In Parts II and III of this article we have briefly narrated the major developments in the reform process in China, as dictated more by changes in the objective national-international situations and the contradictions generated by the process itself, than by personal leanings of this or that leader. This we believe is the only scientific, that is dialectical-materialist, method of investigation that can help an unbiased, open-minded observer arrive at a correct understanding of the apparent riddle that is China. Here we carry the discussion beyond the reforms to focus the spotlight on certain other trends and features of Chinese polity before wrapping up with brief concluding remarks.
The story began at the turn of the 21st century. With the IMF and the World Bank – where the US holds a veto in decision making and appointing the heads of institutions – refusing to adapt to the changing balance of power, many developing countries sought to tread a new path. And China was quick to avail of the opportunity. By funding development projects, the financial behemoth was able to rapidly increase its soft power in the immediate neighbourhood, thus attacking the US’ “Pivot to Asia strategy”1 as well.
Today, China runs a current account surplus economy and the government is looking for greenfield areas to use the foreign exchange stockpile more profitably. The setting up of a number of development banks – most notably Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and New Development Bank (constituted mainly by the BRICS countries) – as welll as other aid and soft loan initiatives like China’s recent commitment to contribute to the African Development Bank as part of “Africa Growing Together” scheme and most importantly, the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) are part of this larger aim.
The BRI is a very long term, multi-nation project focussed on mining and oil exploration and infrastructure constructions. It is intended to reach mines, ports and markets in Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa, connecting South America as well and Europe through western and southern Chinese provinces. As many as 140 countries including China – up from 125 in April 2019 – have already signed up. The basic, pragmatic reason is obvious: China is filling a funding gap that exists for many countries, particularly underdeveloped countries and emerging economies. A few countries, however, worry that Beijing is forcing them into a debt trap or a covert form of neocolonialism and therefore prefer to stay away.
From China’s viewpoint, the development banks and the BRI are necessary countermeasures to break through the US-led aggressive containment by means of trade related sanctions, diplomatic manoeuvres, even military bullying. The BRI, for example, is expected to counter the US-Japan maritime dominance in the regions covered. In the context of international politics or power-game, the so-called ‘China Rising’ is – objectively and irrespective of its various controversial moves – a powerful bulwark against the sole surviving superpower’s persistent efforts for unilaterally dominating the world. Reluctance to recognise this reality means opposing the idea and endeavour of building the broadest possible united front against the world people’s Enemy Number One.
But no less one-sided and politically naive is the opposite trend of ignoring or downplaying the risks involved with China’s expanding networks of soft power (not to ignore the growing ‘hard’ or military power and domineering tendencies). A country’s foreign policy is always an extension or reflection of its domestic policy. And what sort of policies and political approaches do we see today in China? We see an increasingly authoritarian governance characterised by denial of people’s freedom of expression, right to protest, ask tough questions and speak truth to power. The GS-President in his keynote address at the Party centenary celebration lays unseemly stress on nationalist pride and power to the exclusion of socialist internationalism, even as oppression on some of the religious/ethnic/national minorities continues to escalate. With all these warning signs, how could one be very confident that one is not witnessing the rise of a national chauvinist power with regional – and in due course global – hegemonic ambitions?
The government has recently announced stricter rules for online gaming and for-profit tutorials. New tutorials will not be approved and existing ones must get themselves registered as non-profits. The rules also limit children aged below eighteen years to three hours of online games a week and that too only on weekends and Friday nights.
The new rules are certainly a harsh blow to the country’s multi-billion-dollar private education industry, while parents, teachers and others have generally welcomed them. At the same time, the apprehension that this is just a gateway to more widespread attacks on everyone’s right to privacy – the right to choose how one uses the net and when, for example – is quite strong.
The surveil-and-control mechanisms are employed more harshly – often brutally – in ethnic and national minority regions like Xinjiang and Tibet. We have dealt with some of these problems in previous issues of Liberation2, so let us move ahead with some recent and less reported developments.
In late September this year, China announced a new plan to introduce the world’s first comprehensive, nationwide regulatory system for algorithms. Some of these new regulations aim to protect citizens from cyber crimes and embezzlements. Gig workers of delivery firms have long been overworked by algorithms that dictate their work schedules with ruthless efficiency; this has now been brought under control. But at the same time, these regulations augment the Party-State’s censorship arsenal. By limiting algorithms to only those that “orient towards mainstream values” and “actively transmit positive energy” (the Indian government’s tireless harping on ‘positive thinking’ immediately comes to mind) could in practice mean pre-censoring those that allow or encourage values/views unacceptable to the CPC.
The authority’s penchant for building a culturally and ideologically regimented society manifests itself in another policy decision: the newly imposed compulsory study of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” on students from school to university levels. And why not? Did not the General Secretary, in his speech celebrating the party foundation centenary, already lay down the rule that “follow(ing) the leadership core” – that is himself – will now be construed as “the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics”? And has not the unsavoury personality cult been endorsed in the communique issued after the recent 6th plenum of the 11th Central Committee which urges upon the Party ranks to “resolutely uphold Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the central committee as a whole”?
In the midst of all such measures that can hardly be called reforms, what remains more elusive than ever before is a positive response to the people’s justified and growing democratic aspiration that manifests itself through small, sporadic protests as well as big events like the Tienanmen massacre of 1989 and the popular upsurge in Hong Kong in 2019.
“Party, government, military, civilian, and academic; east, west, south, north, and center, the Party leads everything” – the CPC proudly asserted at the end of its 19th National Congress in October 2017. The cockiness apart, ideally this is how things should be. But when an overarching ‘leadership’ is sought to be exercised in a ‘managerial style’ (to borrow a term Lenin used to criticise some leaders during the early years of Soviet Union) it becomes bureaucratic and, of late, technocratic; it ceases to be leadership in the communist sense. It gets metamorphosed into authoritarianism – a collective or partisan authoritarianism, if one may say so; it may be efficient in administration, even benevolent in terms of delivering material benefits, but authoritarianism all the same. Citizens have no say in policy making. The right to freedom of expression, enshrined in the Constitution of the PRC, is severely curtailed. People are denied the right to protest, and in some cases even basic human rights. In the absence of a relatively independent judiciary, authoritarianism becomes absolute, with hardly any checks and balances.
Since authoritarianism cannot exist without spying on the citizenry, gross intrusions into citizens’ private spaces and arbitrary curbs on political as well as cultural/religious freedoms becomes a norm. To ensure this, a modern high-tech Panopticon3 – armed with 360 surveillance, CC cameras (the number of which far exceeds those installed in the US) and other advanced technologies like AI and facial recognition supplied by government agencies as well as Chinese corporates like Tencent, Dahua Technology, ZTE (certainly not without adequate quid pro quo) has been developed. The most plausible pretexts are the most common ones: fight against terror and conspiracy, national security and lately, tracking COVID-19 patients.
While showcasing these valid purposes, the deep State is always busy tracking and cracking down on ‘social unrest’ – the official nom de guerre for public protests. The technologies used in hundreds of ‘smart cities’ in China, while doing a very good job in monitoring and fixing problems in air quality, traffic flow etc., are also very smart when it comes to identifying dissidents and preempting potential unrest through detentions (which in many cases are kept secret or semi-secret) and other methods. There are scores of surveillance mechanisms such as the police cloud system (which aims to create a central pool of data and information about citizens from all available sources), Sharp Eyes Programme (which claims to have the potential capacity to surveil 100% of public spaces), the Social Credit System, and so on. Most popular (yes, you got it right, popular) is the last-mentioned, which rates the trustworthiness of citizens by analysing, with the technologies mentioned above, both their social behaviours (such as observing COVID protocols) and their financial records (e.g., spending patterns, tax payments). The individualized “social credit scores” are used to reward or punish citizens according to their political and financial virtues or vices. The benefits are both financial (for example, access to mortgage loans) and social (permission to buy a ticket on one of the new high-speed trains). Those with low social-credit scores may find themselves prevented from buying an airline ticket or getting a date on an app.
The present model of ‘efficient and stable’ governance is the exact opposite of what Mao Zedong proposed and practised. In On the Ten Major Relationships (1956) he welcomed criticism from democratic parties and personages, adding that even the “abusive types” should be allowed “to rail at us, while refuting their nonsense and accepting what makes sense in their rebukes. This is better for the Party, for the people and for socialism.”
The same year, in his Speech at the Second Plenary Session of the Eighth Central Committee, he said, “You are afraid of the masses taking to the streets, I am not, not even if hundreds of thousands should do so.” He cited a Singur-like incident and spoke in favour of peasants who not only objected to, but physically resisted, the government’s plan to acquire land for building an airport: “… the local people set up three lines of defence: the first line was composed of children, the second of women, and the third of able-bodied young men. All who went there to do the surveying were driven away and the peasants won out in the end. Later, when satisfactory explanations were given and arrangements made, they agreed to move and the airfield was built. There are quite a few similar cases.
“Now there are people who seem to think that, as state power has been won, they can … play the tyrant at will. The masses will oppose such persons, throw stones at them and strike at them with their hoes, which will, I think, serve them right and will please me immensely.” He saw this as a general guideline, and added: “Whenever students and workers take to the streets, you comrades should regard it as a good thing.”
In “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” (1957) -- one of his most valuable writings on the topic we are concerned with at this point -- Mao writes,
“People may ask, since Marxism is accepted as the guiding ideology by the majority of the people in our country, can it be criticized? Certainly it can. Marxism is scientific truth and fears no criticism. If it did, and if it could be overthrown by criticism, it would be worthless. … Marxists should not be afraid of criticism from any quarter. Quite the contrary, they need to temper and develop themselves and win new positions in the teeth of criticism and in the storm and stress of struggle.”
Coming to the question of “incorrect ideas among the people”, he writes, “Will it do to ban such ideas and deny them any opportunity for expression? Certainly not. It is not only futile but very harmful to use crude methods in dealing with ideological questions among the people, with questions about man’s mental world. You may ban the expression of wrong ideas, but the ideas will still be there. … it is only by employing the method of discussion, criticism and reasoning that we can really foster correct ideas and overcome wrong ones, and that we can really settle issues.” [Emphasis ours]
Based not only on the rich experience gained at home, but also on lessons drawn from the grave mistakes made in the Soviet Union, these insights or guidelines could, if sincerely adopted (sans the excesses that came later) and further developed in keeping with changing conditions, perhaps we could see a very different China today.
That was not to be, but the huge dark clouds over China do have some thin silver linings.
Going by whatever little information we get from Chinese and other trustworthy sources, the people and activists out there are braving all difficulties to continue the tradition of struggle. They are small in numbers, the struggles are in most cases sporadic and disconnected from one another, yet in the given conditions keeping the fire of independent activism simmering is by itself extremely important for the present and future of the PRC.
At the forefront of the popular struggles, of course, is the working class.4 Labour laws in China are not so bad, but enforcement is. Local governments, especially in smaller, less economically-developed regions and cities, have generally been more concerned with boosting the local economy and creating a business-friendly environment, rather than with protecting workers’ rights. So workers have to fight even to get just what is their due under law.
The right to strike was removed from the Constitution of China in 1982, but there is no legal prohibition on strikes. The vast majority of strikes or other forms of collective protests (around 80 percent) are related to the non-payment of wages. The construction industry, which accounts for more than a third of all workers’ protests in China, is notorious for systematic wage arrears.
Many strikes have led to ad hoc or spontaneous collective bargaining, in which workers elected their own representatives and devised strategies to force management to come to the negotiating table. Local government and trade union officials typically pressure both sides to make concessions and resume production as quickly as possible. Sometimes the police is dispatched, usually to ensure that the protesters do not leave the workplace or in any other way disrupt public order. In case workers are detained, they are usually released within a few hours, or a few days at most. On the few occasions that strike leaders have been charged, it is with a public order offence such as “gathering a crowd to disturb social order,” rather than with taking part in a strike per se.
Workers in China have the right to form or join a trade union. But they cannot organise independently on their own because all enterprise-level unions are legally mandated to be affiliated with the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), in which officials are not elected by workers, but appointed from above by the Party. When the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation took shape and mobilised citizens in protests in the spring of 1989, it was declared an illegal organization and disbanded in the wake of the military crackdown in Beijing on 4 June 1989.
In November 2015, Xi Jinping formally launched a trade union reform initiative with two main objectives: (1). “eliminate four impediments” to the ACFTU’s work: regimentation, bureaucratisation, elitism, and frivolousness; and (2). “increase three positive attributes” of the organization: political consciousness, progressiveness, and popular legitimacy. The ACFTU leadership readily and obediently pledged to do so, but there was little change on ground.
As opposed to this bureaucratic passivity, civil society labour groups in southern China have often played the role of real trade unions, helping workers formulate their demands, elect bargaining representatives, develop a bargaining strategy, and maintain solidarity among the workforce. They also helped workers utilize the increasingly powerful tools of social media to put pressure on local trade union officials to support workers’ legitimate demands.
In the 2015 Lide Shoe Factory case, for example, workers forced the company to pay several million yuan in overdue social insurance contributions. However, the Lide case was the last major success for civil society labour organizations in Guangdong. A few months later, the authorities launched a massive crackdown that led to the closure of many influential labour organizations such as the Panyu Workers Service Centre. However, workers continued to organize, and strikes and protests remained a regular feature of working life in southern China. The situation changed for the worse in 2018, when workers at the Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen attempted to organize a trade union and were joined in their protests by student and Maoist groups from across the country. This led to an even larger government crackdown in which more than 50 activists were detained. The following year, at least a dozen other activists were detained in a sweeping campaign seemingly designed to eradicate the last vestiges of civil society labour groups in Guandong, the hot bed of this trend. Nearly all of these activists were eventually released but they have been effectively disabled to provide workers with the valuable help and advice that in the past helped workers to defend their rights.
Still, workers across the country continue to stage many demonstrations and thousands of strikes each year in various regions and industries. In most cases they carefully refrain from political attacks and focus on economic grievances and unsafe working conditions. As a rule, the government responds with low-key but effective crackdowns, dismantling independent trade unions and imprisoning activists of labour rights organisations. At the same time, it has also helped workers, putting pressure on businesses to settle disputes and making billions of dollars available for welfare payments and retraining programs. The messaging is loud and clear: Before the revolution, strikes and demonstrations were necessary, now they go against national rejuvenation. So trust and follow your own Party, government and the ACFTU – they are doing whatever is possible for you. Don’t fall in the trap of ill-intentioned students, ‘independents’ or else…
It is common knowledge how Feminist activists as well as Marxist/Maoist student activists in Chinese universities are snooped on, harassed, intimidated, jailed or otherwise punished. Often college and university students are forced to watch videotaped confessions in which detained activists say they spread false information and violated the law.
Unlike the Tiananmen protesters, however, China’s new leftist students are not calling for a change in government, which would immediately land them in jail. Rather than criticise leaders or the party, in their public writings they take care to criticise the particular police unit for wrongdoing. They can thus claim to echo the Party slogan “Don’t forget your original intentions” that was prominently displayed at the start of Xi’s second term in 2017. But the authorities are not to be fooled: they can sense the fire behind the smoke and take steps to nip any campaign in the bud.
While some students describe themselves as “Maoist-Leninist-Marxists”, others simply say they prefer to be described by their aims: supporting workers. According to some reports, their numbers are rising. Not surprisingly, the government sends inspectors on a regular basis to discourage criticism of the Party on campus. “The students’ commitment to a purer form of Marxism only serves to highlight the CCP’s own drift from its roots,” says Jude Blanchette, author of China’s New Red Guards: The of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong (New York, Oxford University Press, 2019). “This, crucially, has been why the left in China has always presented more of a challenge to the [post-Mao – A Sen] party leadership than the right.”
Achievements of Chinese women in sports, corporate management and some other areas are well-known. In 2012 China became one of the first few nations to start sending women astronauts on space missions with indigenous technology and infrastructure. In 2001, China amended its marriage law, so that abuse was considered grounds for divorce. In 2005, new provisions were added to the Law on Women’s Right Protection to include sexual harassment.
But beneath these advertisable successes lurks a rather gloomy reality. For one, the apparently progressive legislations are, as in India, full of loopholes and often badly implemented. According to the 2020 Gender Gap Index prepared by the World Economic Forum, China is ranked 106th, down from 69th in 2013. Women constitute only about a quarter of CPC members and also of the Chinese People’s Congresses. No woman member has ever broken through the political glass ceiling to enter the Standing Committee of the Politbureau. In the last (2017) Party Congress, only 10 women were elected to the 204-member Central Committee and only one to the 25-member PB. Seventy years after Mao Zedong adopted a series of measures challenging traditional forms of gender inequality (the PRC abolished footbinding, promoted female education and participation in the workforce, and overturned traditional notions of marriage with the Marriage Law in 1950), Chinese women are being repressed and subjugated in all conceivable ways.
In a hostile, misogynist socio-political atmosphere like this, activists are trying their level best to organise protests on the streets and online and mobilise public opinion in support of gender justice. A few examples may be in order.
A group of five young feminists along with other activists planned a demonstration for the International Women’s Day in 2015 against sexual harassment on public transportation. But on March
Ironically, this happened just when President Xi Jinping was preparing to co-host a UN summit on women's rights in Beijing. A hashtag campaign #FreetheFive spread news about their arrest quickly and gained support of people from all around the world. After 37 days of detention, they – by now famous as ‘The Feminist Five’ – were released on bail, but they are reportedly still under the scanner, with restricted job opportunities, physical mobility etc.
In 2017, the Sina Weibo account of Feminist Voices, an important feminist organization in China, was suspended for thirty days after they posted an article about the planned women’s strike in the United States on the International Women’s Day. In March 2018 the account was deleted.
The very next year, the #MeToo movement started in China with a female student in Beihang University alleging sexual harassment by her former PhD professor. Many university students, both female and male, came together to sign petitions against similar incidents elsewhere.
Recent years have witnessed feminist activists, campaigning against domestic violence, sexual harassment on public transportation, inadequacy of toilet facilities for women — issues that the government also claims to have embraced – being arrested on charges of provoking social instability. Evidently, the authorities are alarmed by the young women’s refusal to passively wait for the All-China Women’s Federation5 to raise issues without ruffling government feathers, and their ability to take independent initiative, largely through skilful use of social media, to organize flash protests that often get positive coverage in the media and their links with the international feminist fraternity.
In a shocking recent development, China’s top tennis star Peng Shuai has gone missing ever since she posted sexual assault allegations against former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli on her Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) account. Not only was her post deleted by authorities, the internet in China is repeatedly being wiped clear of any references to Peng Shuai. Search engines in China are coming up empty in response to searches for the name of this extremely popular and prominent sports figure. The international Women’s Tennis Association and prominent tennis stars the world over are raising concerns for Peng’s wellbeing and demanding an independent probe into her allegations. China has refused to react officially to either queries about Peng or to the allegation against a former top government official. Instead, state media in China have released an email purported to be from Peng, claiming she is well and resting at home, and that the news of sexual assault is false. State media are also periodically releasing videos purportedly of the tennis star in a restaurant, at a tennis match and so on.
Even if Peng is, in fact, “resting at home” and no longer wants to speak publicly of the sexual assault allegation she posted, can we assume that all is well with her? For decades, Harvey Weinstein (the Hollywood mogul, allegations against whom sparked off the Me Too movement) successfully leveraged his political connections and wealth to intimidate his victims into backing down on complaints. Even if Peng is physically free and well (something which is by no means clear as of now), China cannot just be allowed to pretend she never made the allegation.
So what are the major takeaways from our by no means comprehensive survey of the hundred-year journey of the world’s largest communist party in the most populous country?
The splendid saga of success in accomplishing the new democratic revolution in 1949 had its share of big mistakes leading to major setbacks. Similarly, the next nearly quarter century, marked as it was by a couple of blunders (the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution), did lay the foundation for self-reliant socialist development powered by the creative energy of the masses who really felt the party and the government as their very own – not a power standing above and lording it over them. That was the marvel of people’s/socialist democracy6 – an integral and essential complement to proletarian dictatorship – the absence or erosion of which turns the latter into authoritarianism of the ruling Communist Party.
This 27-year period (1949-76) will also be remembered for its robust militant Internationalism: recall, for example, the fledgling PRC’s war to resist US aggression and aid Korea (1950) and Mao’s 20 May 1970 call “People of the World Unite, Defeat US Aggressors and all their Running Dogs”.
The next chapter in the history of CPC was started with a one-sided evaluation of the Cultural Revolution. It was correctly criticized as a major ultra-left blunder, the “good intention behind it” was recognised by Deng, but the problem of right deviation and the danger of peaceful restoration of capitalism – flagged by Mao even if in an exaggerated manner – was not addressed at all. The non-dialectical approach rendered the party myopic regarding risks associated with the otherwise necessary reforms.
Over the last four decades the CPC traversed a very long distance in implementing an extended Chinese version of Lenin’s NEP, granting huge concessions to imperialist finance capital and then to the emerging indigenous big bourgeoisie, at the cost of the working classes. What the country gained in return was laudable economic progress – one of the basic prerequisites of building socialism. But in the process the basic ideological prerequisite – proletarian internationalism – was lost, revolutionary socialist politics no longer remained in command, and technocratic authoritarianism took over the place of vibrant people’s democracy. But the Party and the people of China are still on the move, and as Mao said long ago, between capitalism and socialism, which side will win out remains an unresolved question.
1. The Pivot to Asia strategy was originally put forward by the Obama administration. With the American military’s focus on the Asia Pacific, tensions heightened among the states in this region (between US allies and other countries), and China responded with enhanced military, economic and diplomatic activities here. The recent reassertion of this strategy by the Biden administration signals its eagerness to face the Chinese “threat” with escalated military and economic activism.
2. See for example Mao Zedong Thought and Ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang by Arindam Sen (Liberation, August 2009) and China’s Concentration Camps For Uyghurs: In China’s Own Words by Kavita Krishnan (Liberation, September 2020)
3. The panopticon is a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by Jeremy Bentham, which allows a watchman to observe occupants without the occupants knowing whether or not they are being watched. So the inmates police themselves for fear of punishment. Michel Foucault in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish used the this idea as a way to illustrate the proclivity of disciplinary societies subjugate its citizens. He described the prisoner of a panopticon as being at the receiving end of asymmetrical surveillance: “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.”
4. Our brief depiction of workers’ struggles is based almost entirely on the article “Workers’ Rights and Labour Relations”, China Labour Bulletin (a non-profit NGO, founded in 1994 and based in Hong Kong. It provides legal advice to workers, arranges for mainland Chinese lawyers to handle their cases and publishes well-researched reports on labour issues in Chinese and English languages), 30 June 2020.
5. Established in 1949, the ACWF is nominally a non-government organisation, but since the head positions are appointed by the CPC, in practice the organisation takes more care of the government’s image and priorities than victimised women.
6. To cite an early example, the Constitution of China was adopted after extensive discussions on the draft were held at town and provincial levels by more than 8000 people and nearly 6,000 suggestions were collected, from which a good many were accepted.