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World View: China – fighting back

The leaders in China no longer even pretend to make Marxist noises – they are too busy trying to oversee the country's fuller integration into the world capitalist system. Despite the rate of growth in the Chinese economy, this is no easy task, and moreover China's workers need to be kept in their place as well, since capitalism inevitably produces resistance on the part of the exploited.

It is easy to underestimate the extent of China's involvement already in global manufacturing: the country now produces half the world's toys and two-thirds of its shoes, for instance. In December 2001 China became a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), part of the system set up by the major capitalist countries to try and ensure that the world economy operates without slumps and on the basis of “free” trade. Chinese imports and exports should increase, but under WTO rules, government subsidies to many industries will have to be phased out and various tariff barriers reduced. The Chinese government accepts that the 10th Five Year Plan (2001-5) will involve much economic disruption, including at least three million workers – and possibly far more – being laid off from state-owned companies. The benefits of all this will accrue to the 0.6 percent of the population who own private businesses and the 2.6 percent who are top government officials, not to the ordinary workers.

A number of recent reports have emphasized the resentment felt by many Chinese workers at the way they are treated and the way their bosses line their own pockets. In the north-eastern city of Daqing, once presented as a model for industrial development, workers at a petroleum company have been staging a sit-in to protest against a buy-out package. Oil production has been reduced, as more oil is imported and the main oil company gets listed on the Hong Kong and New York stock exchanges. Elsewhere in Daqing, a construction company simply told its employees not to come to work, as there was no money to pay them. The were not sacked, so had no chance of receiving state benefits. To make ends meet, some were forced to sell vegetables in street markets. They have staged demonstrations, but have not linked up with the oil workers, as they know little of what is happening elsewhere in the city. The government-controlled press, and the lack of any real workers' organisations, make cooperation among different groups of workers very difficult.

Elsewhere, disputes at work are reaching staggering levels, as can be seen from a few examples. In the large city of Shanghai, the number of disputes has increased by 40 percent a year. In February 2000, over 20,000 miners in Liaoning province attacked government buildings and fought with police for three days, as a response to the mine where they worked going bankrupt and their being offered an unacceptable redundancy package. In January 2001, hundreds of workers from a chemical company in Jilin province that was being shut down blockaded a major road for three days in freezing temperatures. But again, these actions tend to be taken in isolation from each other.

In the “Special Economic Zones”, especially in the south of China, overseas companies have been lured in by the promise of tax breaks and cheap labour. The result has been the creation of sweatshops for the likes of Nike, where working conditions are as bad as anywhere in the Philippines or Indonesia. Such places are death traps, with minimal fire precautions and emergency exits often being locked shut. This is the kind of freedom that the advocates of free trade are really talking about. But operating in China can present unexpected problems for overseas companies: for instance, the Italian sportswear manufacturer, Diadora, set up a factory in central China, only to find it often producing more than they had ordered and selling the surplus to local shops at lower prices.

In addition to cheap labour power, the earth's capitalists are attracted by the prospect of China as a market – who can ignore the chance to get at a billion potential new customers? Big US-style shopping malls now exist in most cities, and international brands are well-known. At an elite level, China is the world's largest importer of French brandy. The market for personal computers is growing rapidly, and one prediction is that by the end of 2002 China will be the second largest market (after the US). Apple, who currently have just 0.2 percent of this market, are frantically trying to improve their market share.

Socialists have long pointed out that the Maoist victory of 1949 was not socialist, that ordinary folk were not in charge of the so-called People's China. Surely nowadays nobody can deny that China is just another capitalist country.