Interview by Ron Groves, a Socialist Party member (England and Wales) recently on a visit there

Ron Groves

Could you tell me what you think the perspectives are for the Chinese economy in the next period?

Alan Chen

I think everybody has been very impressed with the rapid economic growth in China, that has lasted 20 years, but when you look at what is behind this growth, it is fragile. One source of this fragility is the unheard of exploitation of workers and suppression of workers’ rights, which is really comparable to a fascist state, if one wanted a comparison. Not only are trade union rights denied, but the state, including local government, has relied on paramilitary forces to suppress strikes and to make sure that workers can’t organise. But the workers are fighting back and there have been lots and lots of spontaneous strikes occurring for several years, although we cannot say how much the strikes will escalate in the future. The system itself is built on such inhumane exploitation, 13,14,15 hours a day, that labour unrest could become ever more widespread, and if the resulting demands for higher wages and better conditions are successful, it would put a question mark over the Chinese model of development. This would be true at least in the southern part of China, where there is the Pearl River Delta model of development, which is highly export oriented and has low value added.

So, this is one thing. The second thing is that China’s rapid economic growth is financed very much by external and internal debt, we are talking about 20% of bad debts in the banking system. When you had 10% of non-performing loans in Thailand, you had the Asian crisis. In China, the 20% level of non-performing loans is really an element of crisis for the future. Of course, they can survive for the moment, because there is confidence that foreign direct investment will still flow into China, but I think that things will start working in the opposite direction soon, because of the coming of 2006, when the transition period to the accession of WTO is going to end. You will have the complete opening of the banking system, insurance, finance and so on, in addition to the opening of manufacturing and distribution in early 2007. It will exert tremendous competitive downward pressure on all Chinese domestic firms, especially the banks.

These are impending issues regarding Chinese economic growth. They (the government) know there is an impending crisis and they are trying their best to be able to get through it, but I don’t think they are 100% competent.

RG

How soon do think this crisis could happen?

AC

This is hard to tell, but China more and more looks like the weakest link of global capitalism today, because the Asian countries, the Taiwans, very much rely on economic growth in China to continue their own growth. For instance, Taiwan and China are so integrated economically, that without China, Taiwan’s export earnings would be in the red. (Taiwan can still survive though, because there is a big surplus in her balance of trade with China, and the same goes for the Asian countries). China is also buying huge sums of American bonds to prop up the dollar. The rise of China is more and more significant because it will soon be fifth or sixth in the world in GDP terms. Although in per capita terms it is in 100th place, in total GDP it is more and more a big player in global capitalism. But its growth is very much state led, built on huge amounts of debt and the completely inhumane exploitation of labour and also disregard of the environment.

However, the consequences of this exploitation and disregard of environmental costs are already appearing. Labour cannot any longer tolerate such exploitation; ten years back, workers were more willing, in the sense that they did not object to overtime because they needed the money. They could work three or four years in the city and then they were able to save enough money to go back to their village to build a house in order to get married. For the rural migrant worker this was the paramount thing to do, since everyone, be it a female or male worker, had to contribute something to build a house in the home village. But the point is, because of the rise in prices, for the rural migrant worker it is more and more impossible to save money in order to build a house in four or five years time. They may save nothing even if they work seven or eight years, and as a result there is much more discontent and hatred amongst migrant workers than there was even five or six years ago. This is why, when there are strikes, they are very very violent. Therefore I don’t think the Chinese model is sustainable indefinitely, or even for ten or twenty years.

RG

We read in the west of huge numbers of protests and demonstrations taking place throughout China. Is there any sign that these are beginning to be coordinated or linked together in any way?

AC

The problem here is that all these strikes are spontaneous and isolated, although the number of them is huge. For instance, in a small report in a newspaper it was reported that in one small county, where you probably have no more than a hundred thousand residents, in the last year they had 354 labour disputes. The main focus of the article was that although there were so many disputes they were able to settle them all peacefully. Imagine, it means that every day there is a labour dispute in just one small county, so the (total) number must have been very, very huge, at least in the Pearl (River) Delta. But linking them up is impossible at the moment, because this presupposes coordination, organisation. Rural migrant workers have had no preparation for (creating) genuine organisations. They have no collective identity as workers and when they organise, they organise along the divisions of their home provinces; that you are from Hubei, you organise on a Hubei basis. You are from Sichuan, you organise on a Sichuan (basis). So it is difficult to have a blanket organisation for everyone, because it was only four or five years ago that they left their home province.

RG

What do you think socialists now should be doing to help the workers’ movement develop in China? What are the best tactics that we could use?

AC

I cannot go into details because it is a sensitive question. However there are thousands of spontaneous strikes, but if socialists walk into them directly they will immediately be killed off, immediately sent to jail and so on, especially considering there are so few socialists in China. I think that the most important thing today for socialists is to be involved in cadre education, it is more important than a direct counter-attack on the employers in one of these spontaneous strikes, because preparatory work in needed, so rural migrant workers can build genuine organisations.

State-owned enterprises workers have a collective identity as workers but their struggle has largely failed in the past 10 years, 30 million state workers have already been sacked and they have in the main lost the battle. On the other hand, migrant workers are badly needed by companies, so they are in a position to fight, but given their subjective weakness, it is extremely difficult for us to be directly involved in organising. For the moment, I think there are two important things. It is better to attract individuals, open-minded class (conscious) workers, to attract them to socialism, to do serious agitation among them, no matter how small the numbers, how few of them. It is important to do ground work according to a plan, to gradually train a dozen and then two and then three dozen. To train up a handful of locally recruited activists is important and possible. The second thing is to get international support.

RG

When you say international support, do you mean from the trade unions in the west?

AC

Yes of course. Yes.

RG

Have you tried to do this in the past? Have they helped you at all?

AC

Yes, but not very much because we do not have the resources to do much work here, that is our weakness. Also there is a great deal of interesting material, articles in Chinese, that we are not yet able to translate.

You mentioned before there is a significant dispute taking place in the Pearl River area, could you explain a bit about the background to that dispute and what is happening?

Well, it is over many things. They are not paying the minimum wage as stipulated by law, they are poisoning workers, they are forcing them to do overtime, they beat them up; these are common grievances that workers will bring up. One good thing is that even compared to five years ago, workers today are more conscious of their rights, that they are entitled to a minimum wage and so on. So there are many many disputes originating from wages and overtime issues.

RG

Could I change the subject slightly to the WTO meeting that’s going to take place in Hong Kong in December? How is the left organising for that, here? Will there be a protest do you think against the WTO?

AC

There will be, but maybe 80% will be foreign participants. Local mobilisation is very very difficult, because the left has been marginalised to a point close to disappearance in the past 20 years. In the early 1970s there were some left groups in Hong Kong but they are not very big today. So the preparation is mainly done by some very small left groups in Hong Kong, but under the banner of trade unions and NGOs. I think that the local presence will be weak, but I think it will still mean something (positive) because of two things. One is that in Hong Kong trade unions have never come out against the WTO before. I think some socialists here have done good work promoting an anti-corporate, anti-globalisation agenda and have succeeded in convincing the trade unions to take part in this (WTO) preparation. This is significant in such a conservative region.

The second thing is more important. It is that this will be a good education for Chinese activists, for workers and farmers, because the Chinese government has always told the people that the WTO is a good thing. In December, if there are 10,000 demonstrating against the WTO, it will come across in China and it will be reported all over the world, on the internet and so on. It will be a good opportunity to tell Chinese working people that these are not some mad ultra-leftist guys who are against the WTO, but it is common farmers and workers who have come to protest against the WTO, which the Chinese government has always hailed as a great success.

RG

What would you say is the current state of the democracy movement in Hong Kong? How do you see it developing in the next period?

AC

A question is, will our government succeed in buying off all the important sections of the democratic movement, the petty bourgeois democrats? In fact the democratic movement will be going through a new stage soon, because in the past 20 years there has been no class differentiation in it. The so-called democrats don’t mention which class they are from and people don’t know who they are. (Some) Socialists as well, they are just a handful of dinosaurs, who we don’t hear from.

I think a good thing is that the Hong Kong miracle ended, to a certain extent, after the Asian crisis (of 1996-8). There will be economic booms in the future, but it is the end of the Hong Kong miracle. For many years, even after the 1974 global downturn, Hong Kong experienced high growth rates and workers were accustomed to a 2% or 3% unemployment rate, this influenced their mentality up until the Asian crisis. After the Asian crisis, the same mentality existed, it did not go away easily, but there is a more and more questioning (attitude). This is because the economy slowed by three or four percent, unemployment is more than five or six percent and wages have gone down by a third for many workers.

On the other hand, the petty bourgeoisie, the democrats, they are more and more being exposed as their class limitations are being more and more exposed. They are even against the minimum wage, for Christ’s sake! And that is why the Democratic Party is losing support. It is clear they are losing significant support because they are against the minimum wage. Today, as opposed to ten years back, more and more workers, even the middle classes, at least some of them, consider that we really need a minimum wage, because wages have gone down a third in a year! So the mentality is changing and the Democratic party is being exposed, more and more, as having a petty bourgeois, or even a bourgeois character. This greater class differentiation may result in the upper layers of the petty bourgeoisie, or certain layers of the bourgeoisie, succeeding in reformulating a bourgeois party, which they did not have in the past.

On the other hand, a party based more on workers is out of the question in the foreseeable future, because the workers’ movement is in demise. There is class differentiation, but it is not happening very fast.

RG

Do you think that if an economic crisis develops further in the next year or two, it will drive sections of the labour movement to the left and make them address the question of a new workers’ party in Hong Kong?

AC

Not in the near future, no. To a certain extent the December event against the WTO will hopefully give a small push towards the left, because, as I said, five years back when we went to educate the trade unions on globalisation and the WTO, they weren’t interested. They thought we were just nuts. That was five years back, whereas today, I have been doing lots of courses on globalisation, on the WTO and corporate greed and so on. There are many trade unions who raise interesting questions and like to hear what I say. That is a difference, but there is just a handful of them, so I don’t think that in the near future we can talk about a workers’ party.

RG

Could I change the subject now to global politics? When I was recently in Beijing there was very strong nationalist propaganda from the government, particularly on the question of Taiwan and Japan. How do you see that developing, these imperialist hopes of the Chinese government?

AC

It is a very dangerous course of development, very troubling, because the rise of China as a big capitalist state is very threatening for workers, as it creates a global race to the bottom. With the help of nationalism, the Chinese Communist Party will be more effective, in the sense that if there is great labour unrest or a big internal crisis for the Communist Party, the highest leaders always have the option of making use of nationalism as a way out. There are various important sections among the bureaucracy who support such nationalist propaganda and there is lots and lots of talk about revitalising ’our glorious imperial past’. That’s why we have programme after programme on TV telling the story of the great imperialist Chinese emperors. There is programme after programme like this about the great emperor of the Han dynasty, or even the great emperors of the Qing dynasty. The people love it, many people do anyway, because these programmes are all put out by government TV. The ruling class, the officials, they are consciously rewriting the old imperial ’glorious past’ of the people. It is a dangerous, very dangerous course they are adopting.

RG

Are they putting this propaganda forward to protect their own positions because of the opposition that they fear from their own workers and peasants? Do they use nationalist propaganda to try to build support for their own positions?

AC

It think they have multiple purposes. First of all, from a societal and historical perspective, nationalism becomes a kind of opium to fill in the political vacuum after the total collapse of socialist ideas, and important sections of intellectuals buy into this nationalism, because they have no more faith in socialism. Nationalism is becoming a viable ideology that they buy into, that they can conceive of. This factor should not be overlooked. Second, from the perspective of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, they are cautious. They are not making political propaganda as such, because they know that the Americans will monitor it and the Chinese Communist Party is very careful to maintain friendly relations with the United States. It does not want to anger the United States, so we are not talking about political propaganda, what we are talking about is cultural propaganda which is not that carefully monitored by the US. In this cultural area the official propaganda is really terrible, glorifying the great emperors of the past.

Nationalism is doing a favour to the Chinese capitalists, because they are using it not only to protect their position. This new leadership has an ambition, which is more and more clear, to secure a greater and greater market share of global capitalism, it is a very clear programme of conquering market share for big Chinese enterprises. However, the Chinese Communist Party is very cautious in creating big Chinese trans-national corporations. The big international corporations, the oil industry, television and even train and car making are not that successful, building them is not that easy. You may have already heard about Petrol China and Haier, and so on; big Chinese corporations who have great ambitions in the global race for profit, but who are very cautious. Chinese nationalism will help them to succeed.

To a certain extent nationalism affects workers, because it is very common when foreign reporters approach labourers who are protesting or striking, for them to say: I don’t want to speak too much because I do not want to say bad things about our country in front of foreign reporters. For Chinese people of the present generation, although they have no memories or experience of the anti-Japanese war, the legacy is still there. The CCP has been fiercely nationalist for many years, it has never been internationalist, so nationalism is a very important weapon in the hands of the bureaucracy, that is used to numb the workers, to tie them down, at the very least to weaken their will to fight back, as workers.

RG

Do you think this will succeed in the longer term? Do you think it will cause them problems in the long term?

AC

We have still to see, because China is a big book with tens of thousands of pages and we are only looking at one or two pages of the whole book! Until there is greater unrest, where much deeper things below the surface of society are involved, we cannot answer. It is a difficult question in China because the future course of developments is hard to define. There are bound to be crises, and they will not be that far off, but which direction they will go in, I don’t know.

RG

In the past in China, nationalist movements have turned against the government. Do you think this pattern could repeat itself in the future, where originally there was a movement against, for instance, Japan, which could be turned into a movement against the Chinese government itself. Do you think that might happen?

AC

It happened in the past, especially under Jiang Zemin, because at that time the Chinese Communist Party was still over enthusiastically embracing western imperialism. I think that at the turn of the new century it is still not very clear as to which direction Chinese capitalism is going in, whether it is going to be more accommodating to US imperialism, with a dependent mode of development, or more self-reliant. Before the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Jiang Zemin may have been open to some kind of illusion that by accommodating to US imperialism, by opening up China to US capitalism, the US would be a friend of China. That explains why the Chinese government adopted a cautiously dependent neo-colonial model of development. For instance the tax on local enterprises is 33% but only 15% for foreign capitalists. This is outrageous, not even India would do that, but China would do that, Deng would do that, because he was seeking a more dependent mode of development. But after the 1999 bombing, in the bureaucracy there was a call for a more self-reliant mode of development- with good reason: "Look here, from this building, they are bombing us".

The US would not tolerate a big capitalist China, it was just an illusion, so from then on there was more emphasis on self-reliance. In fact, it seems that the leadership has already taken a decision that sooner or later, and the sooner the better, there must be an equalisation of tax, this is a signal, among many others. For example, the new 11th economic plan is emphasising giving more state money to promote national unity. That’s why in the past, when there was anti-Japanese feeling, the government just wanted to crack down on it, because they wanted to have a co-partnership with Japanese and US imperialism. But today I think they know that it is not that easy.

As regards the Japanese, the government are trying to be more high profile in asserting the national interests of China and condemning the Japanese government for going to the Shrine (for Japanese war leaders). They are more high profile today. Of course, they crack down on some people who are going too far, but important sectors of the bureaucracy, the nationalists, today feel comfortable that the new leadership is doing the right thing. So it is different from five or six years back, the situation is in flux, the CCP will react differently in the future and we don’t know what will develop.

RG

When I was in central China I noticed in some industrial areas a terrible situation with regard to the environment. Do you think that this is an issue which the left and the workers’ movement needs to take up and address?

AC

Absolutely. Today, the environmental problem is part of the workers’ and farmers’ problem, because with high economic growth, huge urban developments and factories have been created and tens of thousands of hectares of arable land have been cleared, land which was taken from the peasants. The big factories pollute the air, the water, the underground water, everything and the peasants and workers are poisoned. The environmental problem in China is very much a workers’ and farmers’ problem.

RG

Do you think the workers’ movement needs a proper, a concrete programme on the question of the environment in China in order to raise demands in order to improve the situation?

AC

Yes, absolutely. Environmental demands, economic demands and political demands for democracy, go together.

RG

Do you think it’s too soon to work out a programme for developing the movement in China? Do you think it’s still preparatory work that’s needed now?

AC

Even if its only just the beginning, we should really study this matter seriously. It is too early to talk of developing a concrete and mature programme, a complete programme for the future labour movement, because there are still many things that we don’t know. There are some elements of the programme that are already in place, but only parts, not the complete thing.

RG

You mentioned before that you are preparing a book about the situation, the developments and the perspectives for China, could you say a few things about what will be in the book and what are the key themes in the book?

AC

The key themes are: to give an evaluation of the rise of China as a big capitalist state; that China is full of contradictions; that in crude terms it is a huge country with a huge population and GDP, comparable to developed countries, with very developed coastal areas where manufacturing is growing quickly; but at the same time there are peasants still working with their hands; that the west of China is largely being forgotten in the course of modernisation. China is, I think, the most contradictory big capitalist state in the world and we have to look at the position of China in world capitalism today, in the 21st century. What it means for working people in China and in the world.

In a recent issue of New Left Review there was an interview with Han Dong Fan, the director of the China Labour Project Team. In fact, this China Labour Project Team is politically supported by the American AFL-CIO, and that means, indirectly, by the American government. It has ambitions to build right-wing trade unions, if there is an opening, but for the moment they have no base in China, they are mainly based in Hong Kong. I don’t understand why the New Left Review is giving space to a right-wing trade unionist to put his case, the interview is really ridiculous. For many years the China Labour Project Team has tried in their publications to convince workers not to revolt, not to take so-called ‘illegal’ action, but instead to turn to their official trade unions for help. They have never been against privatisation of state enterprises and The New Left Review gives this coverage. Does the New Left Review knows anything about his politics? Of course you can do interviews with the most right wing people, if you have editorial notes or bring in some other commentators to have a balance from the left. But there’s no such attempt. We know that New Left Review has been turning to the right for a long time, but it is outrageous to read that interview. I think that the British left should say something about this.

RG

There are certain elements in the British left who think that China offers an alternative to Western imperialism, this is also the position of the Communist Party (Marxist) in India too. They put forward China as a new alternative to imperialist, capitalist development. What do you think of that idea?

AC

This is ridiculous, the Chinese government is not anti-imperialist. It collaborated with the US, it is not going to defy them. Of course, as I have said, the Chinese government after the bombing (of the Belgrade embassy) has come back to its senses a little bit, and realises that the US is not really a faithful friend after all. However, even if they emphasise a more self-reliant line, they will not give up the prospect of developing capitalism in friendship with the US, because China has to rely on US imports, they are inter-dependent.

Committee for a workers' International publications

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