Is the East still red? - Notes on China - Red and Black Notes

Red and Black Notes look at the nature of modern Chinese society.

Submitted by Fall Back on July 10, 2009

From the racist Charlie Chan caricatures of the "inscrutable Chinese" to the influence of Mao Zedong thought, China has always been a source of fascination in the west. But what sort of influence does it have? For one thing, many people seem unsure as to what sort of society China actually is? Ask a group is China communist, and you'll hear, "yes", "no", "maybe" and "it used to be" as the answers.

Ironically, as China more and more resembles western market capitalism, interest in Mao Zedong thought is rising. Like a scene out of "I was a teenage Maoist," in Montreal, the Revolutionary Communist Party (Organizing Committee) is apparently recruiting radicalizing youth, and has begun to operate in Toronto too. But the pull of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism thought isn't just confined to official Maoism organizations. An Anarchist Black Cross group recently republished the Maoist tract, "Organization Means Commitment." Full of ludicrous sentence structure and 'Serve the People' rhetoric, this statist ideology has struck a chord among the anti-statists. It's not so hard to believe that if the anti-globalization mobilizations of recent years were taking place in the 70s, many of those participating would be carrying the Great Helmsman's Little Red Book. It's necessary to examine then what is China?

The Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded in 1921 in Shanghai. Six years later, it was decimated as a result of the Comintern's disastrous policy of allying with the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang. From that point saw the rise of Mao Zedong. The Communist Party was ultimately victorious on October 1st 1949, and while its image may have been sexier than that of the somewhat stodgy Soviet Union, its mission was little different. The regime saw itself as the conscious modernizer of China, and whether or not on some level the party cadres believed in Marxism, their beliefs were utilized as an ideology for modernization and compulsory labour. The CPC would fulfill the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. The victory of the Communist Party was the triumph of a state-capitalist ideology.

The Cultural Revolution of 1966 was accepted by many starry-eyed youth in the West as an anti-bureaucratic and youth-driven struggle against the bureaucratic elements in the Communist Party. Leaving aside the fact that Mao, aged 73 in 1966, began this 'struggle' as a way to regain ground lost as a result of his disastrous policies in the so-called Great Leap Forward. When sections of the Red Guards took the rhetoric seriously, Mao used the People's Liberation Army to suppress them. Mao's death in 1976 and the arrest of the Gang of Four led China in a new direction.

As China's cautiously abandoned the scorched earth rhetoric that would become the hallmark of the Khmer Rouge regime, Deng Xiao Ping and his supporters, went even beyond Bukharin's cries to "peasants enrich yourselves" to note "to get rich is glorious." For many of the Chinese regime's boosters like the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), this was the end of the revolution. (Actually, the CPC-ML backdated their critique and concluded that Mao had never been any good, switching their allegiance to Albania's Enver Hoxha) For others, it produced a similar crisis and many significant movements suffered damaging splits (the RCP in the U.S.) or disappeared altogether (the Workers Communist Party and En Lutte! in Canada).

While the Maoists saw this as capitalist restoration (just as they saw Khrushchev ushering in capitalism in the Soviet Union), the Trotskyists by and large maintain that China is still a workers' state, although coming ever closer to the brink. Approximately once a year, the U.S. Spartacist League publishes an article on how China is coming closer to the edge, but inevitably concludes that it is still a workers state.

As for the regime, unlike the Moscow Stalinists who tried to introduce market reforms (perestroika) and a measure of democracy (glasnost) and lost control of everything, the Beijing Stalinists have done an admirable jobs of market reforms while keeping control; the events of Tiananmen Square notwithstanding. Until now.

The state-led development structure has more or less worked successfully by transforming aspects of the Chinese economy from feudal production levels to a manufacturing-based economy (although obviously, there is still a long way to go), but as China integrates itself into the world economy, this strategy is running into difficulties as the old state-owned industries are privatized and the economy opened up to the world market and foreign companies.

The economic 'reforms' have benefited some. Of China's billion plus population, approximately 50 million now lead middle class lifestyles. However, the social costs are mounting and are threatening to run out of control. In the course of their privatization, many of the former state industries have been looted by their former managers. Old and inefficient industries have been closed down, transforming the "Iron Rice Bowl" of Maoist legend into a rust bowl with estimates of 100 million people in a permanent migration from city to city in search of work.

It doesn't take a very close look to see that despite earlier successes, the Chinese government is now struggling to keep things in check. On April 13 of this year, crowds as large as 1,000 rioted in Huaxi, in Zhejiang Province in an effort to stop pollution from nearby factories. On April 25, 10,000 workers in Shenzhen at Japanese-owned Uniden Electronic Products struck over issues of union recognition and working conditions. Interestingly, despite the anti-Japanese rhetoric currently promoted in China, the company sided with the Japanese owners of the plant in forcing the workers back to work. And these are not isolated cases. An article from the New York Times in December 2004 suggested that almost 60,000 of these moments of social tension had occurred that year. The seeds of these disputes were sown in 1997, when at the party congress 100 million layoffs over the next decade were announced. Despite their relative successes, the future looks very risky for the Chinese Stalinists.

While the economy continues to grow, these problems may be offset. In 2004, the Chinese economy grew by 9.4%., However, some many China watchers are predicting a meltdown in the economy in the next three to five years Andy Xie of Morgan Stanley noted "China is an export and investment-driven model, and the connection between exports and investment is basically the state banking system that takes the money earned by exports and puts that into investment, regardless of returns.," This cannot continue indefinitely.

It seems likely that the further integration of China into the world economy will cause massive disruption, and given the U.S.'s strategy for growth relies partly on China, the world economy too seems destined for trouble. As the Chinese used to say, may you live in interesting times.

Some Useful Further Reading

Cajo Brendel. Theses on the Chinese Revolution. London: Solidarity, 1974.

Loren Goldner. China in the Contemporary World Dynamic of Accumulation and Class Struggle: A Challenge for the Radical Left

Bill Russell. "Chinese Roads to State Capitalism: Stalinism and Bukharinism in China's Industrial Revolution." Root & Branch, #8, circa 1979. Available from Red & Black Notes

First Published in Red and Black Notes #21, Spring 2005, this article has been archived on from the Red and Black Notes website.