China: Explosion of class struggle sweeps the country

The rapidly changing situation in China is of vital importance to socialists internationally.

The following material was written for discussion at the International Executive Committee meeting of the CWI held in November in order to highlight the social and labour turmoil in China. Other material which formed the basis of the discussions held there were:
World economy: A new oil crisis,
World economy: The US economy ‘running on fumes’, and
US: Bush victory signal for new world disorder?

Explosion of class struggle sweeps the country

The capitalist class internationally, preoccupied mostly with whether a "hard" or "soft" landing is on the cards for China’s economy, have completely missed the significance of the explosion of class struggle in recent years and especially the last few months. The movement today, of strikes, mass demonstrations and rural protests is the most important since 1989 and in some respects, especially in terms of the role of the working class, even exceeds the movement of 1989. In September alone, 3.1 million workers, peasants and laid-off state-sector workers (the so called "xiagang") took part in strikes, demonstrations, assemblies and "petitions" (a form of lobbying where groups take their grievances to Beijing to gain an audience with central authorities). There are some features of a pre-revolutionary situation in current developments: the masses are losing their fear of the dictatorship and the regime senses it cannot continue ruling in the old way. But the general worldwide throwing back of consciousness, lack of workers’ organisations and a socialist alternative, introduce big complications into the situation.

The most important features of the new situation in China are:

  • A powerful upsurge in workers’ protests and strikes accompanied by a new wave of rural protests underpinned by rising incomes on the backs of the current economic boom. Political instability in the countryside – the regime’s traditional power base – is one of several differences compared to 1989.
  • Divisions, admittedly well concealed so as not to panic "the markets", at the top of the Chinese regime which increasingly senses that the post-1989 doctrine – combining accelerated capitalist "reform" with an iron hand (and the example of the Beijing massacre) – can no longer assure "stability".
  • The consciousness of the combative sections of the populace shows significant differences compared to the massive illusions in capitalism which existed in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Without ignoring the complexities in the situation (for example Chinese nationalism), there is evidently an accumulated hatred of parasitic local officials and the new rich capitalists. Foreign capitalists, especially Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean arouse particular hostility. Numerous struggles against privatisation have taken place this year. The singing of "The Internationale" on picket lines has been reported from several conflicts. Steps to form independent trade unions are increasingly common. Strikes have occurred around the slogans, "defend state-owned assets to death", "we demand the fruits of our labour", and "break the control of ideas".
  • Another element in the situation is the emergence of the new class of private sector capitalists who are becoming more assertive, increasingly restive at the extortionate bribes they pay for "influence", and wanting more direct access to the levers of government. An obvious danger in the unfolding situation – in which a "democratic stage" is inevitable in the consciousness of the masses – is that, unchallenged by a clear workers‘ alternative, this could provide a base for the liberal bourgeois elements.
  • The CCP regime has not completely exhausted its reserves of support among the population – an upsurge in mass struggle does not automatically mean the imminent fall of the regime which in addition to the economic growth and repression which saved it after 1989, has deep roots in the national consciousness of the Chinese masses. The CCP leadership has shown itself adroit in adapting to new challenges and may show flexibility under the impact of a serious crisis, even experimenting with limited Hong Kong-style parliamentary rule in some areas of the country, or accepting the semi-legalisation of independent trade unions which are undoubtedly already beginning to develop at local level.

There are reports from the countryside in at least three provinces (Anhui, Hubei, and Jiangxi) of peasant committees putting corrupt officials on trial and even executing them, echoing the methods of Mao‘s armies in the 1940s-50s. In rural Sichuan, on 28 October, 100,000 farmers occupied a dam project, overpowering police and turning off the machinery with banners demanding "Down with corrupt officials". In later battles, injured policemen could not even be treated at nearby hospitals for fear of reprisals from the local community. These rural eruptions have centred on a host of issues including forcible evacuation, land seizure, excessive taxation, corruption and the rights of land labourers.

In the cities, millions have been involved in strikes, demonstrations and traffic blockades in recent months on issues ranging from privatisation, low pay and corruption. 100,000 coal miners and their familes in Anhui province staged a one-week strike in September demanding job security and accident compensation (against the background of the industry‘s horrific safety record). The workers beat back a police attack and forced the authorities and mine owners to grant concessions. The seven-week long strike by women textile workers in Shaanxi province was correctly described by Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin as "unprecedented in China since the start of the country‘s economic reforms, in terms of both its duration and of the determination and unity of the workforce". In fact, the strike was unprecedented since the 1949 revolution. Not only did it reveal the existence of serious organisation – independent of the largely discredited state-run ACFTU (there was no ACFTU branch at the factory) – but once again the state forces were forced to retreat by the stubborn resistance and conscious fraternisation efforts of the workers.

The rise in prices for oil, coal, steel and other raw materials has provoked an offensive from the employers demanding wage cuts, longer hours and other "savings" to hold up profit margins in a fiercely competitive environment of chronic overproduction. But the current phase of very rapid economic growth has emboldened workers and peasants to take on the capitalists and state managers. The rise in prices for agricultural products, has resulted in migrant workers returning home from the cities and labour shortages in many manufacturing centres. This changed relationship of forces is now being exploited by sections of the working class taking their first steps as an independent force in Chinese society since the 1949 revolution. The strike weapon is becoming increasingly common in both state and private sector.

These struggles, too many to mention in full, reveal a profound change in the psychology of the Chinese masses, who are beginning to lose their fear of the dictatorship. In the September events, detailed in an official document, 170 of 520 demonstrations "turned violent" and 200 police officers were injured. Details for October have not yet emerged but the curve of development still appears to be in the ascendant. After the brutal beating by a local official of a migrant worker in the city of Wangzhou, Sichuan province, 50,000 workers took part in a semi-insurrectionary battle with police in mid-October. This led Public Security Minister, Zhou Yongkang, to admit on national television that police "could not win" against vastly greater numbers of demonstrators. Following the Wangzhou events police and paramilitary police have been withdrawn from several disturbances rather than confront the working class. Earlier this year, there were reports of PLA units siding with strikers against the police.

This is the background to the realignment at the top of the regime in September, when control of the army passed over to president Hu Jintao, from his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. The regime is split over how to deal with the rising tide of protest and Jiang‘s retirement, ostensibly on "health" grounds, plus the promotion to the top military organ of several Hu allies, is a victory for the president‘s faction. No faction questions China‘s capitalist economic development, differences centre over how this can be consolidated. Hu, the first Chinese leader with no personal connection to the revolution, wants to project a more humane image of the "soft revolutionary". His faction have become increasingly alarmed that the present ruling doctrine, in force since 1989, of "economic reform" but no loosening of military-police rule, is preparing an explosion like that in South Korea in 1987.

Rather than a clear strategy, however, Hu zigzags from one position to another. Having encouraged a degree of media freedom to report on official abuses and corruption, a new press clampdown has been ordered especially in regard to peasant protests. But both concessions and repression under certain conditions can have the opposite result to that intended – weakening rather than strengthening the regime. For the time being, the regime seems to have "called off the hounds" – its police and paramilitary police – hoping that after letting off steam, an inevitable ebb in the movement will allow them to reassert discipline on the working class and rural masses. In today‘s situation, an attempt to make an example of workers, as with the Tsar‘s massacre in January 1905, or the June 4th massacre in Tiananmen Square, could backfire completely, leading to an explosion of mass anger against the regime – which is what happened in Wangzhou in October.

The consciousness of the working class and other oppressed layers is of course impossible to gauge accurately from a distance. But reports from numerous strikes indicate that, while contradictions and difficulties are inevitable, the consciousness today is not the same as in Eastern Europe and the USSR in the late 1980s – early 1990s. Chinese workers have tasted the bitter pill of "market reforms" with 45 million state sector jobs lost from 1996-2001, destruction of the "iron rice bowl" safety net, spiralling health, education and housing costs etc. There are, however, still illusions in the central government as opposed to the gangsters running provinces and cities – who workers see at first hand. A feature of the struggle in recent years has been appeals to the Beijing leaders to intervene and take action against local officials. Like Father Gapon, many of the petitioners refuse to believe that the central powers know what is going on in their name, and hope to "open their eyes"(!) Beijing is continually launching "anti-corruption drives", giving the illusion that it is "above" the skulduggery going on at local level. "Corruption" has thereby become a catch-all term used by workers and peasants to describe everything from non-payment of wages to state repression.

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November 2004