Repression and concessions
According to police reports, protests in China are ever larger and better organized. The government, whether in Beijing or locally, generally tolerates the low-decibel, smaller-scale, relatively non-disruptive marches and sit-ins by peasants and workers with petitions or posters. It is more indulgent if demonstrators appear to be spontaneous, disorganized, localized and leaderless. But they are less tolerant of disturbances that seem to have been mobilized by dissidents, are marked by some measure of violence, evince a measure of organization, threaten to spread, or entail the obstruction of major transport trunk lines.
The Guardian reported on February 25 that at least eight prominent human rights activists have vanished after they joined one of the first overt attempts to coordinate a nationwide protest since the 1989 demonstrations. Political security police are thought to have detained the campaigners, who disappeared soon after they joined a relay hunger strike that has reportedly attracted several dozen participants in 16 provinces. No official explanation has been given. The government's propaganda department has forbidden the domestic media from reporting anything to do with the campaign, which was launched by a Beijing lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, on February 4 in protest against police brutality. Lawyers, academics and local activists are increasingly roaming the country, coordinating demonstrations and educating farmers about their legal rights.
Since the Tiananmen Square tragedy, the party has invested billions in beefing up the People’s Armed Police (PAP) that has been deployed in suppressing unrest. Last August the government announced it was setting up special police units in 36 cities to put down riots and counter what they say is the threat of terrorism. However, with the exception of infrequent incidents involving Uighur separatists in the remote western region of Xinjiang, terrorism is all but unheard of in China. It is clear the regime is more concerned about the class struggle of workers and peasants. In January, two top generals in the PAP pledged to boost the "combat effectiveness" of the country's one-million-strong paramilitary police to curb unrest.
Carrying out its vow to tighten controls over what it calls propaganda, the government has busied itself closing publications, firing editorial staff and jailing reporters. Media rights groups say China's leaders are tightening their control on the Internet and traditional press. The Committee to Protect Journalists says China is the leading jailer of journalists in the world, with 32 reporters imprisoned as the end of the year. Reporters Without Borders ranks China 159th on a list of 167 countries in its global press freedom index. The Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Internet and Security Supervision Bureau is reportedly more than 30,000 strong. Last year, Yahoo was criticized for revealing the identity of an Internet journalist, who was subsequently jailed. Also Google has agreed to apply censors’ blacklists.
But beyond efforts to stop the news travelling by tightening Internet censorship and clamping down on the more outspoken publications, the leadership cannot work out how to contain them. An article by Howard W. French in The New York Times (24/08/05) remarks that although many sites are closed, “any Chinese Web surfer can choose from scores of other online commentators who are equally provocative, and more are coming online all the time.
Microsoft alone carries an estimated 3.3 million blogs in China. Add to that the estimated 10 million blogs on other Internet services, and it becomes clear what a censor’s nightmare China has become. What is more, not a single blog existed in China a little more than three years ago, and now thousands upon thousands are being born every day – some run by people whose previous blogs had been banned and have merely changed their name or switched Internet providers. (…) Newspapers have been closed, reporters and editors jailed – even killed, like Wu Xianghu, a newspaper editor who died last week after being beaten by the police, who reportedly were incensed by an article he published on abuses of power in their ranks. Still, the trend has not been reversed.”
It is clear the regime cannot contain the situation with repression alone. They have to give some concessions too, like last year’s increase (on paper at least) in minimum wages. In the past three years they have espoused populist rhetoric and punished some abusive officials to demonstrate concern for China's downtrodden. Such rhetoric only emboldened people and even inspired new waves of protests.
Public gestures are highly publicised. The government occasionally appeases protesters by punishing local officials. Such trials get a lot of coverage in the official media. Public trials are a way of presenting the national government as an arbiter who cares about the poor and punishes bad bureaucrats – as if the CCP leadership is not itself deeply enmeshed in the plunder. In the Soviet Union, Stalin also regularly punished individual bureaucrats, but this didn’t mean that he was not the defender of the bureaucrats in general. By these trials, the CCP leadership want to portray the incidents as local and isolated. This leaves higher authorities in the clear.
In another attempt to contain the protests, President Hu Jintao declared that swiftly improving the living standards of farmers “is a major historic mission undertaken by our party”, which is said to have set course on “building a new socialist countryside”. China's tightly controlled press and television outlets have inundated audiences in recent weeks with reports of new roads, dredged irrigation canals and visits by officials to chat with farmers about their needs. Through its control of the media, the regime tries to prevent one protest movement from learning about and linking up with others.
Although Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at the close of the National People’s Congress session declared there is no turning back, it seems they also try to maintain stability by temporising in the market reforms, such as the draft law on real property rights. The Financial Times commented (13/03/06):
“China seems to be nearing a crossroads. Its headlong reform drive is running into growing resistance. Once heretical demands to slow, even reverse, it are now openly expressed. (…) Beijing’s clarion calls for market freedom, repeated endlessly in NPC policy papers, are struggling to be heard above a growing chorus of dissenting voices. Its refrain is that enough is enough and it is time to bring back the bad old Marxist command economy. So far, the revisionists remain a disparate group, without clear leadership. They do not – yet – set the agenda. But they increasingly exhibit the power to frustrate it. Just last week, they beat back proposals to strengthen private property rights.”
“Their arguments resonate for three reasons. First, tacit support from government bureaucrats eager to grab back roles lost to liberalisation. Second, a groundswell of hostility to foreign capital, evident in accusations that stakes in state banks have been sold to foreigners on the cheap. Third, and most important, mounting popular resentment at an alarming rise in income inequalities that has sparked growing protests in the countryside and jolted a nervous leadership into increasing rural spending – though by so little that it seems largely a symbolic gesture.”
A new Tiananmen movement, under better conditions
The parallel with the second half of the 1980s is clear. At that time the “Left” also gained influence after one decade of liberal reforms and its consequences on ordinary people. The first years of market “reforms” saw growing unemployment and decreasing living standards, for example because of inflation (while in the past the CCP fixed prices). In 1985 the first expression of radicalisation, was channelled into anti-Japanese activism. Later the movement took on a more pro-democratic outlook in 1986-87 and 1989.
Because of the Left’s crusade against what they called “bourgeois liberalism”, the regime blew hot and cold. CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang took the road of concessions and called for more openness and limited democratisation. Students jumped into this democratic hole and launched a movement for democracy in 1986. But then the regime made a 180-degree turn. Deng Xiaoping sacked Hu Yaobang and initiated repression in the universities in 1987. However, in 1989 the students started new demonstrations when Hu Yaobang died in January. This time they were followed by the workers because of the recession (China only grew 4 percent). As the movement grew, the workers came more into the vanguard. Independent unions were formed. Wang Hui explains:
“Most studies have emphasised the role of students and reformist elements in the state, but the social movement that led to Tiananmen mobilised others as well. Students did have a role (the enlightenment of the 1980s had undermined old ideologies). But the spontaneity and scope of the 1989 movement had a far broader origin. Intellectuals could not suggest realistic social objectives; and they did not grasp the depth of the movement.”
“Criticism of the period made the state the chief enemy, but did not understand China's new social contradictions that while the Maoist state had protected inequality, under the guise of equality, through coercion and planning, the new reform state transformed inequality into income differences among classes, causing sharp social polarisation. Critics failed to grasp that there had been deep socialist desires in the mobilisation of the 1980s: not the old state socialism with its state monopolies, but a new socialism striving for social security, equality, justice and democracy, within a context of state monopoly and rapid market expansion.”
“The movement, despite its contradictions and the different agendas of interest groups, was directed against monopoly and privileges, and advocated democracy and social security. Except for peasants, who were not directly involved, people from all social classes in large and medium-sized urban areas were drawn in a broad mobilisation of society, revealing growing contradictions within the state. (…)
“Students demanded constitutional rights, workable democratic politics, freedom of speech and assembly, the rule of law, press freedom, and recognition of the legality of the movement. Other groups supported these demands, but wanted more social changes: opposition to corruption and to the princeling party (the special privileged class); stable prices; limitations on Yangpu on Hainan Island (an area rented to foreign capital); social guarantees and justice. The demand for democracy went hand in hand with demands for a fair redistribution of social benefits.” (Wang Hui, ‘How Tiananmen protests led to the new market economy’ in Le Monde diplomatique, April 2002)
When the regime saw the protest spilled over towards the working class, they drowned the movement in blood. The June massacre of Tiananmen was followed by a witch-hunt, especially against worker activists. Even then, there was a genuine leftist resurgence in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Although the bureaucracy initially had stalled the market reforms from 1988 until 1990, they needed two more years, until 1992, to stabilise the situation.
The parallel with today is clear. Both periods are in essence characterised by an upsurge in the class struggle. But both periods also differ in important ways, namely the depth of capitalist restoration and the international context.
The defeat of Tiananmen was a major political condition for the acceleration of capitalist restoration from 1992 onwards. It coincided with serious defeats of the working class internationally, most importantly the collapse of the Soviet Union which was heralded as a proof of the impossibility of socialism. As a consequence, workers were confused about socialism and took an attitude of “wait and see if capitalism can make our lives better”.
But today millions of Chinese workers have experienced capitalism, they have felt what it means. In Chinese conditions, it equals the most brutal form of labour. This is the basis of the current upsurge of workers’ struggle. They have recovered from the defeat of Tiananmen, which was more than 15 years ago. And now their struggle coincides not with an international downturn but with a huge international upturn of workers’ struggle.
A return to Maoism
Over the past few years, a self-styled New Left has emerged in China. Although it is still small and marginalized, it is becoming, especially during the last months, a significant part of the national scene, driven in large part by the growing struggles of the workers and peasants themselves. A February 27 article in The Standard, China’s business newspaper, states that “socialist ideology continues to manifest itself whenever there's a chance”. A well-known liberal economist complained: “We are all very much on the defensive right now.” When he recently delivered a speech to a university economics faculty in Beijing, members of the faculty denounced his ideas with the argument that ‘We must keep in mind our enemies. We are still a socialist country!’”
Much of the debate is now dominated by what is called the New Left, of which the above quoted Wang Hui (see Tienanmen) is a prominent thinker. Because of their criticisms of the excesses of market reforms, they have become a focal point of the protests. It is even said that President Hu Jintao is more lenient towards them. Of course, if Hu Jintao’s posture now is more moderate and if he criticises the harsh capitalist road of his predecessor Jiang Zemin, this is certainly not because Hu is more leftwing. It is because he wants to soften the class struggle! Hu has always been a staunch defender of the – capitalist – interests of the bureaucracy.
In fact, although the New Left’s critique certainly is more leftwing, they give no real alternative. As Wang Hui himself says: “I am generally in favor of orienting the country toward market reforms, but China's development must be more equal, more balanced. We must not give total priority to GDP growth to the exclusion of workers' rights and the environment.” (New Perspectives Quarterly, Spring 2005) They are social-democrats who have bowed to capitalism, but would like it with a human face. They would like the man-eating tiger become a vegetarian.
What is interesting, is not so much the critiques themselves, but the reaction they provoke. Liu Guoguang, a once influential but retired economist, recently burst back onto the scene with a warning for the Chinese government to rein in market reforms and deal with the growing rich-poor divide. Mr. Liu received last year a prestigious price for having helped boost the market-oriented reform, in which he always emphasized the role of the government but did not question the reintroduction of capitalism. By themselves Mr. Liu’s diatribes against too much market are not that interesting, but the reaction is. The Financial Times was astonished that it is not the first time that such criticism comes, “but very few have received as much attention. Almost overnight, symposiums were staged around the country to study his ‘economic thought’, including one at Ya’nan, the Communist party’s old revolutionary base. ‘The government has already lost control of many sectors and, of the state enterprises that are left, we seem to be willing to sell them, to foreigners or anybody,’ says Liu Rixin, a long-time senior planning official.” And further on the article says: “Celebrity economists such as Lang Xianping, who fronts a popular television show in Shanghai, have criticised privatisation as a slow-motion Russian-style theft of state assets.” (FT, 27/02/06) It comes as no surprise that Lang Xianping was forced off the air at the end of February. The government closed his programme on the grounds that he did not meet the government's spoken language standards for national television.
The emergence of the New Left is a symptom, and the regime knows it. That the class struggle in its initial phases is expressed by some sort of reformist thinking, happens often. What is important, is to see the process as a whole. These are just the first tremors of the reawakening of the Chinese working class, by now the biggest in the world.
Many people are questioning the pro-capitalist road of the leadership. At the grassroots level, this is expressed by a return to Mao. Ordinary people compare their current condition with the social conquests they (or their parents) had some decades ago. The capitalist ‘miracle’ of China has been built on the destruction of those social conquests. Therefore it is quite normal that people long for “the good old days”. This expresses itself in all sorts of ways. As Robert Weil states: “In a park in a working class neighborhood in Zhengzhou, hundreds – and up to a thousand or so on weekends – gather each evening to sing the old revolutionary songs and to uphold the legacy of the Mao era. In a similar, if less developed vein, workers and peasants often express the same kinds of views: life was different and better in the period under Mao, before China took the "capitalist road" that he warned against.” (Robert Weil, ‘To be attacked by the enemy is a good thing’, www.chinastudygroup)
Pao-yu Ching makes a similar observation: “Recently, more and more people, including some lower level government officials, are wearing Mao’s button to show their allegiance to Mao.” (‘Mao’s legacy in China’s current development’, China Study Group)
And it is not just about formal appearances. The legacy of the Mao era and its traditions translate themselves in the current class struggle. People go back to their previous experiences of struggle, like the Cultural Revolution. As the New York Times reported: “In one protest, middle-aged residents invoked rebellious slogans from their youth during the Cultural Revolution, reportedly saying things like ‘to rebel is just’ as they denounced summary evictions to make way for high-rise developers and demanded fair compensation.” (24/08/05)
Not only the workers are looking back to the Mao era as a source of inspiration. Also student groups are studying Maoism, and with it the classical works of Marxism, to understand the current condition. As Robert Weil notes: “Beginning around five years ago, small Marxist study groups began to emerge on a few of the more elite university campuses. Originally quite isolated and devoted to reading the classical texts of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and especially Mao, these early efforts have blossomed into a much more widespread network of leftist campus organizations today. From a growing number of universities, students are now travelling to cities like Zhengzhou to meet with workers, study and report on their conditions, and offer both legal and material support to their struggles. A similar student organization, the Sons [sic] of the Peasants, is sending student delegations to the rural areas. Though still small, and barely a blip on the general university scene, where most students are devoted only to their studies and careers, these leftist campus groups are nevertheless a dramatic new development in China. Through this movement, hundreds of college students on the left, and those with broad progressive politics, are beginning to gain practical experience of the conditions and struggles of the working classes, and even joining them in opposing the current policies of the state and party authorities – a linkage that has not occurred since the Cultural Revolution.” (ibid.)
In recent years, the city Zhengzhou has experienced some of the most militant labour protests and repeated clashes with police at the anniversary of Mao. It has acquired a reputation as a hotbed of radical Maoism. The China Study Group published a leaflet that was handed out in Zhengzhou on the occasion of the 28th anniversary of the death of Chairman Mao Zedong. Four people were afterwards arrested and put on trial. The reason is clear after reading the leaflet. Among other things it says:
“In this society of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, money means power and social status. The wealth polarization has driven working people into abject poverty; as a result, they have lost their social status and all the rights they had enjoyed previously. They are no longer dignified socialist laborers; instead, they are forced to sell their labor power as commodities for survival: they have become tools that can be bought freely by the capitalists (…)”
“Just take a look at what has transpired in a relatively short period of twenty plus years: the large and small capitalist-roaders in the Party and their family members have all become millionaires and even billionaires; who can deny that all their talks about socialism, and the ‘Three Represents’ [the pro-capitalist theory of former leader Jiang Zemin], are outright lies. What they really want is capitalism, because only capitalism will bring them the greatest benefit. They are the enemies of socialism and the people.”
“We, however, must not forget that the CCP after all is a Party that had been founded and led by Mao Zedong, and one with a long revolutionary tradition. It is a Party that had carried resolute struggle against Kruschev's revisionism, and had been tempered by the Cultural Revolution. And consequently, just as there are capitalist-roaders in the Party, there are certainly socialist-roaders in the Party as well, particularly at the grassroots level. Among the rank and file Party members and low-level cadres, the overwhelming majority are resentful of revisionist leaders within the party. They wish to see the Party change its current line and to revert to the socialist road. Some of them cannot tolerate it any more. They have stepped out to openly challenge the current leadership, but more people still find it safe for themselves or for their families not to speak their minds. We are convinced, along with the deepening of the revisionist clique's push for privatization, the class contradictions in China are bound to become more acute; and the masses will certainly intensify their struggle on ever wider scales. When development of contradictions and mass struggles nationwide reach a climax, the people within the Party, the government and the army who have understood the true nature of revisionism will wage a resolute struggle against it, and will rejoin the proletarian class ranks to hold high the banner of Mao Zedong and to resume the fight for socialism in China.”
From this quote we can read that the rank and file of the Communist Party is stirred by the growing class struggle. Probably, many of them believed for some time the arguments of the leadership that the market reforms were just a temporary sidetrack to strengthen productivity and to strengthen socialism. But after a quarter of a century of market reforms and especially after the last decades, everybody with eyes to see knows that the Communist Party bureaucracy is transforming itself rapidly into full-fledged capitalists. The rank and file of the CP has seen the true nature of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”: harsh capitalism with Chinese characteristics!
But China is not just any capitalist country. It is built out of a deformed workers’ state and still has remnants of it, most importantly the rule of the Communist Party. What kind of normal capitalist country is ruled by a Communist Party? Capitalists prefer normal bourgeois parties and only in the last analysis would turn to a Communist party. In spite of the repetitive warnings from the imperialists against the CCP, for the moment they like the party to be in control because the multinationals reap the benefit from it. Only when the CCP can no longer control the situation – like Eastern Europe in the eighties – would they resort to actively promoting bourgeois democracy. But for the moment, the imperialists do not see much good in the democratisation of China. As an article in the Australian newspaper The Age says (01/03/06):
“A democratic China could end up wracked by economic turmoil of the same kind which strangled Latin America for much of the modern era, a new report warns. The study, released by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), said the United States had long sought to promote democracy in China but it was far from clear a democratic Chinese regime would be benign for American interests. Report author, US economist and China specialist David Hale, said the current regime remained firmly committed to economic modernisation and market opening which would lead over time to the emergence of a large middle class.
“He said an authoritarian China had been highly predictable while a more open and democratic China could produce new uncertainties about both domestic policy and international relations. ‘If China had a democratic regime, there is a great risk that the increasing income inequality in the country could produce a populist regime which would suspend economic reform and plunge the country into the kind of inflationary crises which have characterised Latin America for much of the modern era,’ Mr Hale said in the report.”
It is obvious imperialism fears in China a similar revolutionary movement as in Latin America. Therefore, they have to keep on leaning on the CCP to repress the workers and the peasants. But the problem is the rank and file of the CCP. The lower ranks of the CCP bureaucracy stand often much closer to the masses. Because even while the CCP leadership has gone over to defending capitalism, many of the more than 60 million members do not like the capitalist restoration at all and are receptive to the demands of the masses. One such example is a letter, written in October 2004, by an anonymous group of veteran CCP members, veteran cadres, veteran military personnel and intellectuals. We will be making this letter available to our readers shortly but here we limit ourselves to quoting some significant excerpts:
“To restore the leading position of Marxism in the realm of ideology is a grave task on the battlefront of ideas. Various articles, magazines and books that openly whip up support for Western democracy and privatisation flood the streets, while those publicising Marxism are being put down deliberately. (…) It also illustrates the extent to which Marxism, which has a nominally leading position in this country, has been trampled upon in practice! For this reason, it is impossible not to put on the agenda the grave task of restoring the leading position of Marxism in this country. (…)
“Whether it is a struggle against corruption, an attempt to defend state property and counter privatisation, a bid to scale down the burden on the peasants and oppose bureaucratic exactions or a move to protect the legal rights of underprivileged sectors such as peasants and workers, all such endeavours urgently demand an extension of socialist democracy. The people are the master of history. Organised people have the profound ability to storm heaven and transform the earth.”
- Class struggle in China: "A rise like a violent wind" - Part One by Bruce Boon (April 6, 2006)
- China – "Socialist market economy" or just plain capitalism? by Michele Fabri (January 20, 2006)
- China: disparity between rich and poor preparing renewed class struggle by Fred Weston (October 13, 2005)