China and the 21st Century Crisis – a review

Bai Ruixue, an independent labour researcher based in Hong Kong, reviews ‘China and the 21st Century Crisis’ by Li Minqi, Published by Pluto Press.

‘China and the 21st Century Crisis’ by Li Minqi, Pluto Press, £17; ISBN: 9780745335384; 232pp; Published: 20 Oct 2015

Following on from the theme of his 2008 book, The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, Li’s latest book, China and the 21st Century Crisis, may be viewed as an extension of his argument that the rise of China will lead to a crisis for both Chinese capitalism and global capitalism which “is unlikely to be resolved within the historical framework of capitalism” (p41[1]). His new book adds an increased sense of urgency to this. Accordingly, such a crisis is not just a prediction for sometime in the not so distant future. Li updates his argument and provides a timescale in which this crisis will result from economic, social and ecological contradictions which are likely to converge in China by the 2020s. As a result, Li predicts that by 2050 “much of the world will begin to live under one or several economic systems that are fundamentally different from the current global capitalist system” and “socialism will come to be defined in the twenty-first century” (p192).

In the current situation today where signs of trouble for China’s economy such as its slowing (although still very significant) growth rate and last year’s stock market crisis, are frequently being pointed to, such a scenario may seem attractive or a very feasible possibility. And while this writer might very much hope that Li is correct in aspects of his prediction, there are several problems with Li’s argument that might lead us to be wary of what he foretells, including his paths to and understanding of socialism for the twenty-first century.

The first thing to note is the introduction of this timeframe and the basis of his predictions. In his analysis, Li draws heavily on world systems theory. Although the merits of this theory might be debated, in Li’s own application there are inconsistencies when compared to his previous writing which might give us cause for questioning the certainty of his predictions. In his 2008 book, Li categorised China as a “poor semi-periphery” country, but one which was nevertheless “rapidly approaching the status of a well-to-do semi-periphery” (Li 2008 pp96-98). Eight years later, in his 2016 analysis, however, China’s position appears to have been downgraded to that of a periphery country, as he writes that, “Overall, China continues to be a peripheral economy within the capitalist world system” (Li 2016 p75). Li now claims China will within the next ten years enter the semi-periphery and, given its great economic and demographic size, will have significant implications for the operation of the capitalist world system. While the outcome is the same – the demise of the capitalist system – this inconsistency in the starting point, especially given the increased (rather than decreased) urgency of the latest book makes for a somewhat shaky foundation, giving cause to question how certain Li is about the prognoses that he presents. The reasons for this reclassification are not addressed in the book. Although more generally he identifies growing corruption in China and neoliberal economic reform as issues which have weakened the state leading to internal political and social conditions resembling those in many peripheral countries.

Given this wider framework, however, it is then also interesting (or somewhat contradictory) how in his latest book Li presents China’s inevitable impending crisis as previously having the potential to be halted by the actions of a single man, namely former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai. For Li, this fallen hero potentially presented the only hope of stemming the tide. Through a combination of his anti-corruption and anti-crime campaign, the singing of red songs and the promotion of a state led economic development model, which Li commends for achieving high growth rates, Bo is presented as having represented an alternative future for China, as leader of a faction opposed to a neoliberal capitalist development model. Thus he was seen as representing the “last and best opportunity to resolve China’s rapidly escalating economic and social contradictions in a relatively peaceful manner” (p38).

In this respect it is interesting that Li does not mention Bo’s former history. If he had done so then this might have included, for instance, the period in which during his time as governor of Liaoning province in the early 2000s he oversaw the crackdown on workers’ protests in response to State Owned Enterprises restructuring in the city of Liaoyang, leading any so called achievements of his to be called into question.[2] Workers from the Liaoyang Ferroalloy factory had previously written an open letter to Bo asking for help in the face of retrenchment, associated corruption and violation of the laws by the factory and local government.[3] But the workers’ protests were still violently repressed and two of the workers’ leaders subsequently imprisoned on the charge of “subverting state security”. Bo can therefore in no way be regarded as hero of the Chinese working class, capable of saving it from the ills of Chinese capitalism. Indeed Bo has long been an accomplice to them.

And while at best his faction may have, at least superficially, been credited with representing an alternative to the more recent neoliberal policies and he may have surrounded himself with a language evoking an idealised past, Bo not even under the so called “Chongqing model” represent a break from Chinese capitalism. While encouraging Foreign Direct Investment by multinationals such as Foxconn and Hewlett Packard, his land exchange scheme has also been criticised for its irregularities, lack of transparency and its benefitting Chongqing’s largest developers.[4] Therefore even if Bo’s faction of the bureaucracy were to have gained the upper hand, it is necessary to question what this would really have meant for a crisis of Chinese capitalism and by extension, following Li’s logic, the capitalist world system.

Nevertheless with China’s fate presented as now most likely sealed, we are presented towards the end of the book with the three possible scenarios for China’s political future resulting from the upcoming crisis of Chinese capitalism. Li thus rules out the first possibility, which is that the CCP undertake serious economic and social reforms and abandon neoliberalism in response to popular protest as unlikely. With the Bo Xilai faction having already been purged, the interests of the CCP have too far converged with those of the transnational and domestic capitalist classes.

This then leaves two additional paths to socialism remaining. The second scenario involves a popular revolution overthrowing the party-state. Eventually and, following a period of potential liberal democracy where the capitalist class retains influence, the balance of power gradually shifts to one which favours revolutionary socialist forces and the foundations for nationwide socialist transformation being laid down. Meanwhile, the third scenario involves general political and social collapse, potential civil war and then, provided that local workers’ government survive, the strengthening of revolutionary social forces as the powers under capitalist control fail to resolve the ongoing crises.

These latter two scenarios for building “socialism in one country” will likely not, in the long term, face the same challenges as twentieth century attempts, since in the twenty-first century global capitalism will also begin to collapse. This is especially the case if China, having undergone socialist revolution ‘delinks’ from the global system, leading more socialist revolutions to occur. Again, however, this suggested path to socialism belies a much more complex and contradictory global situation on which he constructs only a shaky foundation for such certainty. This is not least given the lack of internationalism that is implied. It also does not take into account the current antagonisms and dynamics of power between capital and labour in other countries, and even if the onset of such deep structural crises were to suddenly and drastically alter this, then neither is an outcome which is favourable to revolutionary socialist forces guaranteed.

At the same time, in commenting on China’s domestic situation (the prerequisite for the above scenario), Li points to the rise in workers’ struggles, comparing the current situation to that in Europe in the half-century following 1848. He asserts that the ‘spectre’ of working class revolution is now resurfacing in China, as a more militant working class, which will begin to make political demands, will emerge in a few years. Again while such a scenario is not impossible, it is very far from inevitable. Workers in China today are much more aware of their rights than preceding generations. This is reflected both in the growing number of collective protest actions and strikes as well as the demands made. Moreover at a time of economic slowdown such unrest is of growing concern to the party-state which has responded by making increasing use of its repressive mechanisms to stifle real and but mostly perceived dissent. The crackdown and arrests of feminist, lawyer and labour activists may be viewed in this vein. Nevertheless, the situation in China still remains a long way from one in which genuine workers’ organisations show signs of seriously taking root and coordinating their struggles, as was the case in Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

These criticisms do not mean that Li’s book does not offer some useful insights into the contradictions of Chinese capitalism and beyond. Contained within his detailed economic calculations, formula and future projections (which do not make for easy reading), the book is of use in its provision of a rich source of information and statistics, which reflect on the destructive impact capitalism for people and the environment. This is particularly true for the chapter on climate change and peak oil. Indeed one of the greatest merits of Li’s book is the way that it places great emphasis on the urgency of the very real climate crisis caused by the excessive demands of the global capitalist economy. He observes how the continued exploitation of oil and natural gas resources have the potential to result in major climate catastrophes that “will begin to destroy the material foundation of human civilisation” by the end of the twenty-first century (p137). But sadly this does not seem to be accompanied by a call to act now, and globally. Rather it would seem that it is good enough to sit back and wait for an impending crisis to unfold in China.

In some respects, Li’s book reads as though all the pieces are now in place, and all we have to do is to passively watch them unfold in China and then extend them to the rest of the world. That a possible crisis for Chinese capitalism would have a profound impact for the global economy is extremely likely given China’s role today. However, in truth there are many possible outcomes to this and to prospective crises of global capitalism. Ensuring an outcome which is desirable for humanity and ecologically sustainable requires a form of active participation (which is not based upon former models or reliance on sections of the bureaucracy), in the shaping of our own future and solidarity with workers struggles around the world, including, and importantly, in China.


[1] All citations are from Li’s latest book unless otherwise stated.

[2] See “We demand the Unconditional Release of the Liaoyang Two: Joint Statement” 18th June 2003:

[3] “An open letter to Liaoning Governor Bo Xilai”, 5th March 2002, Available from:

[4] See: “The Fall of Socialism in One City And the Fight Over Succession in China” by Au Loong-yu, 9th November 2012

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