China: Interview with a Chinese socialist

Dean Roberts from ‘The Socialist’ newspaper in Australia visited China where he met with Li Gang who is a 25 year old white collar worker and socialist from Shanghai

Li Gang works for the state owned Chinese Railway company and is engaged in administrative duties. Below is the transcript from an interview conducted in mid December.

Dean Roberts: Can you tell me about the working conditions facing people in China?

Li Gang: “Workers in China are roughly divided into two groups. The first group is those who have been lucky enough to get into university, these people aim to get white collar jobs in state owned companies. In big cities, like Shanghai and Beijing, university graduates earn about 2000 Yuan a month ($312 Australian dollars).

“The problem is however, that many university graduates can’t get work as there are nowhere near enough jobs. Jobs in state owned companies have been slashed during recent years and in private companies the wages and conditions are much less. In state owned companies you would work from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday and receive health insurance and other benefits.

“The other group of workers is those who have missed out on a university place and people from the countryside that move to the cities to look for jobs. This group of people mainly works in factories, on building sites or in other low paid sectors like retail. Many would also work in the informal sector. The average wage for these workers is only about 1000 Yuan per month ($156 Australian dollars). They also only get about 4 rest days per month, if they are lucky, and can work up to 12 hour days!

“In private companies you don’t get health insurance, you only get a salary. You would also only get about 4 rest days off a month. A normal working day in a private company could mean you start work at 8am and you don’t finish until all of the work is done. This could mean you stay until 9pm or 10pm at night!

“People who travel from the countryside into the cities are very much discriminated against as they have fewer rights than those who were born in the cities, this because of hukou. Hukou is the permit system that defines where people can work in China. People are roughly categorised as “rural” or “urban” workers. If you are from a rural area getting a job in a state owned company is almost ruled out.”

Dean Roberts: What’s the state of the trade unions in China?

Li Gang: “In China trade union power is extremely limited to put it mildly. For example strikes are forbidden by law. Compared to most developed countries China’s labour laws are a joke.

“China’s ‘official’ trade unions are merely an arm of the state. They are a mechanism for controlling the workers, not fighting. I understand that many unions in Australia are more interested in providing cheap computers and movies tickets rather than representing workers industrially. In China this is taken to a new level. The unions here are very good at organizing trips to museums or to see the Great Wall, but would not have a clue about fighting against the super exploitation that exists.

“In my workplace the leader of the union sits in the same office as the senior manager and he is also in fact a deputy manager of the company!”

Dean Roberts: What are the broader problems facing Chinese workers?

Li Gang: “Where to start! The cost of living for ordinary people is extremely high. Housing prices are a big burden on workers as is healthcare. Trust me in China you want to make sure you don’t get sick! One visit to a hospital could cost you up to 500 Yuan ($78 Australian dollars). Then you have to pay for medicine. Corruption in the health sector is rampant. We have a situation where many doctors are getting kick backs from drug companies and therefore prescribing expensive medicines unnecessarily.

“Education in China is far from free. The fees per year in the universities can be up to 5000 Yuan ($780 Australian Dollars). When you consider the wages people are paid in China this is totally out of reach for many.

“Environmental issues are also affecting workers in China more and more directly. The pollution of the waterways and the air pollution in the major cities is getting worse. There have been many mass protests about environmental issues and this will continue.”

Dean Roberts: What led you to become a socialist?

Li Gang: “In China we learn about ‘Marxism’ and ‘socialism’ in school. The state even tells us that we have socialism in China! They only teach a version of Marxism in order to control people; as far as they are concerned Marxism is to be recited and is not a set of tools to change the world. The state is happy for us to learn the theory as long as we never put it into action!

“The government teachings are not genuine Marxism and we do not have socialism in China. With all the inequalities that exist in China no one really believes that we have genuine socialism. I personally wanted to learn about the genuine ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky in order to change the world.

“I am angry at the massive gap between rich and poor in China. The inequalities that exist would be unbelievable to many workers in the advanced world. So many people in China have no money for basic healthcare, for education or for decent housing. There clearly has to be a better way of running society. I want to fight side by side with socialists internationally for human equality all over the world.”

Dean Roberts: What types of risks do genuine socialists in China face?

Li Gang: “Being a socialist in China is a very dangerous job. We risk arrest, years in jail or even death. It is currently forbidden by law to criticise the government.

“You only have to look at the events in China during 1989 to see how the government deals with dissent. During that time they killed thousands of students, the real number will never be known. Those students were fighting against the corruption of the state and for democratic rights. Some were even fighting for genuine socialism.”

Do young people know much about the protests in 1989?

Li Gang: “No, the events in China during 1989, and in particular the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, were a major moment in world history, but the Chinese government would like to have people believe that it never happened. It is common for young people in China to be totally unaware of the protests. Finding information about the events is very difficult due to censorship, even on the internet. The whole issue is a forbidden topic by the Chinese government.

“What we think is that another situation like the events in 1989 is inevitable in the future. The lid can not be kept on this explosive situation in China for ever. The current government policies are only adding to the inequalities that exist. Tensions in society will only intensify as the world economic situation gets worse.

“The job of socialists is to take an active part in the building of a new labor movement and to argue for the ideas of genuine Marxism. When this movement develops on a larger scale the working class will once again make history in China and lay the basis for a socialist world.”

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January 2008