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

Monday, July 17, 2006

High-Tech Feudalism with Chinese Characteristics 

UPDATE 2: For a fascinating series of photographs that brings out the dignity of Chinese industrial workers, check out the work of Zhouhai at his site entitled, The Unbearable Heaviness of Industry.

UPDATE 1: If you would like to hear Professor Kwong, referenced in this post, speak at length about current social conditions in China, you can hear an interview of him by myself and my co-host, Ron Glick, on KDVS 90.3 FM Davis by clicking here. The format is MP3 and the interview will only be available until this Friday, July 21st at 5:00 p.m.

INITIAL POST: Every day, every hour, it continues, regardless of airstrikes in Lebanon, missile attacks in Haifa or electoral protest marches in Mexico. The industrial colossus of the world, southern China, disgorges goods of every kind for shipment all over the world, many of them technologically sophisticated. As Isabel Hilton described it in a seminal article in the Spring 2005 issue of Granta, entitled Made in China:

Today, Shenzhen, a city of nearly five million people, sits at the border. The hinterland behind Shenzhen, the Pearl River Delta, is the heart of the fastest growing industrial zone in the world, the Chinese province of Guangdong. This is the landscape that produces two-thirds of the world's photocopiers, microwave ovens, DVD players and shoes, more than half of the world's digital cameras and two-fifths of its personal computers. Guangdong's business is to make things. It sucks manufacturing from Europe and North America and other economies with high wage rates, cheapens it, increases it, then ships it by container to overseas markets. The factories here bear no relationship to the ones that I knew thirty years ago in Shanghai. It is as different as Manchester in the 1840s was from rural England in the eighteenth century and to come here is to feel a little of what Friedrich Engels felt when he set out to describe Manchester, the world's first uncompromisingly industrial city. Here, too, the visitor marvels at the industrial energy and is appalled by the degrading conditions in which the workers live. "In this place," as Engels put it, "the social war, the war of each against all, is here openly declared."

Hilton describes the creation of this Hobbesian world through the allegorical, real-life story of someone she describes as "Mr. Wu":

. . . . But, back in 1989, Shenzhen was still an awkward, half-formed city where fields were still visible from the new buildings. The paved roads ended abruptly at the edge of town. "I wasn't that impressed," Wu said, "Back then, it wasn't as developed as now. The houses weren't that different from where I had come from. There were still fields, still farms." Getting a job proved simple. After a couple of nights in his little brother's factory dormitory, Wu was paid a deposit of thirty yuan, lent to him by his brother, to the Lucky Gem Factory and was taken on. A factory ID came with it so he could move about without fear of arrest.

The factor was in Bailijun Village in Pinfu County, near Shenzhen. It's Hong Kong owner had moved his business here in 1984, but it was still a relatively makeshit affair. He employed around 200 workers to turn out semi-precious jewelry for the lower end of the international market. There were local regulations, including health and safety laws, but no one bothered to enforce them. The boss was often around on the factory floor. "He didn't even have a car in those days," Wu said, "By 1993, he had four--one of them was a Mercedes Benz."

Even so, things went well for Wu and his co-workers, until they were victimized by the consequences of being habitually exposed to the metal particulates generated by jewelry production:

The men who crowded Wu's room no longer worked for Lucky Gem. Wu pointed to a small man who, like the others, had slipped off his sandals at the door and who was now sitting barefoot on the concrete floor, leaning against a wall, his legs stretched out in front of him. His face was pale. Liu Huaquan, Wu said, was the first to fall ill. Liu acknowledged Wu's introduction with a smile--a perverse pride in being the first one afflicted. It was 1999 when his symptoms--breathlessness and coughing--first appeared. They were diagnosed as tuberculosis and for two and half years, he paid 300 yuan--nearly half his wages--for treatment. But his health continued to worsen and when he finally sought a second opinion at the Guangzhou Occupational Diseases Center, he was told he had silicosis.

"I had never heard of it," Liu said,"They said it was an occupational disease and I shouldn't work anymore. They said I should get compensation from the factory. I wanted to work. I still do. I have a wife and two children. But now they ask you for a health certificate and I can't get a job anywhere." His weight had dropped from 121 pounds to ninety and he could barely climb the stairs. Silicosis is incurable, but the right treatment can slow the disease's progression. Liu had received some compensation from a social insurance fund but he could not spend the money on treatment that might slow his decline because he fears that his wife and children would be left destitute.

45 Lucky Gem workers, including Mr. Wu, have been diagnosed with the disease.

By now, most people are familiar with the general outline of the purported Chinese economic miracle, the arrest of the Gang of Four after Mao's death in 1976, the emergence of Deng Xiaoping in a leadership role and his decision to create socialism with Chinese characteristics", or, more simply, a socialist market economy, encapsulated in the slogan, let some get rich first, so others can get rich later.

Mr. Wu and his co-workers are one of the consequences of this failed policy. Some have gotten rich, and remain so, but many, many others have not. But there is more to this outline than what one can readily find at wikipedia. Peter Kwong, a professor at Hunter College at the City University of New York, described his unique personal experience in a recent Counterpunch newsletter article:

In 1980, I was a visiting professor at the People's University in Beijing, which was at the time the elite party cadre training school. In October of that year, the chair of the Scientific Socialism Department informed me that I was given the unique honor, as a China-born foreign expert teaching social sciences, to attend a lecture at at the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference that was to be given by the Nobel Laureate and America's best selling author of Free to Choose, Milton Friedman. When I arrived at the majestic conference hall, Friedman was already seated at the dais, flanked by top Communist Party officials and ministerial-level officials.

China then proceeded, over the course of the next decade, to implement policies consistent with Friedman's advice to cut taxes, curtail government regulation and reduce labor costs, or, to be more precise, it did so in relation to policies that had historically benefitted workers and peasants, as Chile under Pinochet had also done. The iron rice bowl for workers was shattered, given artistic expression in Wang Bing's monumental documentary, Tie Xu Qu, or West of the Tracks, and peasants were forced from the land to create an enormous cheap labor force for manufacturing and construction.

Kwong walks us through the rest of the tawdry tale, thousands of deaths per year from gas explosions, mine cave-ins and flooding as a result of the failure to enforce labor laws, the creation of a wealthy elite that derives its privileges from its familial relations with senior government and Party officials and the endemic corruption that enrages peasants and workers. He observes:

To call this "socialism with Chinese characteristics" is a joke. Even capitalism is not the appropriate term. A Chinese sociologist has defined it as high tech feudalism with Chinese characteristics.

Not surprisingly, people angrily respond to such conditions. According to Kwong, and confirmed by numerous other media sources, the number of protests is increasing, with intensifying violence associated with both the protests and their suppression. Consider this extraordinary account of a riot in Wangzhou, a city in Sichuan province, in October 2004:

On October 18, the brutal assault of a worker by a government official sparked a riot in Wangzhou, a city in the southwestern province of Sichuan. According to some estimates, up to 80,000 workers and unemployed were involved in a night of clashes and confrontations with thousands of police. Paramilitary units were eventually called in from neighbouring cities to restore order.

The incident that provoked the unrest is a graphic example of the contempt China’s state bureaucracy and capitalist elite has for the working class—especially the millions of so-called migrant workers who have moved from the countryside to the cities in search of jobs.

According to accounts on the Internet, a worker, weighed down with a load of goods across his back, accidentally bumped into the wife of a local taxation bureau director. As he attempted to apologise, the official knocked him to the ground. In front of dozens of stunned onlookers, the official beat the man with a pole, breaking his leg. With the worker lying in agony, the official then proceeded to boast to the crowd that he could have him killed if he wanted. At one point, he offered spectators 20 yuan if they would slap the injured man’s face.

Police, who arrived as the assault was unfolding, shook hands with the official and made clear he would not be arrested. Outraged workers attempted to detain the bureaucrat but he was secreted away by the police.

News of the incident spread quickly throughout the city’s working class districts. By late afternoon, tens of thousands of local residents had rallied outside the Wangzhou city government offices, chanting “hand over the attackers”, “punish the attackers” and “for justice of the injured”.

Workers pelted the riot police protecting the building with rocks and smashed the glass entrance. Police cars were set ablaze. According to the Asia Times: “The character of the demonstration changed from a fight for justice to the expression of anger to the government.” As night fell, thousands of police and paramilitary personnel were deployed to restore order, firing tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstration. Street battles continued until midnight.

The Chinese government attempted to downplay the incident, telling the media that a “misunderstanding” had caused the revolt and that the disturbances only involved “a few illegal elements”.

This incident, as do many others, such as, for example, recent large protests involving students, reveal the depth of anger among much of the populace. Just this week, we learned that even the response to a car accident can spiral out of control:

Social tensions in China are taking on an increasingly explosive form. A riot by 10,000 people triggered by a car accident in the city of Chizhou in Anhui province is the latest case to be reported. Around 3 p.m. on June 26, a Toyota sedan hit a teenage student as he was riding a bike. As the student and driver began to argue, three men emerged from the car and along with the driver began to beat up the student.

A group of taxi drivers tried to help the injured student, insisting on compensation from the driver, who is the owner of a local private hospital. In response, the driver ordered his thugs to attack the taxi drivers with knives. He openly boasted that, even if someone was killed, he would get away with the crime by paying a bribe of 300,000 yuan ($US36,000).

Police arrived on the scene but only escorted the driver and his thugs away. Onlookers were left stunned and angry. Many were outraged at the arrogance of the driver and the indifference of the police to ordinary working people. The incident reinforced their daily experience of the contempt of the newly rich and officialdom towards the lives of the poor.

Word of the incident soon spread to the working class suburbs of the city and by 6 p.m. thousands of people surrounded the local police station. They demanded the police hand over the driver and his thugs, who at that stage had not been charged with any offence, and then flipped over, smashed and torched the Toyota sedan and three police cars.

Firefighters who arrived on the scene quickly fled when confronted by the angry crowd. Police stepped in but were beaten back by the protesters hurling rocks and firecrackers. Power was cut off to the police station, windows broken and firecrackers were thrown inside. The protesters looted a nearby supermarket, partly owned by the Toyota driver. Around midnight, the provincial police chief arrived along with 700 paramilitary police officers in full riot gear and dispersed the protest.

There is an independent trade union movement that is attempting to provide the means for workers to improve their conditions of employment, involving people like Han Dongfang, a prominent participant in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, known for his efforts then and now to organize workers, as he relates in this engrossing New Left Review interview.

One wonders, however, whether the time for a peaceful evolution has passed, given the intransigence of the regime, the support of international finance capital and the general disinterest of social justice groups in the US. With the exception of the colonial period, China has frequently made its own history, often in a turbulent way, as shown in the 20th Century through the Boxer Rebellion, the May 4th movement, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Some China scholars contend that there is a stubborn tendency towards utopianism in Chinese society that leads to an excessive embrace of new ideas and policies, to the extent that they are adopted ruthlessly and uncritically, only to be abandoned in equally ruthless fashion. Deng's departure from Maoism promised a break with this practice, as did his unceremonial funeral, but his naive enthusiasm for an unfettered crony capitalism in his later years may ultimately be recognized as a poisonous weed that facilitated its return.

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