[Resolution adopted by Socialist Action’s 2018 National Convention]
[Editor’s note: We reprint here Part I of a lengthy resolution on the restoration of capitalism in China approved by Socialist Action’s 2018 National Convention. Our forthcoming Part II, entitled Chinese Imperialism Abroad, details China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative investments in every continent. For matters of space, we have omitted the extensive bibliography attendant to the original resolution that we will include in its entirely on our website at a later time. Since the adoption of this resolution we have periodically updated China’s emergence as a leading imperialist power in several articles and resolutions, including a detailed account of China’s 2001 admission to the World Trade Organization. These too will be listed on our website. But this text, based on the critical issues detailed in V.I. Lenin’s classic “Imperialism: The Highest State of Capitalism,” focuses on the critical theoretical and factual issues that clearly demonstrate the class nature of China today.]
Imperialism: What it is and how to define it
Any serious analysis of whether China is an imperialist state must start with a definition of imperialism and an explanation of the criteria used to analyze such a state. For this study, we have chosen to base ourselves on the definition constructed by V.I. Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.
Lenin summarized his conception of imperialism as such: “If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.” He identified five elements of monopoly capitalism he considered fundamental to imperialism:
First, the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life;
Second, the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital,” of a financial oligarchy.
Third, the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance/
Fourth, the formation of international monopolized capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and,
Fifth, the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.
Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of its development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed. 
The formation of monopoly companies is the fundamental basis of the Leninist concept of imperialism. Consequently, one key element we must analyze within a state to determine whether it is imperialist is the development of gigantic, monopolistic companies. One means to determine this is investigating lists of the largest companies globally and seeing whether and where companies from the nation in question place on them, and a further investigation of some of these monopolies. Of particular interest is the development of financial monopolies that have expanded into the realm of industry. This can be examined through a thorough examination of the large banks in a country under study, their role in the economy, and comparing them to other global financial monopoly companies.
The export of capital is another major element of Lenin’s concept of imperialism. As the development of monopoly companies squeezes out profitable investments at home, the capitalist classes of imperialist states increasingly seek opportunities for profit abroad through capital export. The best available measure for capital export today is Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) – specifically, FDI Outflows – investment from a state to other states. Two elements of FDI outflow are particularly important to any investigation: the yearly rate of capital export, and the accumulated sum of capital held in foreign markets. Further, these figures must be viewed in comparison to other leading world powers.
The nature of imperialist exploitation of other states has changed significantly since 1917. In particular, there has been a near-extinction of formal colonialism. Absent a small handful of overseas territories of a few of the imperialist great powers of the nineteenth and twentieth century, nearly every territory that was a colony at the time of Lenin’s writings is today nominally independent.
In practice, however, this independence is severely limited or rendered nearly non-existent by the degree of political, economic, and military control the imperialist great powers exercise over those countries. In fact, this phenomenon existed (to a significantly smaller extent) when Lenin authored his work, and he identified several states, including Persia, China, and the Ottoman Empire as “semi-colonies” – states which were “formally independent, but in fact, [were] enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence, typical of this epoch”.
Lenin saw semi-colonies as “transitional forms” which would be converted into formal colonies by the further course of inter-imperialist rivalry. Indeed, all three of the above states faced partial dismemberment and imperialist occupation and conquest in the period between WWI and WWII. Since the Second World War, however, the majority of formal colonies have been converted to neo-colonies that are now the dominant form for imperialist extraction in the world today.
This transformation is due in no small part to the rise of anti-colonial consciousness and rebellions causing the financial, military, and political costs of maintaining direct colonial rule to outweigh the commercial advantages for direct imperialist control. Consequently, modern imperialist powers primarily compete over economic, political, and military influence within nominally independent semi or neo-colonies – and it is in that regard that we should examine the international relations of a state under study.
One question that has been raised with regards to assessing whether China is an imperialist power is the question of productivity. The development of imperialism for Lenin indeed was tied together with increasing productivity. Lenin did not, however, ascribe the strength of an imperialist power to its abstract productivity; rather, he explained that the relatively increased productivity of large enterprises as against small helped monopoly companies to displace free competition and thus produce the conditions for imperialism. The general measure of productivity today is per capita economic activity, specifically, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita.
It is clear, however, that productivity is neither the primary mechanism of measuring imperialist states nor, in and of itself, a gatekeeper on defining a state as imperialist. This is implicitly accepted by most Marxists – even if they do not do so consciously. For instance, if a Marxist were asked to rank from strongest to weakest as imperialist powers Norway, Canada, the United States, and Australia, they would most likely come to the following conclusion: the United States, Canada, Australia, Norway. In terms of productivity, however, the ordering is exactly opposite. No serious person would contend that Norway is a stronger imperialist power than the United States, that Sweden surpasses the United Kingdom, etc. as would be implied by declaring productivity the primary factor. It is clear, rather, that aggregate factors and not per-capita factors such as productivity are the predominant deciders of position in the imperialist hierarchy.
Furthermore, there are numerous historical examples of states Marxists have considered imperialist despite being extremely backwards in terms of productivity and technology. In 1914 Lenin and Trotsky considered Russia an imperialist power – despite the fact that “On the eve of the war, when Tsarist Russia had attained the highest point of its prosperity, the national income per capita was 8 to 10 times less than in the United States”.
Japan, on the eve of American entry into the Second World War, was likewise considered an imperialist power, waging an imperialist war in China – despite the fact that:
The United States had nearly twice the population of Japan, and seventeen times the national income, produced five times as much coal, and made eighty times as many motor vehicles each year. Its industrial potential, even in a poor year like 1938, was seven times larger than Japan’s; it might in other years be nine or ten times as large.
The United States, even in the midst of the large recession of 1937-38 had three and a half times higher industrial productivity than Japan – and closer to five times as high when an average year was considered. This was, furthermore, after the massive expansion of the Japanese economy during the inter-war period; the Japan of 1916 which Lenin considered imperialist was even less productive and further behind technologically relative to the other imperialist powers.
How can we explain the development of imperialism – the highest stage of capitalism, according to Lenin – in states so backwards relative to the leading powers? The answer comes from Trotsky’s law of combined and uneven development – even as many elements of the Russian and Japanese economies remained backwards, they were simultaneously able, to differing degrees, to develop monopoly industries, export capital, and conquer and exploit colonies and semi-colonies.
Another major element of Lenin’s work on imperialism was his critique of Karl Kautsky’s idea of ultra-imperialism. Kautsky proposed that capitalist imperialism could develop into a unified alliance of all imperial powers for the sake of jointly exploiting the rest of the world, thereby eliminating inter-imperialist wars. Lenin’s reply to this theory pointed out that such an alliance might occur, but only on a temporary basis:
We ask, is it “conceivable”, assuming that the capitalist system remains intact—and this is precisely the assumption that Kautsky does make—that such alliances would be more than temporary, that they would eliminate friction, conflicts and struggle in every possible form?
The question has only to be presented clearly for any other than a negative answer to be impossible. This is because the only conceivable basis under capitalism for the division of spheres of influence, interests, colonies, etc., is a calculation of the strength of those participating, their general economic, financial, military strength, etc. And the strength of these participants in the division does not change to an equal degree, for the even development of different undertakings, trusts, branches of industry, or countries is impossible under capitalism. Half a century ago Germany was a miserable, insignificant country, if her capitalist strength is compared with that of the Britain of that time; Japan compared with Russia in the same way. Is it “conceivable” that in ten or twenty years’ time the relative strength of the imperialist powers will have remained unchanged? It is out of the question.
Lenin’s reply highlighted the instability of any such world order as necessarily leading to its undoing. For Lenin, there was no question that new imperialist powers could emerge, or that the power of one or another country could wax or wane; indeed, this was, according to his argument, an inevitable development and one which had already occurred repeatedly within the era of capitalist imperialism.
How has Lenin’s prognosis fared? The alliance of imperial powers under the leadership of the United States against the Soviet Union during the Cold War had aspects of the ultra-imperialist alliance that Kautsky predicted. It had different motivations (including the threat of socialism as manifested in the USSR and elsewhere) and with its share of disagreements and transitions as the US largely supplanted the UK and France globally, such as the Suez Crisis, but in general there was no major inter-imperialist war during the postwar period. This alliance, however, is already breaking down today; the Trump administration has accelerated the phenomenon of US-European divergence. The rise of China, furthermore, has upset the balance of economic and military forces that defined this world era.
Our criteria for defining a state as imperialist thus asks the following questions: Has its economy developed monopoly companies that dominate its economy? Has it developed large-scale financial monopoly companies which have “merg[ed]… bank capital with industrial capital”? Is it a major exporter of capital? Does it participate in establishing military, political, and economic control over semi-colonies?
The restoration of capitalism in China
An overview of China’s recent history and development is important to initiate such a study. After the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established a workers’ state across all of China, excepting Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. While this state was deformed from the start by the Maoist CCP which quickly entrenched itself as a privileged bureaucracy, it nevertheless expropriated capitalist property and the bourgeoisie, established a monopoly on foreign trade, and established a central planning system. Such a situation could not, of course, persist indefinitely; inevitably the bureaucracy grew more and more avaricious and set itself on the road to restoring capitalism and becoming a bourgeoisie.
The ascension of Deng Xiaoping in 1978-9 and the introduction of xiaokang society (‘moderately prosperous society’) policies constituted the beginning of this restoration process. This process was in part justified by delusions that it would allow China to sidestep the inherent obstacles to socialist construction in an isolated state by creating small, controlled capitalist areas within China in the form of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). After a series of failed efforts at industrial ‘reform’ in the late 1970s which met extensive resistance from workers, the CCP bureaucracy turned to Chinese agriculture, which was more politically vulnerable, and carried out a process of de-collectivization whereby the collective farms were broken up into small, individual or household peasant plots. This process helped to splinter political ties between workers and peasants, and thus ensure that “resistance to privatization in urban China, including the Tiananmen Square protests, attracted little peasant support” while also helping to create a large labor supply for the cities that would ease capitalist restoration in industry.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was an important learning experience for the CCP bureaucracy. Watching the political, economic, and social chaos that Russia descended into, and the pilfering of the remnants of the workers’ state by Western capitalists alongside ex-Communist Party bureaucrats, gave dire warning to the CCP of the risks of an unmanaged transition to capitalism. Consequently, subsequent reforms towards capitalism were tightly managed to ensure that key members of the CCP became the most important capitalists and the Communist Party was maintained as an organ to keep control over the state and military.
In agriculture, the peasant smallholdings formed by de-collectivization were re-integrated, except as large-scale capitalist farms employing wage labor. In industry, the massive SOEs (State Owned Enterprises) were downsized, reformed, and privatized, collapsing from 74% of industrial output in 1983 to 51% in 1992 to 11% in 2003.
By 1998, a national survey showed that one quarter of China’s 87,000 industrial SOEs had restructured and another quarter planned to restructure in some way. Among the restructured firms, 60-70 percent had been partially or fully privatized. By the end of 2001, 86 percent of all SOEs had been restructured and about 70 percent had been partially or fully privatized.
As a result of this reform process, the workers’ state in China was dismantled and the CCP bureaucracy established itself as a new ruling capitalist class – without losing its grip on the state apparatus or creating a chaotic power vacuum, as happened in the Soviet Union.
On Economic Statistics
It is here necessary to explain an important factor in understanding international economic statistics. There are two main methods of converting values between different currencies. The first is to use the market exchange rate. The second is to use an exchange rate calculated based on purchasing power parity (PPP). PPP attempts to account for the difference in the cost of goods between different economies. For instance, if a product costs two units of currency X in one country and one unit of currency Y in another, the implied PPP exchange rate is two X for one Y. Actual PPP exchange rates are calculated by comparing the price of baskets of goods – in most cases including hundreds or thousands of goods. While market exchange rates are more appropriate for financial flows (such as current account balances), in more general uses PPP exchange rate is more appropriate as the market exchange rate can fluctuate significantly from day-to-day trading and it is only directly used for internationally traded goods. Tom Bramble explained the significance of this distinction well in his article “Australian imperialism and the rise of China”:
“There are two methods of making international comparisons of GDP, both with their strengths and weaknesses. The conventional “market exchange rate” method simply compares GDP with currencies all converted to US dollars. Using this measure, the IMF estimated US GDP in 2010 at $14.7 trillion and China at only $5.9 trillion. US GDP by this measure was equivalent to that of China, Japan and Germany combined. Evidently such a measure is very susceptible to changes in exchange rates – if the Chinese yuan rises, its market exchange rate GDP rises automatically without any more goods and services produced. This measure also does not take into account that $US100 spent in China converts to a much bigger basket of goods and services than $US100 spent in the US because goods and services are cheaper in the former. The ‘purchasing power parity’ measure takes relative prices in each country into account so that the comparable GDP figures give a more accurate guide to the actual volume of goods and services produced in each country.” 
For many purposes within this document, such as comparing GDPs between countries, figures calculated using a PPP exchange rate are more appropriate (indeed, in these contexts, market exchange rate figures are generally referred to as nominal – in name only). Consequently, in such areas we have generally given primacy to PPP figures. Nevertheless, we have tried where practical to include both figures, signifying market exchange rate figures with nominal and purchasing power parity figures with PPP when both are used. When not specified, the market exchange rate is used. Finally, all economic statistics throughout this document, unless explicitly otherwise stated, that reference ‘China’ exclude Hong Kong and Macau.
Chinese Capitalism Today
By purchasing power parity, China has surpassed the United States as the world’s largest economy, with a 2016 GDP of about $21.4 trillion. Its 2016 GDP per capita by PPP is $15,534.7. (By nominal rates, China is the world’s second largest economy today, with a 2016 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of about $11.2 trillion). Its nominal 2016 GDP per capita is $8,123.2.) China’s GDP is not distributed evenly throughout the country. The GDP per capita is significantly higher in major cities:
|City||Population (2015, Millions)||GDP (2015, Billions USD, PPP) N2||GDP Per Capita (2015, USD, PPP)||GDP (2015, Billions USD, nominal) N2||GDP Per Capita (2015, USD, nominal)|
As can be seen in Figure 1, in China’s major cities GDP per capita can reach twice or even three times the national average. Conversely, Gansu, a mostly rural province, had a 2015 GDP per capita of $7,537.7 by PPP (nominal: $4,023.1) – less than half the national average. This suggests a highly uneven division of economic activity and productivity, with China’s major, mostly coastal urban centers far ahead of the interior and rural areas. Indeed, some of China’s major cities exhibit a productivity similar to that of acknowledged imperialist powers – France has a GDP per capita of $41,466.3, Italy $38,160.7, the UK $42,608.9, etc. Nor is this a phenomenon isolated to small and insignificant areas – these six cities alone have a combined population of 99.13 million and a combined GDP of $3.3 trillion (PPP) – an area larger in both population and GDP than France.
Not only is China’s economy unevenly divided regionally, it is also incredibly unevenly divided on a class basis. Many estimates of China’s gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, place it at 0.5 or higher, although the official figures place it at about 0.469. Either way, this is significantly above the United States, itself a very starkly divided country, at 0.41. According to a report from Peking University, “the richest 1 per cent of households [own] a third of the country’s wealth” while “[t]he poorest 25 per cent of Chinese households own just 1 per cent of the country’s total wealth”. China leads the world in billionaires, with 596 as opposed to 537 in the United States as of 2015. [Editor’s note: In 2023 the number of Chinese billionaires was 1,000; in the US the figure was 768.]
Furthermore, while real estate is still the most common industry of China’s billionaires, the list has diversified significantly from previous years. Four of the top ten Chinese billionaires now come from internet companies. China’s 2014 population of ‘high net worth individuals’ (HNWIs) – those with more than $1.6 million in individual assets – was greater than 1 million, double the 2010 total. These ‘HNWIs’ are increasingly looking to foreign assets for expansion of their wealth:
HNWIs’ interest in overseas investment continues to increase. Nearly 40 percent of HNWIs and almost 60 percent of ultra-HNWIs indicated that they have overseas investments – a sizable jump from 19 percent and 33 percent, respectively, in 2011. Nearly half of the HNWIs said that they plan to increase their overseas investments in the next year or two, attracted by the more diverse offering of cross-border investment opportunities. In response, many Chinese private banks are investing heavily to expand their overseas service platforms and capabilities to better serve Chinese HNWIs’ overseas banking and investment needs.
This increasing attraction to overseas investment reflects the increasing pressure on Chinese capitalists to find new profitable investments abroad.
China’s currency, the yuan (also known as the renminbi) became part of the International Monetary Fund’s basket of reserve currencies in 2016.
Reuters, September 30, 2016 reported: “China’s yuan joins the International Monetary Fund’s basket of reserve currencies on Saturday in a milestone for the government’s campaign for recognition as a global economic power.
“The yuan joins the U.S. dollar, the euro, the yen and British pound in the IMF’s special drawing rights (SDR) basket, which determines currencies that countries can receive as part of IMF loans. It marks the first time a new currency has been added since the euro was launched in 1999.”
This decision is significant in several regards. It reflects the growing role the yuan plays in international trade and finance – and the diminishing role of the Euro, as the yuan’s new share “is mainly replacing part of the euro’s role in the special drawing rights.” Furthermore, it has a concrete impact on IMF lending:
Besides its symbolic weight, the I.M.F. label, which will take effect at the end of September next year, carries specific benefits. The renminbi will become one of the currencies used in the disbursement and repayment of international bailouts denominated in the fund’s accounting unit, like Greece’s debt deal.
The yuan will constitute 11% of the IMF weighting of the SDR basket – greater than the yen or pound (8% each) but smaller than the Euro (31%) or US dollar (42%).
Growth of high-tech production in China
A significant development in the Chinese economy has been the increasing development of high-tech production by Chinese companies. While there have been various efforts by the Chinese government to promote this, the most significant is the “Made in China 2025” initiative which began in 2015. As one summation of the effort put it:
The 10-year strategy involves moving the Chinese economy away from labor-intense and low-value production towards higher value-added manufacturing, and includes plans to improve innovation, integrate technology and industry, strengthen the industrial base, foster Chinese brands and enforce green manufacturing.
It is also set to promote breakthroughs in 10 key industries where China wants to be a leader in the future, including information technology, robotics, aerospace, railways, and electric vehicles. To achieve this, Beijing plans, among other things, to continue a trend of state-directed innovation, proposing to establish 15 manufacturing innovation centers by 2020, which would be expanded to 40 by 2025.
The US-China business council described the aim of the project more succinctly, saying that it constitutes transforming “Made in China” to “Made by China”. While high-tech manufacturing was and is widespread in China, prior to 2015 it was heavily dominated by foreign companies, with foreign content comprising more than half of high-tech products; a major goal of “Made in China 2025” is to raise domestic content of high-tech products to 70% by 2025.
An example of this dynamic can be found within the smartphone industry. If one spends any amount of time reading the analyses of those Marxists who believe that China remains a semi-colonial country, they will quickly find repeated ad nauseam the tale of Apple production in China, and how almost all the profits of this production are taken either by Apple itself or retailers rather than the Chinese workers who make them. This analysis is based on a 2011 article which found that Chinese labor constituted about 2% of the price of an iPhone or iPad. While this share has almost certainly risen as wages in China have increased significantly in the intervening period (the average manufacturing wage hit $3.60 an hour in 2016, a 64% increase over 2011), we might accept the underlying premise – that Apple’s manufacturing in China primarily benefits Apple rather than China – as broadly correct. This is regularly presented as evidence that China is, in fact, dominated by Western monopolies and thus could not be imperialist. The excessive focus on this narrative, however, has led its proponents to miss major developments in the Chinese economy, as evidenced by Chinese companies’ rapidly growing share of technologically advanced products like smartphones.
In addition to being a major source of labor for the production carried out by Western companies like Apple, China is also now also the home of major companies which compete with Apple and other major Western companies in world markets. The third, fourth, and fifth largest smartphone makers in the world are Chinese. Chinese telecoms giant Huawei almost displaced Apple for second place in Q2 2017, selling 38 million phones against Apple’s 41. The rise of Chinese smartphone companies began in the domestic market: Huawei leads the Chinese market with more than 20% of sales, while Chinese phone makers collectively held 87% of the Chinese market share. This is a remarkable change from even six years ago:
In 2011, 70% of smartphone sales in China were from three foreign brands: Nokia, Samsung, and Apple. At that time, the country’s myriad local electronics manufacturers and nascent domestic brands were thought to be little more than cheap impostors, lacking in quality and simply not carrying the same social-proof and status as the expensive and trendy foreign phones which dominated the market.
“Any self-respecting Chinese consumer wouldn’t be seen dead with a local brand,” Mark Tanner, the director of China Skinny, a Shanghai-based consumer research firm, described the prevailing attitude of this period.
But now, hardly five years later, this has changed.
“Last year, eight of the top-ten [smartphone] brands were Chinese,” Tanner explained, “with Huawei and Xiaomi in the top spots and local brands quickly eroding the two foreign brands, Apple and Samsung.”
This year, the trend has continued. Oppo, a home grown Chinese hi-tech/media company, recently became the second most popular smartphone brand in China, whose 67% growth was enough to propel it past Apple. According to various reports, seven of the top ten smartphone brands in the world are now Chinese. This includes Huawei, which is not only the mainland’s top handset brand but is currently slotted as number two in Europe and number three in the world.
This growth was primarily the result of Chinese smartphone makers significantly improving the quality of their products.
This advance has not been limited to the Chinese market, however. Increasingly, Chinese firms are seeking sales abroad as a means to increase profits. In the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, Huawei was forecast to lead in 2017 market share. In Europe, Huawei outsold Apple in 2016 and is currently outselling it in 2017. In Africa, the Chinese companies Tecno and Huawei occupied second and third place respectively. In late 2016, Huawei pledged to pass Apple in market share within two years – which is seen as plausible by tech industry experts. Huawei has not yet become a significant smartphone seller in the US, with its initial efforts to enter the market in 2012-13 blocked by the US government on the basis of “security concerns”. To circumvent this, it is reported to have arranged a deal with AT&T to sell its phones in the US beginning in 2018.
To boost profitability, Chinese companies are developing manufacturing capacities to cut out what were once Western monopolies in areas like microchips, where the US-based Qualcomm has been dominant. Huawei and Xiaomi have already begun to manufacture their own microchips, while other companies have begun acquiring shares in foreign chipmakers. Huawei has also pushed to gain influence in the establishment of global standards for 5G networks, planned to begin releasing around 2020. 5G networks are projected to cover far more than mobile devices, incorporating a myriad of items from cars to city services, meaning that involvement in defining how they work presents an opportunity for extraordinary profit. This corresponds to the priorities set by a popular Chinese saying: “Third tier companies make products; second tier companies make technology; first tier companies make standards.”
Huawei and other Chinese smartphone companies do not yet, of course, post similar profits to Apple. Apple has an established brand identity, consumer loyalty (particularly in wealthier markets), reputation for high-quality products, technologically advanced manufacturing processes, and other factors which enable it to obtain a much larger profit margin per phone. Consequently, Apple managed to capture nearly 79.2% of profits in the smartphone market in 2016. This constituted a significant fall in its share, however, which previously was regularly in the mid-90s and at one point hit 103.6% (other smartphone companies had posted significant losses, which enabled Apple to achieve more than 100% of total profits). In fact, this new competition prompted the first decline in Apple profits (a 14% drop) since 2001. Furthermore, a major reason why profits have so far remained relatively low at Huawei and other Chinese smartphone companies is that these companies are making major investments in marketing, opening stores, establishing partnerships, and other activities to expand their market share and gain access to new markets, particularly those with higher profit margin possibilities such as in the US and Europe. As these investments, particularly one-time expenses become less necessary and Huawei and other companies focus more on expanding profit margins in established markets, their profitability is expected to rise.
Apple is not the only Western company that is losing ground in China. As the price of Chinese labor rises, Chinese firms grow increasing competitive, and the Chinese government is increasingly confident in dropping concessions to foreign companies and supporting its domestic companies through protectionist measures, foreign companies in China are now leaving, in increasing numbers. One of four US companies active in China has either started to leave or plans to do so, 45% of such companies have experienced flat or declining sales, and only 64% of US companies in China were turning a profit in their Chinese operations. This exodus began with labor intensive manufacturing – particularly shoemaking, apparel, and textile manufacturing – moving to India, Vietnam, Thailand, and other countries as the cost of producing goods in China rose dramatically: a 2017 study found that “Manufacturing goods in China is now only 4 percent cheaper than in the United States, in large part because yearly average manufacturing wages in China have increased by 80 percent since 2010.”
It has continued for manufacturers of electronic devices: “Chinese consumer appliances giant Huawei… in September  announced that it would manufacture three million smartphones a year in India, and Foxconn, the Apple supplier… is opening a $10 billion iPhone manufacturing plant in India.” Other higher-end companies are following suit:
In November last year, Japanese electronics conglomerate Sony sold all its shares in Sony Electronics Huanan, a Guangzhou factory that makes consumer electronics, and British high-street retailer Marks & Spencer announced it was closing all its China stores amid continuing China losses.
Add to that list Metro, Home Depot, Best Buy, Revlon, L’Oreal, Microsoft, and Sharp and we start to see more than a trend developing.
Once considered Beijing’s most-welcomed guests, bringing with them the money, management skills, and technical knowledge that the country so badly needed, foreign companies now appear to have fallen out of favor.
“China doesn’t need foreign companies so badly now in terms of acquiring advanced technology and capital as in previous years,” said Professor Chong Tai-Leung from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, “so of course, the government is likely to gradually phase out more of these preferential policies for foreign firms.”
Even when foreign manufacturers remain in China, they are moving out of the coastal cities into western and central China, where labor costs are lower. Meanwhile, US internet and tech companies, ranging from Google to EBay have been pushed out of China by local competition, with Uber, which sold its China operations to Chinese rival Didi Chuxin in 2016, being the latest in a string of high-profile failures.
China’s emerging high-tech economy is causing serious concern among the previously established imperialist powers. In South Korea, a state-run think tank argued in 2017 that “[i]n five years’ time there’ll be little difference between the tech of Chinese and [South] Korean companies in most sectors, including high-end smart phones, wearable devices, memory chips, and smart electronics”. The Mercator Institute, a German think tank, argues that Made in China 2025 is likely to produce Chinese monopoly companies across high tech industry which will “dominate their sectors on the Chinese market and become fierce competitors in international markets” as American and European companies complain of “unfairly” being pushed out of the Chinese market. Their concerns, while obviously self-interested and downplaying the entrenched advantages of firms from established imperialist powers, are not wrong insofar as they see the development of significant Chinese competition; in 2016, Chinese high tech industry grew at a rate of 10.8%, significantly above the GDP growth rate at only 6.8%. Furthermore, the resources being committed to these sectors by the Chinese state far outweigh those from many other imperialist states. As the Mercator Institute noted:
In order to achieve these goals, government entities at all levels funnel large amounts of money into China‘s industrial future. The recently established Advanced Manufacturing Fund alone amounts to 20 billion CNY (2.7 billion EUR). The National Integrated Circuit Fund even received 139 billion CNY (19 billion EUR). These national level funds are complemented by a plethora of provincial level financing vehicles. The financial resources are enormous compared to, for instance, the 200 million EUR of federal funding that the German government has provided for research on Industry 4.0 technologies so far.
As will be discussed later, many of these states, particularly the US and Germany, are increasingly responding to these developments and attempting to implement countermeasures.
No analysis of China’s economy would be complete without examining the real estate bubble within the country. Property prices in China’s largest cities are skyrocketing, with the average price per square meter for a flat in Beijing or Shanghai exceeding the same price in New York City. Wang Jianlin, a real estate mogul who is the richest person in China, has warned that the Chinese real estate market is the “biggest bubble in history”. In 2016, a slowdown in economic growth led to a halt in construction in many new cities, producing “ghost towns” of abandoned buildings and construction materials. The Chinese government has taken some steps to try to cool the property market, including efforts to raise interest rates on home purchases, but is threading a needle trying to do so without causing a collapse in the market. A report from Shanghai University suggests that by as early as 2020, “the ratio of mortgage debt and disposable income in China will reach the same peak level [127 per cent] as the US [in 2007] on the eve of the subprime crisis”.
The impact of this development on Chinese imperialism is complicated. In one sense, this constitutes an obvious weakness of the Chinese economy, and if the bubble were to dramatically burst and cause a serious economic crisis it would undoubtedly require a retrenchment of overseas interests and investments, particularly from the Chinese state. In the meantime, however, this prospect has actually encouraged investment abroad, with investors hoping that overseas holdings will be safe from a crash localized to China. Chinese companies and individual capitalists alike have sought to acquire abroad, with foreign assets (including holding of foreign exchange reserves) expected to triple from $6.4 trillion in 2015 to $20 trillion in 2020. As will be discussed later, this growth in foreign holdings is also reflected in outwards foreign direct investment.
One of the most important elements of capitalist imperialism is the development of monopolies; giant companies that dominate their industry or industries. Operating on a global scale, these companies form the economic basis of imperialism, constituting the core around which the political and military operations of imperialism are based. One useful measurement for determining the presence of monopoly companies is the Fortune 500 Global list, which lists the 500 largest companies in the world by revenue. How then, do China and other leading imperial powers compare on this metric?
Figures 3, 4 and 5 [91, 92 and 93 ]
|Country||Fortune 500 Companies (2005)||Fortune 500 Companies (2010)||Fortune 500 Companies (2017)|
As Figure 3 demonstrates, in 2017, China had 109 of the largest companies in the world by revenue – 21.8% of the top 500 measured in Fortune’s Global 500 list. These included the second, third, and fourth largest companies. This was the second highest of any country, trailing only the United States, which had 132 and far outpacing the third largest, Japan, which had only 51. Furthermore, it is clear that China’s share of the largest monopoly companies has seen extraordinary growth over the past 12 years, as can also be seen in Figure 4:
China has acquired a huge share of the world’s largest companies, particularly gaining between the start of the major financial crisis in 2007-8 and 2013, after which its rate of increase slowed. This share of the top 500 has largely come at the expense of the previously established imperial powers: while China gained 81 spots from 2005-2017, the United States lost 43, Japan lost 30, France lost 11, the UK lost 10, and Germany lost 5. The trend is clear: China is home to an increasing share of the world’s largest companies. Furthermore, these companies are increasingly divided across a variety of key capitalist industries and sectors.
As is evident from Figure 5, China’s share of world monopoly companies is not the exclusive domain of light manufacturing or any other single industry. While resource extraction and manufacturing companies constitute the largest shares, there are also significant shares for various financial sectors and high-tech sectors.
The banking sector is of particular interest to a study of capitalist imperialism. As capitalism develops into monopoly capitalism, banks serve a key role in this development. They become integrally connected throughout domestic and foreign economies, with access to credit serving as the lifeblood of advanced capitalism. In terms of the largest banks in the world, then, where does China place?
|Country||Top 100 Banks||Total Assets (Billions USD)|
With regards to banks, China leads the world by wide margins in terms of both number of top banks with 18 of the top 100 and the total assets of those banks, nearly $21 trillion. Four of the five largest banks in the world are Chinese. N5 This obviously constitutes an enormous and highly monopolized banking sector.
A major argument by those Marxists who believe that China remains a semi-colonial state is that China’s monopoly companies, and specifically its banks which are its largest companies, are vastly less profitable in terms of return on assets than Western multinational corporations, and that consequently they are qualitatively different from imperialist monopolies. Sam King is one of the foremost proponents of this claim:
A capitalist economy encompassing one sixth of the planet’s population must possess some gigantic companies. China does. Four of the world’s top 10 corporations by gross profits are Chinese. However, this doesn’t really tell us much. Here is the list in order of gross profits, with each company’s return on assets (RoA) in brackets: Exxon Mobil (13), Apple (24), Gazprom (10), Industrial Commercial Bank of China (1), China Construction Bank (1), Volkswagen (7), Shell (7), Chevron (11), Agricultural Bank of China (1) and Bank of China (1). Thus, according to Fortune, imperialist giant MNCs’ average return on assets is 12 times higher [sic] than that of Chinese monopolies! 
In fact, King’s use of data here is extremely misleading and fails to supply the proper context. He suggests that the return on assets (RoAs) between these companies are comparable, but in fact, they are not. All of the Chinese companies listed are banks, and all the non-Chinese companies are not banks.
Banks are highly leveraged and consequently have an artificially inflated level of “assets” for the purpose of calculating RoA, so their RoA is seemingly very low, even when a bank is extremely profitable, as even basic investment advice notes: N6
Another good metric for evaluating management performance is a bank’s return on assets (RoA). When calculating RoA, remember that banks are highly leveraged, so a 1% RoA indicates huge profits. This is one area that catches a lot of investors: technology companies might have an RoA of 5% or more, but these figures cannot be directly compared to banks.
An examination of the average RoA for American commercial banks between 1980 and 2005 confirms that rates above one percent are high; the highest average RoA during this period was 1.35% in 2003. This is not, of course, indicative that banks are unprofitable enterprises, but rather that measuring their profitability by return on assets is not comparable to other industries because of the way that fractional reserve banking creates seemingly enormous “assets” for the purpose of the calculation. Furthermore, certain industries, such as the tech industry, which includes Apple which King cites as an example of much higher Western profitability, are likely to produce an artificially higher RoA than the average company because of how ‘assets’ are accounted:
Also, since the assets in question are the sort that are valued on the balance sheet – namely, fixed assets and not intangible assets like people or ideas – RoA is not always useful for comparing one company against another. Some companies are ‘lighter’, having their value based on things such as trademarks, brand names and patents, which accounting rules don’t recognize as assets. A software maker, for instance, will have far fewer assets on the balance sheet than a carmaker. As a result, the software company’s assets will be understated, and its RoA may get a questionable boost.
King’s argument completely failing to account for or inform the reader of these glaring problems with comparing RoA directly between companies in different fields and particularly between banks and non-banks is at best a serious error and undermines confidence in the accuracy and forthrightness of his economic analysis. For an apples-to-apples comparison, we must examine Chinese banks against the major banks of Western imperialist powers that appear on the Fortune 500 Global list.
|Company||Country of Origin||Profits (2017, USD Billions)||Assets (2017, USD Billions) N7||Return on Assets (2017, Percentage)|
|Industrial & Commercial Bank of China||China||41.9||3,473.2||1.21|
|China Construction Bank||China||34.8||3,016.6||1.15|
|Agricultural Bank of China||China||27.7||2,816.0||0.98|
|Bank of China||China||24.8||2,611.5||0.95|
|Bank of America||US||17.9||2,776.3||0.64|
|Goldman Sachs Group||US||7.4||1,512.7||0.49|
|Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group||Japan||6.5||1,775.3||0.37|
|Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group||Japan||8.6||2,722.4||0.31|
|Mizuho Financial Group||Japan||5.6||1,800.0||0.31|
|Lloyds Banking Group||UK||2.8||1,010.2||0.28|
As is evident in Figure 7 above, when a more honest comparison is made, the massive Chinese banks are not out-profited twelve to one on their assets by the massive Western banks, but rather in 2017 out-profited them per asset – by nearly two to one compared to US banks and three or four to one compared to British, Japanese, and French banks. They also out-profited US, British, Japanese, German, and French banks in total, posting the four highest gross profits. That these seemingly low RoAs are in fact a product of a trick of accounting is also made clear: it would be quite difficult for anyone remotely familiar with the economy of the United States to seriously argue that JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs are unprofitable! And yet – using King’s method – one could point to the Chinese tech and internet companies Huawei Investment & Holding (RoA 8.74%), Alibaba Group Holding (8.82%), and Tencent Holdings (10.86%), compare them to Western banks, and proclaim that ‘according to Fortune, Chinese monopolies’ average return on assets is 20-40 times higher than that of Western monopolies!’ Such a statement would be as vacuous as King’s – there is no genuine insight to be gleaned from cherry-picking and comparing incomparable statistics.
Export of Capital
The export of capital is one of the cornerstones of capitalist imperialism. As capitalist monopolies conquer and exploit every profitable opportunity in their domestic economies, they are driven to find better pickings abroad. It is the competition between capitalist monopolies to enforce favorable terms and deny such terms to their international competition which forms a key element of international colonialism and neo-colonialism. Capital export is one of the most direct and effective ways in which monopolies can acquire and profit from overseas holdings. There are two critical factors to understanding world capital export. The first is the annual outflow of capital, representing how much a country’s firms are increasing (or decreasing) their investments abroad each year. The second is the accumulated stock of export capital the value of the exported capital one country’s firms have accumulated. How does China stack up on the world stage in this regard?
Figure 8, 9. 10  N8
|Country||FDI Outflow (2016, Billions USD)||FDI Outflow (Mean, 2011-2016, Billions USD)||Share of World FDI Outflow (2011-2016, Percentage)||FDI Outflow Stocks [Accumulated holdings] (2016, Billions USD)|
Figure 8 contains data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) outflows, For Figure 8, we have selected seven countries which are nearly universally agreed by Marxists to be imperialist powers – the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Netherlands. We have also selected the country of study, China, and two states generally agreed to not be imperialist powers – Indonesia and Thailand – which we have selected on the basis of being large states that are semi-colonies. Of note is that these are outflows – FDI from the selected countries to other countries.
FDI Outflow (2016) refers to the amount of capital each specified state exported in 2016. FDI Outflow (Mean, 2011-2016) refers to the average amount of capital each specified state exported annually between 2011-2016. By taking an average over a five year period, the influence of particular circumstances which might arise in one year or another are reduced and consequently this figure gives a better understanding of the general trend. The Share of World FDI Outflow (2011-2016) is the percentage of total world capital export that originated in each specified state from 2011-2016. This gives an understanding of the share of world capital export each state occupies and a good means of comparison between them. Finally, FDI Outflow Stocks (2016) refers to the total value of holdings in foreign economies – in essence, the accumulated sum of exported capital from each of the specified countries.
The first, most obvious conclusion from these data is that the United States is the uncontested leader in world capital export. Not only does it have the highest accumulated sum of exported capital by a lead of nearly $5 trillion over its closest competitor, it is also exporting more than twice as much capital from 2011-2016 on average as any other state. The US comprised 22.1% of world capital exports from 2011-2016 as against 8.9% for Japan, the next highest. It is noteworthy, however, that the ratio of the US’s capital export stock to that of China (5:1) and Japan (4.6:1) is higher than the ratios of its annual outflow to their annual outflow (2.7:1 and 2.5:1, respectively), meaning that both China and Japan are gaining relative to the US in terms of stock on an annual basis.
It is also obvious that Thailand and Indonesia, the ‘control group’, are clearly mostly insignificant in world capital export, with very small accumulated holdings and little yearly addition to those holdings. This is particularly relevant given the argument made by Sam King to attempt to refute a point made by Tom Bramble, which echoes a common refrain by those who believe China is not an imperialist state:
It is true, as Bramble argues, that China, “is now undertaking large scale capital export, both to developing and Western countries”, but such information should not be taken out of context. Today, even backward countries export capital. In 2012, for example, Thailand’s outward FDI increased by $12 billion. Virtually all Third World nations now have an outward FDI stock. 
When the amounts in Figure 8 are examined, it is clearly King who is taking this information out of context. Thailand – the example King cites – constituted less than one percent of world capital export from 2011-2016 and its stock of accumulated capital export is extremely small. China’s capital export is not even remotely comparable to that of Thailand. Even in 2012 (the year from which King draws his figures), China’s FDI outflow was 7.5 times as large as Thailand’s and its stock was 10.8 times as large. In 2016, China’s outflow was 13.9 times as large as Thailand’s and its stock 15 times as large. Thailand’s (or, for that matter, Indonesia’s) capital export is clearly not even remotely comparable to China’s. To do so is the mathematical equivalent of conflating the capital export of the United States with that of Finland.
China had an FDI outflow of $183.1 billion in 2016 – the second highest in the world. Indeed, over the past five years, China has had 8.1% of the world’s FDI outflow – third after the United States and Japan. In terms of accumulated capital exports, China has accumulated about $1.281 trillion – more than Italy, the Netherlands, or France, and a comparable amount to Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Indeed, its high ranking in FDI outflow suggests that China is outpacing these powers and will soon eclipse them in accumulated export capital – particularly the United Kingdom, which has actually been negative in FDI outflow over the 5 year period (that is to say, has been retrenching its investments abroad faster than expanding them). 
A cautionary note is necessary on the large jump in Chinese outward FDI from 2015 to 2016. As Figure 9 demonstrates, China’s FDI growth during that period was significantly higher than the trend. China’s 2015 FDI outflow was about $127.6 billion, whereas in 2016 it was $183.1 billion – an increase of more than 43%. This jump was inspired, at least in part, by efforts to send money out of country to evade an anti-corruption investigation, and in fact China has implemented measures to crack down on this type of foreign investment. Consequently, it seems likely that Chinese FDI will ‘regress to the mean’ of its growth pattern from 2007-2015 rather than remaining at the 2016 level. Nevertheless, Chinese outwards FDI is projected to rise to more than $275 billion annually in the 2020s, more than double its 2015 level. One projection suggested that China’s FDI outflow stock might reach $2 trillion by 2020 – which would likely make it the second largest global investor after the United States. Furthermore, its investment portfolio is rapidly changing in its composition.
Chinese outwards FDI, which previously was dominated by energy and mining, is changing in character as it massively expands in scale:
China’s outward investment has become more sophisticated as companies shift their focus from seeking natural resources toward creating a global strategic presence. Earlier, investment activities were concentrated in the energy and mining sectors. However, they have more recently expanded into the technology, real estate, finance, agribusiness and health care sectors. The existing M&A [merger & acquisition] market also shows clear diversification: In 2010, energy and mining accounted for 61% of the total value of Chinese companies’ M&A deals but this had dropped to 16% in 2014. Conversely, the share of the technology, media and telecommunication (TMT) sector increased from 6% in 2010 to 21% in 2014; agriculture and real estate are also exciting M&A sectors.
This shift in targeted sectors has been matched by a geographic shift:
With the transformation and strengthening of the Chinese economy and the development of Chinese enterprises, the objective of investment has shifted from acquiring production factors such as resources to acquiring advanced technology and brands. This shift in focus is aimed at increasing the international competitiveness of Chinese companies and meeting the changing domestic consumption behavior. Driven by this shift, the investment destinations for China are becoming increasingly diversified, as Chinese companies are expanding into the developed countries in Europe and America rather than the resource-based economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Furthermore, the slow economic recovery of developed countries after the 2008 financial crisis has also provided a good opportunity for Chinese companies to “buy on the dips”. In recent years, the growth of Chinese investment in developed countries was significantly outpaced that in the developing countries. China’s investment in the US increased 23.9% in 2014 and investment in the EU increased 1.7 times, much higher than the 14.1% overall FDI growth in the same period.
A 2015 analysis by the Financial Times projects that China will overtake the United States as the largest source of outward FDI, while also projecting that the above trends in its composition will continue:
Firstly, in our view China’s ODI [outward direct investment] will to continue to grow by around 20 per cent a year, with China overtaking the US as the world’s largest outbound direct investor in the next few years. This year, the pace of investment to expected to accelerate, pushed by massive infrastructure investments in Asia and Europe envisioned in the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
Second, Chinese companies will continue to shift their geographic and sector focus. The investment destination is changing away from Africa, Latin America and Asia. Chinese investors are now making strategic investment in developed markets, in particular the European Union and North America. Europe has recorded 14 per cent of China’s ODI in goods and services in the last five years.
In addition, China’s ‘Third Wave’ ODI is shifting focus from acquiring natural resources in coal, oil and metals to infrastructure including rail, shipping and ports. They are now turning to agriculture, technologies, high-end manufacturing, consumer goods, real estate, services and brands. This is at an early stage, but growth rates are rapidly accelerating.
The fact that China is now competing significantly for acquisitions within the established imperial powers, and the inclusion of these new types of assets, in conjunction with the huge and growing role China plays in global capital export generally, are significant pieces of evidence that China has become an imperialist power.
Footnotes for Part I
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 Ibid, chapter 6.
 Ibid, chapter 1.
 Trotsky, Leon. The History of the Russian Revolution. Translated by Max Eastman. Marxists Internet Archive, 1997. Chapter 1.
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