cambron spoke at the World Socialism Forum in Beijing. Far from a shift away from the reform and opening up, openness has increased in recent years and the CPC has made more efforts to teach foreigners about the Party. Xi Jinping has responded to many letters written to him by international students studying in China. Responding to a letter sent to him in 2021 by international students at Peking University, Xi wrote “To understand today’s China, one must understand the CPC.”

It is clear that China’s openness could present a serious crisis in Kremlinological journalism if exploited properly. So what does this mean for CPUSA members and members of other communist and workers’ parties? To start with, our Party’s International Department should work towards building relations and communication structures with the CPC. We have already made very good progress in this regard, and the CPC International Department has responded cordially. Since China is the de facto leading communist country, all CPUSA members should seek to better understand not just the CPC but also socialism with Chinese characteristics so that we can better understand how to adapt and apply Marxism to the unique circumstances of the United States. In order for our Party to educate the American people on socialism, we must dispel U.S. ruling class myths on China and Chinese socialism. To do this, we will need to cultivate Party members who are experts on all things China. As Xi Jinping wrote in the aforementioned letter, “Seeing is believing.” China’s openness renders the ideas spread by Kremlinologists extremely vulnerable to firsthand experience. Since China is now a major destination for international students, we should encourage Party members and Young Communist League members to enroll at Chinese universities. Here, our cadres can help build people-to-people relations between our Party and the CPC, between our respective youth leagues, as well as between Americans and Chinese people. They can also get firsthand knowledge about the China and the CPC the media doesn’t want us to see and bring what they learned back to the American people.