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<nettime> China's New Left
McKenzie Wark on Sun, 25 Jan 2004 22:54:56 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> China's New Left

Any consideration of the state of the worldwide anticapitalist movement
necessarily faces, at some point, the question of China, which is rapidly
becoming the workhouse of the world. George Bush may be right when he says
his policies are creating jobs -- jobs in China.

This story makes mention of Wang Hui's book, China's New Order, which is
available in English from Harvard University Press, and is an excellent
account of the fallout from the student/democracy movement of 1987 and
Chinese political/intellectual life today.

McKenzie Wark

New York Times
Week in Review

January 25, 2004

China's Leaders Manage Class Conflict

BEIJING  If Karl Marx were alive today, Guangdong might be his

Like England's 19th century industrial center, 21st century Guangdong,
China's southern commercial hub, is the world's factory.

And like Manchester, Guangdong is also creating a stark divide between
labor and capital, a split that once became the ideological basis for
revolutions around the world, including China's own.

Tens of millions of industrial workers are struggling toward basic rights,
to earn enough to send their children to school, for laws that would allow
them to bargain collectively. And they are losing.

"If Marx could see Guangdong today he would die of anger," says Dai
Jianzhong, a labor relations expert at the Beijing Academy of Social
Science. "From that perspective, China is speeding in reverse."

Even more than England or the United States in their industrializing
heydays, China's growth relies on cheap labor. The foreign-invested
factories here, including production centers for most multinational
companies, depend on a flexible work force that actually grows cheaper by
the year.

Guangdong has grown by more than 10 percent annually for the past decade.
But its factory workers, mostly migrants from the interior, earn no more
today than they did in 1993, several Chinese studies have found. The
average wage of $50 to $70 a month also buys less today than it did in the
early 1990's, meaning workers are losing ground even as China enjoys one
of the longest and most robust expansions in modern history.

This is partly a paradox of globalization. China has attracted more
foreign investment by far than any other developing country, nearly $500
billion since it began internationalizing its economy. But it continues to
draw capital essentially because it is willing to rent workers for falling

The free-market economic policies have not left China worse off on the
whole. They have lifted it out of the ranks of the world's poorest
countries, created a nascent middle class of service industry workers in
the big cities, and made China the largest Asian exporter to the United

But China is living through a Gilded Age of inequality, whose benefits are
not trickling down to the 700 million or 800 million rural residents who
live off the land or flock to the cities for factory or construction jobs.

The situation has given rise to a new group of Marxist critics who call
themselves China's new left. Wang Hui, a new left thinker, published a
book late last year, titled "China's New Order," attacking China's leaders
for using "state interference and even violence" to enforce its vision of
international capitalism. He says the leaders have colonized their own

Not surprisingly, Chinese officials do not put it that way, and few here
believe that China needs another Marxist revolution. Nor would Communist
Party officials say that democracy, rather than an authoritarian political
system, is needed to bring greater social justice to China.

Still, Communist leaders increasingly seem convinced that neither economic
growth nor China's tattered legacy of socialist laws will prevent social
unrest, even violent upheaval of the kind that helped bring the party to
power in 1949.

President Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, have vowed to
raise peasant incomes and stop the most egregious abuse of workers.
Executives of multinational corporations say they have a harder time
getting appointments with Mr. Wen and Mr. Hu than they did in the past.

"Inequality these days is too stark to be ignored," says Kang Xiaoguang, a
leading political analyst in Beijing. "The party has begun to recognize
that its legitimacy cannot come from economic reform as such. It needs to
stress fairness and justice."

Doubts remain, though, whether Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen have the power, or
desire, to do much about it. The capitalist road China has traveled since
the latter years of Deng Xiaoping's rule in the early 1990's is Darwinian
by the historical standards of the United States, England - even East

The British working class first got the right to vote in the 1880's, amid
England's industrialization. American industrial unions trace their roots
to the early 20th century, when hazardous work conditions and sweatshop
wages were a dominant feature of urban life. Almost all of China's
neighbors allowed more leeway for union activity than China does, though
they were also notorious in the 1970's and 1980's for the sort of abuses
common in China today.

But the leaders have single-mindedly embraced growth to finance the
enormous government bureaucracy, absorb huge unemployment, and help
state-run banks avoid collapse. Worker rights and environmental protection
are seen as threats to investment. "The government views many social
problems as something the next generation can solve, when China is
wealthier," says Mr. Dai, the labor expert. "The problem is that the
longer we wait, the greater the burden."

In addition, many lower-level officials participate in exploiting the
workers. State-financed construction projects often fail to pay the
workers they hire. The reason, it is assumed, is that bureaucrats and
favored businessmen pocket the money. Many coal mines do not install
safety equipment, and the death toll in accidents has been well in excess
of 5,000 annually. (China in 2003 produced about 40 percent more coal than
the United States but had at least 130 times more mining fatalities.)

The foreign-financed export sector is less dangerous. But the factories
that produce the world's goods operate on marathon 12-hour shifts, rarely
pausing on Sundays. Workers live in crowded dormitories with communal
bathrooms that lack hot water in winter or fans in summer.

Guangdong legally requires a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, before
overtime, of about $72 a month, as well as medical insurance and pension
plans. But factory managers said in interviews over the past year that the
only people who care about these standards are managers for foreign
companies. And these people, factory bosses say, are easily deceived.

When workers demand their rights, they are slapped down. The
state-controlled national union requires that all factories with 100
employees or more open a branch. But in most cases this is never done.
Independent unions are treated as subversive.

Despite sporadic attention to these concerns, most intellectuals and
government officials long ago embraced the market, and the invisible hand
of supply and demand, as the solution to China's sweatshop problem.

In a recent essay in Southern Breeze magazine, Xue Zhaofeng, an economist,
criticized foreigners for trying to impose "one size fits all" labor
standards on China. "Even if they don't have ulterior motives in forcing
this on China, interfering with the market in this way is useless," he

But after 25 years of economic reform, China probably needs no more
convincing about what markets can do. The question it now faces is what
they cannot do.


                   ... we no longer have roots, we have aerials ...

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