Saturday, October 02, 2010

Fragments Of Working Class Culture- On the Question Of Working Class War-Time Social-Patriotism

Markin comment:

Private First Class, United States Army, James O’Brien would have been sixty-seven, or perhaps, sixty-eight years old this fall. You do not see the point of bringing up this unknown private soldier’s name? Well, here is another clue. Jimmy O., who was a few years older than I, was the first kid from my growing-up working class neighborhood to see service in Vietnam. Still not enough? Then take a little trip down to Washington, D.C. and you will find his “fame” listed on that surreal and serenely beautiful black stone work dedicated to the fallen of that war. Yes, I thought that might get your attention. This is Jimmy O’s story, but is also my story around the edges, and come to think of it, yours too, if you want end these damn imperial military adventures that the American state insists on dragging its youth into, and in disproportionate numbers its working class and minority youth.

My first dozen years, or so, were spend in a public housing project, a place where the desperately poor of the day (that day and this one as well), or the otherwise displaced and forgotten of the go-go American economy of the 1950s were shunted off to. So you can say I knew Jimmy O’Briens all my life, really, although I did not physically meet him until we moved across town to my coming-of-age working class neighborhood, a neighborhood whose ethos was in no way superior to “the projects” except that the tiny ill-thought out and benighted houses were, for the most part, single dwellings on minuscule plots. And I really only knew the real Jimmy through my older brother which is to say not very well at all as I was, okay, just a wet-behind-the-ears kid. And Jimmy, well Jimmy was the king hellion of the neighborhood and dragged my brother, and the brothers of others, in tow. Jimmy’s name brought terror to some, consternation to others and the plague to the rest. So this ain’t going to be a story of moral uplift, heroic sacrifice for great principles, or larger than life battles against great odds, for sure.

See Jimmy, when he was around the old neighborhood, was the very large target, that is to say the number one target, of the “shawlies”. Shawlies? In our mainly Irish working class neighborhood, although I confess I only heard it used by more recent or older immigrants, it signified that circle, council if you will, unofficial of course, of mothers, young and old, who set the moral tone, at least the public moral tone of the place. In short, the gossips, old hags, and rumor-mongers (I am being polite here) who had their own devious grapevine, and more importantly, were a constant source of information about you to your own mother. Usually nothing good either.

And what conduct of Jimmy’s would bring him to the notice of that august body, other than the obvious one of corrupting the morals of the youth that I alluded to before? Hey, as you will see this guy was no Socrates. Jimmy, it seems, or it seems to me now, was spoon-fed on old-time gangster movies. No, not the George Raft-Jimmy Cagney-Edward G. Robinson vehicles of the 1930s in which the bad guy pepper-sprayed every one with his trusty machine gun. Everyone, everyone except dear old Ma (whom he would not touch a hair of the head of, and you better not either if you know what’s good for you). No, Jimmy was into being a proto-typical wild one a la Marlon Brando or the bad guys in James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause. Without putting too fine a spin on it, some kind of existential anti-hero.

So who was this Jimmy? Not a bad looking guy with slicked-back black hair, long sideburns (even after they were fashion-faded), engineer boots, dungarees (before they were fashionista), tied together by a thick leather belt (which did service for other purposes as well), tee shirt in season (and out, with jacket, although not a leather one). Always smoking a cigarette (or getting ready too), always carrying himself with a little swagger and lot of attitude. Oh ya, he was a tenth grade high school drop-out (not really that unusual in those days in that neighborhood, including my own brother as well). And here is the draw, the final draw that drew slightly younger guys to him (and the older girls, as well) he always had wheels, great wheels, wheels to die for, and kept them up to the nth degree. Always cherry Chevy’s (as my brother put it). Employment: unknown (or, maybe, better, don’t want to know).

That last point is really the start of this story about how the ethos of the working poor operates right at that point where it meets the lumpen-proletariat (the dregs, the criminal element that feeds off the working poor first, and then, maybe seeks “greener” pastures elsewhere) and links up with the demands of the American military, almost automatically. Jimmy (and his associates, including my drop-out brother) was constantly the subject of local police attention. Every known bad–ass offense, real or made-up, wound up at his doorstep. Some of it rightly so, as it turns out. I might add that the irate shawlies had plenty to do with this police activity. And also had plenty to do with setting up Jimmy as the prime example of what not to emulate to us younger kids. Well, as anyone devoted to a life of crime, including me in my own very small and short-lived early teen criminal career, can testify to when you tempt the fates enough those damn sisters will come and get you. The long and short of it is that eventually Jimmy’s luck ran out. The year that his luck ran out was 1963, not a good year to have your luck run out if there ever is one.

Nowadays we talk, and rightly so, about an “economic draft” that forces many working class and minority youth to sign up for “voluntary” military service, even in such guaranteed ill-fated war time, because they are up against the wall in their personal lives and the military offers some security. I want to talk about this notion of an “economic draft” in a different sense, a class sense, a sense that I am familiar with from those 1960s times, although I know that the same thing probably still goes on today. Jimmy, moreover, was a prima facie case of what I am talking about. When Jimmy’s luck ran out he faced several serious counts of armed robbery, and other assorted minor crimes. When he went to court he thus faced many years (I don’t remember his total, my brother’s was nine, I think). The judge, in his infinite mercy, offered this deal- Cedar Junction (not the name then, but the state prison’s name now) or the Army. He, fatefully, opted for the Army (as did my brother, with less fateful results).

Here is the part that is important to understand though. Jimmy (and to a lesser extent, my brother), the minute that he opted for military service went from being “bum-of-the-month” in shawlie circles to a fine, if misunderstood and slightly errant, boy. Even the oldest hags and character assassins had twinkles in their eyes for old Jimmy then. Of course, his mother also came in for higher esteem for raising such a fine boy committed to serve his country (and his god, don’t forget that part). Once in uniform, an airborne ranger’s uniform, and more importantly, once Jimmy had orders for Vietnam, then an exotic if dangerous place and a name little understood in the neighborhood other than the United States was committed to its defense against the atheistic communists, his stock rose even further. I was not around the old neighborhood regularly when the news of his death was announced in 1965 but my parents told me later than his funeral was treated as something like a solemn state function. The shawlies, in any case, were out in force and heaped the flowers and Mass cards for the dead to the high heavens.



As we all know, or have heard, later in that 1960s decade all hell broke loose over the seemingly endless and purposeless continuation of that damn war. In the old neighborhood, as was related to me my parents and others, there were the beginnings of rumblings against the war as more and more boys didn’t come back, or came back grievously wounded, or became part of the lost legions who ended up in the VA hospitals, the half-way houses and flophouses of this country. Yes, but hear me out on this, those rumblings, real enough, never transcended that social-patriotic belief that the sacrifices, the sacrifices of their sons (and daughters, indirectly) were right and held that belief through to the bitter end. And, moreover, those rumblings seldom got beyond person murmurs of despair, certainly never to the level of hitting the streets to express their opposition. And, most certainly, never to condone the opposition to the war by those in uniform while they were in uniform like one neighborhood boy, Private Markin.

And know this, ex-Private Markin cries out, and cry out to the high heavens in the name of Private First Class James O’Brien (and the legion of others from the old neighborhood)- Down With Obama’s Afghan And Iraq Wars!-Troops Out Now!-Join Me!

Friday, October 01, 2010

*From The Archives Of "Women And Revolution"-"Women And Permanent Revolution In China"

Click on the headline to link to the Leon Trotsky Internet Archive for an online copy of a section of his classic work Permanent Revolution-What Does The Slogan Of Democratic Dictatorship Mean For The East?

Markin comment:

The following is a two part article from the Winter 1982-82 and Spring 1984 issue of Women and Revolution that may have some historical interest for old "new leftists", perhaps, and well as for younger militants interested in various cultural and social questions that intersect the class struggle. Or for those just interested in a Marxist position on a series of social questions that are thrust upon us by the vagaries of bourgeois society. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of "Women and Revolution" during Women's History Month and periodically throughout the year.


Women and Permanent Revolution
in China


"The revolt of women has shaken China to its very depths In the women of China, the
Communists possessed, almost ready made, one of the greatest masses of disinherited human beings the world has ever seen. And because they found the keys to the heart of these women, they also found one of the keys to victory over Chiang Kai-shek."

—Jack Belden, China Shakes the World (1951)

The French Utopian socialist Charles Fourier maintained that the liberty of women stands as a decisive index of social progress in general. Fourier was surely right. Compare the advanced capitalist societies formed by the bourgeois-democratic revolution with the backward capitalist societies of Asia and Africa. The elementary rights Western women take for granted— to choose one's marriage partner, contraception and divorce, access to education, not to speak of political rights—do not exist for women in the tradition-bound and priest-ridden countries of the East. And efforts to achieve such rights are invariably met with murderous reaction. By all accounts the feudalist insurgency in Afghanistan (against which the Soviet army fortunately intervened) was fueled, above all, by attempts of the left-nationalist government to reduce the bride price and to teach young girls to read.

In the twentieth century the backward countries can no longer be transformed through a bourgeois-democratic revolution. Indeed, the "democratic" imperialist powers, centrally the U.S., prop up the most reactionary, obscurantist regimes in the world from Chiang Kai-shek's China to Emperor Bao Dai's Vietnam to the Saudi monarchy. Only in those countries of the East where capitalism has been overthrown, in however bureaucratically limited or deformed a manner, do women enjoy elementary democratic rights. To cross the border from old Afghanistan, for example, into Soviet Uzbekistan is to traverse centuries of the oppression of women.

That women cannot be freed in the countries of the East without overthrowing capitalism was perhaps nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the case of China. The democratic reforms Western feminists organized and agitated around—equal access to education, suffrage, access to contraception—were inconceivable in a country like China without a profound social revolution. Chinese women activists, including those initially influenced by Western feminism, were inexorably drawn into the broader currents of revolutionary radicalism, first that of modernizing nationalism and later that of Communism. The history of revolution in twentieth-century China is in no small measure the history of its women struggling for their liberation.

Modernizing Nationalism and the 1911 Revolution

The complete subjugation of woman in traditional Confucian China was proverbial. The Confucian Book of Rites prescribed that "to be a women means to submit." A women was totally subject to her father and later her (arranged) husband or, by convention, mother-in-law. Women were socialized to be not merely submissive but invisible. If someone came to her home when her husband wasn't there, a woman traditionally responded, "No one is at home." Women had no protection against flagrant physical abuse save community disapproval of an especially cruel husband. For many a Chinese woman the only escape from an intolerable family situation was suicide.

The oppression and social segregation of Chinese women was intensified by the hideous practice of foot-binding introduced in the tenth century A.D. The purpose of this painful and crippling process was to further restrict women to bedroom and kitchen. As a folk ditty put it, "Bound feet, bound feet, past the gate can't retreat." Contrary to a common misconception in the West, the custom was not limited to women of the upper classes. All Chinese women had their feet bound except those of the poorest families and of the non-Han ethnic minorities (e.g., Manchus, Hakka) among whom women generally had greater freedom.

The liberation of women from their total bondage was a fundamental aspect of the modernizing nationalist current which developed among China's intellectuals and officials at the end of the nineteenth century. A key target for these reformers and radicals was, understandably, foot-binding, which enlightened Westerners condemned (and rightly so) as barbaric. More important for nationalistic Chinese, it was commonly believed (without any genetic basis) that the male children of foot-bound women were physically weaker than Westerners. The movement against foot-binding was therefore largely motivated by the desire to produce a new generation of fighters against imperialist domination. In the 1890s Unbound Feet and Natural Feet Societies mushroomed throughout China. The membership of these societies, it should be pointed out, were almost entirely men. And where the reforming intelligentsia/officialdom were influential, the proportion of girl children with bound feet did diminish.

The same reformers and radicals who agitated against foot-binding also advocated education for women. Here again most were not concerned with sexual equality per se, but rather with overcoming China's backwardness vis-a-vis Western imperialism. They recognized that women who could read, write and do sums were a valuable national resource, even in their traditional role as mothers of male children. As one reforming official argued, "If the mothers have not been trained from childhood where are we to find the strong men of our nation" (quoted in Elisabeth Croll, Feminism and Socialism in China [1978]).

Whatever their personal outlook and motivations, these Westernizing intellectuals/officials set up the first schools for girls, often their own daughters, which produced a new Chinese woman who would play an important role in the subsequent revolutionary upheavals of her country. The new girls' schools were naturally hotbeds of anti-Manchu and anti-traditionalist nationalism. In Shanghai, Peking, Canton and elsewhere disciplined contingents of schoolgirls regularly participated in the mass protests against foreign privilege. In one such school a secret girls' militia was formed under the guise of physical education classes.

The outstanding woman revolutionary of the pre-1911 period was Chiu Chin (Jiu Jin). The oldest daughter of a scholarly family, she was allowed to study the classics with her brothers (not that uncommon a practice). In addition she was proud of her ability to ride a horse, use a sword and consume large quantities of wine. Despite this liberal upbringing, Chiu, like all Chinese women, was subject to an arranged marriage, which was not a happy one.

Influenced by the Western ideas sweeping the Chinese intellectual classes, at the age of 30 Chiu left her family and in 1904 went to Japan, then the main organizing center for Chinese revolutionary nationalists. Overcoming chauvinist objections that a cultured woman should not associate with men of the common classes, she became the first woman member of Sun Yat-sen's Restoration Society, the principal anti-Manchu organization. In 1906 Chiu returned to China where she divided her energies between putting out the Chinese Women's Journal, manufacturing explosives and organizing secret militias. Chiu saw in the women of China—so deeply oppressed under the old order—a kind of elemental vanguard force for national regeneration. Her outlook was encapsulated in a 1907 poem, "Women's Rights":

"We want our emancipation!
For our liberty we'll drink a cup,
Men and women are born equal,
Why should we let men hold sway?
We will rise and save ourselves,
Ridding the nation of all her shame.
In the steps of Joan of Arc,
With our own hands will we regain our land." ,,

—quoted in Wei Chin-chih, "An Early Woman Revolutionary," China Reconstructs, June 1962

One Western student of her political activities concluded:

"When Ch'iu Chin turned to revolution she anticipated ways in which women were eventually liberated in China. She implicitly recognized that sexual equality was
not likely to be achieved without some major structural changes, and saw the liberation of women as one result of the revolution to which she chose to devote her greatest energy."

—Mary Backus Rankin, "The Emergence of Women at the End of the Ch'ing: The Case of Ch'iu Chin" in Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke, eds., Women in Chinese Society (1975)

In 1907 Chiu was deeply involved in an abortive anti-Manchu uprising. Though warned that she was about to be arrested, she refused to flee. She was captured, questioned under torture (but did not reveal her colleagues) and was beheaded without trial. Her execution provoked large-scale demonstrations throughout China. Popular outrage over the martyrdom of Chiu Chin helped forge the spike that was driven into the heart of the hated Manchu dynasty four years later. And Chiu would have been pleased to see women's battalions too fighting the imperial forces as they went down to defeat.

It is common for contemporary Western feminist academics to label Chinese women activists of Chiu Chin's generation as "feminists," as does, for example, Elisabeth Croll in her valuable study, Feminism and Socialism in China. This is a case of ideological obfuscation. While there were women's journals in the pre-1911 period, there was no women's movement separate and distinct from the broader current of modernizing nationalism. Nor was women's equality seen as separable from the overall transformation of China into a modern society. Croll herself recognizes that the women activists of this period were first and foremost radical nationalists, an ordering of ideological priorities of which she is somewhat critical:

"Rather, the early feminists, who wrote the first magazines, thought that no question was so urgent as the threatened autonomy of China and the overthrow of the
Manchu dynasty and the foreign yoke of tyranny It is
particularly apparent from the early women's magazines and newspapers that the women contributors felt very deeply for their country, and the issue around which women first met, demonstrated and organised was that of 'national salvation'."

With the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in 1911, China appeared to have become a Western-type parliamentary democracy. This was, however, a soon-to-be-discarded facade behind which rival militarists sought to fill the vacuum left by the disintegration of the imperial bureaucracy. Bourgeois-democratic politicians like Sun Yat-sen became mere playthings in the hands of one or another of the warring warlord cliques.

The immediate aftermath of the revolution witnessed the emergence of a genuine feminist movement consciously modeled on the British suffragettes. When the National Assembly refused to write women's equality into the new constitution, members of Women's Suffrage Association stormed the Assembly hall, smashed windows and floored some constables. These militant Chinese feminists also aggressively displayed Western social mores, which affronted the old China perhaps even more than their demand for equality under the law. The Chinese suffragettes were soon to discover that they were not living in a restricted bourgeois democracy like Edwardian Britain.

The now-republican militarists, and their landlord and usurer backers, were as ruthlessly committed t defending the old order, including the subjugation of women, as had been the imperial bureaucracy. In 191 a girl about to elope with a militiaman was arrested and publicly executed as a lesson to all women that the new republic did not mean "personal freedom to do what they like." With the consolidation of Yuan Shih-kai military dictatorship the following year, all suffragette organizations were banned and a number of wome activists found with arms were publicly beheaded. A new movement for women's liberation had to await new wave of revolutionary nationalism set into motio by the world war and the red dawn arising out of Bolshevik Russia.

From the May Fourth Movement to Communism

On May 4, 1919 huge student protests erupted Peking against Japan's 21 demands, which would have totally reduced China to a Japanese colony. The homes of pro-Japanese ministers were ransacked. The movement rapidly spread throughout the country, and a new note was sounded when factory workers struck support of the student demands for a new government. The May Fourth Movement went far beyond protest against the immediate Japanese threat or even the depredations of the imperialist powers in general, marked the beginning of a new wave of radical activism directed no less at the existing Chinese order th against foreign domination:

"Traditional ideas and modes of conduct were crumbling and the echo of their fall sounded from one end of the country to the other. Young men and women in towns and villages began to break with the old authority of the family and the village elders. A fissure opened between the generations that was never again closed."

—Harold R. Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1961)

High up among the traditional ideas and modes of conduct which came under attack was the subjugation of women. A manifesto issued by the most influential journal of the movement, Chen Tu-hsiu's New Youth, declared:

"We believe that to respect women's personality and rights is a practical need for the social progress at present, and we hope that they themselves will be completely aware of their duty to society."

—quoted in Croll, op cit.

And women responded to these ideas. The May Fourth ferment gave rise to the so-called "five proposals" movement: equal access to education and employment, suffrage and the right to hold office, the right of inheritance and the right to choose one's marriage partner. It should be emphasized that the struggle for the equality of women was in no sense regarded as women's work. When the Peking Alliance for Women's Rights Movement was established among university students in 1919, two-thirds of its members were men! For China's educated youth, the May Fourth Movement was a veritable political/cultural renaissance with which all could identify from the mildest liberal reformers to the most wild-eyed anarchists. However, the naive unity among China's New Youth could not last long. And it did not. Two of the movement's leading figures, Chen Tu-hsiu and Li Ta-chao, through contact with Soviet envoys, were soon won to Marxism and set out to organize a Chinese Communist party, which was formally founded in July 1921. The issue of Communism split the loose, heterogeneous organizations which made up the May Fourth Movement into hostile camps. The left wing became the core of the newly formed Communist Party (CCP); the right-wingers joined the bourgeois-nationalist Kuomintang or other national-liberal for¬mations like the Chinese Youth Party. One such right-winger recalled that after a stormy argument a friend who had just become a Communist left saying half jokingly, "Well, Shun-sheng, we'll see each other again on the battlefield" (quoted in Chow Tse-tsung, The May Fourth Movemen([1960]). These words proved to be prophetic.

The left-right polarization of the May Fourth Movement likewise extended to the women's movement. The more conservative women's groups stressed social work and legalistic reforms. Christian women activists, who had earlier vigorously opposed Confucian traditionalism, now increasingly defended the status quo against "red revolution." During the 1920s the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) became a kind of conservative, pro-imperialist anti-pode to the Women's Department of the Communist Party. One of the leading lights of the Chinese YWCA was a young heiress recently returned from Wellesley, Soong Mei-ling, later better known to the world as Mme. Chiang Kai-shek.

The outstanding woman revolutionary of this period—who embodied the transition of May Fourth radicalism to Communism—was Hsiang Ching-yu (Xiang Jingyu). In 1915 at the age of 20 she opened the first coeducational primary school in Changsha, capital of Hunan province, and also organized an anti-foot-binding society. She was naturally caught up in the May Fourth Movement (as was a fellow Hunanese student activist named Mao Tse-tung). In 1919 Hsiang, along with some friends, went to France to continue her studies. To pay her way she worked in a rubber plant and then a textile mill, thus acquiring first-hand knowledge of a highly class-conscious proletariat. In France she (along with Chou En-lai) organized a Marxist study group which later developed into an organization of Chinese Communist student youth abroad.

Expelled from France for political agitation, Hsiang returned to China in early 1922 and immediately joined the Communist Party. She was elected to the party's central committee at its second congress in 1922 and a year later became the head of its newly formed Women's Department. The Communists thus became the first Chinese party to organize women as a distinct oppressed group.

Like most other newly formed Communist parties in the colonial world, the CCP's original cadre were recruited from the radical intelligentsia. To win over the best women activists, Hsiang polemicized against Western-style feminism which had gained a certain currency in Chinese intellectual circles at the time. (Margaret Sanger, for example, visited China in 1922 and lectured at Peking University.) Hsiang insisted that "the new-emerging labouring women are the strongest and most revolutionary," and she charged the feminists that they "have not the courage to take part in the real political movement—the national revolutionary movement—the prerequisite to the movement for women's rights and suffrage" (quoted in WangYi-chih, "A Great Woman Revolutionary," China Reconstructs, March 1965).

China's newly emerging laboring women would certainly demonstrate their revolutionary force in the next few years. However, the program of a "national revolutionary movement," implying as it did collaboration with a supposedly "progressive" wing of the Chinese bourgeoisie, would lead the youthful Communist movement into an historic defeat in which Hsiang among countless others would lose their lives.

Revolution and Counterrevolution, 1925-27

The fate of the women's movement and revolutionary mass movement in general was to a large extent determined by the bloc between the inexperienced Communist Party and the bourgeois-nationalist Kuomintang. At the prodding of the Comintern (Communist International) representative, Maring (Hendrik Sneevliet), in 1923 the Communists entered Sun Yat-sen's party as individuals, originally intending to take short-term advantage of the Kuomintang's loose structure. (Significantly, Trotsky voted against this policy in the Russian party leadership.) At first the entry tactic appeared highly successful as Communist influence grew by leaps and bounds.

The Canton general strike/boycott directed against the British in the summer of 1925 marked the beginning of the second Chinese revolution and consequently the beginning of the decisive conflict between the Kuomintang leaders and the" Communists. The nationalist bourgeoisie suddenly became frightened of the powerful Communist-influenced labor movement it had helped to mobilize in extracting concessions from the imperialists. In March 1926 the commander of the Kuomintang armed forces, Chiang Kai-shek, staged a coup in Canton. Chiang's coup was a clear signal that the bourgeois nationalists were about to behead the workers movement. Despite this (and the strident warnings of the Trotskyist opposition in Russia) the Stalin/Bukharin leadership of the Comintern ordered the Chinese Communists to preserve the bloc with the "patriotic" bourgeoisie at all costs. The cost was the Chinese revolution which over the next year and a half was drowned in blood, first by Chiang and then by the "left" Kuomintang leaders.

Far more centrally than the anti-Manchu revolution of 1911, the betrayed and defeated Chinese revolution of the 1920s posed the issue of women's liberation. No area of Communist activity was more spectacularly successful than its work among women. Within two years of its founding the Women's Department of the CCP had 100,000 members; by 1927 it had 300,000 members. In 1924 International Women's Day in Canton—the Communist/nationalist stronghold— drew less than a thousand. Two years later 10,000 women marched through the city under the slogans "Down with imperialism," "Down with warlords" and "Same work, same pay." The Communist organization of women simply swamped the small bourgeois feminist groups, like the Women's Rights League, and in doing so won over their most committed activists. An American feminist academic, not sympathetic to Marxism, acknowledges that by the mid-1920s, "More and more women activists were moving toward the position held by Hsiang Ching-yu in 1922: feminist rebellion was meaningless without general political revolution" (Suzette Leith, "Chinese Women in the Early Communist Movement" in Marilyn B. Young, ed., Women in China [1973]).

At the height of the revolutionary upsurge in 1926-27 an estimated million and a half women were members of women's organizations generally led by Communists. These organizations were tribunes of the oppressed in the truest sense. Runaway slave girls, prostitutes wanting to leave their degrading profession, peasant women abused by their husbands, as well as women factory workers, flocked to these organizations with their grievances. For some observers, aware of the traditional total submissiveness of Chinese women, the eruption of an aggressive women's movement was the clearest proof that age-old China was undergoing a revolution. A sympathetic Westerner wrote at the time:

"Whatever the fate in store for the Nationalist government, it may be that historians of the future will find that the greatest and most permanent achievement to its credit has been the promotion of the women's movement."

—H.O. Chapman, The Chinese Revolution, 1926-27 (1928)

The demands made upon the Communist-led women's organizations far exceeded their material capacities. Even a relatively straightforward task like finding alternative livelihood for tens of thousands of prostitutes and concubines required the economic resources of a government department. And, in fact, many Chinese women looked upon the Women's Department of the Communist Party as if it were the women's department of a soviet government. (In some areas women's groups set up their own divorce courts.) Yet the fatal policy of limiting the revolution to bourgeois-democratic tasks prevented the establishment of a Chinese soviet government. And it likewise condemned the women's movement, despite the radicalism of its participants, to acting as a pressure group upon "anti-imperialist" militarists, landlords and factory owners whose idea of the role of women was shaped by the Confucian Book of Rites and the requirements of hoped-for capitalist stability.

The emergence of a militant women's movement in a society like China was bound to produce a conservative backlash. And so it did. This was aggravated by the overzealousness of some women activists. Older, conventionally minded women had their hair bobbed or feet unbound often under considerable pressure, if not by actual force. Over and above such excesses, however, many a peasant husband deeply resented his wife taking their family problems to the local women's group. And even some Communist fathers still insisted on arranging marriages for their daughters. These backward prejudices against women's equality served as an important point of support for the gathering white terror. Horror stories about "the wild, wild women" (that they organized women to march naked in the streets) became a major theme—if not the major theme—of anti-red propaganda.

And when the ax fell, it fell with especial force on the women's movement. Women's movement activists were, if anything, treated more savagely under the Kuomintang terror than even labor organizers or agrarian agitators. China's militarists, gentry and bourgeoisie could understand why peasants would want to stop paying rent or factory workers strike for higher pay and shorter hours. But the demand of women for independence and equality was radically new and appeared to them as a truly sinister attack on their entire social universe. So they reacted accordingly.

For a woman to have short hair now became a crime punishable by a painful death. Women wearing men's clothing were stripped to the waist in public so that "every man in town may see she is in reality a woman" before being killed. Girl Communists in Canton were wrapped in cotton blankets soaked in -gasoline and then burned alive. A particularly audacious young women's leader in a small Hunan village was hacked to death by enraged soldiery. Between 1927 and 1930 tens of thousands of Communist women were killed, among them Hsiang Ching-yu. She was arrested in the French concession of Hankow and turned over to the Kuomintang to be executed.

Yet the spirit of rebellion of those young Chinese women who had rallied to the Communist banner wa not broken. One of them wrote in a poem on the eve of her execution: "Red and White will ever be divide" and we shall see who has victory, who defeat."


Part Two will contrast the role of women unde Kuomintang reaction and in the rural areas liberated b the Communist-led Red Army. It will recount th struggle for women's liberation as a motor force in th civil war which culminated in the victory of Mao's Red Army in 1949. And it will discuss the effect of thi deformed social revolution on the traditional Chinese family and the place of women in society."


Women and Permanent Revolution
in China

This is the conclusion of a two-part article. Part One (Women and Revolution No. 25, Winter 1982-83) covered the interrelation of women's liberation and social revolution from the emergence of a modernizing nationalist movement in China in the late nineteenth century through the defeated revolution of 1925-27.


That women cannot achieve elementary democratic freedoms in the countries of the East without overthrowing capitalism is perhaps nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in China. The Kuomintang counter-revolution in the late 1920s was directed with especial savagery at the radical women's movement. Tens of thousands of Communist and other women activists were raped, tortured and killed for the "crime" of wearing short hair or men's clothing. During the 1930s the Kuomintang militarists sought to reimpose traditional Confucian subjugation upon Chinese women.

This mass of oppressed women would provide much of the social dynamite which blew away Kuomintang China in the civil war of 1946-49. In the rural areas liberated by the Red Army, women were mobilized to fight for their emancipation. While these measures would not have been radical in Shanghai or Canton with their modern industrial proletariat and Westernized intelligentsia, Communist "woman-work" had a radical impact in the primitive tradition-bound villages of Kiangsi (jiangxi) and Shensi (Shaanxi).

However, between 1937 and 1946 Mao's Red Army entered into an alliance with the Chiang Kai-shek Kuomintang regime, one of the conditions for this being that the Communists stopped the confiscation of the landlords' property. This policy basically froze the old social order in the countryside, perpetuating the enslavement of peasant women to housework and husband. Only when the civil war forced the Chinese Stalinists to place themselves at the head of the agrarian revolution did the mass of peasant women achieve the basis for social emancipation. And it was only after the Communists conquered state power in 1949 that the feudalist garbage suffocating Chinese women (ar¬ranged marriages, foot-binding, female infanticide) was swept into the dustbin of history.

Yet the People's Republic of China was the product of a bureaucratically deformed social revolution, and that deformation imprinted itself on all aspects of social life, not least the woman question. Like its counterpart in the USSR, the Chinese Stalinist (Maoist) regime has perpetuated and defended the most basic institution of women's oppression—the family. The Stalinists' conservative attitude toward the family was further reinforced in China by the peasant-based nature of the revolution. For unlike the urban proletariat, for the peasantry, the family is the existing unit of small-scale agricultural production. And this continues to be thecase today on the collective farms.

The gradual replacement of oppressive family functions by social alternatives (communal laundries, childcare facilities, etc.)—the precondition for the complete equality of women—is not a matter of voluntarism and cannot be achieved within an isolated, backward country like China. It requires a level of economic productivity far above even the most advanced capitalist country. Thus the liberation of women—a basic condition for a genuinely socialist society—demands the international extension of proletarian revolution, i.e., the heart of Trotsky's program of permanent revolution.

Women Under Red Army Rule

To escape the white terror which followed the crushing of the 1925-27 revolution, armed Communist bands retreated to the more inaccessible reaches of the vast Chinese countryside. In 1931 a number of these Communist-led forces consolidated into the Kiangsi Soviet Republic in south-central China under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung and Chu Teh.

In abandoning the cities to take the road of peasant-guerrilla warfare the Chinese Communist Party changed not only the environment in which it operated but its own nature. In the 1920s the CCP had been a revolutionary proletarian party supported by the radicalized urban intelligentsia. That is, it was based primarily on the most advanced, Westernized sections of Chinese society. During the 1930s the Communist Party became essentially a peasant-based military force with a declassed petty-bourgeois leadership.

In September 1930 the Bolshevik "International Left Opposition" led by Leon Trotsky issued a "Manifesto on China" which warned against the Chinese Stalinists' abandonment of the urban working class. The Left Opposition, which included a substantial number of Chinese Communists, recognized the need for a period of retrenchment following the brutal crushing of the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution and the strategic nature of all decisive moments follows either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat— Soviets are the organs of power of a revolutionary class in opposition to the bourgeoisie. This means that the peasantry is unable to organize a soviet system on its own— Only the predominance of the proletariat in the decisive industrial and political centers of the country creates the necessary basis for the organization of a Red army and for the extension of a soviet system into the countryside. To those unable to grasp this, the revolution remains a book closed with seven seals."

The social transformation of the CCP had a highly contradictory effect on the CCP's approach to the woman question. On the one hand, the most basic measures (e.g., teaching women to read and practice basic hygiene, elimination of foot-binding) had a profoundly radical impact on the backward villages of Kiangsi and Shensi. At the same time, the Mao leadership was concerned not to affront the traditional social mores of the peasant men, especially those serving in the Red Army, upon whom they depended for their very survival. Thus, "woman-work" in the liberated areas was cautious and conservative in comparison to the radical Communist-led women's movement which had been a major force in the 1925-27 revolution.

If the Kiangsi Soviet did not actually experience "a sexual revolution," the condition of women certainly improved, in some ways radically. Slavery, concubinage and prostitution were outlawed. The war against the Kuomintang in itself tended to break down the traditional role of women. While few women served as combat troops, many were attached to the Red Army as nurses, porters, couriers, laundresses, etc. Perhaps more importantly large numbers of women were encouraged to work in the fields for the first time in order to free up men to fight in the Red Army. The Kuomintang reactionaries hated and feared the signs of women's liberation which they saw in Kiangsi. The accusation that the Reds practiced "free sex" and "debauchery" was a major focus of anti-Communist propaganda.

In late 1934 the Kuomintang armies, advised by a German general, finally broke through and destroyed the Kiangsi Soviet. The core of the Red Army retreated in the heroic Long March of 6,000-8,000 miles. A year later the survivors reached the relative safety of the Yenan area in northern Shensi province. This region, near Mongolia, was one of the poorest, most backward in all China. Almost all women were illiterate, modern medicine was unknown, foot-binding and female mfanticide were common practices. The participation of women in agricultural production (based on winter wheat and millet rather than rice) was lower than in almost any other region of China. Thus, the contradictions which had characterized the CCP's "woman-work" in Kiangsi were reproduced in a more extreme form in Yenan. The commissar of education, Hsu Teh-|ih, explained to American journalist Edgar Snow:

"This is culturally one of the darkest places on earth. Do you know the people in north Shensi and Kansu believe that water is harmful to them?...

"Such a population, compared with Kiangsi, is very backward indeed. There the illiteracy was about 90 percent, but the cultural level was very much higher, we had better material conditions to work in, and many more trained teachers— "Here the work is very much slower." —Red Star Over China (1937)

However, the slow pace of the social transformation in Yenan was not due simply to its extreme economic and cultural backwardness.

As it became increasingly clear that Japan was about to invade China from its Manchurian base, Mao raised the call for a "National Anti-Japanese Front" based on cooperation between the Kuomintang and CCP. Chiang at first rejected this overture, but pressure from his fellow militarists (one of whom kidnapped the Generalissimo until he relented) forced him to negotiate an agreement with the Communists in September 1937, a few months after the Japanese imperial army crossed the Marco Polo bridge and invaded China.

Central to the CCP-Kuomintang agreement was a ban on the confiscation of landlords' property in the areas under Red Army control. The Communists would henceforth limit themselves to rent and interest reductions and similar palliatives. This policy was codified in a 1942 CCP document whose counterrevo¬lutionary intent is entirely unambiguous:

"Recognize that most of the landlords are anti-Japanese, that some of the enlightened gentry also favour democratic reforms. Accordingly, the policy of the Party is only to help the peasants in reducing feudal exploitation but not to liquidate feudal exploitation entirely, much less to attack the enlightened gentry who support
democratic reforms

"The guarantee of rent and interest collection and the protection of the landlord's civil, political, land, and economic rights are the second aspect of our Party's land policy."

—"Decision of the CC on Land Policy in the Anti-Japanese Base Areas" (28 January 1942) reproduced in Conrad Brandt et al., eds., A Documentary History of Chinese Communism (1966)

The policy not to liquidate the landlords' exploitation of the peasantry had a profound and negative effect on the position of women. Since women could not own land (the major source of income in Yenan), they remained economically dependent on their husbands, fathers, brothers, etc. If her husband ordered her to stay home and take care of the house and children, a peasant woman had no practical recourse. For women, the legal right of divorce was meaningless without an alternative means of livelihood. Thus, during the popular front period the mass of women under Red Army rule remained tied to housework as they had for centuries. In her scholarly study, Woman-Work (1976), Delia Davin concludes that "it was still unusual for them [women] to work on the land on any scale until the time of land reform." The Mao regime did promote home industry, especially for textiles, and to some degree this provided women with an independent income. But as long as property relations in the Chinese countryside remained unchanged, the mass of Chinese women would remain unliberated. The manifest gap between communist, and even democratic, principles and social reality in the misnamed Yenan Soviet Republic would soon produce dissension within the Communist camp.

Debate Over the Woman Question in Yenan

Following the Japanese invasion large numbers of radical student youth and leftist intellectuals made their way from the cities to Yenan. In part they were escaping Japanese and Kuomintang repression and in part they wanted to fight Japanese imperialism. Chiang's armies were notoriously corrupt and incompetent, and the Red Army was widely seen as the only effective anti-Japanese force in China.

Prominent among the newcomers to Yenan was Ting Ling (Ding Ling), the best-known leftist woman writer in China. As a teenage girl she had been a family friend of Hsiang Ching-yu, the founding leader of the Communist women's movement, who was killed in the white terror of the late 1920s. Later Ting Ling became a protege of Lu Hsun, universally regarded as China's greatest modern man of letters. Ting thus represented the avant-garde of China's radical intelligentsia.

Many of the newcomers, like Ting, were disappointed when life in Yenan did not measure up to their idea of what a Soviet Republic should be. They gradually developed into a dissident current or milieu, which one commentator termed the Yenan "literary opposition." They criticized the sterility and .dogmatism of official Communist propaganda, the tendencies toward bureaucratic commandism and the exceedingly slow pace of social transformation. But basically the dissident intellectuals objected to certain effects of Mao's peasant-guerrilla strategy and the alliance with the Kuomintang but did not challenge these underly¬ing policies.

The Mao regime crushed the "literary opposition" in the so-called "rectification campaign" of 1942-44. A major target for "rectification" was the views Ting Ling expressed in a 1942 essay, "Thoughts on 8 March" (International Women's Day). (This essay was reproduced in translation in New Left Review, July-August 1974, from which we quote.) Here she criticized the Mao leadership for retreating from the struggle for sexual equality. Ting contended that women in Yenan, while certainly better off than in the rest of China, remained unemancipated. Despite the "free-choice marriage" laws, social pressure forced most women to marry anyone who would have them:

"But women invariably want to get married. (It's even more of a sin not to be married, and single women are even more of a target for rumors and slanderous gossip.) So they can't afford to be choosy, anyone will do—"

Once married, Ting went on, women were pressured into having children whether or not they really wanted to. In this way they were forced back into a life of housework, curtailing their political activity and education. Then they were accused of "backward-
ness," a standard ground for husbands suing their wives for divorce:

"Afraid of being thought 'backward', those who are a bit more daring rush around begging nurseries to take their children. They ask for abortions, and risk punishment and even death by secretly swallowing potions to produce abortions. But the answer comes back: 'Isn't giving birth to children also work? You're just after an easy life, you want to be in the limelight. After all, what indispensable political work have you performed?'... Under these conditions it is impossible for women to escape this destiny of 'backwardness'."

The Maoists reacted strongly to these bitter barbs. Ting Ling was banned from writing and sent to "study" with the peasantry in order to overcome what they called her "outdated feminism." In 1943 a new CCP document on "woman-work" criticized "tendencies to subjectivism and formalism which isolate us from ordinary women" (reproduced in Davin, op. cit.). This document presents increased economic productivity as a cure-all for women's oppression. The actual retreat from the liberating goals of authentic communism expressed by this rather abstract document was spelled out in a speech by Kai Chang, a leading Maoist spokesman on "woman-work": "Our slogans are no longer 'free choice marriage' and 'equality of the sexes' but rather 'save the children', 'a flourishing family', and 'nurture health and prosperity'" (quoted in Davin, ibid.).

While condemning the bureaucratic way in which Ting Ling and her co-thinkers were treated, how are we to judge the substance of the debate? The Maoists argued in Yenan that a more radical policy on the woman question would have alienated the peasant masses, women as well as men. However, when a few years later the Maoists under the pressure of civil war confiscated the landlords' property and gave peasant women an equal share of the land, these women responded with unbounded enthusiasm. The agrarian revolution laid the basis for a revolution in sexual relations.

If the Maoists were guilty of opportunism, then Ting Ling can be convicted of idealist voluntarism. She appears to have been blind to the economic obstacles to social transformation in this most backward province and to the fundamental difference in social outlook between workers and peasants. Working-class and professional women were potentially in a position to be economically independent of their menfolk, and this shaped their consciousness. But the peasant women of Yenan had no independent means of livelihood. How could a young woman who left her father's home and chose to remain single support herself? How could an older woman with young children survive if she abandoned an abusive husband? Ting expected and demanded for the Yenan area full sexual equality in advance of the nationwide political and social revolution which alone could bring this about. Some of the policies advocated by Ting in 1942 were in fact carried out after the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China (a bureaucratically deformed workers state) in 1949. But this required that the Maoists break their alliance with Chiang and place themselves at the head of an agrarian revolution which they had previously sought to suppress.

Women Under Kuomintang Reaction

Whatever the limitations, contradictions and retreats of Communist "woman-work" in Kiangsi and Yenan, the difference between that and the policies of the Kuomintang was like day and night. The inability of the "national bourgeoisies" in the colonial countries to shatter the feudal past and carry through a bourgeois-democratic revolution was conclusively demonstrated in China. Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang, the dominant bourgeois force, depended on relics of the feudal past (the corrupt warlords, landlords, gangsters). The native bourgeois classes in the colonial world are unable to separate themselves from the entanglement with imperialist domination for fear of setting off forces— principally the anti-capitalist struggle of the workers, in alliance with the peasantry—which will sweep them from power as well.

While the immediate target of the Kuomintang counterrevolution was "the Red menace," anti-Communism was soon extended to attacks on "decadent" Western liberalism in all its manifestations, especially on the woman question. In 1934 Chiang launched the New Life Movement based on an amalgam of Neo-Confucian, Christian and European fascist ideologies. The New Life which Chiang prescribed for Chinese women was the Kuomintang equivalent of the Nazis' "Kinder, Kuche, Kirche" (children, kitchen, church).
Here is how the leading ideologue of Neo-Confucianism, Lin Yu-tang, defined the role of women in society:

"There are talented women as there are talented men, but their number is actually less than democracy would have us believe. For those women, self-expression has a more important meaning than just bearing children. But for the common people, whose number is legion, let the men earn the bread to feed the family and let the women bear children— Of all the rights of women, the greatest is to be a mother."

—quoted in Elisabeth Croll, Feminism and Socialism in China (1980)

A leading inspirer and organizer of the New Life Movement was Madame Chiang Kai-shek, one of China's wealthiest women and a Wellesley graduate, who declared that "virtue is more important than learning." It is poetic justice that some of the hoary Neo-Confucianists around Chiang's court criticized Madame Chiang herself as too Westernized and attacked her public political appearances as "immod¬est" (sort of the Phyllis Schlafly of her day)!

The moral climate in Kuomintang ruling circles is well depicted in the memoirs of writer Han Suyin, who was trained abroad as a doctor. Han returned to China in the late 1930s to marry an officer on Chiang's staff, who constantly admonished her that "a woman of talent is not a virtuous woman" and that "to contradict your husband is a sign of immorality" (Birdless Summer [1968]).

If this is how the women of the educated elite were treated, one can imagine the situation facing women of the lower classes. Behind a faqade of bourgeois-democratic laws, a carryover from the revolutionary upheaval of the 1920s, the subjugation of the mass of Chinese women was fundamentally unchanged from the days of the Manchus or, for that matter, the Mings.

Deformed Social Revolution and Women's Liberation

It is now widely recognized that the American nuclear bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Naga¬saki in August 1945, even though Japan was ready to surrender, were dropped mainly to intimidate the Soviet Union. An even more immediate target for the American imperialists were the Chinese Communists. Having fought and defeated Japanese imperialism in large part to dominate and exploit China, the U.S. was not about to let Mao's Red Army stand in its way. With the guidance and support of Washington, Generalissimo Chiang was supposed to physically annihilate the Communist-led forces. For a year following the Japanese surrender the Generalissimo consolidated his position while spinning out phony negotiations with the CCP for a coalition government. Then in mid-1946 Chiang struck, initially with great effect. The Red Army was driven out of central China entirely and had to retreat on all fronts.

Stalin, as usual, was prepared to sacrifice his foreign "comrades" for the sake of "peaceful coexistence" with U.S. imperialism and its allies (in this case, Chiang's China). The Great Helmsman in the Kremlin later told Yugoslav Communist Eduard Kardelj that he advised the Chinese comrades to "join the Chiang Kai-shek government and dissolve their army" because "the development of the uprising in China had no prospect" (quoted in Stuart Schram, MaoTse-tung [1966]). Stalin's advice to the Chinese "comrades" was in effect that they commit suicide.

With their survival at stake the Maoists finally unleashed their most potent weapon: the mobilization of the Chinese peasantry against the landlords. A powerful wave of agrarian revolution carried the initially smaller Red Army, with its greater combativity and discipline, to victory over Chiang's forces, totally demoralized and grotesquely corrupt (Kuomintang generals sold food on the black market while their men went hungry).

Integral to the agrarian revolution and Red Army victory was the liberation of women from their previous total economic dependency. The Agrarian Reform Law promulgated by the CCP in 1947 divided the land equally between men and women. Women were given their own certificate of ownership, if they so chose, or joint ownership with their husbands. The impact of this revolution in property relations on the women of the Chinese countryside was electrifying. American journalist William Hinton, an eyewitness to these events, reported some typical responses: "When I get my share, I'll separate from my husband. Then he won't oppress me any more." "If he divorces me, never mind, I'll get my share and the children will get theirs. We can live a good life without him " (Fanshen [1966]). Particularly strong partisans of the Communist land policies were widows for whom the traditional Confucian code prescribed suicide at the death of husbands and providers.

The civil war itslef reinforced the agrarian revolution in radically changing the postion of women in society. The transition for guerilla to large-scale positional warfare drew masses of men into the Red Army and so created labor shortages in many villages. Large numbers of women were thus drawn into agricultural production out of sheer economic necessity. According to Teng Ying-chao (Deng Yingzhao), a leader of the CCP-led Women's Association and also Chou En-lai's wife, whereas in 1945 it was still unusual for women to work in the fields, by 1949 in the older liberated areas 50-70 percent of women worked on the land. In some villages peasant women were the main activists in confiscating the landlords' property.

More than any other aspect of CCP policy, it was the mobilization of women which shocked the Chinese ruling class as it was being destroyed. In her memoirs, Birdless Summer, Han Suyin recounts the absolute horror with which the'Kuomintang ruling circles in their last days viewed the revolt of women in the liberated areas:

"They actually had women in the Red armies, girls dressed as boys and carrying guns! They encouraged slave girls and concubines to revolt against their masters! Their widows remarried! They did not insist on 'chastity'! They incited the peasant women to stand up and denounce their husbands misdeeds."

For China's rulers, these were among the worst of the "crimes" of the Communists.
A social system which had oppressed women for millennia was overthrown in the course of a few years of civil war. The first years of the People's Republic of China saw the effective elimination of foot-binding, the general establishment of free choice in marriage, mass campaigns to overcome illiteracy and the drawing of most women into work outside the home.

Yet Mao's China was the product of a bureaucratically deformed social revolution, and that deformation imprinted itself on all aspects of social and political life. The popular enthusiasm and authority which the Maoists gained by overthrowing the old order was dissipated through the insane economic adventurism of the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the bureaucratic delirium of the Cultural Revolution (1966-69). The deeply nationalist character of the Maoist regime eventually led it into an alliance with U.S. imperialism against the Soviet Union, dramatically signaled in 1971 when the Chairman embraced Richard Nixon as American B-52s bombed Vietnam. And today the "People's Liberation Army" is the main instrument by which the American ruling class seeks to wreak vengeance against the heroic Vietnamese people, who inflicted upon U.S. imperialism the most humiliating defeat in its history.

The deformed character of the Chinese revolution has naturally also affected the condition of women. To take but a few of the more glaring manifestations: the policy toward contraception and abortion has zigzagged between extremes, from practically eliminating any means of birth control during the disastrous Great Leap Forward to the present policy of pressuring women to have abortions they do not want in order to reduce the population. Official puritanism has the force of law, making premarital sex a crime. Many jobs are still typed by sex, and there is unequal pay for equal work, especially on the collective farms.

Women and Revolution, in an article on Maoism and the family (subtitled "In China, women hold up half the sky—and then some," W&R No. 7, Autumn 1974), wrote of both the historic achievements and fundamental limitations of Maoist-Stalinist China in furthering the liberation of women:

"The revolution has, among other things, given women legal equality, freedom of choice in marriage, greater access to contraception and abortion, a greater role in social production and political life and, for some, child care centers, dining halls and schools. It is indisputable that the lives of Chinese women, who in pre-revolutionary times were barely recognized as human beings, have been radically transformed and that Chinese women are less oppressed in many ways than are women in bourgeois democracies. "But while we note such gains and therefore call for the unconditional military defense of China against imperialist attack, we are also aware that China has not achieved socialism—a historical stage marked, among other things, by the withering away of the state—and that the Chinese bureaucracy sabotages those measures leading toward the emancipation of women which could be undertaken by the dictatorship of the proletariat in even a poor and underdeveloped healthy workers state. Chinese women, therefore, continue to be specially oppressed."

The key to understanding the interrelationship between the Chinese deformed workers state and the family lies precisely in the fact that while the bourgeoisie has been smashed and the means of production nationalized, the working class does not wield political power. The state is administered by a bureaucratic caste which, in order to maintain its undemocratic rule, must, among other things, rely upon and foster the nuclear family as one more point for reinforcing respect for authority.

Only a proletarian political revolution which ousts the Maoist-Stalinist bureaucracy, establishes workers democracy and places the resources of the Chinese workers state fully in the service of world socialist revolution can open the road to fulfilling the struggles for women's liberation which have been integral to the tumultuous history of China in the modern era. And only the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution offers the enslaved women of the East—from India to Iran to Sri Lanka and Indonesia—the path to emancipation."

*From The Pages Of "Workers Vanguard"-"China: Labor Struggles in the “Socialist Market Economy”

Click on the headline to link Part Two of this article.

Markin comment:

On a day when we are honoring the anniversary of the Chinese revolution of 1949 the article posted in this entry and the comment below take on added meaning.

In the old days, in the days when I had broken from many of my previously held left social-democratic political views and had begun to embrace Marxism with a distinct tilt toward Trotskyism, I ran into an old revolutionary in Boston who had been deeply involved (although I did not learn the extend of that involvement until later) in the pre-World War II socialist struggles in Eastern Europe. The details of that involvement will not detain us here now but the import of what he had to impart to me about the defense of revolutionary gains has stuck with me until this day. And, moreover, is germane to the subject of this article-the defense of the Chinese revolution and the gains of that revolution however currently attenuated.

This old comrade, by the circumstances of his life, had escaped that pre-war scene in fascist-wracked Europe and found himself toward the end of the 1930s in New York working with the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the period when that organization was going through intense turmoil over the question of defense of the Soviet Union. In the history of American (and international) Trotskyism this is the famous Max Shachtman-James Burnham led opposition that declared, under one theory or another, that the previously defendable Soviet Union had changed dramatically enough in the course of a few months to be not longer worth defending by revolutionaries. What struck him from the start about this dispute was the cavalier attitude of the anti-Soviet opposition, especially among the wet-behind-the-ears youth, on the question of that defense and consequently about the role that workers states, healthy, deformed or degenerated as we use the terms of art in our movement as part of the greater revolutionary strategy. Needless to say most of those who abandoned defense of the Soviet Union when there was even a smidgeon of a reason to defend it left politics and peddled their wares in academia or business. Or if they remained in politics lovingly embraced the virtues of world imperialism.

That said, the current question of defense of the Chinese Revolution hinges on those same premises that animated that old Socialist Workers Party dispute. And strangely enough (or maybe not so strangely) on the question of whether China is now irrevocably on the capitalist road, or is capitalist already (despite some very uncapitalistic economic developments overt the past few years), I find that many of those who oppose that position have that same cavalier attitude the old comrade warned me against back when I was first starting out. There may come a time when we, as we had to with the Soviet Union and other workers states, say that China is no longer a workers state. But today is not that day. In the meantime study the issue, read the posted article, and more importantly, defend the gains of the Chinese Revolution.

Workers Vanguard No. 964
10 September 2010

China: Labor Struggles in the “Socialist Market Economy”

Defend the Chinese Deformed Workers State Against Imperialism, Capitalist Counterrevolution!

For Proletarian Political Revolution!

Part One

This past spring, China experienced a major strike wave involving young migrant workers employed mainly in factories owned by Japanese, other foreign and offshore Chinese capital. It was centered in the southern coastal province of Guangdong, the main region in the country producing light manufactures for export. Three dozen strikes took place in that province in the span of a month and a half. The upsurge of labor militancy extended to other industrial regions. For example, workers at a Taiwanese-owned rubber plant near Shanghai clashed with police; around 50 workers were injured. In most cases, the strikes were settled quickly with wage increases and other gains for the workers. Recognizing in its own way the significance of these developments, the Economist (31 July), a house organ for American and British finance capital, headlined an editorial: “The Rising Power of the Chinese Worker.”

The strike wave began in mid May at a Honda plant in Foshan that produces transmissions for the company’s four auto assembly plants in China. As a result of the work stoppage, which lasted nearly three weeks, production in all of these plants came to a halt. The strike, which ended with a wage increase averaging 30 percent, was viewed as an important victory for the workers.

Strikes are not uncommon in China. However, they are usually very short-lived, quickly settled and/or quickly suppressed. And they are almost never reported in the government-directed media for fear that doing so would encourage other workers to engage in similar actions. That is just what happened in the case of the Foshan Honda strike, as the conflict between Chinese workers and the Japanese auto giant became a focus of domestic as well as international attention. Subsequently, the authorities reverted to a policy of clamping down on news of labor unrest.

Organization and leadership of the strikes were provided by worker activists outside the bureaucratic structures of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the official union federation, tied to the ruling Communist Party (CCP). One strike leader, Li Xiaojuan, a 20-year-old woman worker at the Foshan Honda plant, wrote an open letter on behalf of the negotiating committee that declared:

“We must maintain a high degree of unity and not let the representatives of Capital divide us…. This factory’s profits are the fruits of our bitter toil…. This struggle is not just about the interests of our 1,800 workers. We also care about the rights and interests of all Chinese workers.”

— quoted in Financial Times (London), 10 June

The strike wave in the capitalist sector of its industrial economy underscores the fundamental social contradictions of China as a bureaucratically deformed workers state. As Trotskyists (revolutionary Marxists), we strongly supported the strikes and emphasized that the rights and interests of Chinese workers require a leadership with a comprehensive program of class struggle at the political as well as economic levels:

“Chinese workers need a class-struggle leadership to advance their struggle to wrest as much as possible from the capitalist companies that are exploiting them, fight the ravages of inflation and improve their working and living conditions. Workers in state-owned industry also need such a leadership to protect and advance their living standards and to fight against bureaucratic abuse.”

— “Militant Strike Wave in China,” WV No. 961, 2 July

The contradictions besetting the Chinese deformed workers state will ultimately be resolved either by a proletarian political revolution, opening the road to socialism, or capitalist counterrevolution and imperialist re-enslavement.

A Bureaucratically Deformed Workers State

The People’s Republic of China emerged from the 1949 Revolution—a social revolution of world-historic significance in which the peasant-based forces led by the Communist Party of Mao Zedong defeated the U.S.-backed puppet regime of Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang. Hundreds of millions of peasants rose up and seized the land on which their forebears had been exploited from time immemorial. The subsequent creation of a centrally planned, collectivized economy laid the basis for enormous social gains for both urban workers and rural toilers. The revolution enabled women to advance by magnitudes over their previous miserable status, which was rooted in the old Confucian order and marked by such practices as forced marriage and concubinage. A nation that had been ravaged and divided by foreign powers was unified and freed from imperialist domination.

However, the workers state that issued from the Revolution was deformed from its inception under the rule of Mao’s CCP regime, the political apparatus of a privileged bureaucratic caste resting atop the workers state. Unlike the Russian October Revolution of 1917, which was carried out by a class-conscious proletariat guided by the Bolshevik internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky, the Chinese Revolution was the result of peasant guerrilla war led by Stalinist-nationalist forces. Patterned after the Stalinist bureaucracy that usurped political power in the USSR beginning in 1923-24, Mao’s regime and those of his successors, including Hu Jintao today, have preached the profoundly anti-Marxist notion that socialism—a classless, egalitarian society based on material abundance—can be built in a single country. In practice, “socialism in one country” has meant accommodation to world imperialism and opposition to the perspective of international workers revolution that is essential for the advance to socialism.

After a brief interregnum following the death of Mao in 1976, his successor, Deng Xiaoping, scrapped centralized economic planning and began implementing a number of market-oriented policies and practices. In the late 1990s, the regime headed by Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji privatized a large number of small- and medium-sized state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Under “market socialism,” China has attracted large-scale investment, mainly in manufacturing, by Western and Japanese corporations and by the offshore Chinese bourgeoisie in Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere, with the CCP regime acting as labor contractors. On the mainland, there has also emerged a sizable class of indigenous capitalist entrepreneurs, many with familial and financial ties to the CCP officialdom.

One consequence of these developments is the widespread belief in the Western world, extending across the political spectrum, that China, although still ruled by a party calling itself “Communist,” has become capitalist. In reality, China remains a bureaucratically deformed workers state. The core of the industrial economy—steel and non-ferrous metals, heavy electrical equipment, telecommunications, oil extraction and refining, petrochemicals—continues to be based on state-owned enterprises. Outside of the foreign and offshore Chinese capitalist sector, almost all productive investment is channeled through the government and state-controlled banks. The Economist (10 July) pointed out that although China’s large banks “make money and have the trappings of public companies, the state owns a majority stake and the Communist Party appoints the top brass.”

The non-capitalist character of China’s economy has been clearly demonstrated by the effectiveness of the government’s almost $600 billion stimulus program—mainly investment in infrastructure and expanding bank lending—introduced in the fall of 2008 as the First World capitalist economies were plummeting. The sudden collapse of its export markets in North America and West Europe was a heavy blow to China’s economy. The rate of growth of the gross domestic product fell from near 13 percent in 2007 to under 7 percent in the last quarter of 2008. Since then, however, while the capitalist world has remained mired in a deep downturn, economic growth in China has revived rapidly, reaching almost 12 percent in the first quarter of this year before edging down slightly in the second quarter. Noting one significant effect of the skyrocketing levels of investment by state-controlled companies, the New York Times (29 August) reported that “the proportion of industrial production by companies controlled by the Chinese state edged up last year, checking a slow but seemingly inevitable eclipse.”

However much the Beijing Stalinists try to accommodate world imperialism, the U.S. and other major capitalist powers are determined to reverse the 1949 Revolution, reimposing semicolonial subjugation on China and reducing its economy to a giant capitalist sweatshop. Toward that end, they are utilizing economic penetration, increased military pressure from without and political subversion internally, for example, by the reactionary Buddhist forces in Tibet. The U.S. continues to provide capitalist Taiwan with advanced weaponry while itself extending its military reach in Central Asia and other areas near China. As Trotskyists, we stand for the unconditional military defense of China against imperialism and internal counterrevolution.

In answer to the aspirations of the Chinese workers and rural toilers for democratic rights and a government that represents their needs and interests, we stand for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and replace it with a government elected by workers and peasants councils and committed to revolutionary internationalism. Such a government would fight against bureaucratic arbitrariness and corruption. It would expropriate the new class of domestic capitalist entrepreneurs and renegotiate the terms of foreign investment in the interests of the working people. It would create a centrally planned and managed economy under conditions of workers democracy—not the autarkic, bureaucratic commandism of the Mao era, when “egalitarianism” meant an equalization of poverty. While struggling to provide at least a basic level of economic security for the whole population, a genuine communist leadership would understand that achieving material prosperity for all hinges on the struggle for socialist revolution in the centers of world capitalism.

The Honda Strikes

Migrant workers in China’s capitalist-owned factories are often forced to work 60 to 70 hours a week at wages barely above subsistence levels. The brutal conditions they endure were graphically exposed last spring by the widely publicized suicides of workers at the huge Foxconn industrial complex, employing more than 300,000, in Guangdong. At least a dozen workers have killed themselves since the beginning of the year. Owned by a Taiwanese company, Foxconn is the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer, making products for Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard. A Hong Kong-based businessman who toured the site described conditions on the factory floor as “almost militaristic and kind of scary” (Financial Times, 11 June). Popular outrage over the suicides at Foxconn doubtless contributed to widespread sympathy and support for the strikes at Honda and other capitalist-owned firms.

The strike at the Honda transmission plant in Foshan was initiated by a 24-year-old worker, Tan Zhiqing, from the interior province of Hunan, a major supplier of migrant labor. A spirit of rebelliousness is celebrated in the popular culture of Hunan, Mao Zedong’s birthplace. Seeing his real earnings shrinking because of inflation, Tan decided to quit Honda and seek higher pay elsewhere. He had earlier approached local ACFTU officials about pressuring management to increase wages but got no response from them. In late April, he and a friend and co-worker named Xiao Xiao submitted a standard one-month-in-advance notice of their intention to leave the company. Tan subsequently told a reporter from China News Weekly (2 June): “Since I was going to quit anyway, I thought I might as well do something for the benefit of my fellow-workers.”

Toward that end, he and Xiao organized secret meetings with a small number of co-workers to plan a work stoppage. On May 17, Tan pushed the emergency button, stopping the assembly line where he was working, and some 50 workers walked off the job. At first, most workers were hesitant to go on strike for fear of reprisals. Production resumed temporarily when management agreed to negotiate with workers’ representatives who were elected from the different departments. A turning point came on May 21-22 when the company offered a wage increase of less than 10 percent of what the workers were demanding and then fired Tan and Xiao. The strike now resumed in earnest, with much greater support and resolve. Strikers routinely sang the national anthem and also an official song of the Chinese military, “Unity Is Strength,” here referring to workers instead of soldiers.

Other management policies intended to weaken the strike also backfired. A large section of the workforce is comprised of teenage trainees from technical schools whose wages were much lower than those of regular workers. In late May, the company demanded that the trainees sign a “memorandum of undertaking” pledging “never to lead, organize, partake in go-slows, stop work or strike.” Not only did most refuse to sign but, as the China News Weekly (2 June) reported, the trainees “were the staunchest supporters of the strike.”

From the outset, the local ACFTU bureaucrats were sidelined during the strike. One of the workers’ demands was “a reorganization of the local trade union: re-elections should be held for union chairman and other representatives.” Union officials sat in on the negotiations, purportedly to “mediate” between the two sides. Some union functionaries were evidently rankled by their visible loss of authority. On May 31, a large squad of ACFTU goons assaulted striking workers. The next day, however, union officials issued a public apology while downplaying the incident and claiming it was a result of “mutual misunderstandings.” In mid June, the head of the Guangdong province ACFTU promised that the Foshan Honda plant would be a “pilot site” in “allowing members to genuinely elect a union chair.”

Within days after the Foshan strike ended, workers at two other Honda parts plants went out. One of these strikes was settled quickly. However, the strike at Honda Lock turned into a bitter conflict, the outcome of which was very different than that at Foshan. Using desktop computers, activists uploaded video of security guards beating workers. In this case, both the Honda management and CCP authorities, at least at the local level, took a harder line. The company recruited “replacement workers” (scabs) and threatened to fire those strikers who refused to accept the wage increase offered. Journalists seeking to report on the strike were taken away from the plant by local police.

CCP Regime’s Response to Strikes

The initial extensive coverage of the Foshan Honda strike in the domestic media was accompanied by an equally unusual candor about the country’s increasing social inequalities. Citing a leader of the ACFTU, the official English-language China Daily (13 May) reported that the share of the country’s gross domestic product going to workers’ wages fell from 57 percent in 1983 to 37 percent in 2005. An editorial in the Global Times (2 June), a People’s Daily spin-off, stated:

“Admittedly, in the three decades of opening-up, ordinary workers are among those who have received the smallest share of economic prosperity….

“The temporary stoppage of production lines

More recently, an ACFTU spokesman laid out an official policy of promoting “the direct election of grassroots trade union leaders” (People’s Daily online, 31 August).

Clearly, influential elements in the bureaucracy are concerned about the danger (to themselves) of growing labor unrest in the private sector. Even before the strike wave, a number of provincial and municipal governments had raised the legal minimum wage, in some cases as much as 20 percent.

Despite increasing economic inequality, one should recognize that workers in China, including migrants in the capitalist sector, have generally experienced a substantial improvement in living standards during the decades of the “reform” era. It is also true that the closing and privatizing of many state-owned enterprises over the years have produced severe economic uncertainty for workers who have seen their previously guaranteed social benefits cut and who lack the education and skills to find new work. But with the export sector booming, between 2004 and 2009 the average real monthly wage of migrant workers increased by more than 40 percent. That workers at Honda used cell phones and the Internet to coordinate strikes at different plants indicates that they have access to modern technology—a world away from the experience of their parents, not to speak of their grandparents on the rural communes of the Mao era.

Because the strikes were in capitalist enterprises, they did not constitute the kind of direct challenge to the ruling bureaucracy that strikes or other labor protests in strategic sectors of the statified economy, such as steel production, oil extraction and the railway system would pose. To a certain extent, the CCP regime could posture as a paternalistic defender of Chinese workers against unbridled exploitation by Japanese, Korean and offshore Chinese capitalists. In mid June, China’s premier Wen Jiabao intoned that “the government and all sectors of society should treat migrant workers as they would their own children.”

The fact that Honda is a Japanese company was likely an important factor in the authorities’ initial tolerance for the strike and the extensive domestic media coverage. The Beijing Stalinist leaders seek popular legitimacy by, above all, appealing to Chinese nationalism, evoking the historical memory of the country’s semicolonial subjugation prior to the 1949 Revolution. An important source of the CCP’s historical authority was its mobilization of the peasant masses in resisting the Japanese imperialists’ invasion and occupation of China in the 1930s-’40s. Even today Japan, rather than the United States, is the main target of both popular and officially sponsored Chinese nationalism.

On the other side of the Sea of Japan, the leading bourgeois newspaper Nikkei complained that “in the strike at the Honda-supplier, the authorities took a neutral stance from beginning to end.” In this respect, the strikes in China contrast sharply with the bloody state repression of labor struggles against Japanese companies in the semicolonial countries of Southeast Asia. For example, soldiers and police recently attacked workers at a Toshiba plant in Indonesia. In the Philippines, a union leader at the Japanese company Takata was murdered in early June in the course of a struggle for union recognition.

The strikes at the Chinese Honda and Toyota factories underscore the need for unity between the proletariats of China and Japan—a prospect that is completely outside the nationalist worldview of China’s Stalinist misrulers. Had the Japanese workers at these two auto giants expressed support for their Chinese class brothers, this would have strengthened their bargaining power and undercut the anti-Japanese nationalism promoted by the Beijing regime.

At the same time, the unity between different strata of workers—trainees from technical schools and full-time employees—displayed during the Foshan Honda strike could provide a positive and powerful example for the Japanese labor movement, with its hierarchical division between the permanent employees of the big corporations and the large number of temporary workers. This division poses directly the need for a political struggle against the lackeys of the bourgeoisie in the top leadership of the unions in Japan. For example, the most powerful unions in strategic industries such as auto and electronics allow only full-time employees to join.

The workers’ suicides at Foxconn and strikes at a number of other Taiwanese-owned enterprises point to the substantial presence of offshore Chinese capital in the mainland industrial economy. The island statelet of Taiwan, where the bulk of Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated forces fled in the late 1940s, is the base of the main body of the Chinese big bourgeoisie. Unlike mainland capitalist entrepreneurs, the bourgeoisie on Taiwan possesses its own counterrevolutionary political organizations. Moreover, the Taiwan-based bourgeoisie operates under the direct military protection of American imperialism.

The Beijing Stalinists have long promoted reunification with Taiwan under the formula, “one country, two systems,” the same formula used to incorporate the capitalist enclave of Hong Kong (a former British colony) in 1997. The incorporation of Taiwan into the People’s Republic under that formula is not on the immediate historical agenda. But should such a development take place, it would greatly strengthen the social forces of capitalist restoration, much more so than in the case of Hong Kong. Opposing the Stalinists’ efforts to accommodate the Taiwan-based Chinese bourgeoisie, we stand for revolutionary reunification: proletarian political revolution on the mainland and proletarian socialist revolution in Taiwan resulting in the expropriation of the bourgeoisie.

A Tight Labor Market and a New Proletarian Generation

The strike wave that began in the spring took place in the capitalist sector of China’s economy. However, favorable conditions for these workers’ struggles have been the result in good part of the workings of the core collectivized sector of the economy. When the world capitalist market tanked in the fall of 2008, an estimated 20 million workers were laid off from the export-producing factories in coastal China. Most returned to the rural villages.

One of the main effects of the government’s stimulus program has been a substantial expansion of employment opportunities in the country’s interior. As export production revived, beginning last summer, the inflow of migrants seeking work in coastal China was less than in the past. Glenn Maguire, Asia chief economist for the French bank Société Générale, observed that this development “suggests that the stimulus packages have been incredibly successful at creating jobs” (Reuters, 1 June). A survey by the ministry of labor estimated that in the Pearl River Delta manufacturing center in Guangdong, job vacancies exceeded applicants by 9 percent in the first quarter of the year. The tight labor market has increased the bargaining power of workers at the individual and the collective level. An executive at a Guangdong-based electronics company noted the changed situation: “When you fined workers nobody would dare to object because if you said anything you were out. But now every time a certain number of workers oppose some management move, my company will adjust it” (Financial Times, 4 June).

In addition to conjunctural factors, the long-term demographic trend is beginning to impact the labor market. For the past several decades, the CCP regime, seeking to curb population growth, has limited urban families to one child and rural families to two. As a consequence, the population between the ages of 15 and 24—the pool from which almost all migrant workers are drawn—has remained basically unchanged for the past five years and is projected to fall by almost 30 percent over the next ten years. Many bourgeois commentators foresee the beginning of the end of “cheap labor” in China.

But it is not only objective conjunctural and demographic factors that underlie the increased assertiveness and social power of China’s workers. The strike wave signals the entry of a new proletarian generation onto the social scene, one whose outlook and attitudes differ significantly from those of their parents.

The young peasant men and women who flooded into the cities in the 1980s and ’90s came from very poor, economically primitive conditions. Working in a factory or construction site, however harsh the conditions, was the only way they could improve their lives. For most of them, the goal was to save enough money so that they could return to their native villages and build new homes, buy equipment for their family farms or open small businesses.

The present generation of migrants has come of age in a society that is far more developed, even in the countryside, but also much more unequal. Their aspirations and expectations are correspondingly different. In response to a survey of 5,000 second-generation migrant workers conducted by the General Labor Union in the Guangdong city of Shenzhen, almost all said that they were unwilling to return to their home villages and become farmers. Cha Jinhua, described as a Guangdong-based labor activist, explained: “We’re different from our parents’ generation. Their wishes were simple—earn some money and return to their home towns. We want to stay in the cities and enjoy our lives here. But we demand respect” (Financial Times, 1 June).

However, the aspirations of young migrant workers to build good lives for themselves in the cities directly confront the legally based household registration or hukou system. Workers as well as members of the petty bourgeoisie who have an urban household registration have social benefits that are denied to those with a rural hukou. And the latter includes the grown children of migrants who, while born in the cities, are registered as members of a rural household. Holders of an urban hukou have priority for employment in state-owned enterprises, which generally provide much better social benefits, such as subsidized housing, and greater job security. In general, migrants pay more for inferior medical care and public schooling for their children. Furthermore, as we observed in “Women Workers and the Contradictions of China Today” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 61, Spring 2009):

“The migrant population is itself divided between those who have legal status and those who do not. Almost all migrant workers in factories and other major enterprises like Wal-Mart have temporary urban residency permits. However, there are millions of ‘undocumented’ migrants—no one knows exactly how many—who eke out an existence as casual laborers, housemaids and nannies, street vendors and the like.”

We have long called for the abolition of the hukou system and for migrants to have the same rights and access to jobs as legally registered urban residents. In championing the rights of migrant workers, a class-struggle labor leadership would help unite the struggles of workers in state-owned industries against bureaucratic mismanagement and cuts in benefits with those of workers exploited in capitalist enterprises.

Labor Struggles in Guangdong: Yesterday and Today

The parents and older brothers and sisters of the workers involved in the recent strike wave also fought for a better life in the capitalist-owned factories and construction sites of coastal China. And there are important elements of continuity as well as differences across the generational divide.

A few years ago, Ching Kwan Lee, an academic of leftist sympathies, published a book based on her fieldwork in two very different regions of China in the early 2000s: Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt (University of California Press [2007]). The “rustbelt” in the subtitle is the northeastern province of Liaoning, which suffered economic devastation and mass unemployment when many large SOEs were downsized and smaller ones were privatized or closed outright in the late 1990s. The “sunbelt” refers to Guangdong.

In regard to the latter region, Lee emphasized the importance of labor laws and their non-enforcement in conditioning workers’ struggles. Almost all strikes and other industrial actions were preceded by complaints to local officials that the employer had violated the law with respect to wages (unpaid or below the legal minimum), overtime, social benefits or safety. She cited a case where complaints to the Labor Bureau by a small number of workers’ representatives were repeatedly ignored. Only when all of the workers in the factory went on strike did the Bureau intervene to arrange mediation.

Lee concluded that “migrant workers, feeling deprived of the socialist social contract available to state-owned enterprise workers, see the Labor Law as the only institutional resource protecting their interests vis-à-vis powerful employers and local officials.” One woman worker told her: “Once we saw the terms of the Labor Law, we realized that what we thought of as bitterness and bad luck were actually violations of our legal rights and interests.” A construction worker made similar comments in explaining the struggle against an employer who had forged workers’ signatures on labor contracts and denied workers access to the contracts’ terms:

“For two weeks, we had only one meal each day and we read everything on the Labor Law and labor dispute arbitration in the bookstore. Before this, we had no idea what the law said about us migrant workers. For many years, we had only heard about the labor contract, but we did not press the company hard enough when they refused to give us a copy…. Since we started this struggle with the company, many workers have begun to read newspapers. Some even cut out labor dispute stories for circulation in the dormitory.”

The prevailing attitude among workers was that the labor laws, if enforced, would substantially improve their conditions of life. But they were not enforced by local officials, many of whom were corrupt and openly colluded with the employers. A lawyer specializing in getting compensation for workers injured on the job recounted that a judge once told him: “Lawyer Zhou, if the court adheres to all the laws and regulations of the provincial government, all these factories would move elsewhere and the local economy would collapse. Who would be responsible then? You?”

To what extent is Lee’s observation from the early 2000s, that knowledge of the labor laws encourages and shapes workers’ struggles, applicable to the recent strike wave? From afar one cannot give a definitive answer. However, in the judgment of most observers, an important contributing factor to the upsurge of labor militancy was the new labor law adopted in 2008, which strengthened workers’ formal rights vis-à-vis the employer. Obviously, the CCP leadership did not intend this legislation to be an incitement for workers to go on strike. Rather, it sought to pressure capitalist firms to ameliorate the conditions of exploitation so as to minimize labor unrest.

The relation between workers’ struggles and the labor laws is contradictory. Workers have been emboldened to undertake strikes and other actions in defense of their legally recognized rights. At the same time, a belief that the laws are good but local officials are bad can foster illusions in the benevolent nature of the central government/party leadership. China’s premier likes to be called “Uncle Wen,” as he cultivates an avuncular image. It serves political stability if the workers’ anger is directed at low-level functionaries who can easily be sacrificed to assuage popular sentiment.


Click on headline to link ot Part Two of this article.