Chinese workers fight for democracy

Author: 
Camila Bassi

I was leading a meeting last November at Liverpool University’s Guild of Students on the question of a socialist response to the politics of multiculturalism and assimilation.

During the discussion, the predominance of “cultural relativism” in left academia became explicit — perhaps, I wonder now, a liberal postcolonial hangover from the crimes of the British Empire.

I recalled a special edition of the BBC’s “Question Time” programme, broadcast from Shanghai in 2005.

When an official of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was posed a question about universal suffrage and democratic rights from the audience, the CCP official replied (I paraphrase): “Universal suffrage is a Western understanding of democracy, in China we do democracy differently.” So, in my mind at least, a postcolonial liberal hangover found its way into the hands of the Chinese ruling class for its own convenience.

I relayed this to the meeting, retorting to the cultural relativists: “When students and workers in Beijing and other major cities in China rose up in defiance against the Party and for a democratic revolution in 1989, it was because our class the world over shares important fundamental values.”

Recently, an advisor to Mao Zedong’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, remarked: “If China had applied this so-called ... liberal electoral democracy we would have a peasant government. It would be very nationalist, they would launch war against Taiwan or Japan. The current leadership... is cautious and moderate in its foreign policy, which is in China’s interest, and which is actually also good for the western interests.”

Professor Weiwei is the author of The China Wave: the Rise of a Civilizational State, in which he claims that China is an “exceptional civilisation”. Xiaoping, one should recall, was the architect of China’s era of opening and reform, a strictly economic not political state-engineered project which has fuelled its economic growth since the 1990s especially.

Western critics of “the China model”, Weiwei reasons, should stop pointing out the country’s supposed shortcomings.

So what about, I wonder, the Chinese working class and peasantry. Should they stop pointing out the shortcomings of this China model too? Of course, certain political “truths” that are proclaimed by the bourgeoisies the world over class-cleanse the actual conditions of reality.

Alongside Weiwei’s diatribe let’s consider a report produced by China Labor Bulletin (CLB), showing that the workers’ movement in China during the period of 2009-2011 has been revitalised by a new generation of migrant workers demanding better pay and working conditions and refusing to comply with the brutal exploitation that a previous generation endured: “These young activists have not only won noticeable concessions from their employers, they have also forced the government and trade unions to reassess their labour and social policies.”

CLB states that the protests over the past three years or so have generated “an embryonic collective bargaining system” in the country; the challenge remaining, to make that system effective and sustainable.

Let’s consider also that in 2011, the election year for deputy posts in the People’s Congress, there was an upsurge of independent, grassroots candidates that the CCP suppressed with renewed vigour.

The Epoch Times reports, for instance, the case of a retired professor from Shandong University. Soon after declaring his independent candidacy, he was subjected to the local authorities destroying all of his election materials, ordering police to prevent him from accessing the university campus, and threatening his supporters with forced labour imprisonment, while the university authorities confiscated his home of 26 years.

Not to be mistaken for an isolated incident, the Epoch Times also reports: “Beijing police have taken nine independent candidates into custody and ‘disappeared’ some of them in September. Some independent candidates said their names were erased from the ballot; some candidates’ websites and personal social media sites were shut down just prior to the elections.”

In the year of the Arab Spring, the democratic desires of the Chinese working class have made the State increasingly nervous and, as such, it has readily applied forceful repression.

An escalated stand-off in Wukan village, since September 2011, between villagers and local CCP officials is another example of China’s escalating democracy struggles.

The spark was land seizures, with the villagers protesting against the sale of their land to developers and lack of compensation. What’s more, during this time, the villagers have experimented in self-government (a universal class experiment in grassroots democracy echoed in history):

“The democratically elected village council has not only led the villagers to peacefully defend themselves against invasion by the police, they have also given help to the poor.

“The whole village of over 10,000 people is in good order. There are no thieves and people don’t even close their doors at night. There are no more village cadres bullying villagers, and people help one another. All villagers discuss everything together. Under the “anarchy” of self-government, the management of everything is much better than in the past.

“The people of China are watching and in Wukan they see clearly: Without the Communist Party, life is better.” (Epoch Times)

Clearly nervous of infection, the CCP is aiming to “negotiate” some sort of agreement (at best, dampener, at worst, violent suppression) with the villagers. The death of Xue Jinbo on 11 December while in local police custody (the police claiming he died of “sudden illness” ) stalls such a deal. Meanwhile one of the organisers of a group named the “Wukan Young Enthusiasts” blogs:

“Today I can only say I have seen the light of the dawn, but have yet to be embraced by the warm sun. …I’ll run as far away as I can. Who knows whether they will be handing down punishment later.”

Cultural relativists pay heed. To the Western liberal left-wing variety, mull over the sacrifices people make for universal political emancipation; sacrifices which are brought down upon them by the iron fist of the totalitarian variety of relativism in a left-wing velvet glove..