[Book] China: From Permanent Revolution to Counter-Revolution

Workers in Struggle

17.1 Introduction

The new working class in China has had to struggle against both capital and state every step of the way from its very inception. It struggles against the state in the form of the ACFTU and the police, both of whom actively support the employers and strike break. Migrant workers also struggle against the state for the democratic right to settle in industrial cities and towns of their choice. In respect of their struggle against capital, these predominantly women workers must look for ways of organising outside the official trade unions but also in ways that also counteracted the discipline of the dormitory-labour regime.[1]

Chinese workers increasingly self-organise within their individual workplaces to press for higher wages, on-time payment of wages and social security benefits. It is claimed that, in Guangdong alone, there is now at least one strike a day involving over 1,000 workers, with many smaller strikes occurring. So far, these individual strikes have not coalesced into a broader, co-ordinated movement, which would, almost certainly, incur a speedy government crackdown.

17.2 Recent Workers Struggles

One of the great strengths of the workers in factories feeding multi-national enterprises was demonstrated on 17 May 2010 when Tan Guocheng (a second generation migrant worker) pressed the emergency stop button on his assembly line at the Honda transmission factory in Foshan, and exhorted 1,900 of his co-workers mostly in their late teens and early twenties to follow him on a strike for a doubling of the basic rate. The managers, moved quickly and promised to meet the workers’ demands but immediately fired Guocheng and another leader. The workers’ response was to shut down the plant in a strike that lasted two weeks, this time taking care not to identify their leaders.[2,3]

Local government, the ACFTU, and the employers combined to bring the strike to an end. Representatives from the local technical schools were brought in to threaten trainees that they would not get their diplomas if they continued the strike. The ACFTU trucked in a gang of about 100 thugs (in yellow ACFTU caps) to bully the workers back to work, but the sight of their fellow workers being beaten to the ground made other groups of workers in the plant threaten to stop work and the thugs were withdrawn.

Appreciating that solidarity is the great strength of striking workers, the ACFTU and the management met each worker separately in a joint effort break the strike. The company promised they would not retaliate or dismiss any worker and would give a substantial pay increase, but whilst a few workers capitulated, the great majority said no.[4]

Honda, like most multinationals relies on a long and complex supply chain and in two weeks, the strike at the Foshan transmission plant had paralysed Honda’s operations in the whole of China. Finally, Honda offered pay rises of between 30% and 50% and added a housing subsidy of 50 yuan per month. This split the strikers who returned to work on 31 May, but it was not a complete victory, as the two sacked leaders were not reinstated.

The Honda strike was not an isolated incident. There had been a significant level of industrial strife in China over the preceding period, the most violent being two major incidents at SOEs about to be privatised. In the second week of August 2009, thousands of workers organised a protest successfully opposing privatisation of the state-owned Linzhou Steel Corporation, in Anyang City, Henan province. This action involved the workers kidnapping the state official sent to oversee the takeover. Many of these workers were to lose their jobs, but all were to lose their pensions, medical care and housing allowances. Fengbao Iron and Steel, the private group to which Linzhou Steel was going to be sold at less than half its estimated value is owned by Li Guangyuan, who started his business empire by taking over a TVE using his position as village Party secretary to secure a good deal.[5] Protests were all the more forceful because Fengbao has a poor record of social insurance payments, unpaid wages and the illegal seizure of farmland.[6]

Around the same time there was a serious strike and riots at the state-owned Tonghua Iron & Steel Corporation, in Jilin province. The Corporation was to be sold to a private company, the Beijing-based Jianlong Heavy Machinery Group, and the workforce reduced from about 30,000 to approximately 5,000. With this announcement, a spontaneous stoppage of work and a mass demonstration including local residents and workers from other plants occurred. The local authorities responded by mobilising thousands of police who engaged in street battles to break up the protest, during which the new general manager appointed by Jianlong, Chen Guojon, was killed. The regional government was forced to cancel the privatisation of the company and bring it back under state ownership.[7]

Irrespective of China’s heavy censorship of Facebook, Twitter, and the internet generally, word of such events circulates and one incident will influence and even spark another.[8] During April and May 2014, thanks to chatrooms, blogging and text messages, a strike of previously unknown magnitude and length broke out in six factories in Dongguang owned by the Taiwanese multinational Yue Yuen. On 14 April as many as 48,000 workers downed tools over severance pay, wage arrears and non-payment of medical insurance, pension contributions, injury compensation, housing allowance, and other so-called fringe benefits. The public activities of both strikers and the police were immediately reported on the internet for all to see.

In terms of the new capitalist China this was an historic event. Police were called in to break the strike and the internet carried videos of strikers being beaten. Almost immediately, pickets were thrown up around stores selling Yue Yuen products (such as Adidas, Nike, and Timberland) in Los Angeles, Manchester, Melbourne, New York, Oxford, San Francisco and Taiwan.[9] The outcry had an effect and in an unprecedented step the government ordered the factory to increase wages and pay its social security contributions. Simultaneously two independent militants, Zhang Zhiru and Lin Dong, arrested and held in jail for two days for assisting the strikers, were released.

Public sympathy and media attention have also made the authorities less quick to arrest and haul workers away.[10] Some companies, such as Honda, have international reputations to protect and their sales would suffer if they were seen to endorse the use of force to repress striking workers, especially where those strikers are women.

Unofficial strikes (those not organised by or approved by the ACFTU) have hit a number of multinational firms in the manufacturing sector, from Foxconn to IBM, Honda, Cooper Tire and Rubber, Walmart, and Microsoft. According to the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin,[11] the number of “collective actions” from July to September 2014 was nearly double compared with the same period the previous year and in the first quarter of 2105 the figures for strikes rose by another 15%. Importantly, “collective actions” are spreading beyond China’s manufacturing centre of Guangdong, where the number of strikes has remained more or less constant, to inland China and major cities such as Wuhan and Chengdu. These movements are an important indication of what is to come.[12]

Mining is another industry where the regime has destroyed any basis of support amongst the workers. Coal supplies almost three-quarters China’s energy needs and the coal industry was one of the first to be privatised when, at the end of the last century, the central government closed down or contracted out to private entrepreneurs most small and middle-sized state-owned coal mines. Soon after, many large-scale state-owned mines were also contracted out to private operators.

For decades the leaders of China have pleaded with China’s coal miners to increase production as a service to the country, This culminated in 2008 with President Hu Jintao’s visit to the coal fields of Datong in Shanxi Province, the heart of China’s coal country, where he pleaded with miners to ensure essential supplies to guarantee the steady and rapid development of the economy. At the time energy shortages and rising coal prices made coal mining very lucrative. The apparently insatiable demand for coal in China attracted unscrupulous business people eager for profit and unconcerned with the lives of others, so that mine outputs greatly exceeding safe production levels.[13]

The workers and the ACFTU responded with enthusiasm, and in a spirit of co-operation agreed to accept the government line that privatisation would increase production. The new operators and subcontractors were allowed to hire inexperienced rural migrants to work in the mines. The result was an increase in production and profitability, but a simultaneous drop in wage rates and a catastrophic collapse in safety standards. According to government figures over 50,000 miners have died in accidents since the turn of the century, peaking at 7,000 in 2002. These are the reported data, the real figures are much higher. Local authorities conceal accidents or under-report fatalities to the higher authorities, especially in cases of accidents involving fewer than 10 deaths when mine operators have been known to move the corpses to other locations and pay the victims’ families compensation if they promise to keep quiet.

The government’s mine privatisation programme and its licensing and approval procedures are an open invitation to corruption. Collusion between mine owners, operators and local government officials to cover up accidents and evade punishment is now widespread and blatant, so that mine operators brazenly flout of the law. Li Tieying, Vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), acknowledged that: “…corruption was behind almost every accident that caused exceptional loss of life.” Under the present system the safety interests of miners are either ignored or openly violated. Militants are already arguing that the only effective way to protect the lives and rights of miners is to develop democratically elected and truly representative workers’ organisations that can stand up to the currently overwhelming power of management and safeguard working conditions at the coalface.

However, the coal industry has been hard hit by the slowdown in China’s industrial expansion, output dropped by nearly 5% in the first three months of 2015 alone, with many companies now posting losses rather than profits. The consequences for coal-face miners followed the now established pattern of non-payment of wages, wage cuts, unpaid wage arrears, lay-offs, failure to make the statutory compensation payments, etc.[14]

Workers from China’s coal mines are doubly angry; at being fooled by the government, and having to shoulder the results of the economic slowdown. There have been protest strikes and mass demonstrations, but the industry continues to contract because the cause is overproduction on an international scale, with a consequent drop in the price of coal. Redcar lost its steel plant and some 2,500 jobs, but the Longmei Group, a state-owned Chinese coal company in north-eastern China’s Heilongjiang province, announced in April 2015 it would lay-off half its workforce of 240,000, the single biggest job cut in China for years. Immediately several thousand protesting coal miners took to the streets in the city of Qitaihe. Scuffles with the police broke out when workers refused to disperse. The protest reportedly continued sporadically for at least one week.[15]

17.3 Women Lead and Students Join In

A sanitation workers strike in the Autumn of 2014 at the Guangzhou Higher Education Mega Center (GHEMC) – a complex of some 200,000 students – has demonstrated an important new stage in trade union struggles in China. While the ACFTU was noticeable by its absence there appeared a new factor, student support for, and participation in, the strike.

The GHMEC was cost-cutting by outsourcing and privatising local government services by contracting work to the lowest bidder. In late August 2014 an attempt was made to introduce a sub-contractor, Sui Cheng Property and Resources Development Company, which threatened the jobs of more than two hundred sanitation workers. The resulting strike, during which garbage piled up in the streets of Guangzhou’s premier higher education site, sets a promising precedent for solidarity between locals and migrants, for women workers’ leadership, and for student-worker collaboration.[16]

Workers were faced with signing up with the new company and accepting pay cuts, loss of benefits, loss of seniority and increased workloads, or finding a new job. Leaked documents revealed that the local government had originally budgeted for 426 sanitation workers but employed just 212, with the result that between US$11 and 16 million remains unaccounted for.

Adequate sanitation is essential for an urban environment, waste cannot be moved to other areas, and thus provides a strategic arena for labour struggles. Moreover, sanitation workers tend to be older, and the workforce is generally more stable than in light manufacturing or commercial service industries. Hence, they are more likely to stick to their jobs and fight to retain existing conditions. Additionally, they have a strong basis for holding together as the great majority of them were locals who had worked at the Center since it opened a decade previously. That said, the strike demonstrated impressive solidarity between local and migrant workers who formed about 10% of the workforce, were especially active, during the strike and comprised half the workers’ representatives at the negotiating table.

The two groups, locals and migrants stood together in their demands. Early in the strike, the workers demanded that migrants be paid their lawfully due social security payments which the company had been paying to local workers, but denying migrants. This was among the demands won. Workers also demonstrated unity at the end of the strike when the new contractor offered locals immediate work for a 30-day “assessment period”, while migrants were told they would have to wait. The workers refused to be split in this way, and returned to work on 12 September, only after the company retracted its earlier statements and promised all workers they would be rehired.

It is now common to see women on strike in China, but it is rare to see such a strong and visible female leadership. The GHEMC’s sanitation workers are 80% female, and of the male employees, many are married to women who also work there. Initially all the elected representatives were women, but it was agreed that in the interests of sexual equality one man should join the negotiators. It was noticeable that women took the leadership role without hesitation.

A small group of students were actively engaged, attending workers’ meetings and demonstrations, reporting the struggle on the internet and generally boosting morale. Hundreds, even thousands, of students, locally and at other universities expressed support for the strike. Although only a tiny proportion of the 200,000 students at GHEMC were involved, their actions set a precedent for student-worker collaboration in future struggles. This is especially important because China is experiencing sharply declining post-graduation prospects. Being a student no longer sets one apart from the working class, and these two important groups are starting to merge in their discontents. Students are increasingly experiencing the same kinds of discrimination as other migrant workers. Early in 2015, for example, Beijing denied permanent residence to graduate students not in a job or without a Masters degree or PhD![17]

The results of this strike are an important victory. But the precise gains are not as important as the experience of worker self-organisation and collaboration between locals and non-locals, and between students and workers.[18]

17.4 Overproduction and Recession

Some are arguing that the call for a ‘harmonious society’ by the present regime is the first stage in recognising that the provision of workers’ rights such as the right to organise, to bargain collectively, will decrease strike actions. That leaders in democratic countries grant labour rights not out of altruism or a sense of fairness, but out of an acknowledgement that collective bargaining can markedly reduce the occurrence of strikes and level class conflict, is readily observable.[19]

The Chinese economy is now governed by the laws of capitalism. There has been massive investment based on the hope of an ever-growing world market. But such a scenario cannot be sustained indefinitely, and at a certain stage China will face a major economic and social crisis. It is not possible to say precisely when this will happen, or in what form, but when it comes it will be part of a world crisis of overproduction and the consequences will be an explosion of the class struggle.

This situation has been glimpsed twice already. In the period after the massive layoffs in SOEs at the end of the 1990s, Chinese capitalism experienced its first general overproduction crisis, marking a clear transition from the old bureaucratically-planned economy to the new capitalist economy of surplus production, meaning abundance for the few and cruel shortages for the many.[20]

In 2008, even before the global financial crisis had fully hit, over half of China’s toy manufacturers – more than 3,600 mainly small and mid-size light engineering companies – had to temporarily shut down or went out of business completely.[21] Indeed, by October 2008 about 8,500 enterprises in Guangdong province alone had shut their doors, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers from export-oriented manufacturing industries jobless.[22] Not only were there lay-offs but, in addition, local minimal wage increases were suspended all over China and there was a significant cut in real wages of those still employed.[23]

Yet, after an initial small hic-cup, China as a whole appeared to escape relatively unscathed, largely because the government injected the equivalent of US$586 billion into the economy. This included quantitative easing to the tune of an extraordinary US$81 billion, and large state investments in infrastructure projects. These measures did protect the economy from a sharp fall in exports and did enable continued economic expansion but there were major long-term consequences, the most important being the build-up of massive overcapacity across the economy, especially in construction and heavy industry. In China, the utilisation of productive capacity is only 70-75%, compared with 79% in the US. The stimulus package failed to increase the rate of economic expansion. True the economy did continue to expand, but at a rate which, by 2014, had fallen to the lowest for a generation. Such figures herald the beginning of the end for China’s ‘miraculous’ boom, as the reality of capitalist crisis impinges on the world’s largest exporting economy.[24]

The Chinese economy now relies more heavily than in the 1990s on the world market, but the latter “is not in good shape”, with the biggest threat, by far, coming from the Eurozone which produces almost a fifth of world output but is presently leading the planet into economic stagnation.[25] With its consumer spending stubbornly stuck at about 36-37% of GDP since 2010, possibly the lowest of the major economies, there is no way China could avoid suffering a substantial downturn were a slump to occur in its customer countries.

The attacks on corruption by state and Party officials must be also seen in this light. Indeed highly publicised corruption trials are for show, attempts to assuage the anger of ordinary Chinese, and distract attention from the ongoing corruption all around them. But can such moves neutralise the class struggle in China and the impact of a global recession? None of these measures are going to solve the main problem of overproduction on a world scale which threatens a sharp cut-back in Chinese industry.

China is facing a very special scissors crisis – either its annual growth rate will continue to be artificially enhanced by government funding in which case it will face even greater problems of overproduction than it does today because the world market is unable to consume the goods produced, or there will be a serious decline in the rate of economic growth with a level of industrial strife that makes today’s actions look like a picnic in the park. Carrying on as before and hoping for the best is the third possible option. Government stimuli can postpone a crisis, but only at the risk of deepening it further once it comes. Such moves will only defer the day of reckoning, and the longer it is postponed the harder will be the crash.

China’s annual growth rate is now in the process of inevitable and unavoidable decline. In the meantime militant actions by workers have forced wage rates up, a process not entirely unwelcome to the state because it has meant more money for consumers, boosting the internal market which they hope will make up – to an extent – for the loss in exports. The government has promised to increase pensions and minimum wage rates in an attempt to increase the home market and reduce dependence on exports, but such moves are coming late in the day. The Chinese bureaucracy is beginning to feel the constraints of the world economic crisis which is forcibly setting the agenda for its policies.

Workers in the coal-mining and steel industries, two of the sectors most affected by excess capacity, already realise the precarious nature of their employment as the government begins to rationalise what is deemed “wasteful production”. These jobs, which had little to offer save security of employment, have been sustained by cheap loans from the big four state banks. The state now wants to end that remaining benefit by a concerted programme of privatisation which has forced groups of workers to engage in strike action and take their protests onto the streets, in some cases successfully. This cannot continue and the state intends to defeat this opposition, if necessary through police action.

Any decrease in the rate of expansion of China’s economy will have a major knock-on effect on other national economies, and the world economy as a whole. Australia, South Africa, and particularly Latin America will all see their raw material exports hit by China’s lowered growth projections. For example, China currently buys 40% of Chile’s copper, and copper prices fell by 11% after the IMF published its lowered projections for China’s growth. The fall in oil prices 2014-2015 was also closely related to the slowdown of the Chinese economy.

The New York Times of 16 December 2013, explained that China’s hunger for Latin America’s raw materials had fuelled the region’s most prosperous decade for a generation, filling government coffers and helping halve the region’s poverty rate. That era is rapidly drawing to an end. The IMF’s conference in Santiago in December 2014 saw China’s slowdown as the biggest challenge to Latin America’s ‘prosperity’. This slowdown in China’s rate of expansion will turn it into a major contributing factor to a world crisis of capitalism.

A key indicator of a capitalist system is the appearance of speculative bubbles, especially property bubbles which are a clear signal of over-capacity in industry. At the time, in 2008, when the Chinese government began its quantitative easing and other measures to boost the economy, Marxists predicted that the programme would only give temporary relief, and that at the expense of gigantic speculative and inflationary bubbles.

However, the Chinese state sustained the process, generating one of the most spectacular property bubbles ever. This began in 2008 and accelerated at such a rate that by end of 2013 the area of land equivalent to that occupied by the imperial palace in Beijing was worth more, on paper, than the whole of California, including San Francisco and Los Angeles.[26] The result has been a building boom and massive oversupply with the amount of unsold commercial and residential property hitting an all-time record in 2014. This boom is staggering towards its end but the fear is that a downturn in property prices could dash hopes for a recovery of China’s economy.[27]

The Chinese Government in a decision reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s crusade for popular capitalism – to be achieved through the privatisation of the nationalised industries – decided that small investors should be allowed to borrow money from the state banks to invest in industry. Previously, government regulations had banned such activities (known as margin trading) as a form of gambling, but now the government was attempting to resuscitate the economy with the end of the housing bubble, and this was one way of injecting money into private businesses and, simultaneously, convincing millions of Chinese that they had a stake in capitalism.

After falling steadily for four years, Chinese stocks finally began to rise in the summer of 2014. Initial investors appeared to be making a handsome return with little or no effort. Soon hundreds of thousands of people were borrowing heavily in order to buy stocks and shares. As government policy fed through there was a burst of frenzied speculation and the Chinese stock market rose by 150% during 2014-2015. China’s stock market, unlike those in New York, London or Hong Kong is dominated by individual Chinese investors and not institutions. In a scenario that had strong similarities with the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the 1929 crash, hundreds of thousands of people borrowed heavily in order to buy shares; grandparents, migrant workers and college students were all pouring money into buying stocks and shares.[28]

But soon the price of the shares bore no relation to the values of the companies which issued them or to the profitability of those companies. For a while, China’s stock market became detached from reality, the result being, despite government efforts, a collapse which left millions who had jumped on the bandwagon facing substantial personal losses. To stop the fall continuing the Chinese government effectively closed the stock market to allow the situation to cool down, to no avail. This crash undermined the authority of the Beijing government which had taken the decision to relax the rules on margin trading. It also demonstrated the dangers of capitalism and the security and relative stability of the public sector.

The simple fact is that Chinese productive capacity exceeds the limits of a capitalist world market. At the end of 2014, the official urban jobless rate was 4.6% but this figure excludes the many millions of migrant workers because when these lose their jobs they are supposed to return to their home village, and so are not included in these statistics. Unofficial estimates put the figure closer to 20%.

The problem of unemployment is not secondary, for at least twenty-five years, the bureaucracy has been determined to create sufficient jobs for a rapidly expanding workforce in an attempt to guarantee social stability and control. Should this end, the state will soon discover the consequences of depriving industrial workers of their livelihoods.

17.5 Revolution and the Question of Leadership

The policy of Party and union leaders clashes headlong with the growing mood of anger and frustration that is building up in the factories, steel plants, construction industry, mines and elsewhere. However, the growing crisis of overproduction on a world scale means there is little or no hope in conciliation between the new bourgeoisie, whose interests demand driving down living standards and, ultimately, the destruction of any free trade unions with the right to strike.

What are the tasks of Marxists and revolutionaries in this situation? Obviously, the immediate one is to analyse what is happening, to present an explanation that corresponds to the real situation in order to enter into a meaningful dialogue with workers, students, and honest CCP members. Thus, it is necessary to study the Chinese economy, society, and politics. It would be a serious error to try to deal with a complex, contradictory and historically unprecedented process on the basis of ready-made formulae which do not correspond to what the Chinese people are living through.

The CCP being both the party of government and state apparatus will be subject to all the centrifugal forces that in Western democracies are represented by a whole range of parties and other organisations. Depending on the relative strengths of those forces there could be serious divisions between the tops in the bureaucracy who are already billionaires and an integral part of big business, and those in the front line (usually men) who have to face a roomful of angry strikers (often women) and explain why nothing can be done.

It would be expected that those Party members who are union officials and thus closest to the workers’ struggles, many of whom will have benefitted least from the transition to capitalism, will see their material interests best served by taking the leadership of those struggles. There will also be rank and file elements within the CCP who look with horror on the transition to capitalism in China and the inequalities it has brought. Both currents are confirmed by letters and articles that have appeared in the Chinese press. Many hark back to Maoist China. But in the present context those who seek a way out through a ‘return to Mao’ would find themselves forced to confront the question of workers’ power and soviet democracy. The closer to the rank and file these people are the more readily they will accept such ideas. Chinese workers will not willingly accept a move back to Stalinism; they want to move forward to real workers’ power, towards genuine socialism.

At the moment we are seeing a growing strike movement which, so far, in its actions has pushed the official unions to one side. If the ACFTU is to take the lead it must utilise its remaining strengths. The first is that the unions have played a significant role in the field of health, social security and the like, and so have a basis of support amongst less militant workers. Secondly, the most militant groups of workers are migrant women and due to the contract system many are transients moving from one factory to another, even from one city to another, but the local union offices and staff remain in place and, with the new regulations, a few officials are changing their strategy from outright opposition to any actions against employers, to one of listening to workers with grievances and, in rare cases, supporting them.

The official unions have the enormous advantage that when the working class begins to move, it invariably expresses itself through its traditional mass organisations, although these can be in surprising and unanticipated ways. Even today the first step taken by many workers who, for the first time, find themselves in conflict with management, is to visit the local union branch office to get advice and support. It is absolutely necessary for genuine Marxists to find a way to the rank and file of the Chinese trade union movement.

As Russia returned to capitalism the Communist Party fractured, but that has not happened in China, instead the CCP has remained in control and successfully transformed itself into a mass bourgeois party. We can correctly observe that the CCP has many millions of members and that as the class war in China heats up it will be reflected in the Party. To what degree and to what extent cannot be predicted. However, in the event of an open struggle between a wing of the CCP and the new bourgeoisie, Marxists would fight for the defeat of the main enemy, the bourgeoisie, while patiently explaining that only the transfer of power to the working class can solve the problems facing China.

The aim would be to mobilise the masses but not to defend the privileged positions of bureaucrats. While supporting opposition within the CCP (or any break away section) to the new bourgeois, Marxists would explain to the workers the need to take the power into their hands through, for example, workers’ councils or factory committees, initially as organs of struggle and then as Soviet organs of workers’ power. It should never be forgotten that Soviets were not an invention of the Bolsheviks or any other party, but rather the spontaneous invention of the working class. Chinese workers will want to move forward to real workers’ power, towards genuine socialism.

An important consideration is that in China there has never been any Bolshevik tradition. For decades, the dominant ideology was authoritarian – Stalinist; whatever Mao said must be correct, and whatever Mao proposed must be adopted. However, since 1980, Mao’s ideas have been thrown overboard. Indeed, it was no mere oversight that the Mao era was omitted from the historical review presented at the Beijing Olympic ceremony. No reminder was permitted of a non-capitalist alternative. However, Maoism is not the only tradition. There is also the important tradition of Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), and it is positive that in the recent period students and others have established Chen Duxiu societies and Marxist circles specifically to study his works. This is symptomatic of a real desire amongst many activists to discover the true ideas of Marxism.

Young workers, particularly migrant women workers, peasants, and students now have experience of the new Chinese capitalist state and growing numbers are turning against it. The great weakness of these Chinese leftists is that their struggles tend to be isolated, but this is gradually being overcome as they link-up using the internet, risking severe penalties.

A revolutionary or even workers’ party is lacking but it was Chen Duxiu who first recognised the necessity of founding a revolutionary party to transform China into a workers’ state. It is as true now as it was then, that Marxists and revolutionaries must take the first steps in the building of a democratic centralist Party which strives for Soviet power.

Nevertheless, proletarian consciousness is rising, and there is a sense amongst many that the left is on the verge of a leap forward. But this will only occur if workers, peasants and intellectuals find issues that unite the forces of opposition. Socialists will, of course, fight for immediate demands but pose them in a way that links day-to-day problems to the socialist transformation of society. Such demands, transitional demands as Trotsky referred to them, act as a bridge between actions taken in the struggle for bettering the condition of the masses and the idea of the socialist revolution.

The ‘partial’, ‘minimal’ demands of the masses must be supported, as every successful struggle raises the combativity of the workers involved. It might be necessary to start with small demands that are relatively easy to win in order to build up a dynamic, the speed of progress is not critical, but when workers are in struggle events tend to unfold fast. As the international capitalist system becomes ever more degrading and decadent the most advanced workers should advance a platform of transitional demands, the essence of which is that they are directed against the very foundations of the bourgeois regime. In their totality, the transitional demands seek to systematically mobilise the masses for the proletarian revolution.[29]

The socialist revolution would be unthinkable without the day-to-day struggle for advances under capitalism. Only in, and through, such struggles can the working class acquire the necessary experience and organization to challenge the capitalist system. However, any protesters must prepare to face a state apparatus which is the fusion of a monstrous Stalinist regime with the most repulsive features of capitalism.

A campaign for transitional/democratic demands could provide the basis for a powerful mobilisation of workers and peasants. In the context of a rigid, bureaucratic regime such demands would be based on a class struggle policy based on the workers’ rights to act in their own interests, and almost certainly include:

  • the right to make one’s voice heard through public demonstrations, leaflets, newspapers and websites;
  • freedom of association whether a trade union or political party;
  • freedom to bargain collectively and to take industrial action on such issues as unemployment, low pay, health and safety;
  • freedom to form picket lines and self-defence squads to protect them;
  • a return to a national health service and free schooling;
  • greater equality for all forms of labour, against social inequality, disclosure of the assets of the Party tops.

The precise demands, the way they are posed and the means by which they realised are extremely important so they have to be determined by those directly involved. Clearly, a governmental slogan will be required to bind these demands into a coherent programme. In Russia this was given substance in “All Power to the Soviets”, and this may be one path for the Chinese revolution. Such a slogan would have to be built on freedom to form action committees in every factory, workplace, college, street, army barracks, and village, and for aggregates of such committees to form the cores of a new generation of democratic Soviets.

The workers would demand the renationalisation of all the main sectors of the economy and could immediately begin to take over the administration of industry, society and the state and move in the direction of socialism in the real sense of the word, not the bureaucratic caricature of Stalinism. Such a programme of popular democratic and transitional demands would be the antithesis of Stalinism. Under such conditions it would be impossible to re-impose a Stalinist totalitarian regime.

In their struggles, the workers need mass organizations and these will be, in the early stages, trade unions. It is necessary for revolutionaries in China to be active in the ACFTU, because in the structure of the CPC state, it is there that class relations are expressed most directly and immediately. Every attempt to subordinate the union to the capitalist enterprise must be opposed: instead workers must demand it supports their claims.

In China, at least initially, it will not be possible to replace the leadership of the ACFTU at the top, regional or even local level because these leaders are not elected. Additionally, the overwhelming majority of branch officers are senior managers in the enterprise which may give demands for representation on the branch committee a particularly sharp form. However, it is quite possible to militate in the factories and local union branches for the election of shop stewards and factory committees to represent the workers, and to argue that the “good practice” of co-opting strike leaders onto local branch committees is made universal.

The factory committee gives the demands of the workers an organised expression. Elected by all the factory employees, the factory committee immediately creates a counterweight to the administration. The prime significance of the factory committee lies in the fact that it becomes a kind of military HQ for layers of the working class. When, as often happens in China, there is a temporary seizure of the factory or part of it that raises in a practical manner the question of who is boss of the factory – the capitalist or the workers – and at such times the factory committee takes on special significance.

17.6 Summary

The totalitarian nature of the state and the relative inexperience of the Chinese bourgeoisie mean that a revolutionary explosion could take place with little warning. The cavalier manner in which the state has behaved towards the traditionally more important sections of the working class means the bourgeoisie in China do not have an established labour aristocracy to stand in the way of the growth of revolutionary consciousness. The previous chapter described how every stratum of workers in heavy industry suffered severely, millions of jobs lost, cuts in pay, worse working conditions, loss of sick pay, housing and pension schemes. In heavy industry there is no privileged section of workers willing to protect the regime.

The adverse effects of capitalist restoration experienced by Chinese workers have occurred while the economy has been expanding relatively rapidly. Chinese capitalism currently finds stability in its dynamism, like a cyclist it maintains her/himself because s/he is moving forward. But the world economy has its brake on and is entering a crisis of overproduction to which Chinese dynamism is making a sizeable contribution. A worldwide crisis of over production would hit China hard, the worst effects of capitalist restoration are yet to come. But a crisis-ridden world market would block the tried-and-tested safety valve for Chinese capitalism – rapid industrial expansion and an increase in exports.


[1] Pun, N, Gender and Class, International Labor and Working Class History, No81, Spring 2012, pp178-181.

[2] Robertson, G and Teitlebaum, E. Labor Protest in Developing Countries, American Journal of Political Science, 55(3) 665-677, July 2011.

[3] Martin, J. w.m.com, 2010.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] China Daily, 15 August 2015.

[7] Ibid.

[8] CLB, 20 March 2013, clb.org.hk.

[9] The Guardian, 12 June 2014.

[10] Wenfang Tang and Qing Yang, The Chinese Urban Caste System in Transition The China Quarterly, No. 196, 2008, pp. 759-779.

[11] CLB, www.clb.hk.

[12] CLB 7 April 2015, clb.org.hk.

[13] Yi Xi, Labornotes, 16 October, 2014.

[14] CLB, 13 Feb, 2015, clb.org.hk.

[15] Yi Xi, Op. cit.

[16] Robertson and Teitlebaum, Op. cit.

[17] Walker, R and Buck, D. The Chinese Road, New Left Review 46 July Aug 2007.

[18] Weil, R. A House Divided: China after 30 Years of ‘Reforms’, Economic and Political Weekly, 43(52)61-69, Dec. 2008.

[19] Ngai, P., et al., The Role of the State … Global Labour Journal 1(1)132-152, 2010.

[20] Mingwei Liu, Union Organizing in China, Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 64(1)30-52 Oct. 2010.

[21] Kevin Bai, China’s Crude Steel Capacity and Utilisation Development 03 June 2015.

[22] BBC News 7 January 2015.

[23] D. Telegraph, 2 May 2014.

[24] Time Magazine, 15 May 2014.

[25] Morley, D. Chinese Stock Volatility, 10 July 2015, w.m.com.

[26] Trotsky, L. The Transitional Programme, w.m.org.

[27] CLB Report: Coal Industry in China, clb.org.hk.

[28] CLB 29 April 2015, clb.org.hk.

[29] CLB 29 September 2015, clb.org.hk.