China: The precarious grip of the Chinese regime

‘China: The Fragile Superpower’ by Susan L Shirk

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The precarious grip of the Chinese regime

The stream of books published on China almost equals the volume of products churned out from the country’s factories and workplaces. Many have provided invaluable windows on the world’s most important drama, which is China today. Susan L Shirk, an ex-deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, has written another one. Its merit is as an inside track on the Chinese elite, which she has observed at close quarters over a number of years. The real importance arising from the abundant factual and anecdotal material she provides is just how precarious is the ruling group’s hold on power.

The factual material is familiar to ‘China watchers’. She shows indirectly the colossal rise of the working class through massive industrialisation: “China has 174 cities whose population is greater than one million people”. Its gross domestic product of $2.23 trillion has overtaken France, the UK and Italy, and is only behind the US, Japan and Germany. China is the world’s largest exporter of information and communications technology products, like mobile phones, laptops and digital cameras. It is also now the largest producer of computer hardware, although it lags behind, considerably, in software development. The same applies to education and science, with China’s 2,500 applications for patents in 2005 “still miniscule compared to the 45,000 applications from the US”.

The US is still the dominant power and, in fact, the gap between it and the rest of the world is the biggest it has ever been. The US economy equals that of Japan, Germany, the UK, France and Italy combined, and is six times the size of the Chinese economy.

The author claims that until the mid-1990s there were in China “reforms without losers”. But later on she shows that the iron rice bowl of permanent employment in state enterprises and the provision of health, education and other welfare services has been “shattered”, resulting in unprecedented inequality and unemployment – 25% of the graduates of 2005 were unemployed at any one time. She also shows the “rampant” corruption (her phrase) on a monumental scale.

The substance of the book involves the author warning that domestic threats to the Chinese regime could interact with key international events and could topple it. After all, the Tiananmen uprising in 1989 meant that the “Communist [in reality, Stalinist – PT] dynasty almost ended in its 40th year”. Since then, it has spent much effort to avoid such a situation reoccurring. Tiananmen took place against the background of splits in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Huge domestic upheaval intersected with foreign policy issues relating to Japan. This, in turn, emulated what had happened at decisive turning points previously in Chinese history. In particular, the relationship with Japan and the US, combined with the highly sensitive question of Taiwan, are the key foreign policy issues confronting China, all posing dangers.

Centuries of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers still exercise a powerful effect at all levels of Chinese society. China was defeated by Japan in 1895, a painful humiliation as the Chinese had always considered themselves ‘superior’ to the Japanese. As a result, it lost the island of Taiwan and its remaining influence over Korea, which both became colonies of Japan. This followed the losses to Britain in the ‘opium wars’ earlier in the 19th century. Also, the movement of 1919 began with students protesting at the humiliating terms inflicted on China by the Versailles treaty. Out of these protests came the beginnings of the Communist Party, which led to the revolution of 1925-27. On top of all this, an estimated 35 million Chinese were killed at the hands of the brutal Japanese imperialists during what is called in China the ‘anti-Japanese war of 1931-45’.

Regime’s nationalism

However, the deep-seated historical hurt of China has been deliberately whipped up by the current regime, which uses nationalism in place of discredited ‘communism’ (Stalinism) to underline the legitimacy of its rule. Paradoxically, Mao Zedong was more flexible on the issue of Taiwan than the present regime. He told Edgar Snow, the American journalist who interviewed him in the 1940s, that, after the CCP had defeated the Japanese, it would let Taiwan become independent! Taiwan had only been part of China for 200 years – taken over by the Qing dynasty, in 1683, before being lost to Japan in 1895. But for the last decades, the Chinese regime has banged the nationalist drum to such an extent that anti-Taiwan independence and anti-Japanese feelings are so intense that it now finds it almost impossible to back away and adopt a ‘softer’ position.

By whipping up nationalism, the regime knows it is riding a tiger, which is very well explained in this book. On the other hand, a pressure cooker needs an outlet. This is linked to the internal situation. Shirk gives many examples of the growing opposition of the masses, particularly of the working class and the peasantry: “Communist leaders view labour unrest as the most threatening form of protest… Factory workers, who work and live in close proximity to one another, are easier to organise than peasants”. As yet, however, these are scattered: “Demonstrations are typically small scale and limited to one enterprise”. What happens when they coalesce was shown by the virtual uprising in China’s rust belt, particularly in Liaoning province, where unemployment approaches 40% in some cities. In 2002, between 20-50,000 workers who were laid off in the Daqing oilfield demonstrated for over two weeks demanding better severance packages. In Heilongjiang province, the workers “used the revolutionary slogan ‘resistance comes where oppression is, contention rises when exploitation exists’.” Moreover, they “sang the Communist Internationale and the Chinese national anthem” on the demonstrations. If this was not enough, the regime is haunted by the prospect of a workers’ movement merging with an uprising of the peasants, still a majority in the country, and who, as they are well aware, have played a decisive role in the history of China, not least in bringing to power Mao and the CCP.

The Chinese government clearly has an authoritarian character. But the colossal changes that have been wrought in the last 20 years mean that its hold on power is very tenuous. Moreover, it is forced to take account of the mood of the country. It is even subject to certain ‘controls’, pressure from what the author calls the “selectorate”, the group of people within the party, and the army, who effectively have the power to chose the leaders.

Mao, ‘father of the People’s Republic’, and the Chinese Stalinists who followed him, like Deng Xiaoping, possessed a certain authority as pioneers which, together with the progress made through the planned economy, gave them a certain leeway. Despite the colossal mistakes and crimes of Mao, whose victims can be counted in millions, Chinese Stalinism played a relatively progressive role in the development of the economy and society from the revolution right up to the 1980s. But the hold of the bureaucratic elite meant that the planned economy – tenuous at the best of times in such a colossal, semi-continent such as China – ended in a cul-de-sac.

Deng, initially, ‘opened up’ to the world market. His successors have more consciously sought to introduce, in a ‘controlled fashion’, capitalism into China. But they are haunted by what happened in the Soviet Union and the possible disintegration of their whole ‘project’. Shirk comments: “They use the euphemism ‘social stability’ to convince the Chinese public that the Communist Party’s rule is essential for maintaining order and prosperity, and that, without it, a country as large as China would fall into civil war and chaos”.

But they are still highly sensitive to the moods and opinions of the population, and try and gauge this through close involvement in the internet, which it tries to control. The same goes for television. The author recounts a conversation with premier Zhu Rongji, in 2002: “He obviously had protests by unemployed workers on his mind. ‘My office gets daily reports about where workers are protesting’… Without referring to any notes, he continued, ‘Between 1 January and 28 March 2002 there were 265 protests of groups of more than 50 workers’.” Mass ‘incidents’ (involving over 100 people each) surged from 8,700 in 1993 to approximately 10,000 in 1994, 32,000 in 1999, 58,000 in 2003 and 74,000 in 2004: “More than 200 protests on average occur every day”. Because of this, the regime requires a means of testing ‘public opinion’, by ‘tapping into’ the exchanges of the 132 million internet users in China. The government, through front organisations, writers, television and the internet, sometimes tests out possible reactions – for instance, in relation to China’s approach to Taiwan or Japan – before launching a policy publicly. If the reaction is adverse, then it will hesitate or sometimes draw back.

Foreign policy

The author concentrates, in the main, on the foreign policy of China and how ‘mistakes’ can trigger an upheaval. Whipping up nationalism as a safety valve against the danger of ‘social unrest’ can rebound, as for instance over the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. The anti-US protests threatened to get out of hand, linking with social issues, and were therefore stamped on by the regime. Taiwan is a running sore, as is Japan. Having inflamed nationalism, the Chinese government, when it wants to make overtures to Japan or Taiwan, is faced with opposition from the monster it created. The army chiefs have had to be conciliated with a big increase in military spending, which has brought China into collision with the US. China also has the world’s largest land border – 22,000 kilometres – and the largest number of neighbours, 14 different countries.

The hope of the author, and the Chinese regime it seems, is that China will undergo a “peaceful rise”. The example of Germany under Bismarck in the 19th century is invoked. But the rise of German imperialism, they seem to forget, brought it into conflict with British imperialism and ultimately with the US, which ended in the bloody catastrophe of the First World War. Despite the ‘smile diplomacy’ of China, and US reluctance to come into collision, particularly militarily, with the giant of the east, the possibility of future clashes is rooted in the situation. The fact that both regimes are economically dependent on each other does not mean that political and even armed clashes are completely off the agenda. Fearful of the rise of China, the US is prompting Japan to rearm itself.

China’s leaders, it seems, hope that as the country grows stronger militarily and Taiwan becomes more economically dependent on China, it will “fall into China’s lap like a ripe plum”. At the moment, they are building up their military forces, “drawing our bows without shooting and keeping the pressure on without actually fighting”. But a situation could arise where the US – which wishes to avoid this – and even Japan could be drawn into a clash. Even a “usually liberal-minded think-tanker” who spoke to Shirk threatened a reversal of China’s return to capitalism if it was frustrated over Taiwan: “We should be willing to sacrifice our foreign relations, investment, and economic growth… we could restore central planning, sell government bonds, and use the funds to create employment. It would unify society. China has robust domestic demand. It can withstand war and sanctions”.

Domestic opposition

China well understands foreign policy issues are linked at periods of high tension with domestic opposition. In 2005, the anti-Japanese demonstrations also adopted a social character. Ten thousand workers went on strike at a Japanese-owned factory in Shenzhen to demand union representation. Even the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) showed signs of restiveness: 2,000 retired military from 20 provinces staged a sit-in outside the PLA’s Beijing HQ to demand pension increases.

Even the widely popular ‘Supergirls’ television show whetted the appetite for ‘democracy’, it seems, by giving people the chance to text in a vote for their favourite performer. This “became the object of discussion by a worried Politburo Standing Committee” – bourgeois democracy entering through the portals of ‘Big Brother’ and ‘game shows’!

Clearly China is a tinderbox. What kind of spark will set it alight cannot be foreseen in advance. If the rate of growth falls below 7%, the social and economic consequences would be so great that they could trigger protests leading to an uprising. A split in the ruling group – as happened in the run-up to Tiananmen – could encourage opposition in the factories, workplaces and the streets. Foreign policy issues could be the trigger. What kind of political regime would follow the demise of the present autocratic one is not possible to accurately predict at this stage. Pro-capitalist political scientists always bemoan the lack of a ‘prosperous middle class’ in underdeveloped societies. They argue that this denotes a weak basis for bourgeois democracy. However, a considerable urban middle class has developed in China, alongside a huge, super-exploited proletariat. Which social force will predominate in the period immediately following the overthrow of the present regime is not possible to completely foretell.

It is possible that the working class – albeit enormously confused – will put its stamp on society and that its forms of organisation, independent trade unions, even committees on the lines of events from Chinese history, such as the 1925-27 revolution, could begin to be formed. In this situation, the ideas of socialism and Marxism could come to the fore. On the other hand, a period of unstable capitalist democracy is possible, with the middle class, particularly its representatives, dominating the political arena in the first instance. But this would be merely an interlude before the workers and the peasants come forward with their demands. Susan Shirk’s book provides plenty of material for further discussion on perspectives for China, and is a valuable insight into what is happening there.

China: The Fragile Superpower

By Susan L Shirk

Oxford University Press, 2007, £13.50

This article will appear in the October issue of Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party (England and Wales)

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