Interview: Minority Report
Industrial: Girl Power
Unions: Made in NZ
History: Spirit for a Fair Go
Economics: Fool's Gold
Politics: Worth Fighting For
Health: The Force Behind Medibank
Legal: Robust Justice
International: After the Revolution
Poetry: The Sound of Unions
Review: Bad Santa
The Locker Room
Not A Casey Fan
After the Revolution
China is again moving to the centre of world history. The command market - what Chinese authorities call 'market socialism' - has unleashed forces of production of unprecedented power. Over the last twenty years many of the cities of Eastern China have undergone an astounding transformation. Elite assertions of economic success, of China entering the 'information economy' are laced with more than a touch of triumphalism. The legendary Yangtse, says one of China's sociologists, is flowing from tribal to peasant to industrial and now to information society. From its upper reaches to its Shanghai delta, the river is a metaphor for the developmental transformation of the world's most populous country. The flow, though, is not so smooth, and is less and less predictable.
A special issue of Asian Exchange, the journal of the 'Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives', China Reflected, offers a series of important perspectives on the dynamics of transformation. The last twenty years has seen a frenzied embrace of state-directed marketisation. Rural society is now founded on peasant householders, who farm individual plots for subsistence and cash crops. As agricultural productivity has increased, rural incomes have slumped. With falling commodity prices the eight hundred million people who live on the land - two thirds of the country's population - have seen their household income fall from one half to one third of their urban counterparts.
With the new market era there are added pressures. Intensified farming has threatened eco-sustainability. Peasants face new threats to their existence with the encroachment of suburbs, industrial infrastructures and pollutants on limited lands. Lacking security of tenure, peasants are routinely displaced from lands sold to private developers by local authorities. Commodity prices, meanwhile, are likely to remain depressed: the government now imports about five percent of grain needs, and this is expected to rise. The advent of WTO membership poses the threat of yet cheaper agricultural imports. As the sociologist Huang Ping notes in China Reflected, with the rural-urban divide is back to 1970s proportions, 'having more crops is not a fortunate thing'.
Market crisis produces fiscal crisis. Cities and towns beyond the centres of industrial muscle are becoming bankrupted, unable to renew local infrastructure and service provision. Education, in particular, has imploded, with rising fees and falling government expenditures: local governments have established educational charities to deliver for those unable to pay. Concerns at the long-term consequences of agrarian dislocation have escalated, with incentives to stimulate rural production and a series of government studies of food insecurity. Yet the official rhetoric - painted on the roadsides in rural towns remains the same - 'development is the first priority'.
Peasant society is the hinterland for the urban miracle. By 2000 eighty million migrant workers had flocked to the urban construction sites. Low-rise residential districts, that used to sprawl across China's urban spaces are demolished, replaced by system-built blocks of flats. With more than 2,000 tower blocks constructed each year, China is now said to be consuming fifty percent of the world's cement. The high-rise urban aesthetic, so much in evident in Hong Kong, the former colony that now inhabits China, is ubiquitous. Driving the highway from one end of Beijing to the other you pass countless fields of tower blocks.
The migrant worker mixes and lays the cement for the urban 'miracle'. Workers with no rights to residency status in the cities live for years in urban hostels. Mostly men, they are seen carrying all they need for the year, returning briefly for family and village festivities. The migrant worker faces non-existent health insurance and unsubsidised healthcare, and continuous trouble with keeping work and getting paid. Yet the status of migrants is now not so very different from established urban-based workers. Once privileged with subsidised services, urban workers face ever-higher fees for education, healthcare, transport and housing, whilst simultaneously urban work has become increasingly precarious.
These armies of labour - a third of the world's workforce of 2.8 billion - are confronted by the market. Their peasant counterparts are increasingly caught in the same flux of marketisation, suffering a new marginality. The ruling cadres - a hugely enriched strata of party bosses, managers and industrialists - have relied for their legitimacy on the mass rejection of statist collectivism. Yet the enchantment of market values is waning. Authoritarian control no longer has the silver lining of promised enrichment. The corruption of semi-privatisation, where elites have entrenched oligarchic control over 'State-owned enterprises', offers a new focus for discontent. Disenchantment sharpens the command market contradictions, stretching and straining the confines of the all-encompassing party-state.
Yet the market rationale maintains its logic, with Government officials seriously considering wholesale land privatisation. The household contract system created in the 1980s, and proliferating village sharecropping enterprises, are seen as pre-figuring further commercialisation and concentration of land holdings, displacing a 'surplus' rural population of perhaps four hundred million people, doubling the urban population. The upheaval is unimaginable. But the only alternative for the marketeers is more of the same - an ever-larger 'floating' population of contract labourers, living a double existence between country and city.
The problem of rural development again lies at the heart of China's future. The authors of China Reflected suggest we are forced to question the current market development model. A central concern is environmental sustainability. There is no evidence that the current model in any way protects the environment - despite there being the means available to address it. On a global scale, it is centrally important how China responds to tensions between 'humanity and nature', by altering its development path. Yet, even while it becomes ever more contradictory, the urban-centred consumer boom remains uppermost.
The village-level dynamics are instructive. Wang Xiaoyi's longitudinal analysis of village cultures finds a dramatic escalation in state control coinciding with marketisation: village cadres acquire new and more intrusive roles in the process of marshalling resources and labours for the market. Villagers are 'placed under more and more state influence', with more aspects of their lives dependent upon intermediation by cadres: 'peasants can no longer live their lives far away from the state'. Ironically, marketisation strengthens the role of cadres, removing sources of social autonomy.
The other side of the coin is a wave of consumerism, that, as Chen Xin outlines, 'took on the nature of national ideology' in the late1990s. Hand-in-hand with failing education and health in the country, a wave of consumerist excess, of conspicuous consumption, emerged in the cities, driven by policies to buoy-up the economy in the face of the East Asian financial crisis. Underpinning this was a financial system that channelled credit to the cities. As Wen Teijun notes, even the 'rural cooperative fund', a national savings and investment sceme for farm collectives and individual peasants, was commercialised in the early 1990's 'to bypass agriculture'. As central government also withdrew agrarian funds, favouring the cities, indebted local authorities raised taxes and charges, further weakening the peasant economy.
The consequences of an urban-rural disconnect are manifold. Yang Peng argues for a 'backflow of social wealth, letting capital, knowledge and power flow back from the pinnacle of the pyramid'. Without it, 'the locomotive of the Chinese urban economy will gradually disconnect from the long rural carriages behind it', with widespread and deepening instability.
Those already marginalised are further stigmatised, displacing class discontent. As Dai Jinhua highlights, women are the immediate target. Deterioration in job security and working conditions for the urban population is blamed on the participation of women in the workforce. Working women are argued to both undermine the family and increase (male) unemployment: they are xia gang nu gong, 'women who leave their posts' (in the household). Against this background, women have become first-in-line for redundancies in state-owned enterprises. With a dramatic domestication of female labour, the figure of the 'full-time housewife' has returned. As autonomous urban middle class women engage the commercial world, lower class women are forced into informal commerce, a parallel world of hyper-insecurity and exploitation. Debates about the real cause of deteriorating urban conditions are displaced, and a new gender order, a new patriarchy, is secured.
Hanging over the emergence of China's dual society is the prospect of more of the same: China, like many Southern countries appears in a state of permanent transition. In the first instance are questions of which model of distribution will emerge - a Chinese model perhaps, and if so, what would this look like? Wholesale deregulation of a state communist society on the Russian model, is clearly not an option. Mainstream debate then centres between the American market economy and European-style 'third way'.
But beyond this is perhaps the more profound question of whether more prosperity is in any way an answer to the current malaise. Chen Xin poses the question of whether the end-point is in fact so much to be desired: a Chinese national 'cake' on a US or European scale is clearly unsustainable. He asks whether 'China can bear the cost of [the] developed nations' development model'. A certain mass faith - in markets and in technology - is required to defer serious consideration of these issues. This myth of 'transition' is deliberately disseminated and inculcated by the Government - a consumerist developmentalism that envelopes any contradictions with the rhetoric of transition and self-transformation. We are all entrepreneurs now: in the meanwhile, the elites prosper.
Dai Jinhua argues the ideological contradictions are critical. The Government stands in 'profound and acute conflict with the ideology of classical socialism': the displacement of blame is an absolute priority. It obscures the deliberate pomotion of 'class differentiation', harnessing a compliant consumerist mass media. The causes of the current malaise are located in 'civil society', in personal or cultural problems of adjustment. The responsibility of all is to respond to the market: there are no victims, only inflexibilities.
The legacy and legitimacy of revolutionary socialism is claimed by very authorities instituting class society. The key question is how may the legacy of revolutionary socialism can be transformed into a weapon of mobilisation, reinstating subordinated classes as agents in their own destiny. How, as Dai Jinhua puts is, can we move from a 'loss of words' to effectively 'avenge' the legacies? How can the betrayal of revolutionary socialism be exposed, enabling it again to become the 'weapon of rebellion...for the lower class people who have been sacrificed'?
Something of an answer is emerging amongst Chinese progressive and revolutionary thinkers, and their intersections with those suffering under the command market. The democracy movement of the late1980s profoundly challenged the onward march of the market and of state power: the people that took to the streets in Beijing in June 1989 expressed China's revolutionary impulse, a profound aspiration to a different order. Such an impulse remain in place, albeit obscured. Recent mobilisations on the 1 July 'hand-back' public holiday in Hong Kong give some indication of that may be in the offing. Here, Hong Kong's young people have reclaimed the day as an assertion of civil and democratic rights. Half a million people marched this year and last, drawn together by SMS messages and emails, marching all day in intense humidity and heat in a profound expression of Hong Kongese identity.
In Hong Kong the political mobilisation is juxtaposed with official celebrations of the hand-back. A voiceover at the harbourside lightshow - the Tourist Commission's 'Symphony of Light' - praises the 'dynamism, technology and strength' of Hong Kong, a 'stable resilient society' within China's 'one country, two systems'. The Commission insists 'the future is Hong Kong, lighting the way ahead'. Protest organisers are careful not to make demands for mainland China - the other 'system' - but the demonstration effect is obvious. If China's enclave of market capitalism is capable of such mobilisations, questions must be asked about what may surface across the rest of the country amid the sharpening contradictions of the command market.
Party officials, academics, intellectuals and activists from non-government organisations continue to meet in Beijing, to debate the problems of 'market socialism', and the future for Chinese Marxism. Some indication of the possibilities can be found at on-going discussions hosted by the group of writers responsible for China Reflected. While not invoking revolutionary traditions, the group is exploring the trajectories of a new leftism, where the assertion of change with 'Chinese characteristics' offers the possibility of new models of emancipation. Since 1989 the 'common sense' of market liberalism has become China's dominant political orthodoxy, in combination with statism, what Wang Hui defines as the 'special character of Chinese liberalism'. Increased disenchantment with the this model, with the market as well as the state, is played out in forums like China Reflected, forcing new questions onto the agenda.
The revolutionary tradition of China hangs heavy in such debates. There has been, as Dai Jinhua notes, 'some kind of conventional taboo' against revolutionary narratives or class analysis. The market orthodoxy pronounces a break with the past - revolution has no place. Critiques are still dismissed as nostalgic throw-backs to the cultural revolution. Critics of marketisation question the silences on China's revolutionary heritage. Why must slices of Chinese life be consigned to the historical dustbin? What really happened in 1989, and earlier, in the cultural revolution?
There is an imperative to seek today's inspirations within China's historical experience, within today's social memory. An example is Wang Hui's challenge to rethink the social mobilisation of the late 1980's: its 'deep socialist leanings... not the 'socialism' of the old state ideology, characterised by the system of state monopoly, but a new and not fully articulated socialism striving for social security, equality, justice and democracy in the context of continuing state monopoly and rapid market expansion.' Anti-corruption, in the context of state-managed marketisation, was a key demand, framed as a demand for 'impartial and fair distribution of social benefits'. Crushing the democracy movement enabled a more effective distribution of the spoils of marketisation amongst the elites, a process in tune with global dispensations.
The 1989 uprising, then should be placed, Wang Hui argues, with the wave of mobilisations against corporate liberalism that broke out ten years later in the West, for instance in Seattle in 1999. It was a protest, he says, at the new market hegemony - what he calls 'authoritarian marketisation' - as much as at the old orthodoxy. If so, it was certainly the largest of these mobilisations - with millions of Beijing residents holding back the tanks from advancing on the city, delaying the 'incident' for two weeks.
Such reassessments are finding a social resonance. One example is the effort of some intellectuals and peasant representatives at reviving the tradition of 'rural reconstruction'. Basing itself as an Institute of Rural Reconstruction, a legacy of the 1920's that had fallen into disuse and disrepair, the initiative is aimed at developing alternatives to the currently unsustainable models of Chinese rural life. Week-long workshops are attended by peasant leaders, from the party-state, from elected local authorities, and from the non-government sector. They come from across China to share perspectives and priorities, and to debate with writers, researchers and rural organisers about the political dynamics of 'market socialism'. The initiative is macro in scope and micro in process: major questions are broached, of the class dynamics of marketisation, of the prospects for cooperative farming, of ecological sustainability. Micro alternatives, from seed-saving in the Philippines, to anti-dam movements in Taiwan, to Mexican indigenous cultural assertion, are floated. The spirit is internationalist, grounded in the Chinese provincial experience.
From these various dimensions, China's discourses of revolutionary socialism are under reformation. The new subordinated classes of the country's 'command market' - the urban and migrant workers, displaced and informalised women workers, the impoverished peasantry and dislocated semi-rural bourgeousie - may be in the process of acting for themselves, as a new counter-bloc. Social forces appear at a crucial juncture: a marginalised peasantry with a powerful claim to legitimacy; a strong and increasingly unified urban working class; a weak and corrupted urban bourgeoisie; a party-state elite increasingly unable to contain internal tensions. Contending forces meet in the midst of a society that has been emptied inside-out, enriching a weakly-legitimated minority, vulnerable to challenge. The time is ripe. World history is in the making.
James Goodman is an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney
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