Friday, February 9, 2007

China 1989 - Fourth Installment

This is the fourth and final installment in my series, "Exorcising the Ghost of Mass Political Activism: Deng Xiaoping, Workers, Peasants and the 1989 Spring Uprising." (Part I of this series is here.)

I wrote this paper in the early 1990s, and updated it in the mid-1990s. I post it here because the events of the late 1980s in China provide a wealth of lessons for those who want to radically remake society. In the process of converting this from its original format in WordPerfect to Word, I lost the footnotes. Fortunately I still have a copy of this essay in hard copy, but I haven't had the time to add the footnote references and discussion. Please forgive me for this temporary shortcoming.

One of the lessons from the 1989 Spring Uprising that we can learn today is that popular dissatisfaction and restiveness, if given a lightening rod, can grow to extraordinary dimensions. We need to pay very close attention to the possibilities inherent in a developing situation, even if on the surface of things such dramatic alterations in the political landscape don't appear to be present. Our rulers are planning another war in a desperate gamble to rescue their disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have been in the process of fundamentally restructuring what it means to be an American and what America is - normalizing and legalizing torture, pre-emptive wars of aggression and mass murder. Civil liberties that people laid down their lives for are being systematically ripped away and torn to shreds. The sense of unease and distress over this is widespread. Those who see this most clearly now need to step forward and galvanize these broad sentiments and turn this into an open fight over what kind of world we and our children will live in. As more people learn more about what our government has actually been doing and what it is actually planning (e.g., especially, through reading Impeach the President) they will step forward and take history into their hands.

As the World Can't Wait people have been saying: "If not us, who? If not now, when?"

Part 4:

Class Polarization

The preceding discussion sketches in outline the problem for workers. Turning now to the countryside: the minority of peasants who have made quick fortunes in sideline operations (the "10,000-yuan households" and farmers in the suburbs of major cities) have evidently provoked widespread resentment (and numerous incidents of retaliation). Gong (1990), for example, notes:

“China's farmers were equally unenthusiastic about the direction of reform. Some farmers in suburb areas had gotten rich selling produce they raised... However, most farmers lacked easy access to the free markets... They said they would not turn their grain over to the state if it continued paying them with paper IOU's.” (p. 80. See also Chan (1989: 123)).

The collective responsibility system's overthrow, and its replacement with the traditional household as the responsible unit has led to a number of changes. Among these has been the downgrading of women's role (under Mao the declared holders of "half the sky")(see, for example, Davin (1990). This has occurred over a broad front: the abandonment of the canteens and child care facilities (thus reimposing the traditional burdens of cooking and childrearing on women), the fixing of responsibility for production in the hands of men in the household, the hoary reappearance of female infanticide (since women are married out and therefore in the traditional scheme not income sources and are not expected to provide for parents when the parents grow old) and a spur to larger families (since the household unit is now sole source of income and security it pays to have more children). This latter development obviously sabotages the government's campaign to limit population growth.

There have been a number of other consequences of these changes. Collectively built and maintained irrigation projects, for example, are commonly in disrepair since it profits no one individually to maintain them. Grain is in short supply and cultivated acreage has actually declined in the reform years. Further, with the official encouragement to "get rich quick" and the nouveau riche rural entrepreneurs as the government's official "models," disputes, sometimes violent, have erupted between neighboring communes and villages. For example:

“The pretext for a lucrative attack on state property could be remarkably slight. Wuchang Lake in Wangping, Anhui, opened for fishing on 19 January 1980. That day, Chang Xiaokai, secretary of the Party branch of the Dachang production brigade in Wuchang commune, got into a squabble with a policeman about a boy picking up a fish that had been dropped on the ground. One of Chang's nephews stood by him during the argument, while another of his nephews (also a member of the brigade Party branch) pulled an an attempt to strike the policeman. Seeing this dispute, fellow brigade members rushed to the police command post and beat up 16 leading cadres, public security cadres, and police who were trying to organize the fishing operations... Then Chang Xiaokai directed his followers to smash a truck of the Hefei aquatic products company and seven buildings being used by the command post. That afternoon, the local peasants looted 38,900 jin of fresh fish.”

Perry's short article is replete with incidents such as this. Stavis notes a number of rural incidents: In 1988, thousands of Shandong farmers destroyed and looted the party committee building after the local party had urged garlic growing, taxed it, and then were unable to purchase it all at a high price. In Hunan the same year villagers damaged a procurator's office and cadres' quarters angered by the way the government handled a fatal fight between two men after one assaulted a woman. Between one to three thousand farmers fifty miles southwest of Beijing battled several thousand police June 21 and 22, 1988 in an effort to prevent a petrochemical plant's pollutants being allowed to enter their irrigation system. Seven people were reported killed, seventy police injured, and five arrested. On June 4, 1988, peasants looted a coal-mine to compensate themselves for pollution caused by the mine.

"A mob attacked twenty-seven tax collectors with rocks, bottles, sticks, and acid when the tax collectors went to inspect jewelry manufacturing shops... These and other incidents were triggered by discontent over price hikes and wage levels."

Alongside this, according to official Chinese media, there has been an alarming rise in feudal superstitions activities, often led by party members! Since neither the party nor the collective will any longer provide anyone assurance of safety and welfare--it is all up to your own household or extended family now--the reappearance of feudal religious and superstitious practises as succor against an uncertain future and the capricious elements is hardly surprising. The People's Daily of 12 July 1982 cited "'frequent reports' that in some areas people are taking advantage of feudal superstitious beliefs to call themselves emperor, make women their 'imperial concubines,' and disrupt social order." As Perry points out, while the rural cadre are now charged with the task of protecting state interests in the countryside, their own bases of power have been undercut by the new agricultural reforms. The government and media have expressed alarm at these incidents and responded by blaming the incidents on the "calamitous years" of the Cultural Revolution and the policies of Lin Biao and the "Gang of Four." They cite ideological problems as the source of the problem:

"It is necessary to introduce scientific knowledge to the masses and vigorously conduct education in idealism and atheism. When their awareness is heightened...they will then spontaneously destroy superstition."

However, as Perry goes on to note:

"Missing from such interpretations, of course, is any acknowledgement that the policy content of reforms enunciated at the Third Plenum may be responsible for inciting popular resistance; that such opposition may in fact be an expression of certain social interests disadvantaged or otherwise brought into play by the new agricultural measures. (Emphasis in the original)"

Perry cites that for the current regime, "one of the most serious costs [of the GPCR years] is the fact that 'quite a few cadres are still under the influence of leftist ideology.' As a result, many local leaders feel less than enthusiastic about post-Cultural Revolution proposals. The lack of commitment, in turn, means a decline in the state's capacity to enforce its will in the countryside."

Government spending on agriculture went from 11% of total capital investment in the 1970's to 6% in the early 1980s to 3% in the late 1980's, a drop of almost 400%. "The increase in agricultural productivity in the 1980s had been derived form the benefits of fertilizer plants purchased in the 1970s [i.e., under the "Gang"] and as a consequence of greater incentives given individual peasant households. But now few new fertilizer factories were built, and no new irrigation and water projects were undertaken. Without better machinery and fertilizer, peasants would have to work late into the night to continue to improve productivity."

In addition, Deng's wide-open door to foreign capital has severely exacerbated class polarization in China. Especially in the coastal regions enclaves have been carved out in which Chinese workers enjoy little more than service class status alongside prosperous foreigners. The much-touted Special Economic Zones that Deng pronounced his equivalent of the Learn from Dazhai (Learn from Shenzhen) movement have not produced the hoped for economic miracles (interestingly, his model Shenzhen was the site of an anti-government march of 100,000 in 1989). The economic reforms have, however, caused a flood of foreign goods, especially Japanese, to invade China (the initial trigger of the protests was demands that the "second Japanese invasion" be stopped). Yet it is precisely this path of opening the doors even wider to foreign capital that Deng must increasingly rely on to attempt to bail himself out of trouble. The paradox is that the so-called cure of economic reforms caused the hemorrhaging of the patient. Further such cures may only worsen the disease.

The demand for control over one's political and economic life has been especially spurred on by the widespread sense that people have been broadly disempowered. Workers are no longer the vanguard but once again people whose only role is to work hard. Students and intellectuals are told that they now have freedom of thought, yet find that their attempts to use the "four freedoms" are completely shut down.

The Cultural Revolution's Legacy

Whereas workers in Russia and Eastern Europe have nearly universally greeted the rhetoric of the working class being the leading class with profound cynicism for the last several decades, in China this was not merely CCP rhetoric. If anything, the GPCR [Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution] is condemned by those who despise it most of all for its unleashing of people from below against people on top. This is, of course, especially true of those in power today. Falkenheim (1978), in his study of emigree Chinese concluded: "Both [young and old respondents] held that the psychological effects of years of open factional battle in China had been to produce a generation of young Chinese far bolder and more questioning (t'iao-p'i ta-tan) than themselves." (p. 32) Halpern (1989) notes the GPCR's impact on the 1989 democracy movement:

"The movement's origins lay not in participant's calculations about likely success or failure, but rather in a participatory political disposition produced by the experiences of the Cultural Revolution... In some people, primarily young and urban, cynicism and a temptation to refrain from political action were more than counterbalanced by a strong belief in the legitimacy of popular participation created by the rhetoric and experiences of the time.

"One author, himself a former Red Guard, has suggested that in December 1966, 'for the first time the broad ranks of workers were able to give their superiors a piece of their mind without fear of being beaten down as anti-party, anti-socialist elements.' Frustrations were aired as the 'rank and file took the cadres to task.' They reprimanded them over 'the unreasonable treatment they had been subject to over the years. Petitioners began to pour into Beijing... In some places, ... conservative party managers tried to restrain the leftists by rewarding workers with goods and money."

The comments of another former Red Guard echo this sentiment:

"At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution I feel the ordinary people were exhilarated by their new right to criticize and even to attack their bosses. The suppressed humiliation that one suffers at the hands of a faceless bureaucracy builds up a resentment that is like the surging tide blocked by a dam."

One Chinese woman, in a personal conversation with this author, described the Cultural Revolution this way: "The people were ecstatic." And as a respondent in Falkenheim's study points out: "After the Cultural Revolution, he said, 'you could feel free to criticize party members without feeling that you were attacking the party. This is a big change.' Few felt that the 'great order' now being sought by CCP Chairman Hua Kuo-feng would have the effect of reducing the openess initiated by the Cultural Revolution." (p. 31).

Interestingly, even though Falkenheim characterizes his respondents as politically "lukewarm" middle of the road types,

"[W]hen asked to comment on the impact of the fall of the Gang of Four, [they] challenged the idea that a new era of "liberalism" was dawning. Instead, they viewed recent events as contributing to a new era of conformism and orthodoxy."(p. 32)

Nathan (1985), Brodsgaard (1981), Falkenheim (1978), Feigon (1990), Zhu/Zhao/Li (1990) and Rosen (1985) reach similar conclusions regarding the Cultural Revolution's democratizing effects.

"Reassessing the legacy of the Cultural Revolution for themselves, they [the students] sympathized with the desire of those Revolutionary Red Guards who in the 1960s had hoped to eliminate bureaucracy and corruption and return the party to its earlier revolutionary heritage... They believed that much of the openness and decentralization that had occurred in China since 1977 had been made possible because the Cultural Revolution weakened the Party and forced the government once more to appeal to the masses to retain its power."

This image is of course completely at odds with the picture painted by the current government. It would be surprising, however, if the legacy of decades of mass political campaigns aimed precisely at mobilizing people politically and enjoining them to decide political questions themselves would not have left its mark on China's citizens. Formally abolishing the Four Freedoms has proven easier for Deng than erasing "the traces of mass movement activism...from the life-style of the nation's youth."

Deng's consigning of workers to the bottom of the heap against the background of several decades as the leading class triggered a more rapid, more conscious and more massive response than has been seen in other countries after similar moves to marketize the economy. Egalitarianism and its dramatic decline (including the growing hatred for the new managerial class) under Deng appears to be the way in which most workers are entering into political combat with the regime. That is, while for the majority of workers the "historic mission of the working class" to abolish all class distinctions and uproot all forms of inequality and privilege may not yet be in the forefront of their consciousness, the evident widening gaps between them and their superiors, the way workers have been consigned to being driven workers induced by coercion to produce more, and so on, is seen as a clear and present danger.

The State of the Party

One result of the past mass political campaigns (and the Cultural Revolution in particular) persists in the presence of a decentralized and fairly politicized mass base. This situates Deng on the horns of a dilemma. He must, on the one hand, protect the party and central leadership as his power base and the apparatus of rule. Without a strong central leadership China would be ungovernable. As it is, centrifugal forces have been unleashed throughout society that are causing, for example, atomization and bitter, destructive rivalries between rural regions and villages. On the other hand, Deng is bent on moving to a market driven economy. A centralized leadership without real decentralized initiative to go along with that centralized guidance stands in contradiction to and as a hindrance to implementing a market economy. As more and more functions (specifically economic ones) have been divorced from party members and placed in the hands of managers, and so on, the raison d'etre and mass base for party members is slipping away. As Stavis notes, for example:

"[T]he post of factory manager was separated from that of party secretary. The managers received new powers to punish or fire workers, and the party branches were left with the vague task of guaranteeing and supervising by methods of party self-development, mass work, and inspiration. These changes threatened the stability of China's industrial arrangements... As implementation of the reform began, a complex power struggle to establish new power relations emerged between the party, the People's Congress, and the government."

On one side you have highly placed cadre (and their scions) becoming extremely wealthy by engaging in high level corruption. On the other side you have some cadre who have been excluded from participating in those big-time spoils engaging instead in leading feudal superstition spectacles and participating in (often leading) bitter internecine fights over property with neighboring villages. A further complication in this is that different sectors of industry have fared differentially under the economic reforms. Principals in the heavy industries, for example, and associated cadre, have not seen the benefits that light industry has, and there are sharp conflicts within and between these sectors and sections of the party.

Vestiges of people brought into the party during the heady GPCR days persist in the lower party ranks especially and provide an ongoing problem for Deng implementing his policies. Finally, within the national leadership cracks and fissures have appeared as different sections and individuals battle over how best to contain the masses and carry forward with a market driven economy. The struggle between Deng and Zhao Ziyang, for example, was exemplary of this.


Red Flag's unabashed statement that "ideals are far-away, politics are meaningless, but cash is real" can perhaps now be read both as a crass celebration of capitalist logic and as ironically true. Cash is, after all, not a thing but a social relation, that is, a class relation between a privileged class and an oppressed class. The Spring Uprising represents, in its essential thrust, the reassertion of real class struggle against oppressive officials. Moreover, the situation in the countryside, where 60% of China lives, bodes ill for the current government.



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