At the end of March, the International Labour Organisation’s Bureau for Workers Activities (known as ILO-ACTRAV) and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) signed a Memorandum of Understanding “to promote Trade unions South-South Cooperation in the Asia- Pacific region”.
The Director-General of the ILO, Guy Ryder, said “we need to find a way which so that the ACFTU can work more closely with other parts of the international trade union movement, sharing common objectives.”
Ryder is a former General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, which has decided to invite the ACFTU to attend its upcoming World Congress in Berlin in May.
These two events illustrate the fact that the trade union leadership in much of the developing world now seems keen on putting the past behind us and welcoming China’s trade unions back into our “global family”.
This is the culmination of efforts going back several years, and the British TUC has played a prominent — indeed, enthusiastic — part in this process.
I think that this is a problem for the trade union movement because the officially sanctioned, legal trade unions in China are not trade unions in the sense that we understand them in a country like the UK.
Historically, the ACFTU differed not one iota from, say, the “All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions” in the USSR. In fact, it was set up based on the Soviet model.
And that model had nothing to do with worker representation, collective bargaining, or class struggle.
In the Soviet model, unions were organs of the Communist Party and the state, designed to enforce workplace discipline and provide some welfare benefits to workers.
I think few would deny that the Chinese unions fit that description perfectly, at least up until a few years ago.
For that reason, for many decades the ACFTU was quite isolated in the international trade union movement. Like trade unions in Cuba, North Korea or Vietnam, it was seen as a “state labour front” — and not a union. Read the rest of this entry »
“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e; to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image” – Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1848.
Nothing must stand in the way of Osborne’s “personal mission” to make London a Chinese offshore banking centre and a global renminbi hub.
The Torygraph‘s Michael Deacon gives a pretty fair account of Osborne’s grovelling:
“Long gone, thankfully,” said George Osborne, “are the days when Western politicians turned up here and simply demanded that China open up its economy to Western economies.”
He’s right. Our politicians no longer demand.
The Chancellor’s speech at Peking University, on the first of his five days in China, was almost magnificently obsequious. Lavishly he praised “your great country”, “the depth and sophistication of the Chinese culture”, “the value you place on consistency and stability and on friendship”, and “your Vice Premier Ma Kai, whose reputation for economic reform and diligence impresses all”.
According to his script, available on the Government website, Mr Osborne is delighted that Britain and China have grown more “complimentary”. At first I thought he meant complementary, but on second thoughts I suspect not.
Normally when Mr Osborne encounters something he considers Left-wing – for example, Ed Miliband’s idea to freeze energy bills – he derides it. For some reason however his speech today contained no jokes at the expense of China’s ruling Communist Party. Perhaps he’s saving up those jokes for later in the trip. Although if he does tell them, he may find that the local authorities generously extend his visit. By, say, three or four decades.
Britain, gushed the Chancellor, would be only too delighted to welcome lots of lovely Chinese investment. We couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Not like those rotten Europeans, who “find all sorts of ways of making clear that Chinese investment is not welcome” – heavens, no, don’t invest in their snooty little countries! Invest in Britain! Do come in, sirs! May we take your coats, sirs? And may we recommend a bottle of the Chateau Margaux? On the house, sirs, of course!
His audience was largely made up of students. It was, he gurgled, “an honour” to be among them, “the students who are going to shape the future of the world”. Students who would make advances in technology, build new businesses, create jobs around the world – but more than that. “You,” said Mr Osborne, almost sighing with admiration, “are the students of today who will write the poems of tomorrow.”
And with any luck, they’ll come and open a vast new poem factory in Britain, employing thousands of British youths to mass-produce state-of-the-art villanelles at competitive prices…
Or, to put it another way:
“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at least compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Above: from the Financial Times
Snowden: no Daniel Ellsberg
Opinion differs, even on the left (and I use the term in its broadest sense), as to the significance of Edward Snowden’s revelations. Francis Sedgemore reckons it’s a pretty big deal whereas Workers Liberty seems somewhat more sanguine.
But what most of us could agree on, at least until now, was that Snowden seemed to be a well-intentioned and quite brave individual, entirely worthy of our support.
But his decision to flee rather than face the consequences of his actions, has inevitably diminished his credibility. And worse, his apparent willingness to seek refuge in some of the most repressive states in the world, can only make things worse. The hand of the tyrant-lover and arch-hypocrite Assange is obviously behind this, manipulating a second vulnerable, idealistic young man (poor Bradley Manning being the first).
Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon papers, has been unstinting in his support for Snowden, but the truth is that there’s a fundamental difference between the two: Ellsberg faced up to the consequences of his actions and stood before his accusers. Come to that, so has Bradley Manning. Snowden has slunk away (and yes, I know it’s easy for me to sound off from the safety of my comfy little home, but the point stands nonetheless).
“It’s a tragedy that Snowden’s made this mistake because what he had to reveal about the US security state was very troubling. But while the message remains important, the messenger has been exposed as unworthy of it. Snowden’s totalitarian tour is an embarrassment to his cause.”
Guest post from Pink Prosecco
Our friend Mr Nooman is highly critical of Carillion’s practices with regard to those it employs at Swindon Hospital. If the allegations of blacklisting and bullying against Carillion are true he is quite right to stand up for the workers who have been affected.
Nooman’s blog is keen on China.
So I wonder what he’d make of this story, about an Oregon woman who found a letter describing conditions in a Chinese labour camp tucked away in her box of Halloween decorations?
Although one cannot be sure whether it is authentic, the horrendous conditions it describes are consistent with the testimony of former prisoners.
“Dai Liguo, formerly Detained Falun Gong Practitioner told the channel: ‘I was sent to Masanjia in 1999 and persecuted there. They produce handmade crafts for export.
‘Most are plastic and are toxic. I was making Christmas decorations, and also knitted sweaters. I had to work from 5 in the morning to 11 at night.’
Another former prisoner, Guo Yujun, said: “Aside from toilet breaks, we had to sit for the whole day, and make those products. There wasn’t a day off, and we weren’t fed properly. In our case, there was no pay for our work.”
Still - their soldiers are super.
Adapted (by Jim Denham) from an article originally written before the announcement of the new leadership, by Camila Bassi
One in five of the world’s populace now have new leaders for a decade’s term.
The 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was an assembly of the ruling class so tightly regulated that all that China’s people and the rest of the world saw was a well-orchestrated display of bureaucratic power.
Behind-the-scenes faction fights between the elites within the Party had already been settled for the sake of the ruling class’s survival.
The previous Vice-President Xi Jinping (a candidate accceptable to all of the Party’s factions) succeeded Hu Jintao as leader of the CCP.
After Xi and the No. 2 official, Li Keqiang, who becomes premier, the other top officials on the ageing Politburo Standing Committee, in order of their new rank, are Zhang Dejiang, 66, a North Korean-trained economist now running Chongqing; Yu Zhengsheng, 67, the Shanghai party boss; and Liu Yunshan, 65, the head of the Communist Party’s propaganda department, which is in charge of censorship. The final two on the seven-member committee are Wang Qishan, 64, known for his economic management skills, who will be in charge of anti-corruption efforts as head of the party’s discipline commission in the new government; and Zhang Gaoli, 66, the party boss in Tianjin.
Now seems an apt moment to pose the question, what defines the present political moment in China? I’ll provide a response through seven key observations.
1. The Princelings, the Populists, and the Bo Xilai affair
Two defining factions at the top of the CCP are the “princelings” and the “populists”.
The princelings tend to have familial roots in the Party and geographical origins in the economically prosperous coastal areas of the country. They are seen to represent business interests.
The populists tend to have climbed the ranks of the Party and to have come from more inland (poorer) Chinese provinces. They are perceived to speak more for the vulnerable social interest groups.
Bo Xilai, while head of Chongqing, had ambitions for the Politburo Standing Committee. Bo (a princeling) represented — through the since-coined Chongqing Model — one avenue for more general political reform in China. In this major city he drove through a combination of high state control, which included a high-profile (but selective) clampdown on organised crime, the promotion of Maoist “red culture”, and the courting of foreign investment alongside large-scale public provision.
Bo’s downfall came from the death of a British businessman and his related corrupt business dealings, but also from factional fighting and his challenge to Party convention. The significance? The reaction of many of the populace, which questioned the deep-seated corrupt nature of the Party itself and how Bo had risen to such prominence.
His downfall was the biggest event in China since the 1989 revolutionary uprisings centred on Tiananmen Square. With approximately 500 million Chinese netizens, the Party cannot control everyday life as it once could.
2. Troubled times for the Chinese economy
China’s economic growth has been slowing down for seven consecutive quarters and this year it will have the slowest economic growth rate since 1999.
The huge spending package launched in 2008 has, it is estimated, led to the building of half of all of the country’s physical assets within the last six years.
The “inevitable side effects of that stimulus — non-performing loans and potentially deflationary overcapacity — have not yet taken hold” (Pilling, 2012). Take housing as an example. About 30% of the country’s housing stock is currently lying empty. If we add to this that the economy has still to be rebalanced by the CCP from investment to consumption, and the economy’s dependence on exports to a recession-hit Europe, troubled days surely lie ahead.
3. working class protest and militancy
As surveyed in my article in Solidarity 258, both the quantity of working class protests in China has significantly increased this century and the qualitative nature has changed, with these protests becoming more militant.
As previously noted: “Whilst worker protests in the early 2000s predominantly involved laid-off workers from state-owned enterprises and rural migrants employed in the private sector, by the end of the decade a new group, or a ‘new generation’, emerged. Those born in the 1980s and 1990s have altered the nature of the migrant worker to one younger, better educated, more connected, and with higher expectations and more willingness to take on proactive demands.”
4. The rise of “middle class” discontent
This is less militant. So-called “middle class” protest in China is more about better government than the overthrow of the existing one. But the rise in discontent amongst middle-income Chinese includes currents desiring some form of bourgeois democracy.
Intense political discontents on housing, health, education, and the environment, are all fundamentally driven by a concern that the CCP pursuit of economic growth is at the expense of ordinary people.
The recent NIMBY protest in Ningbo against a petrochemical plant led to a concession by the local government to stop the plant’s expansion. This decision can be explained both by the fact that it occurred in the run up to the 18th Congress, during which the Party seeks an especially compliant population, and by the Party’s more general strategy (unlike the more violent one towards militant working class demands) of keeping the peace by piecemeal allowances.
5. Anxious maintenance of internal stability
Based on observations 1, 2, 3 and 4, an increasingly more assertive Chinese population — able and willing to take on its government — might well indicate that China is on the verge of a revolution.
One further factor needs to be brought into play for such an assessment, which is the ability of the CCP to (in its own words) “maintain internal stability”.
The Ministry of Public Security records the number of “mass incidents” rising from 8,700 in 1993, 32,000 in 1999, 50,000 in 2002, and at present 100,000 annually. More to the point, the Party is increasingly serious (paranoid even) about keeping control; currently spending as much if not more on the maintenance of internal stability than its defence force.
So, while my article in Solidarity 231 assesses the potential of an inspiring struggle against land seizures and for local democracy in Wukan village, any suggestion of meaningful political reform is tempered by the introduction of militias in Wukan since August of this year. This reflects, more generally across China, “the newest incarnation of a venerable approach to population control and social management” (Wagner, 2012).
6. The Sino-Japanese islands dispute and Chinese nationalism
The CCP is creating new facts on the water in its long-running maritime disputes with the Philippines and Japan.
Could this situation escalate further and draw China, Japan and the United States into a war? It cannot be ruled out.
Not unrelated is the nature and volatility of Chinese nationalism, which has deeply embedded within it a popular anti-Japanese racism, as seen in the recent wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations across the country. Herein lies a means for the CCP to unify the populace and distract them from the problems within by the problems without.
7. China in Africa
Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times (21 October) states: “The big picture remains the Pentagon’s AFRICOM spreading its militarized tentacles against the lure of Chinese soft power in Africa, which goes something like this: in exchange for oil and minerals, we build anything you want, and we don’t try to sell you ‘democracy for dummies’.”
A widespread view on the left, based on observations like this, is that US imperialism is the big bad evil, while China remains a palatable alternative. A serious assessment of Chinese imperialism is avoided.
China is now Africa’s largest trading partner and lends the continent more money than the World Bank. Chinese companies have entered profitable oil markets in, for instance, Angola, Nigeria, Algeria and Sudan, made big mining deals in countries like Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and are constructing what is claimed to be the world’s biggest iron mine in Gabon; additionally, land is being sought for large-scale agribusinesses, and physical infrastructure — to swiftly move capital and labour — is rapidly developing (French, 2012).
In terms of global geopolitics and imperialism, we need to take stock of what this means.
It is not so much the implications of any one of these observations but rather the consequences of them all climaxing and cumulating which makes China’s present moment so critical. Watch this space.
Associated Press (2012) ‘Successful pollution protest shows China takes careful line with rising middle class’. The Washington Post.
Bassi, C (2012) ‘China’s new worker militants’. Solidarity 258.
Bassi, C (2012) ‘Chinese workers fight for democracy’. Solidarity 231.
BBC (2012) ‘China’. BBC World Online.
French, H (2012) ‘The Next Empire’. The Atlantic.
Pilling, D (2012) ‘Xi should draw up a new social contract for China’. Financial Times.
Wagner, D (2012) ‘The Rise of the Chinese Urban Militias’. Huffington Post.
‘I call this book Tombstone. It is a tombstone for my foster father who died of hunger in 1959, for the 36 million Chinese who also died of hunger, for the system that caused their death, and perhaps for myself for writing this book’ - Yang Jisheng
Mao’s crazy policy of unrealisable industrial tragets in the town and forced collectivisation in the countryside was driven by no more than the desire to outstrip Moscow (ie:Khrushchev) as the supposed leadership of international “Communism.” It resulted in mass starvation, cannibalism and terror. Those who dared question the policy were denounced as “right-deviationists” and “counter-revolutionaries” and suffered torture and death. The top echelons of the Party remained silent. Twenty years later Deng Xiaoping said, “During the Great Leap Forward, was it only Mao Zedong who was so fanatical and none of the rest of us? Neither Comrade Liu Shaoqi nor comrade Zhou Enlai nor I opposed him.”
The greatest manmade disaster in history? If you doubt it, listen in every morning this week at 9.45 am or catch the 12.30 pm repeats. Or read the book itself. Here’s a flavour:
“A 41-year-old woman, Pan Suhua, in March 1960, dug up the body of her husband after he had committed suicide, and apart from cooking and eating his flesh, sold 5.875 kilograms of his bones as bear bones at 75 fen per kilogram.”
“In the spring of 1960, a four-member family had been reduced to just the mother and her emaciated daughter. Driven to madness by starvation, the woman killed her daughter and cooked her flesh to eat, after which she became completely deranged and repeatedly cried out her daughter’s name.”
“When [the brigade leaders] went inside they saw something being cooked in a wok, and when they raised the lid they saw it was human flesh. The wok contained an arm that still had a hand attached, from which I could see that it had come from a child.”
Given the enthusiasm for China demonstrated by sections of the “left” recently, the following article is essential reading:
By Camila Bassi (Workers Liberty)
The Hong Kong based NGO China Labour Bulletin (CLB) was set up in 1994. Its founder, a former railway worker, helped establish – during the 1989 Tiananmen Square revolutionary uprising – the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation. This was China’s first, but short-lived, independent trade union. In March this year CLB produced a report assessing the development of the workers’ movement in China during the first decade of the twenty-first century. This article summarises the appraisal made in this report .
Han Dongfang, founder of the CLB, speaking in Tiananmen Square 1989 as a representative of China’s first and short-lived independent trade union.
The phenomenal rate of growth in China’s economy (an economy which surpassed Japan in 2011 to become the second largest in the world) was, by and large, on the sweat and toil of an apparently unlimited supply of impoverished labour from the rural hinterland to the southern coastal areas. As this growth rate slowed, China witnessed a rise in working class organisation, strike action and protest.
The restructuring of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) during the late 1990s and early 2000s and the rapid proliferation of private enterprises has shaped the workers’ movement in two key ways. On the one hand, the previous guarantee of an ‘iron rice bowl’ existence (a job, a home and welfare benefits) disappeared. While workers became unemployed, they observed their former bosses making money out of corrupt manipulation of the restructuring process (with, for instance, state assets being purchased at ludicrously low prices). One major focus of workers’ protest in the early millennium then was over the restructuring process, specifically, redundancy payments, job relocations and corruption. The Liaoyang mass protest of 2002-2003, which involved up to 10,000 workers, is perhaps the most notable. On the other hand, the early rampant growth of private enterprise signified the muscular dominance of capital over labour, with large-scale migration of rural residents to China’s cities for work. A critical shift in demographics however has conditioned the nature of these workers’ protests. The Western media has notably referred to China’s ‘demographic timebomb’, as The Guardian reported this year:
Life expectancy has soared in China, while fertility has plummeted due to strict birth control policies. In 2009 there were 167 million over-60s, about an eighth of the population. By 2050 there will be 480 million, while the number of young people will have fallen. […] China’s economic miracle has been fuelled by its “demographic dividend”: an unusually high proportion of working age citizens. That population bulge is becoming a problem as it ages. In 2000 there were six workers for every over-60. By 2030, there will be barely two.
Labour shortages, first apparent in 2004, then easing during the 2008-2009 capitalist crisis, were, by the end of the decade, evident across China. Since 2004, not only have the number of workers’ protests increased but so too have their demands evolved – from reactive, for example, against violations of labour rights, to proactive, such as demands for better wages and working conditions.
In terms of the distribution of workers’ struggle across the different sectors of China’s economy, while, in the early 2000s, the concentration was in the manufacturing sector (at a time when growth was fuelled by export-led manufacturing delivered by low cost labour), also, during the decade, significant protests took place in the education and transport sectors. Take the case of community teachers, who had played a crucial role since the 1960s in China’s localised schooling but were, in their millions, laid off in the early millennium. Throughout the decade, community teachers have petitioned government and protested. Moreover, regular teachers, particularly in the poorer provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi, Chongqing, Hubai and Hunan, have struck for pay parity with civil servants.
CLB observe a range of tactics used by the labour movement, from strikes (which are still the tactic of choice) to other creative actions. One interesting example is from June 2010, as it reports:
Workers at Jalon Electronics in Xiamen staged a mass “sleep-in” to protest against new work quotas introduced after a 1 June pay increase. Workers said pay for an eight-hour shift had gone up from 30 yuan to 38 yuan but that the work quota had gone up from an already difficult 7,700 units of conductive adhesive to an impossible 9,000 units. The workload was so exhausting that workers said they had no option but to sleep at their stations.
In the context of an intensifying and politically more militarised workers’ movement, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has attempted to marry a so-called new Confucianism with capitalism. The result? The promotion of a ‘harmonious society’; this, in reality, has entailed only piecemeal reforms, such as lacklustre reform of the Hukou (household registration system), which fail in seriously addressing the exclusion of rural migrants and the exploitation of workers. That said, this does point to a serious anxiety of the CCP, as CLB notes: central government spending on the maintenance of stability reached 514 billion yuan in 2009, roughly equivalent to or even in excess of the country’s annual expenditure on the military.
Nonetheless, workers’ protests have continued to excavate, many centred on “anger at the rapidly increasing gaps between the rich and the poor and the powerful and the weak, processes seen as directly linked to government corruption and cronyism.” Furthermore, the blackout in China’s official media on workers’ strikes and demonstrations is no longer possible, because of the rapid spread of the country’s social media, which includes, it is estimated, over 500 million netizens.
Whilst worker protests in the early 2000s predominantly involved laid-off workers from SOEs and rural migrants employed in the private sector, by the end of the decade a new group, or a ‘new generation’, emerged. Those born in the 1980s and 1990s have altered the nature of the migrant worker to one younger, better educated, more connected, and with higher expectations and more willingness to take on proactive demands. This, along with the ‘demographic timebomb’, CLB concludes, means that the workers’ movement in China (although still transitory and fragmented) is politically advancing. In a country hosting one in five of the world’s population, a cause for hope and solidarity then.
China Strikes, here: https://chinastrikes.crowdmap.com/
Was union activist Li Wangyang murdered by the police?
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Some good news for the Chinese working class: Hu Mingjun is about to be released.
But with so much of the contemporary “left” noticeably keen on China (either as the inevitable future world superpower, or as the only realistic alternative to Western ‘neo-liberal’ capitalism), it’s important to remember that it is a highly repressive, anti-working class state-capitalist regime. The following is from
Hu was one of the leaders of the Sichuan provincial branch of the banned China Democratic Party. He was detained by police in early 2001 after offering to help striking workers at the Dazhou Steel Mill in Sichuan. Around 1,000 workers at the plant had earlier organised a mass protest demanding the payment of overdue wages.
Hu was initially charged with “incitement to subvert state power” but the charges were subsequently increased to “subversion.” Hu was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment by the Dazhou Intermediate People’s Court in May 2002.
Hu’s mother told Human Rights in China that after his detention, the family heard nothing from the authorities until months after his trial. She said, “We did not know that he had been sentenced to 11 years until August or September 2002, when the police brought the verdict to his father in a hospital room to get his signature. His father said, ‘I won’t be able to see my son again.’ He passed away a few months later.” She said that Hu Mingjun was suffering from frequent chest pains and nausea, and would faint from the smell of cigarette smoke. According to her, when Hu applied for permission to get a check-up in a hospital outside the prison, it took two or three years before he got the approval. The exam showed that his left ventricle was enlarged and he has needed medications ever since.
Hu was one several activists sentenced to long prison terms in the early 2000s for their role in helping workers seek redress for rights violations during the mass restructuring of state-owned enterprises at the time.
Almost incredibly, the Morning Star (usually totally obsequious towards the Chinese ruling class) published this article:
ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL by Ben Parankulangara
Twenty-twelve is proving a difficult year for the Chinese government. In some senses this was to be expected – the party general secretary Hu Jintao is due to retire (though he will not step down as president until next year), as is Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and shifts in leadership are always accompanied by political wrangling.
The 80-million-strong Communist Party is not a monolith and there are significant differences of opinion on the course of the country’s development, which is not of itself a bad thing.
But the furore over the highly mysterious Bo Xilai incident is a scandal which has attracted an unusual level of international attention and has fuelled intense speculation, both in the Western media and on Chinese social media sites, both as to what exactly happened – many details are still unknown – and why.
Since the rumour mill has gone into overdrive many observers may feel they know more about this political scandal than is justified by the facts.
The unravelling of former Chongqing party leader Bo’s career began on February 6, when the city’s police chief Wang Lijun presented himself at the US consulate in nearby Chengdu.
Since then various tales of what Wang told the US have abounded – that Bo had put his life in danger, that Bo was involved in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood, which had previously been ascribed to alcohol poisoning, that Wang had sought political asylum.
Actually we know nothing of what transpired. The US says that Wang had an appointment at the consulate and left voluntarily the next day.
This clearly isn’t the whole story – a Chinese police official might well have an appointment at a US consulate, but would hardly stay the night under ordinary circumstances – but nothing else has been confirmed.
In March, however, following a speech in which the prime minister told the party in Chongqing to “learn from the Wang Lijun incident,” Bo lost his position as the city’s party leader.
On April 10 he was suspended from the central committee and the politburo for “serious disciplinary violations” to be investigated, and his wife Gu Kailai has been formally charged with Heywood’s murder in a case which has again prompted endless speculation.
Bo Xilai was a prominent figurehead of China’s “new left,” and his downfall caused an explosion of critical commentary on left-wing websites in the country, many of which accused the government of concocting the whole affair for political reasons. This does not stand up to scrutiny.
If the Chinese leadership wanted to disgrace a political rival, they would hardly do so in a way which provoked an international scandal and damages relations with a foreign power.
So can we just dismiss the political aspect and treat this as an ordinary criminal case, albeit with an unusually high-profile suspect?
As far as Bo personally is concerned, yes. But the political significance lies in its sensitive timing – a leadership transition year – and in Bo’s status as the most high-profile “new left” figure in China.
The case may not be politically motivated, but figures who opposed Bo’s style of politics are certainly attempting to use it to discredit the new left in general.
So what is the new left? The term encompasses quite a wide range of views, from full-on Maoism which rejects the country’s entire path of development since 1978 to a more nuanced position which sees a major role for the state in regulating the economy and redistributing wealth.
Ironically this broader definition has seen Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao described as part of the movement in the past, since their policies have concentrated on developing China’s poorest regions, strengthening employment law, giving more independence to trade unions and massively investing in “green” technology.
But it also includes out-and-out dissidents, such as the four activists arrested in Zhengzhou in 2004 after running a leaflet campaign under the slogan Mao Forever Our Leader which denounced the government as imperialist.
This form of anti-government activism rarely receives much attention in the West but resonates more in China than its “liberal” counterpart, which barely registers.
Bo Xilai’s tenure as Chongqing party secretary was characterised by a more aggressive and populist approach than that of Hu and Wen, but could hardly be said to be in opposition to the line taken by central government.
His injunction to party leaders to “eat the same, live the same” as ordinary people was far better illustrated by the lifestyle of the modest Wen than it was by his own behaviour, if we take into account that he sent his son to school at Harrow in England.
His habit of sending out “red text messages,” usually quotes from Mao, has been described rather hysterically as harking back to the Cultural Revolution, but then Hu began his term in office back in 2003 by delivering the most favourable speech on Mao from a party leader in decades on the 110th anniversary of the former chairman’s birth and Mao’s stature and popularity have seldom been higher in China than they are at the moment – since his death, that is.
Granting residency status to migrant workers, and thus allowing them access to all the social security and welfare benefits that that brings, is again part of a wider national trend, not some sort of rebellious Chongqing experiment.
His rigorous defence of state-owned industries and intervention to save small businesses from bankruptcy in the wake of the 2008 economic crash was actually closer to the Beijing line than the approach of his rival Wang Yang – Chongqing party leader before Bo, and now party secretary of Guangdong province – who remarked that “unproductive” businesses would be “eliminated by the market” and dragged his feet over preventing factory closures despite public pressure from Wen to do so.
So will the end of Bo career – it’s always unwise to make predictions in Chinese politics, but it’s hard to see how he could weather this scandal – mean the end of the much-admired Chongqing model? Will the party lurch to the right?
That powerful figures, including Wang Yang, would like this is undeniable. Wang has been openly contemptuous of Bo’s egalitarian policies and has argued, neoliberal-style, that redistribution hampers economic growth under the slogan “bake the cake, don’t cut it up.”
That the reform and opening-up policy followed by the Communist Party since the 1980s has allowed the emergence of a capitalist class in China is indisputable, though unlike in the West it is not the ruling class.
But where capitalist economic relations exist there is class struggle – and the capitalists have in some ways strengthened their hand under Hu and Wen, for example when the party announced in 2005 that a long-standing ban on property owners joining it would be dropped.
While most observers have seen Hu and Wen’s emphasis on social justice and strengthening of labour laws as part of a shift to the left in Chinese politics, it is also possible to see them as rearguard actions by a socialist leadership in the face of an increasingly powerful and confident capitalist class eager to lock horns with its US counterpart and supplant it as the arbiter of the world economic system.
And that prominent economic liberals have stepped up their lobbying for right-wing projects, such as rail privatisation, since Bo’s downfall is undeniable, although opinion columns in state media suggest that the party leadership remains hostile to such moves.
Ultimately the Chongqing model has been portrayed as more unique than it really was.
In fact there are a number of economic “models” at work in China, as provinces have significant autonomy over how to spend their half of the tax intake – the other half goes to central government.
Chongqing is one of several regional administrations that have taken a more left-wing approach, as Guangdong is one of several that incline to the right.
The economic debate on China’s future isn’t over. The left has been embarrassed by the Bo Xilai scandal. That doesn’t mean it has lost the argument.
Mind you, the article does not explain how a society built upon the super-exploitation the the working class, and an economy based upon generalised commodity production, is (supposedly) not ruled by a capitalist ruling class: from a Marxist standpoint, such a denial of reality is sheer nonsense