Wednesday, February 04, 2009



For a short while in the summer of 2008, as the Olympic Torch ceremonies in various countries were disrupted by protests, the western world seemed to believe that the Chinese government might feel the eyes of the world upon it and be shamed into allowing more freedom of expression in China, or even into opening up to multi-party elections. Western opinion, perplexed that exposure to free markets has not led to democracy in China, saw the Beijing Olympics as a turning point.

They were wrong on two counts. Firstly, they believed that the divisions on which the media reported - ethnic in the case of the Tibetans, religious in the case of Falungong - were the ones that mattered most in China. In fact, only a tiny minority of Chinese are directly concerned with the plight of these two groups (unfair though their treatment is). In fact, ironically for a former Socialist state which has dropped most of its ideological baggage, class is the divisive factor in China today. In focusing only on groups which enjoy an international profile, the media missed this key contradiction. Their misguided hopes and predictions derive from a failure to identify why China has remained a one-party state, and why this does not contradict its economic growth.


21st century China is barely recognisable from the country which Chairman Mao Zedong left behind when he died in 1976. It was then perhaps the most radically socialist state in the world. After coming to power in 1949 via a peasant-led revolution, the Chinese Communist Party unified the country, developed China's industry and stabilised an inflation-ridden economy. In the late 1950s, after the Hundred Flowers Campaign, which allowed intellectuals to critique and re-radicalise the CCP's bureaucracy, backfired, Mao sought to consolidate his power via a swift modernisation of China's agriculture and manufacturing industry. Farms were collectivised and run as communes and ordinary Chinese were ordered to build blast-furnaces in their backyards to boost steel production. This was the Great Leap Forwards, and it produced human tragedy and economic disaster on a grand scale. Mao aimed quixotically high in his output targets, and wasted labour and materials on low-yield projects. A massive famine between 1959-61, substantially exacerbated by the Great Leap, is estimated to have killed 30 million people.

To cure China's economic illness, reform-oriented Communists proposed opening the country up to the market in the early 1960s (a precursor to the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s), but Mao blocked the proposals, (correctly) claiming that they would lead to capitalism. Mao had blamed the failure of the Great Leap Forwards on the peasants for their capitalist ambitions (a wilfully illogical claim), and he now turned to the students, exhorting them to do what intellectuals and peasants had failed to do: rebel. A regime of student Red Guards, backed by Mao, his wife Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four, took effective control of China, ostensibly to rid China of its old customs, culture, habits and ideas, but in reality to destroy any opposition to Mao. Teachers and professors suspected of being critical to Mao were purged, college students were sent to the countryside to learn from the (discredited, but nevermind...) peasants, and China's education system was thrown into chaos. Mao clarified his revolutionary ethos thus: "Hitler was even more ferocious [than me]. The more ferocious the better, don't you think? The more people you kill, the more revolutionary you are." There is a word in Chinese to describe the chaos of the Cultural Revolution: luan. After Mao died, the Party vowed that China would never go through such luan again.


China was in a dire state in 1976. The Party had been broken by infighting and the economy had stagnated. Deng Xiaoping, whom Mao had repeatedly purged from the leadership, became de facto leader of the PRC from 1978, and one of his first, delicate tasks was to pass judgment on China's deceased Chairman. Borrowing Mao's crude numerical analysis of Stalin's legacy, Deng famously stated in an Historical Resolution of 1981 that Mao's actions had been 70% right and 30% wrong (a formula which is officially accepted to this day). No doubt Deng barely believed in his own judgment, and certainly he never qualified it by defining which policies were right or wrong, but he was also careful not to repeat Krushchev's mistake of denouncing outright the figurehead who gave the Party its historical legitimacy. Blame for the Cultural Revolution, meanwhile, was laid squarely at the door of Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four.

The Gang was purged in 1976, and Deng strengthened the Party bureaucracy by returning to a Leninist Committee under a General Secretary, and stablilised the economy. He returned to the Four Modernisations originally proposed in 1964 - to agriculture, industry, technology and defence - and effectively began the marketisation of China's economy (known euphemistically as "market Socialism" or "Socialism with Chinese characteristics"). The reforms were steered by a central political agendum: to prevent the 'luan' of the Cultural Revolution from ever occuring again. Whereas the Cultural Revolution had been based around collectivisation and personality-cult politics, reform China established an economy based on neoliberal principles and a political system which aims, above all, to maintain Party rule. This is why economic openness and political closedness are not contradictory: both have led to stability and (therefore) growth in China.

The first stage of the reforms, begun in the early 1980s, divided up the rural communes, awarded contracts to families, gave them control of the management of farms, and gave them responsibility to grow partially for profit. The government introduced subsidies to keep the price of grain up for farmers and down for consumers, and for a while Chinese agriculture boomed. Meanwhile, in the cities, reforming the old state-owned enterprises met with more resistance (especially by planned economists, who saw the potential for inequity and corruption, and by socially conservative Maoists, who saw the potential for 'luan' and decadence in this new bourgeois system) and proceeded more slowly. Nevertheless, SOEs appointed business managers to manage risks and profits, and the danwei system, whereby workers were locked into a particular job or position but were guaranteed housing, education and social services, was gradually dismantled.

In 1985, Deng's reforms hit their first major buffer: a depression in agriculture. The government's delicate balancing act in fixing grain prices proved unsustainable, and crop prices quickly plummeted. Many rural workers (especially men) were forced to quit their farms, leave their families and move to the cities in search of work. This migrant workforce represents the new underclass in China, moving from one poorly-paid job to another, with no rights of citizenship, and perpetually dislocated from their loved-ones.

In the cities, the government under Deng had tried to perform an equally awkward balance. Basic production remained planned, but surplus production was subjected to the market, under the supervision of the business managers. These managers couldn't resist maximising profits, while the fixed danwei incomes of ordinary Chinese fell increasingly short of the inflated prices caused by the dual-track system.


This double-whammy of corruption and inflation bubbled away in the public conscious until the Spring of 1989, when General Secretary Gorbachev, the first Soviet leader to visit China since Krushchev, arrived in Beijing to meet Deng and the Party leadership. Students, who had gathered in Tian'anmen Square in April to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, capitalised on the presence of international media and protested against nepotism and corruption (though, in rejecting calls from workers to join them, the students missed an opportunity for organised resistance). The Party vacillated, and 'luan' ensued. Since the goal of the Party had been to avoid such chaotic political outbursts, Deng had little choice but to send in the army.

The world watched one of the potent symbols of the 20th century - a single protestor obstructing the path of a tank - as the idea of Chinese democracy shattered. Deng's response was brutal and murderous, but also quite logical. The unarmed students and their support among Chinese workers were politically lethal, since they revealed two very real contradictions to reform: inequality and corruption. The Party had begun with a radical union of students and workers; Tian'anmen represented a thoroughly Freudian rejection of the Party and attempt to destroy it.


The free world turned its back on China after the Tian'anmen massacre and Deng took stock for a while, determined to press on with his agenda of reforms, but anxious that public discontent might spin out of control. After three years of retrenchment and a so-called retirement from politics, Deng spent 1992 touring the southern provinces of Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai, reiterating the need for China to open up to the world, to modernise, and to pursue economic growth pragmatically ("it doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice"). When the liberal Jiang Zemin took over as President of China in 1993, the reform of China's economy pushed full-steam ahead, with scant regard given to widening inequalities or ecological damage.


The reforms set in motion by Deng and pursued by his successors Jiang and Hu Jintao have revolutionised China's political, ideological, economic, technological and cultural life more surely than anything Mao ever achieved. Like Victorian Britain, China is now the workshop of the world; it has closed all barriers to free trade and stands at the heart of a flourishing global export market; a new proletariat has emerged from a class of dispossessed rural workers and artisans, though, like that of Victorian Britain, the Chinese working class has not yet proved to be politically effective (though for different reasons: the Chinese proletariat is ideologically mature and class-conscious, if catalysed somewhat by a certain nationalistic fervour, but it is barred from organising effectively against the CCP). One could describe China's economy as neoliberal, its structure as Leninist, its driving ideology as nationalist and its sphere of production as urban. Despite ubiquitous references to its late leader, there is really nothing Maoist about 21st century China.

Unsurprisingly, given these developments, China's class structure differs significantly from that of 1976, and class is now the divisive factor in China (though any explosive effects arising from these divisions have, so far, been largely contained). Broadly speaking, reform China has produced a small but immensely wealthy upper-class, a large (200 million) middle class which enjoys (perhaps somewhat anxiously) the fruits of capitalism, a large majority (close to 1 billion) working class which enjoys better wages but suffers from chronic insecurity and un-/under-employment, and some 150 million migrant workers who have left their rural homes and gambled everything on finding work in the cities. The upper and middle classes are partly a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, whereupon the CCP realised it must satisfy material needs in order to distract talented and intellectual young people away from radical politics.

But though interest in radical politics has been eclipsed by consumerism in the last two decades, the working classes (I think there are two clearly defined class-groups) may yet be pivotal in deciding China's future. A large chunk of the traditional proletariat has been hit hard both by communism and capitalism - the Cultural Revolution denied many of those born between 1950 and 1960 an elementary education, and the privatisation and/or bankruptcy of the danweis in the 80s and 90s have denied them jobs, redundancy settlements and pensions. They are often relatively politicised - a positive legacy of the Mao years - and the government frequently gives in to localised, single-issue demonstrations over benefits etc, in order to prevent confrontation turning into mass revolt. The emergent migrant workers, who comprise what might properly be called an underclass, are the people who have built the explosion of buildings and city expansions, and produced the commodities which China has sold to the rest of the world. Wander around any Chinese city and you will quickly see 8-digit numbers hastily etched onto walks, chalked onto pavements and painted on roads - these numbers, usually written without an accompanying name, are the mobile numbers of urban migrants looking for work. They are the construction and sweatshop workers and, because of the household registration (hukou) system, they generally lack basic rights of citizenship in the cities. Their focus is not so much on class struggle as pure survival, but theirs is not a sustainable passivity, and the current administration has turned its attention to inequality in China, as well it might.

These sharp economic disparities have also exacerbated the rural-urban divide, with rural workers often earning little more than 10% of their urban counterparts. Agriculture is now a largely female domain, and the social effects of absent fathers and brothers (not to mention the galloping infection rates of HIV and AIDS among men away from their wives) will pose significant problems for the 5th generation of the CCP leadership. And that's without even mentioning the awesome environmental devastation caused by such hyperbolic development.


So where does that leave China? Could a swelling bourgeoisie and an increasing GDP push China towards full democratisation, as in other East Asian countries? If, as many fear, the global recession pushes China's annual growth rate below 8%, will unemployment cause people to rise up against the government? If they do, will it be as an organised force or a mob? Or will migrant workers simply return to the countryside to forge themselves a living? When Hu steps down after two terms as General Secretary, which faction of the party will succeed him: the social democrats or the neoliberal 'princelings'? And what of China's relations with the rest of the world? How will China and the US behave towards each other, now that they have lost a common enemy in the Soviet Union and are capitalist rivals? How will China position itself towards Russia? How will the internet (whose influence the CCP tries, but largely fails, to curb) affect public debate in China?

All of these are debatable. What is certain is that China and its people are not the lumpen, robotic monolith that many in the West imagine. The West's and China's views of each other are based on tightly-held national and cultural identities and contradictions. The former views the latter as corrupt, backward-looking and isolationist, but also as the source of exciting new markets; the latter views the former as aggressive and predatory, but also as the source of exciting technologies and ideas. There are feverish discussions about which direction the country should take, and open debate is allowed up to a point. But the main aim of the CCP has not changed in the last 30 years, and nor have its methods for achieving that aim. The aim is economic growth at all costs, and the methods remain economic liberalism and the preservation of Party rule. It will be up to the people of China, and the economic conditions which surround them, how open these aims and methods are to change.


Blogger darling vicarage said...

wow, a superb summary there, paddington. and might i add, china's a damn lucky country to have you in it right now.

from dv, sitting in snowy Londinium, drinking beer and listening to john martyn.

8:52 PM  
Blogger sexy said...







6:04 AM  

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