National Sections of the L5I:

Defend democratic rights in China

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Rix Bragg looks at the recent clampdown on opposition movements in China

On the 25th of December, the Beijing No 1 Intermediate People’s Court found Liu Xiaobo guilty of subverting the state and sentenced him to eleven years in prison. Liu, a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, was arrested a year ago as he prepared to launch Charter 08, a campaign for political reform. The charges he was arrested on, inciting subversion of state power, are wide ranging and are often used against political opponents and dissidents as a means of political repression.

Charter 08 and the repressive actions taken by the government against Liu and other leading members of the campaign give direct expression to the current social contradictions which exist within the country and the bureaucracy’s resistance to reforms which would see the removal of their privilege as a ruling caste.

The reforms Charter 08 proposes for China are those of liberal democracy; freedom of media, the freedom of individuals, the separation of powers including an independent judiciary, the establishment of equality and political democracy based on one person, one vote. It also demands that China abide by the various international treaties on human rights it has signed as well as its own constitution whose preamble, the Charter points out, was amended in 2004 “to include language to ‘respect and safeguard human rights.”

The progressive nature of such reforms, which seek to break up the political stranglehold of the party dictatorship and to ensure the implementation of human rights which are abused under the current system, should not blind us to the fundamentally bourgeois character of the Charter. This can be seen at its clearest from its support for private property (Reform 14):

“We should establish and protect the right to private property and promote an economic system of free and fair markets. We should do away with government monopolies in commerce and industry and guarantee the freedom to start new enterprises. We should establish a Committee on State-Owned Property, reporting to the national legislature, that will monitor the transfer of state-owned enterprises to private ownership in a fair, competitive, and orderly manner. We should institute a land reform that promotes private ownership of land, guarantees the right to buy and sell land, and allows the true value of private property to be adequately reflected in the market.”

The emphasis on the complete dismantling of nationalised property, removal of government monopolies and the sale of government assets on the free market as well as the promotion of private land ownership and the importance of unhindered market economy allows no doubt as to the class interests of those behind the document. The proposed reforms seek to replace the single party system with a western style liberal democracy and a neo-liberal policy of market reforms favourable to the new and returning Chinese bourgeoisie.

Although the bourgeois character of the Charter is thus clear and undeniable, those of its demands that seek to destroy the dictatorship of the bureaucracy are defensible, the workers, too, need those reforms. For this reason we oppose the persecution of liberal reformers such as Liu Xiaobo as well as the far larger number, but less widely reported, of working class dissidents and activists.

The first democracy movements emerged in China during the late 1970’s and 80s as the result of the political climate of the time which included the economic reforms of 1978. These reforms reintroduced the market into the economic life of China alongside the existing planned system, the aim of the reforms was not to destroy or replace economic planning but rather to stimulate it and provide it with an increased dynamism. However, once unleashed, the market began to take on a life of its own creating, two parallel and incompatible economic systems within the country. This naturally led to the rise of gross economic distortions and corruption.

These contradictions led to a debate on the future policy of the state which could not be retained within the ranks of the party. It was the combination of public debate over economic policy and rising discontent over corruption and inflation which fuelled the Democracy Movement. At first, this involved mainly students and intellectuals, including Party members, for whom “more democracy” essentially meant “less censorship”, freedom to circulate literature, freedom to meet and debate economic policy, but as the movement grew it broadened its interests and began to denounce corrupt managers and party officials and to call for the actual recognition of rights supposedly enshrined in law. Support reached into the higher ranks of the Party and this allowed the movement to grow for several years. However, when demonstrating students in Beijing began to attract mass support from workers, the “hardliners” in the Party leadership ordered the army to suppress the demonstrations.

The result was the Tiananmen Massacre and the bloody suppression of all dissent throughout the country. At the same time, greater state control over the economy was brought back. Its purpose was to regain control over prices and to re-establish discipline within the Party. However, by 1992, it was clear that growth rates were declining under this regime. The only areas still growing were the Special Economic Zones, where overseas capital had been allowed to set up factories, and the province of Guangdong which had many trading links with Hong Kong. Against this background, and having destroyed any political opposition, the Communist Party took the decision to dismantle planning and restore capitalism while maintaining its own dictatorship. This new system was named "Socialism with Chinese characteristics" or the paradoxical ‘Socialist Market Economy'. That the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was able to create such obscene formulations in which the capitalist market economy was labelled as being in some way socialist is revealing. It shows that the CCP wanted to identify socialism with its own rule, an attitude that owes much to the historical position of the party but remains true today.

When the CCP first gained control of China in 1949, its programme was for capitalist development of the country on the basis of class collaboration between the peasants, workers, urban petit-bourgeoisie and patriotic bourgeoisie united under the leadership of the CCP who would ensure that the interests of “the nation” were served. In theory, this meant there could be no interests separate from those of the party and this allowed the party bureaucracy to identify itself and its own interests as those of the nation.

This attitude has importance today as it can be identified as a source of existing and future tensions, notably with some sections of the bourgeoisie and with the workers. The bourgeoisie as a class in China is still in the process of formation; there are significant divisions between the different sectors and places of origin. On the whole, however, most accept the “leading role of the Party”. The state, after all, is responsible for providing the conditions favourable for profitable growth. For example, infrastructure is provided by the state and party officials ease bureaucratic obstacles and help provide access to credit from state banks. In other words the bourgeoisie is currently a class in itself but not for itself.

However, having said this, there are examples of the bourgeoisie engaging in such profit generating ventures as running illegal banks outside of the party’s control. Moreover, the conscious intellectual vanguard of the class stand opposed, at least in principle, to the party dictatorship. Whilst these sections do not yet typify the attitudes of the bourgeoisie, who for now rely on the party for their existence, their role in the future political development of the country warrants some consideration.

As the Chinese economy has grown and rapidly industrialised due to the reintroduction of capitalism, the number of urban workers has also risen to provide the necessary labour power to sustain such growth. This has given rise to a number of issues as huge numbers of low skilled workers, perhaps as many as 150 million, flood into the cities from the countryside looking for work. These migrants have no official right to live in the cities, they remain registered in their villages, a fact which prevents them then from joining trade unions and opens them up to enormous levels of abuse and exploitation.

The drive for profitability, and the necessity of keeping production costs low enough to facilitate a large export economy, has resulted in terrible conditions for the vast majority of the working class. On top of this, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions is completely controlled by the state and does represent the interests of the workers. It actually works as a tool to ensure maximum exploitation of the workers for the ‘national interest’. All independent trade unions and workers’ movements are illegal and the few that are established are rapidly shut down and their leaders arrested, tried and imprisoned. Additionally, the right to strike is no longer recognised having been removed from the Chinese constitution in 1982.

Despite the lack of real union representation and the illegality of strike action in recent years, there has been an increase in successful industrial action by workers and an increasing tendency towards attempts to establish independent workers’ movements despite their illegality. This is reflected in China’s official figures which state that last year there were 127,000 ‘mass incidents’ compared to the previous high point of 87,000 inn 2005.

The party’s increasing fear of social unrest in the face of increased worker militancy has seen the first signs of an erosion of state authority with the bureaucracy now beginning to seek for the first time appeasement measures over those of pure repression. This has resulted lately in a series of climb downs such as that in Dongzhou where fishermen and peasants fought back against attempts by the government to evict them from their land to build a power plant, whilst providing them with minimal compensation. The conflict resulted in a paramilitary militia using live ammunition on the protestors killing 20.

Despite government attempts to cover up the event, news soon leaked out and began to circulate around the country. The government was forced to act by arresting the commander of the militia and admitting to the incident whilst playing down its severity. Clearly, the increasing militancy being generated by the capitalist nature of China could pose a real threat to political stability, the actions of the party can be seen as an attempt to appease the populace, an action which whilst it may have some effect in the short term can only lead to an increased demand for transparency and relaxation of party control in the future.

Although the Chinese Communist Party has successfully overseen the restoration of capitalism, the maintenance of the one party, Stalinist dictatorship guarantees that democratic demands will remain potentially destabilising issues within China. Whilst, for now, the Chinese bourgeoisie as a class relies on the party for its existence, profitability and protection, different sectors have different interests. Private corporations oppose the subsidies, legal or not, that go to state-owned firms, exporters resent taxes being used to develop the interior provinces, Taiwanese and Hong Kong businessmen do not necessarily want to invest where the state wants development. However, public discussion of such issues, never mind public organisation around them, is a potential threat to the Party. Right wing ideologues, domestic and foreign, will generalise from such issues and demand both political reforms and the wider social programme proposed by organisations like Charter 08.

Capitalist development will also generate conflicts between workers and both the bosses and the state. As worker militancy increases, the right to organise, politically and economically, will become a central struggle, crucial to the future development of the class as a whole. Within that struggle, socialists will fight for the adoption of a socialist programme. Where the likes of Charter 08 promote the market, private property and parliamentarianism, socialists will raise demands for independent and democratic trade unions, the end of privatisation, opening of government and private books to workers’ inspection, workers’ control of hiring and firing, the renationalisation of industry under workers’ control, the end of the party dictatorship and the building of a new mass workers’ party with the aim of overthrowing capitalism and the building of a new, revolutionary International, the Fifth International.