'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, October 22, 2006

China: End of an Era? (Conclusion) 

Fundamental socioeconomic changes, such as those currently being pursued by the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, do not happen overnight. Invariably, they emerge from years of accumulated human experience, among workers, among intellectuals, and, in the case of China, among the members of the party itself. In a late July post that predates this series, I attempted to summarize the extent of anarchic protest and violence that has swept China in recent years.

Workers, students, and poor people generally (which includes the vast majority of Chinese) have frequently responded on a mass basis to perceived official slights, broken promises of governmental assistance, favoritism towards the wealthy, intolerable working conditions and attempts to seize and dismantle whatever remains of the collective property, services and security of the iron rice bowl. Peter Kwong, in a seminal article that I mentioned here previously, has described the chaotic unrest that now engulfs China:

The Chinese public is not indifferent; demonstrations of discontent are on the rise. In 2004, the Public Security Bureau reported that the number of "mass incidents" had risen to 74,000. In 2005, the number jumped another 13 percent. "A protest begins in China every five minutes. If the protests run longer than five minutes, then there are two going on at the same time," observed David Zweig, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

As the number of protests increases, so does the intensity of violence used to suppress them. The worst occurred last December, when a special paramilitary unit of the national police force shot and killed as many as 20 protesters in the Guangdong village of Dongzhou. This is the largest known killing of unarmed civilians in China since 1989, and has been dubbed as the "Mini-Tiananmen Massacre." The protest began over the forced eviction of villagers from their land to make room for the construction of a foreign-financed wind power plant. When the villagers rejected the official offer of $3 per family in compensation, which one resident described as "not enough to buy toilet paper to wipe one's ass," they were brought face-to-face with paramilitary policemen carrying AK-47 assault rifles and flanked with tanks. According to the New York Times, the police started firing tear gas into 1,000 demonstrators around 7 p.m. When that failed to scare the people, "at about 8 p.m. they started using guns, shooting bullets into the ground, but not really targeting anybody. Finally, at about 10 p.m. they started killing people." Vicious repressions similar to this have been reported all across the country.

It can plausible be said that violent protest in China exceeds the unrest experienced in the United States, Japan and Western Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We can only hope that social historians are already out in the field, conducting investigations and interviewing participants so as to create an oral and documentary history of these momentous events. In Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of this series, I have suggested that President Hu Jintao, as he has consolidated his control over the party and the government, has abandoned over 25 years of neoliberal policy to preserve the integrity of the Chinese nation itself.

Intellectuals have also been begun to challenge the dominant economic orthodoxy. The New York Times, in a rare instance of quality journalism, presented the odyssey of one such intellectual, Wang Hui, in a lengthy, insightful article entitled, China's New Leftist. Visitors to this site are encouraged to click upon the link and take the time to read the article in its entirety. Wang participated in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and had this experience after being subsequently subjected to re-education:

In Wang's case, punishment by pedagogy seems to have been more successful than the Chinese authorities could have anticipated. He dates his "real education" to the time he spent in Shaanxi, one of the poorest regions of China. He was shocked by the obvious disparity between the coastal cities, then enjoying the first fruits of economic change, and the provinces. He was shocked, too, by his own ignorance and that of his colleagues in the 1989 social movement. "We had no idea that the old order in much of rural China was in deep crisis," he said.

The commune system in Shaanxi was dismantled as part of Deng Xiaoping's reforms, and land was redistributed. But the area produced nothing of much value, not even enough food. Deepening poverty led to a sharp increase in crime and social problems; violent conflicts broke out over land; men took to gambling, beating up and selling their wives and daughters.

"It was during that year," Wang said, "that I realized how important a welfare system and cooperative network remained for many people in China. This is not a socialist idea. Even the imperial dynasties that ruled China kept a balance between rich and poor areas through taxes and almsgiving.

"People confine China's experience to the Communist dictatorship and failures of the planned economy and think that the market will now do everything. They don't see how many things in the past worked and were popular with ordinary people, like cooperative medical insurance in rural areas, where people organized themselves to help each other. That might be useful today, since the state doesn't invest in health care in rural areas anymore."

Wang acknowledged that there was initially strong support for Deng Xiaoping's market-oriented policies, but, with the passage of time, intellectuals reconsidered:

Only in the last decade, Wang said, have intellectuals of the New Left begun to challenge the notion that a market economy leads inevitably to democracy and prosperity. China's intention to join the World Trade Organization (which it did in 2001) provoked unexpectedly sharp debates among scholars. As Wang described it, the terms of the debate had changed: "Many people knew by then that globalization is not a neutral word describing a natural process. It is part of the growth of Western capitalism, from the days of colonialism and imperialism."

Which is not to say the New Left embraced an easy antiglobalist position; it has been critical of recent anti-Japanese and anti-American outbursts among urban, middle-class Chinese - of what Wang dubbed "consumer nationalism."

Wang added: "Many people also learned that the reason the Chinese economy did not collapse like the Asian tiger economies in 1997 was that the national state was able to protect it. Now, of course, China with its export-dominated economy is more dependent on the Western world order, especially the American economy, than India."

In January of this year, Wang published a long investigative article exposing the plight of workers in a factory in his hometown, Yangzhou, a city of about one million. According to Wang, in 2004 the local government sold the profitable state-owned textile factory to a real estate developer from Shenzhen. Worker-equity shares were bought for 30 percent of their actual value, and then more than a thousand workers were laid off after mismanagement of the factory led to losses.

In July 2004, the workers went on strike. In what Wang calls an agitation without precedent in the history of Yangzhou, the workers obstructed a major highway, halted bus traffic and attacked the gates of local government buildings.

Wang told me that he was helping the workers to sue the local government. "People claim," he said, "that the market will automatically force the state to become more democratic. But this is baseless. We only have to think about the alliance of elites formed in the process of privatization. The state will change only when it is under pressure from a large social force, like the workers and peasants."

Has the state already commenced to implement changes, or are they merely cosmetic, or, even worse, an attempt to reimpose autocratic methods of social control in the guise of social welfare? Time will tell, of course, but, as I have already said, effective implementation of the last alternative appears unlikely, given the withering away of community oversight of personal behaviour and the enforceability of restrictions upon travel, employment and residency.

By conventional accounts, President Hu is a traditional reformist Chinese Communist leader, supporting policies that would improve the lives of his impoverished people, achieve greater transparency in governmental activities, while retaining the party's monopoly on power. He has reportedly called Gorbachev a betrayer of socialism, and has aggressively suppressed political dissent.

But does Hu believe that he can accomplish his goals by recourse to the tried, true, and consistently flawed methods of the state security forces, the party apparat and popular sentiment, as filtered through state controlled media? Mao manipulated these levers, and incited the masses by urging them to attain impossible, utopian dreams, leading to the catastrophic excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Deng had a gentler touch, and released the entrepreneurial energies of the elite, but left most people defensiveless in the face of a sinister, covert network of developers, business owners, investors and Marxist-Leninist bureaucrats.

Now, Hu is moving to shatter it, recognizing that it has substituted itself for the rule of the party and the state, but what will replace it? Hu maligns Gorbachev, but he must be aware that when Gorbachev dismantled state socialism, he also destroyed the legitimacy of the military and security services and, hence, the institutions that protected the party from the hurricane of popular discontent.

If Hu moderates his social welfare and anti-corruption efforts, there is the peril that it will fail, engendering more public dissatisfaction, and, potentially, even more violent unrest. If he presses ahead with a firm resolve, there is the possibility, as with Gorbachev, that the remaining authority of the party will dissolve.

Wang Hui hints at a path to a solution, the creation of a social system based upon the more benevolent aspects of Chinese history: Even the imperial dynasties that ruled China kept a balance between rich and poor areas through taxes and almsgiving. Most leaders understand that radical political change is facilitated by inscribing it within their country's history and culture. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has gone much further than Hu, but it is no accident that he has identified Simon Bolivar as the touchstone for his political movement.

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