Socialist Alternative

China, Hong Kong, Taiwan: How Do Marxists Approach the National Question?

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First published in the Socialist (社会主义者‏) magazine, ISA in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan

More than 100 million of China’s population is made up of non-Han minorities such as the Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongolians, Koreans and others. Xi Jinping’s iron rule is marked by increasingly shrill Han nationalism and hardline sinicization policies aimed at minority national groups. Under Xi’s repressive policies, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has also engendered historic levels of opposition in Taiwan and Hong Kong, societies made up mostly of Han Chinese. In Taiwan, support for formal independence has reached the record level of 54 percent in recent polls with less than one in six favouring unification with China. Taiwan already exercises de facto independence, but is prevented by international treaties and the fear of war with China from declaring its independence openly.

Socialist magazine (published by ISA in China) recently received this letter from a reader in mainland China:

Why would an internationalist political party advocate separation of two areas, which share the same culture with China and only have differences over ideologies? People in Hong Kong and Taiwan are in fact mainly composed of ethnic Han Chinese as well, therefore they are not ethnic minorities. I cannot imagine a revolutionary socialist, internationalist political party has such a stupid, separatist and nationalist idea. As an anti-nationalist and internationalist, I do not understand this idea. I think genuine socialists should make every effort to eliminate national borders and distinctions between nations, i.e. to abolish state and nation, and to build a socialist utopia with real equality and without nations, in former Greater China and worldwide. I look forward to your reply.

Here is the response written by Spotlight:

Despite its harsh tone, your reader’s view is worth publishing because a degree of political confusion over the national question, and the correct Marxist standpoint, is quite common within the left. As your reader says, the goal of all revolutionary socialists is to create a world where national borders are abolished. This is only possible if the capitalist system is abolished and replaced by a socialist society with the working class taking power through a series of revolutionary overturns globally.

Nations, national boundaries and the national consciousness that has been engendered and created by historical processes will not simply be waived away in an instant. Around the world today, capitalist crisis and instability is leading to military conflicts, increased nationalism, state terror and repression, and a corresponding yearning among the oppressed for freedom. This is re-awakening national conflicts that at one time seemed “solved” for example in Scotland and Catalonia. During 2020, in Ethiopia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the national question erupted in open warfare.

Karl Marx said “No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations”. Marxism has always taken a painstakingly careful attitude to the national question in its many different manifestations. In his letter the reader adopts a very simplistic approach: “to abolish state and nation”. But the question is which force — which class — is capable of carrying out this mission and with what methods and program? Capitalism, and this term includes the CCP regime, which is now a fully formed capitalist and imperialist regime, cannot achieve this task.

Like the Spanish and Indian bourgeois states, which brutally suppress the rights of the Catalans and Kashmiris, the CCP dictatorship believes it can “unite” the Chinese nation by fear and repression gift-wrapped with infrastructure investments. It increasingly adopts military-police measures and in so doing produces exactly the opposite effect: greater instability and rejection of any closer economic or political union. This is what we see in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Even in the formerly “model” autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, the CCP’s pig-headed insistence on a “single language of instruction” (i.e. Putonghua) in secondary education, instead of following a flexible and democratic approach, has produced mass opposition.

The Russian Revolution of 1917, the greatest revolution in history, would never have succeeded without the principled and sensitive position of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party towards the many oppressed nationalities of the old Russian Empire. The letter sees an unfathomable contradiction between internationalism and defence of the right of self-determination. But for Marxists there is no such contradiction; in fact this was the program of the greatest revolution ever achieved.

According to the letter’s logic, Lenin must have been a “stupid, separatist and nationalist”. Lenin, after all, signed the document recognizing Finland’s independence from Russia in December 1917, just weeks after his government took power. Russia’s revolutionary government was the first in the world to recognize Finland as an independent state, while many capitalist governments in Europe at first opposed this because they feared the signal this would send to national minorities in territories under their control.

It was by adopting such an extremely sensitive attitude towards the rights of oppressed nations that the Bolshevik government convinced the masses in the former Russian Empire, where 43 percent were non-Russian, that a Marxist workers’ government was different and was not trying to boss over them as the Tsarist dictatorship had done.

By winning the confidence and trust of the national minorities and building a united multi-ethnic workers’ movement, the Bolsheviks were able to defeat capitalism and military reaction and convince the Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians, and many other nationalities to enter into a voluntary union of soviet republics, the USSR, which was founded in 1922. The “soviets” were workers councils — the new form of democratic government created by the revolution. From the start, every republic had the right to secede from the USSR. Later, as the Russian Revolution became isolated and Stalin’s bureaucratic dictatorship usurped the power of the working class and the soviets, the constitutional right to secede became a dead letter, existing only on paper. The Stalin regime’s fake right of self-determination, existing in words only, was later also adopted in China by Mao Zedong.

Instead of a class approach, the letter unfortunately sees this problem through the lens of Han ethnicity. Again, Lenin and the Bolsheviks made no such distinction. They did not apply the right of self-determination only to non-Slavic peoples like the Finns and Estonians, but also to Ukrainians and other Slavs. The criteria for Marxists in addressing the national question is the living movement of the masses, their consciousness, fears and desires, and how this impacts the building of a united workers’ movement capable of defeating capitalism. It is not about bracketing people according to “racial” categories.

Taiwan is (mainly) populated by Han Chinese. The reader cannot see why it should not automatically be absorbed into the same state formation as mainland China. But this is to slide — perhaps unconsciously — into Han nationalism as opposed to working class internationalism.

The Taiwanese masses and especially the younger generation increasingly do not see themselves as part of a larger Han nation. Moreover they distrust and fear the prospect of being forcibly, whether by economic or military coercion, brought under the rule of the CCP dictatorship. These fears have increased dramatically since Xi Jinping came to power and unleashed his “wolf warrior” foreign policy. The US, struggling to uphold its former dominance over Asia, is of course exploiting the national aspirations of many Taiwanese to advance its own imperialist agenda, to use as a counterweight to the new imperialist superpower China. For Marxists it is not difficult to distinguish between the legitimate democratic aspirations of Taiwan’s workers and youth and the reactionary schemes of the various capitalist governments — the US, China and Taiwan.

As Lenin explained: “Successful struggle against exploitation requires that the proletariat be free of nationalism, and be absolutely neutral, so to speak, in the fight for supremacy that is going on among the bourgeoisie of the various nations. If the proletariat of any one nation gives the slightest support to the privileges of its “own” national bourgeoisie, that will inevitably rouse distrust among the proletariat of another nation; it will weaken the international class solidarity of the workers and divide them, to the delight of the bourgeoisie.” (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, 1916)

Lenin continued and this also answers the reader’s objections: “Repudiation of the right to self-determination or to secession inevitably means, in practice, support for the privileges of the dominant nation.” (ibid.)

To build real working class unity of workers in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, Han and non-Han, and globally in the struggle for a socialist world, Marxists need to take account of the actual consciousness of the masses in each given situation. This means to put forward a program for the struggle that also offers assurances that a workers’ government would never seek to impose solutions to national problems against the democratic wishes of the working class.

This reply is limited by space to only touching on the topic. We refer our readers to the website where you will find more in-depth articles on the Marxist approach to the national question.

Further Reading

The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, February-May 1914

“Tibet and the National Question”,, September 22, 2005

“Marxists, Taiwan, and the National Question”, Peter Taaffe, April 1, 2006

“The National Question in Xinjiang”, Vincent Kolo, January 15, 2008

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