People's Republic of China at 60: socialist revolution, capitalist restoration

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[Click HERE for more analysis of the Chinese Revolution and its evolution.]

By Chris Slee

September 23, 2009 -- October 1 will mark 60 years since Mao Zedong proclaimed the creation of the People's Republic of China. This followed the victory of the People’s Liberation Army, led by the Communist Party of China (CCP), over the US-backed Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party, KMT). 

In 1921, when the CCP was founded, China was in chaos. Western intervention — military, economic, political and cultural — had destroyed or undermined traditional Chinese institutions. New, stable institutions had not been created. Various imperialist powers grabbed pieces of Chinese territory.

Some modern industry was established, mainly in the coastal cities. But most Chinese people were peasants, heavily exploited by big landowners.

The CCP, which had won support among urban workers, was ruthlessly crushed by the KMT in 1927, with thousands of communists massacred. The CCP survived in remote rural areas, and grew again with peasant support. In these areas, it carried out progressive measures, such as land reform.

Following the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, the CCP won respect as the most determined anti-Japanese fighters. After the defeat of Japan in 1945, war broke out again between the CCP and the pro-capitalist KMT, with the Communists winning.

Social gains

The early years of the revolution brought big social gains for the impoverished population. Health and education were greatly improved. Mass campaigns eliminated disease, illiteracy, prostitution, forced marriage and many other abuses of the old society.

Before the revolution, a large section of people lived on the brink of starvation. This lowered resistance to disease so that epidemics killed thousands every year. There were no reliable statistics, but it has been estimated that China’s life expectancy before 1949 was 35 years. By 1981, life expectancy had risen to 69.6 years for women and 67 for men, Ruth and Victor Sidel’s 1982 book, The Health of China, said.

Huge campaigns of vaccination and health education, medical training and increased health services largely wiped out many previously rampant diseases. Medical services were brought to rural areas that had not previously seen a doctor.

Urban workers also benefited. In addition to the health and literacy programs, they gained job security and other benefits, such as housing supplied by their workplace.

The CCP took some initial steps in the transition towards socialism. It mobilised the working class to weaken the power of the capitalists. It nationalised capitalist industry and began building a planned economy.

However, the transition to socialism was hindered both by objective conditions (the backwardness of China, the pressures of imperialism, etc.) and by the bureaucratic nature of the CCP.

Bureaucracy and repression

The CCP used repression against opponents, including people who supported the revolution but disagreed with some of the government’s policies. This intimidated people from criticising mistaken government policies. It meant bad policies were often not corrected until they had become disasters of such a magnitude that the leadership was forced to change course.

This was combined with institutionalised inequality. In 1956, the Chinese government adopted a system of ranks for state employees that included 30 grades. The top grade received 28 times the pay of the bottom grade. In addition to their salaries, higher party and state officials had expense accounts for special housing, cars, drivers, personal servants, meals, travel and other perks.

At the top of this system of repression and bureaucratic privilege was Mao Zedong, whose authority was maintained by a cult of personality.

An example of the consequences of these practices the so-called Great Leap Forward in 1958. It attempted to bring about enormous, and impossible, increases in industrial and agricultural production. The attempt disrupted the economy and caused a period of economic decline — even famine.

There was no open admission of mistakes, nor open criticism of Mao. The cult of Mao was maintained. But the failure of Mao’s grandiose schemes sowed the seeds of a split among the CCP central leadership. One faction, headed by Liu Shaochi and Deng Xiaoping, were often referred to as “pragmatists” or “moderates”. They wanted no more voluntarist adventures like the Great Leap Forward.

The other faction headed by Mao and including defence minister Lin Biao was still prone to voluntarism. They sometimes used egalitarian rhetoric — hypocritical given the privileged lifestyle of the bureaucracy, of which they were part.

The Maoist faction, in decline after the Great Leap Forward debacle, launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to make a comeback. They used Mao’s prestige to mobilise youth to attack supporters of Liu and Deng — accused of “following the capitalist road”. Mao and his supporters used radical-sounding slogans, like “It’s right to rebel” to mobilise students against Mao’s opponents. High school and university students formed groups of “rebels” or “red guards”.

They criticised, humiliated, and often assaulted teachers and academic authorities. They also attacked party and government officials.

Mao’s faction tried to keep control of the movement, directing it against those perceived as Mao’s opponents. But some groups escaped control and attacked Mao’s supporters too. Some seized arms and different groups of “rebels” began fighting each other. The army was brought in to restore order.

Although the Maoist faction appeared to have come out on top in the inner-party struggle, their grip on power was actually very shaky. They had to restore to positions of authority many of the old cadres who had been purged, to get society functioning again. The Cultural Revolution ended in an uneasy compromise.

At this stage, US imperialism started putting out feelers to the Chinese bureaucrats. It was looking for a deal with China at the expense of Vietnam and Third World national liberation struggles generally. The first talks were held in 1969. US secretary of state Henry Kissinger visited China in 1971, preparing the ground for President Richard Nixon's visit the following year.

China’s foreign policy turned sharply to the right in 1971, with the Chinese government openly supporting right-wing forces in struggles in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Sudan and Angola.

It seems most leaders of both the Maoist and anti-Maoist factions agreed on this turn.

Restoring capitalism

Mao died in 1976 and his supporters were defeated in the ensuing power struggle.

By 1978, Deng Xiaoping had become the real leader of China. Deng introduced “market reforms”. In the early stages, the reforms involved the use of market mechanisms to develop the economy, but with the state sector remaining predominant in large-scale industry.

But by 1992, the Deng regime had clearly adopted the perspective of restoring capitalism as the dominant mode of production. Corruption spread as bureaucrats increasingly strove to accumulate wealth for themselves as private ownership of the economy expanded.

Opposition to corruption — and the bureaucratic regime — began to grow. In 1988-89 there was an upsurge of demands for freedom and democracy, and against corruption.

In April 1989, students protested in Beijing’s Tienanmen square. They remained for more than a month and were joined by many non-students. The army was ordered to remove the protesters, but the protesters talked to the soldiers and won many of them over.

Workers joined the protest and raised their own demands, focusing on job security, wages, opposition to the burgeoning private enterprises, and control over their workplaces.

Eventually, the regime brought in new army units that used extreme violence to crush the movement. A wave of repression followed.

China today

In 1992, Deng Xiaoping gave the go-ahead for a policy of all-out privatisation. The state’s share of industrial production has fallen from 100% in 1978 to 31.6% in 2004.

Today, millions of Chinese workers are ruthlessly exploited by local and foreign capital. Extremely long hours, physical punishment, fines and non-payment of wages are among the abuses suffered by many Chinese workers.

Transnational corporations are attracted to China by the huge reserve army of labour created by the displacement of peasants from the land and workers retrenched from state-owned factories. They are also attracted by the absence of trade unions in many enterprises, and the tameness of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions where it exists. (It sometimes challenges blatant violations of China’s labour laws by employers through legal channels, but does not encourage strikes.)

It is clear that China is now a capitalist country.

Yet the imperialists are not totally satisfied. State-owned enterprises remain dominant in certain strategic industrial sectors and in the banking sector. The failure of China to fully apply the neoliberal model meant it could use the state-owned banks to quickly implement stimulus measures after 2008 global financial crisis.

The imperialists want complete privatisation and full access to all areas of the economy.

This contributes to the tension between the rulers of China and the US. It helps explain the hypocritical rhetoric from Western politicians and media about the need for “democracy” in China.

The Chinese regime wants to maintain a certain degree of independence from imperialism. In the past, it has collaborated with imperialism to attack Third World revolutions, even invading Vietnam in 1979. However, at the moment it has good relations with revolutionary governments in Cuba and Venezuela.

The Chinese state remains capitalist. It represses the resistance of the workers to capitalist exploitation. However, workers are fighting back against attacks on their job security, living standards and working conditions. There have been thousands of strikes and protests by Chinese workers, as well as numerous protests by peasants against land seizures by local governments and property developers.

There have been protests by environmentalists against pollution and environmental destruction.

These struggles indicate the potential for a new socialist revolution — one that could establish a genuine workers’ democracy.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #811, September 23, 2009.Chris Slee is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist organisation affiliated to the Socialist Alliance of Australia.]