Is China an Imperialist Country? Part 1: What is imperialism?

A new four-part series by Sam King published on Red Ant

To ensure the best possible discussion, each part will be published at a scheduled time to forewarn all those wishing to discuss each of the series’ parts. We have decided upon 7pm (Australian Eastern Standard Time) each Tuesday starting Tuesday April 27th and ending Tuesday May 18th, as this series was written with Australian readers in mind.

For more than a hundred years — since the First World War — revolutionary socialists have used the concept of “imperialism” to analyse the relations between different countries. In that whole period, or at least since the Second World War, there has been no major example of a non-imperialist country (i.e. a poor, colonial, “semi-colonial”, “underdeveloped” or “Third World” country) breaking free of domination and forcing an entry into the small club of rich nations.

Yet today, almost everybody seems to believe that China is upending that historical pattern. Many assume, falsely, that China is already rich, because this is how it is usually presented in the capitalist press. China is generally understood not only to be breaking the grip of the rich countries but itself fast becoming one of them — even the dominant one. If that is true, it would turn the world order on its head.

Despite the prevalence of such views — including, or especially, among socialists living inside the rich countries — it is difficult to find any detailed assessment of the political economy of China, nor an explanation why China is believed to be “imperialist” in the Marxist sense.

To assess if China is really turning into the newest imperialist country, we first need to know what is meant by the term “imperialism”. There are two principal versions of the imperialism concept in circulation. These are the mainstream or “common sense” version and the Marxist theory.

The Mainstream View of Imperialism

The mainstream definition, which is roughly the same as the general or dictionary definition of the word, reflects the outlook of the capitalist media, academic institutions, think tanks and other pro-capitalist groups that dominate public discussion. Their version is essentially descriptive, not analytical. Accordingly, almost any act of aggression, hostility or assertion of self-interest by any country over another under any circumstances is deemed “imperialist”, “imperialistic” or something similar. Even when countries are unable to carry out aggression they are still sometimes described as having “imperialist ambitions”. Of course, much spin is used to cover up each country’s own aggression.

In this view, conveniently for the rich countries, not only China but also India, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Iran, to take a few examples, could all be deemed “imperialist” and, in that way, deemed similar in character to the United States, Great Britain, Australia or Japan — even if they are weaker versions. In his seminal work Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin had already complained about similar views to these that existed in his time:

“‘general’ disquisitions on imperialism, which ignore, or put into the background, the fundamental difference between socio-economic formations, inevitably turn into the most vapid banality or bragging, like the comparison: ‘Greater Rome and Greater Britain.'”

Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1917, Chapter 6

Obviously a “banal” (dictionary) description does not help us very much in understanding the real dynamics of global power and in particular of economic exploitation of the poor countries. Obscuring those things is the function and purpose of these banal usages.

Typically the mainstream definition emphasises the military aspect of imperialism and but ignores economic exploitation. For example some on the U.S. and Australian left oppose United States and Australia as “imperialist” for their military aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan, but say little about U.S. and Australian capitalists’ economic exploitation in Indonesia, India, China and elsewhere — a cause of great misery in these countries.

Where economic domination is admitted, this is often not seen as exploitation (taking a benefit) of poor countries by rich countries but only as a symptom of uneven development levels or failure to lend a helping hand. On the rare occasions where exploitation is admitted, it is glossed over as not central to the wealth of the rich societies.

Views of imperialism which forget or ignore the economic exploitation of the poor societies by the rich ones, have obvious advantages for the capitalist classes in the rich societies. Such an outlook tends to view the fact that most countries in the world are poor as the unfortunate side effect of their own internal failures like corruption, poor governance or an implied inferiority of the people who live in the Third World.

In short, what the mainstream view of imperialism won’t admit is that the poor countries are poor because the rich countries are rich — and that fact is central to functioning of the global capitalist system today.

The Marxist Definition of Imperialism

The Marxist definition is far more comprehensive. It views imperialism under capitalism as based upon economic exploitation and oppression. Imperialist exploitation is when the value (which is created by human labour) or environmental resources of one country are appropriated by the capitalists of another country. Military aggression is viewed as only one aspect within a broader social system of domination by the rich societies.

For Marxists the labour process, and hence, the social-economic relations within countries and between them, is central. After all, military aggression — if it is to have any purpose for the capitalists — aims to establish or defend the most beneficial conditions possible for exploitation of workers and amassing profits by the aggressor country.

Some of the main principles in the Marxist understanding of the imperialist world system are:

  1. A small group of dominant rich countries emerged around the turn of the last century and began systematically to plunder the labour and resources of the entire world. Since that time, almost the same group of countries has remained vastly richer and more powerful that all rest of the countries on Earth. Today 98.5% of world population live in countries that are either rich or poor. Only 1.5% of the world population live in truly middle income countries that sit in between the rich, imperialist countries and the far poorer, Third World societies.
  2. The vast gap in accumulated wealth and income between the rich and poor societies is not because these two groups developed separately. Rather it is based in the exploitation (see below) of poor countries by rich countries within a single unified and integrated world system. The relationship of exploitation is the cause of the vast gap between the two camps and the reason there is almost no middle between them. The rich societies are the “winners” in global capitalist competition and the poor societies the “losers”. It is this win-lose competitive nature capitalism that explains why the world is divided into the two poles — imperialist countries and the Third World.
  3. Imperialism, in its modern form, developed as a result of the transition of the capitalist system from “free competition” to “monopoly capitalism”. The term “monopoly capital” was used by Lenin interchangeably with “imperialism” because for him imperialism is the new stage of capitalism. Imperialism is not just one policy (such as declaring or threatening war or imposing sanctions) that capitalist states may adopt at different times.

    Leading up to the First World War, and as the post-WW1 imperialist order began to crystallise, Lenin took increasing pains to point out the nature of the relationship between the two categories of countries:

“the programme of Social-Democracy must point out that under imperialism the division of nations into oppressing and oppressed ones is a fundamental, most important and inevitable fact”

[it is something] “deceitfully evaded by the social-chauvinists and Kautsky.”

“it would be expedient, perhaps, to emphasise more strongly and to express more vividly in our program the prominence of the handful of the richest imperialist countries which prosper parasitically by robbing colonies and weaker nations.”

Quotations taken (in order) from: Lenin, These: Right of Self-Determination, [1916]; Lenin, The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, [1915] and Lenin, Revision of the Party Programme, [1917]. See also Lenin, The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation” [1923].

Monopoly and Non-monopoly Capital and Countries

The development of monopoly capital — which Lenin saw as the fundamental attribute of the imperialist system — necessarily also involved the continuation of another type of capital: “non-monopoly capital”.
Without the presence of less developed, non-monopoly capital, which the monopolies can extract extra surplus-value from, it would not be possible for the monopolies, such as Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) and imperialist states, to rake in gigantic super-profits. The relationship with non-monopoly capital was already observed (in its still embryonic form) by Lenin, who argued:

“monopolies, which have grown out of free competition, do not eliminate the latter, but exist over it and alongside of it, and thereby give rise to a number of very acute, intense antagonisms, frictions and conflicts.”

Imperialism, Chapter 7


“not in every branch of industry are there large-scale enterprises [and] monopoly which is created in certain branches of industry, increases and intensifies the anarchy inherent in capitalist production as a whole.”

Imperialism, Chapter 1

It is common among recent Marxist analyses to adopt the category of “monopoly”, but not its necessary counterpart, “non-monopoly”. The omission makes it impossible to have a full understanding of the monopoly category or concept or to explain how the rich exploit the poor countries in the modern world which is not characterised by colonialism.

Non-monopoly capital is capital that is exploited by the monopolies within the imperialist system. For example, today non-monopoly capital is exemplified by the powerless suppliers to MNCs. The workers in such companies will often do the lion’s share of the work to make a product but they, and their bosses, get a minimal share of the money raised when products are sold. Examples include Foxconn that supplies Apple or the factories that supply Nike and other fashion labels. A similar situation exists for independent companies that produce very useful things which — because they are common and easy to produce — can only be sold for very little.

This non-monopoly type of producer is the dominant form of capital that exists in China and the rest of the poor countries today. It characterises them and stands as the basic reason they remain poor. As we will see in part two, is possible to massively expand production — as has occurred in China — without expanding profits proportionately. To join the exclusive club of very rich countries, it is necessary for the capitalists to make super-profits — that is, high rates of profit. In the world of cut-throat competition, consistently high rates of profit, as we’ll see, can only occur based on some kind or another of productive monopoly. The poor countries — the non-monopoly countries — are those that are prevented from developing that.

Without the analytical sub-category of non-monopoly capital, it’s impossible to understand imperialism as a world system of exploitation. The omission was perhaps justified in earlier eras, when the dominant social relations in the poor countries were not yet those of “non-monopoly” capital but remained pre-capitalist or of a mixed form. However, a characteristic feature of the imperialist system — especially over the last four decades — has been rapid and widespread capitalist development of large parts of the Third World, including China. This had made pre-capitalist forms less important.

As we will see in part two of this series, rapid capitalist development, most rapid in China, is the same phenomenon now commonly understood as the emergence of so-called Chinese “imperialism”.
In this thinking, because Chinese capitalism is seen as essentially the same thing as that of the rich countries, and because it is big, it is assumed China is becoming as strong as or stronger than the rich countries.

But once it is realised that capitalist development in China is of a different type to that of the imperialist countries this idea falls down. Once it is realised that China is developing in a way that is still exploited by imperialist countries and subordinate to them — it can be seen that, even if China were to become the largest economy by GDP, it would not become stronger or richer than the imperialist states.

Using Lenin’s monopoly theory of imperialism in this way we can explain what the mainstream cannot do or doesn’t wish to — that China and the other poor countries can continue to grow, even at a rapid pace, without ever “catching-up” or displacing the rich, imperialist societies from the top of the world division of labour, or the top of world income and wealth.

This is the essence of capitalist imperialism. When Lenin argued more than 100 years ago that “under imperialism the division of nations into oppressing and oppressed ones is a fundamental, most important and inevitable fact”, he was right. Today almost entirely the same group of rich and same group of poor countries still occupy the same positions they did when he made the comment. Understanding why that is has to be at the heart of building a working class fight-back against capitalist oppression today.


  1. Given that this is a highly complex issue – and a hotly contested one – it might be best to publish the whole article in one go. Rarely can complex historical phenomena be successfully chopped up into parts because the meaning of any fundamental category is intimately bound up with another (as in anything dialectical in nature).
    Besides, no serious commentator would give a text serious consideration until the whole thing is published. It does not take a week to digest 2000 words

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