What is happening in China?

One in five of the world’s populace will soon have new leaders for a decade’s term.

This will be delivered via the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), an assembly of the bureaucracy so regulated that all that China’s people and the rest of the world will be presented with is a well-orchestrated display of unified power.

At the time of writing this article, who the new leaders are has yet to be formally announced, but behind the scene faction fights and scraps between the powerful elite in the Party have already been settled for the sake of unity for survival.

The current Vice-President Xi Jinping is set to succeed Hu Jintao as the leader of the CCP (a candidate acceptable to all of the Party’s factions) and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang (Hu Jintao’s favourite contender) is likely to succeed Wen Jiabao as Premier. The ageing Politburo Standing Committee will also be recomposed, with seven of its nine members expected to step down. Now it seems is an apt moment to pose the question, what defines the present political moment in and of China? I’ll provide a response through seven key observations.

1. The Princelings, the Populists, and the Bo Xilai affair

Two defining factions at the top of the CCP are the “princelings” and the “populists”.

The princelings tend to have familial roots in the Party and geographical origins in the economically prosperous coastal areas of the country. They are seen to represent business interests.

The populists tend to have climbed the ranks of the Party and to have come from more inland (poorer) Chinese provinces. They are perceived to speak more for the vulnerable social interest groups.

Bo Xilai, while head of Chongqing, had ambitions for the Politburo Standing Committee. Bo (a princeling) represented — through the since-coined Chongqing Model — one avenue for more general political reform in China. In this major city he drove through a combination of high state control, which included a high-profile (but selective) clampdown on organised crime, the promotion of Maoist “red culture”, and the courting of foreign investment alongside large-scale public provision.

Bo’s downfall came from the death of a British businessman and his related corrupt business dealings, but also from factional fighting and his challenge to Party convention. The significance? The reaction of many of the populace, which questioned the deep-seated corrupt nature of the Party itself and how Bo had risen to such prominence.

His downfall was the biggest event in China since the 1989 revolutionary uprisings centred on Tiananmen Square. With approximately 500 million Chinese netizens, the Party cannot control everyday life as it once could.

2. Troubled times for the Chinese economy

China’s economic growth has been slowing down for seven consecutive quarters and this year it will have the slowest economic growth rate since 1999.

The huge spending package launched in 2008 has, it is estimated, led to the building of half of all of the country’s physical assets within the last six years.

The “inevitable side effects of that stimulus — non-performing loans and potentially deflationary overcapacity — have not yet taken hold” (Pilling, 2012). Take housing as an example. About 30% of the country’s housing stock is currently lying empty. If we add to this that the economy has still to be rebalanced by the CCP from investment to consumption, and the economy’s dependence on exports to a recession-hit Europe, troubled days surely lie ahead.

3. working class protest and militancy

As surveyed in my article in Solidarity 258, both the quantity of working class protests in China has significantly increased this century and the qualitative nature has changed, with these protests becoming more militant.

As previously noted: “Whilst worker protests in the early 2000s predominantly involved laid-off workers from state-owned enterprises and rural migrants employed in the private sector, by the end of the decade a new group, or a ‘new generation’, emerged. Those born in the 1980s and 1990s have altered the nature of the migrant worker to one younger, better educated, more connected, and with higher expectations and more willingness to take on proactive demands.”

4. The rise of “middle class” discontent

This is less militant. So-called “middle class” protest in China is more about better government than the overthrow of the existing one. But the rise in discontent amongst middle-income Chinese includes currents desiring some form of bourgeois democracy.

Intense political discontents on housing, health, education, and the environment, are all fundamentally driven by a concern that the CCP pursuit of economic growth is at the expense of ordinary people.

The recent NIMBY protest in Ningbo against a petrochemical plant led to a concession by the local government to stop the plant’s expansion. This decision can be explained both by the fact that it occurred in the run up to the 18th Congress, during which the Party seeks an especially compliant population, and by the Party’s more general strategy (unlike the more violent one towards militant working class demands) of keeping the peace by piecemeal allowances.

5. anxious maintenance of internal stability

Based on observations 1, 2, 3 and 4, an increasingly more assertive Chinese population — able and willing to take on its government — might well indicate that China is on the verge of a revolution.

One further factor needs to be brought into play for such an assessment, which is the ability of the CCP to (in its own words) “maintain internal stability”.

The Ministry of Public Security records the number of “mass incidents” rising from 8,700 in 1993, 32,000 in 1999, 50,000 in 2002, and at present 100,000 annually. More to the point, the Party is increasingly serious (paranoid even) about keeping control; currently spending as much if not more on the maintenance of internal stability than its defence force.

So, while my article in Solidarity 231 assesses the potential of an inspiring struggle against land seizures and for local democracy in Wukan village, any suggestion of meaningful political reform is tempered by the introduction of militias in Wukan since August of this year. This reflects, more generally across China, “the newest incarnation of a venerable approach to population control and social management” (Wagner, 2012).

6. The Sino-Japanese islands dispute and Chinese nationalism

The CCP is creating new facts on the water in its long-running maritime disputes with the Philippines and Japan.

Could this situation escalate further and draw China, Japan and the United States into a war? It cannot be ruled out.

Not unrelated is the nature and volatility of Chinese nationalism, which has deeply embedded within it a popular anti-Japanese racism, as seen in the recent wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations across the country. Herein lies a means for the CCP to unify the populace and distract them from the problems within by the problems without.

7. China in Africa

Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times (21 October) states: “The big picture remains the Pentagon's AFRICOM spreading its militarized tentacles against the lure of Chinese soft power in Africa, which goes something like this: in exchange for oil and minerals, we build anything you want, and we don’t try to sell you ‘democracy for dummies’.”

A widespread view on the left, based on observations like this, is that US imperialism is the big bad evil, while China remains a palatable alternative. A serious assessment of Chinese imperialism is avoided.

China is now Africa’s largest trading partner and lends the continent more money than the World Bank. Chinese companies have entered profitable oil markets in, for instance, Angola, Nigeria, Algeria and Sudan, made big mining deals in countries like Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and are constructing what is claimed to be the world’s biggest iron mine in Gabon; additionally, land is being sought for large-scale agribusinesses, and physical infrastructure — to swiftly move capital and labour — is rapidly developing (French, 2012).

In terms of global geopolitics and imperialism, we need to take stock of what this means.

It is not so much the implications of any one of these observations but rather the consequences of them all climaxing and cumulating which makes China’s present moment so critical. Watch this space.

References

Associated Press (2012) ‘Successful pollution protest shows China takes careful line with rising middle class’. The Washington Post.

Bassi, C (2012) ‘China’s new worker militants’. Solidarity 258.

Bassi, C (2012) ‘Chinese workers fight for democracy’. Solidarity 231.

BBC (2012) ‘China’. BBC World Online.

French, H (2012) ‘The Next Empire’. The Atlantic.

Pilling, D (2012) ‘Xi should draw up a new social contract for China’. Financial Times.

Wagner, D (2012) ‘The Rise of the Chinese Urban Militias’. Huffington Post.

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