Deep Contradictions Facing The Global Movement For Emancipation: China


China: Crackdown by a Jittery Regime

Turkey’s Recip Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have pushed deeper toward authoritarian strongman rule, and the new Trump-like president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is doing so as well. Such rulers feed off national or economic anxiety and fear of chaos. To be sure, these kinds of regimes are ultimately brittle and fragile, but they can hang on for decades even as their social base narrows, as we saw in Iraq under Saddam and still see in Iran.

A similar trend is also seen in China, which in 2015 experienced its slowest economic growth, 6.9% of GDP, in 25 years. While this is way above growth rate of most other major economies, it has had profound effects in a country whose economic model has depended upon a much higher rate of growth. This has resulted in a wave of economic anxiety and in persistent labor strikes. In 2015, 2700 strikes and labor protests took place, double the number of the previous year (Javier Hernandez, “More Protests by Labor Vex China Rulers,” New York Times, March 15, 2016).

Even more importantly, the past few years have seen the tenuous beginnings of links between workers, on the one hand, and intellectuals and students on the other. In 2014-15, law firms that fought for workers’ rights within the limits of Chinese law also helped to give a measure of coordination to these strikes, which gained on occasion the support of students as well. Moreover, this took place in the Pearl River delta, the country’s economic powerhouse. This recalled how a small band of intellectuals formed the Workers’ Defense Committee in Poland in the 1970s, forging links that sprouted on a mass scale during the Solidarnosc workers’ movement of 1981.

The most prominent of these labor lawyers, Duan Yi, has spoken of “a savage capitalism that holds sway in China. First, the workers are exploited to the limit, then a few improvements are made before throwing them away like Kleenex,” the latter referring to the mass layoffs amid robotization, which is occurring as workers have won some modest wage gains (Stéphane Pambrun, “Chine: tempête sur la rivière des Perles,” Jeune Afrique, 5-20-14). For over a decade, Duan Yi advised workers during numerous struggles in which they gained wage increases, protected severance pay, and withstood threats of layoffs. Even some of his legal activist colleagues criticized him for being “half-lawyer, half social activist” (John Ruwitch, “Labor movement’s ‘concertmaster’ tests Beijing’s boundaries,” Reuters, 12-6-14).

In the winter of 2015-16 the authorities staged a massive crackdown on activist lawyers, who have been put on trial, disbarred, and given severe warnings. Prison is certain to follow.

Amid these economic and social strains, the regime has engaged in a type of cult of personality around Xi not seen since the days of Mao’s rule from 1949-76. As the New York Times reported recently, “People’s Daily has become a publicity machine for Mr. Xi. On one day in December, his name appeared in 11 of the 12 headlines on the front page” (Edward Wong, “China Leader’s News Flash: Journalists Must Serve Party,” New York Times, Feb. 23, 2016).

Of course, Xi, who grew up in the pampered atmosphere of the ruling Communist Party compound in Beijing (although he did suffer briefly during Mao’s Cultural Revolution), has neither the revolutionary nor the nationalist credentials of a Deng Xiaoping, let alone a Mao. Therefore his regime also exhibits a certain brittleness.

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