Recently, Western media and think tanks are spending a lot of time comparing Chinese initiative of New Silk Road also called Belt Road Initiative (BRI) with colonialism. While BRI is about infrastructural development throughout the globe, colonialism is with piracy, killing, anti-white racism, the deindustrialisation of Asia, systematic loot of resources, abduction, rape, slavery. So comparing BRI with colonialism is not only about negative publicity of BRI but also about giving colonialism a constructive face which is in fact not the case.
The beginning of the Western Civilisation
Western civilisation came into being with the rise of numerous Germanic tribes during the last days of the Western Roman Empire. Those tribes conquered huge parts of Western Roman Empire and gradually transformed from hunting tribal society to agro feudal society and later accepted Christianity. This process of transformation was complete by around 500 AD. Newly civilised Western people knew trade and commerce very little, and it conforms to the Catholic interpretation of Christianity which preached money making a way of life (banking, trade, and commerce) as a road to hell. The rise of Arabs in the Mediterranean, Iberian Peninsula, Southern Italy and continuous Viking attacks from the Scandinavian peninsula (which was still untouched by civilisation) further forced Westerners into Castle Age with war-centric economy leaving little room for trade and commerce.
First Phase of Western Expansion: Crusades
The first change came to Western civilisation in two ways. Internally newly victorious Viking rulers gave West an expansionist warrior mindset. The externally Muslim world suffered contradictions between rising Turks and declining Arabs from 832 AD to 1055 AD. By 1033 AD Norman Duchy (who was Viking) conquered Sicily from Arabs. Arab hold over the Iberian Peninsula gradually declined during this time. It can be said that the fall of Arabs gave Western European people a chance to foray into trade and commerce which was new to them. As rising Turks came into contradiction with the Byzantine Empire, Feudal ruling class of Western Europe took this opportunity to launch Crusades against Muslim world in the name of recovery of the Holy Land Jerusalem where Turks were refusing to let Christian pilgrim in. They occupied Jerusalem in 1099 AD and kept it under their rule briefly. This exposed the Westerners to the riches of Oriental (i.e. non-West where Byzantine Orthodox Christians were included along with Muslims) society. This destroyed the Catholic Christian philosophy of money making as a road to hell and Western people themselves started seeking Oriental riches. Westerners were defeated by Saladin in Crusade III. Remaining crusades were never successful and mostly about the desire to plunder rather than holy land recovery.
Rise of Modernism
Defeat in crusades made Westerners aware of the power of trade, commerce, money, the importance of science, technology, and knowledge. Journey through the Mongol Empire made Westerners aware of Oriental geography where Muslims controlling Silk Road separated them from global producers like China, India, Java, Sumatra, Malay, etc. Hence from 1200 AD to 1500 AD, Westerners expended themselves in understanding Greek-Roman-Persian-Arabian knowledge, science, arts, etc. Modern era ushered in. Declining Arabs were no challenge to them and their only problem was progressing Turks in Asia Minor and South Europe which detached them from main global producers like China, India. Iberians being in extreme West, tried to reach China-India skipping Silk Road by rounding of the southern tip of Africa and also by rotating the Earth by moving the Westward. Portuguese Vasco Da Gama and Spanish Christopher Columbus succeeded in doing them by 1493 AD and 1498 AD respectively.
Second Western Expansion: Colonialism
West started to reach global production hub like China, India, South East Asia by the 16th century. Initially, the Western powers like Portugal, Netherlands, England, and France could only dominate the seas using their superior naval technology and a superior social organisation called nation-state. But Asian kingdoms of China, India, Bengal, South-East Asia continued to dominate production. Thus Western countries always had a trade deficit with Asian kingdoms. Asians produced better and the West had little to offer. Western powers relied on piracy, abduction, slavery and all notorious activities to cover this deficit. This age was called colonialism. But these methods were never enough to counter the huge old Asian mode of production. To dominate production and to defeat Asian production and reverse the trade deficit into trade surplus in their favour the Western powers made three moves:
- Using superior war techniques, they conquered the Asian kingdoms, made them Western colonies and destroyed their production deliberately using coercion and government policies.
- Destroyed all the feudal and tribal relations inside the Western societies which helped people sustain a need-based life and force them to become cheap productive wage labour class.
- Destroyed all the feudal, clergy and noble classes which feed on the surplus from the then agriculture and artisan based economy so that the surplus can be invested back in the production process for further production.
These three moves created material conditions that gave birth to the automated production process and the Age of Industrial Capitalism began. After defeating Chinese in the opium wars in the 1840s, Western industrial capitalism emerged victorious over Asian mode of production. Using the automated production process West created not only trade surplus with the Asian countries and also turned themselves into biggest economies despite having a lower population. This is because Western people were left with no feudal or social arrangements through which they could sustain and so they are forced to engage in monetised activities to earn from the market. So after 1840s cheap productive labour and automated production process made West global production centre. Thus the Asian colonies of West were turned from final good producers to cheap raw material suppliers. Thus Western countries started making more colonies for cheap raw materials and cheap labour.
The reaction of China to the rising of West
Among all old Asian civilisations, Chinese civilisation is the most continuous one. Chinese civilisation had faced invasions but Chinese could integrate all invaders within itself, unlike other Asian civilisations where invaders shaped them from time to time. The Chinese people called their country Zhong Guo or Middle kingdom i.e. their country is the middle of the Earth and exactly above Zhong Guo lie heaven. This can be viewed as a metaphor of Chinese position as the production centre of the world. Unlike other Asian kingdoms, the Chinese always had a central administration throughout their history. Thus it can be said that China was a tough nut to crack when compared to India or South-East Asia. With the rise of West since 1840s Chinese faith in tradition was shaken to the core. Initially, Chinese revolted against defeated Chinese rulers with their traditional view. But when they saw Japan modernising itself and becoming part of the automated industrial production, Chinese began to question tradition too. They understood only hope for China was revolutionising its traditional society into a modern one.
Marxism in China
The industrial capitalism fell into overproduction crisis as many Western countries and Japan began to industrialise. British global domination was shaken by the rise of USA and Germany. During World War I, in 1917, Lenin used the contradiction among Western countries and conducted a Marxist revolution in the Russian Empire. Lenin added anti-colonial spirit to Marxist movement of class struggle. The Soviet Union under Stalin showed rapid industrialisation to the entire world before which German military vanquished. The Soviet Union not only destroyed feudalism and released resources for industrialisation but also used resources in a planned way in education, health, heavy industries, and infrastructures. These did wonders and the Soviet Union became second largest economy after World War II. The Chinese were highly impressed by the success of Soviets. After doing some experiment with Western democracy they found it impotent against Western and Japanese imperialist aggression. The Chinese began their Marxist revolution under the leadership of Mao which became successful in 1949. Marxists under Mao were initially convinced that they have to eradicate feudalism and go for planned industrialisation like the Soviet Union. But Soviet policies in the post-Stalin period convinced Mao that following the Soviet Union would not lead China to communism. Mao criticised Soviet model by identifying that planned economy is not the base of the economy. Planning is part of the super-structure of the socialist society and socialist economy is based on money motivated individuals (i.e. commodity economy) just like capitalism. Planning without coordinating with individual demand will not result in balanced development. Mao also emphasised on the cultural struggle to defeat money motivation. While overaccumulation crisis at aggregate level will force people towards socialism, money motivation at the individual level will move people towards capitalism. Mao also predicted that the struggle between communism and capitalism will go on for three to five centuries. Though Mao’s China progressed a lot in annihilating feudalism, allocating resources in education, health and basic infrastructures, his Cultural Revolution was a disaster for China.
China under Globalisation
Mao period proved two important things: the planned economy is not enough to transform money motivated individual to someone who will work according to ability and ready to get paid according to needs and without raising technological level (productive forces) of the society no such transformation can be thought about. By 1970s, based on petrodollar credit channel, USA assured itself of unlimited credit. Military assets throughout the world helped the USA in getting these external credits. These credits inflated US asset prices and then profits are made by trading in assets. Thus overproduction crisis was temporarily solved. Gradually the West, mainly USA started to specialise in asset trading and exporting its manufacturing base to Third World countries for making more profit by using the later’s cheap labour. Chinese leadership under Deng Xiaoping understood the opportunity of getting Western technology and capital to industrialise China rapidly. Deng took this opportunity. In this era, the tradition of the middle kingdom came back too. China, after eradicating feudalism and providing quality education and health, has created cheaper and productive labour. Thus China will have a competitive advantage over the West in the global market. Hence integrating Chinese economy with the global market will help it in becoming a production centre again. Communist desire to raise productive forces of the Chinese society and traditional desire to re-emerge the global production centre together did marvel for China. China began to industrialise using its competitive advantage while the USA continues to take debt from China and other countries to make a profit from asset trading and use this income to generate demand for mainly Chinese made products. The process started in the 1980s but after 2007-08 global financial crises, this process came under severe doubts. This is because China’s share of global GDP measured in PPP grew from 2.32% in 1980 to 18.11% in 2017. For the USA it reduced from 21.92% to 15.26%. Thus Chinese GDP is growing too big to rely on the US market while US GDP becoming relatively too small to act as the global consumer.
Belt Road Initiative under Xi: China reclaiming its place back
After the 2008 crisis, it is apparent that the Chinese economy is becoming too big to rely on USA as the market for its exports and US economy is becoming too small to act as the chief global market. Thus China formed the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) under the leadership of Xi Jinping to create state-led infrastructure investment demand and reduce export as a percentage of GDP from 36% in 2007 to 19% in 2017. On one hand, China had started working to reduce dependence on the global market, while on the other hand, China wanted to share its newfound prosperity with the rest of the world. Without such initiative, China cannot reclaim its place as centre of global production back. While rising West resorted to piracy, killing, deindustrialisation in the colonial period, China is engaging in infrastructural development around the globe. These infrastructures are definitely creating demand for Chinese goods and industries but at the same time they are making production inside the recipient countries cheaper, less time consuming and easy to transport. The hard money invested helps the recipient countries to deal with the lack of foreign exchange crisis too. Even if an infrastructure built did not make sufficient profits to overcome cost today, it can make profits in the future. Or it can help other business in making profits indirectly which can be taxed. Even if no profit is made, loan and agreement and can be restructured. Above all, when Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Gambia failed to return the money, China did not seek money back but rather investing more in these countries to make them productive.
BRI: An Anti-thesis of Colonialism
None of the above solutions were available in the colonial period. Westerners just came, killed and looted. There was no chance of equality among races and nations. Colonies never had any sovereignty to deal with colonial powers. British East India Company turned a trade surplus India into a trade deficit India in 100 years. The company’s net investment was negative. East India’s population was reduced to one third during initial years of rule. The colonial powers used to teach “white man’s burden” in their universities. BRI, on the other hand, is about net investment in China and abroad including trade deficit countries of the Third World. New York Times presented Chinese investment and purchase of nonprofitable Hambantota port as colonialism. But colonialism was never about investing and buying nonprofit making assets. In the entire history of colonialism, there was not a single event like this. If any such thing was there then colonialism would have been called development. It is absurd to call purchase of Hambantota colonialism when the USA was maintaining 900 military bases all over the globe. Even if BRI countries give China space to make military bases it cannot be called colonialism as long as US military bases in Japan, South Korea, Gulf, Germany, Italy is not called so.
BRI is best understood as the antithesis of colonialism. While colonialism was a Western response to its trade deficit with Asian kingdoms and also to the supremacy of Asian mode of production over Western pre-industrial revolution era production, BRI is the response of trade surplus China to the fact that US share of global GDP is becoming too small to generate demand for Chinese products. So China must invest around the world in developing countries which will give Chinese products market simultaneously. While colonialism is associated with the decline of Asia, BRI is about sharing resources of rising China with the rest of the world. Before the rise of the West, China was the top global producer and that period is not associated with colonialism. So China reclaiming back its old position cannot be termed as colonialism rather BRI is the antithesis of colonialism.