Life & Times – Work in China and the UK

The other day I had a conversation with someone who told me he’d recently visited China and, having worked there in the past, now found things significantly changed. The context of this was a university academic, a social scientist, coming to speak with his trade union’s volunteer personal case officer (myself). He (I’ll call him Simon) was dissatisfied with his work situation largely owing to the volume of work he was being given, consisting of teaching, administration and research. In particular he was concerned that the teaching and administration had become so overwhelming that he was being left with little time to get on with and publish his research, which is what would dictate the progress of his career. What could be done? I made a few suggestions, among which was an approach by the union to his head of department protesting at his treatment and its apparent unfairness. He seemed happy with this – as a first step anyway.

But in mentioning China at the start of our conversation, he’d also told me that, on his recent visit there with his wife, also a social scientist and herself Chinese, both of them had been offered jobs at a Chinese university. They’d thought about it but decided not to take up the offer because the current situation in China was ‘dire’ (his word). This made me curious, so after talking about Simon’s current employment issues, I asked him what he meant by ‘dire’ in relation to China. He was only too ready to explain.

He said there were three main reasons. The first one had been of particular concern to his wife – a noticeable increase in what he called misogyny. He explained that China’s ‘one-child’ policy having been abandoned quite some time ago, the government was concerned that the population now wasn’t replacing itself and so was putting considerable pressure on women to have more children and stay at home to bring them up. Women insisting on being employed were being portrayed almost as betrayers of the nation. The second thing was that they had noticed, since they last spent time there, that the climate had become noticeably more repressive. This manifested itself, for example, in university academics having to seek special permission simply if they wanted to spend a weekend away in another city or another part of the country and in it having become more difficult to get colleagues they knew to speak openly about any subject that might be considered sensitive or political. The third thing was that it was being made increasingly difficult for foreigners to obtain visas to stay in the country or to continue residence there, one consequence of which was that it was not unusual for western media correspondents not to have their visas renewed. Simon also told me they noticed a definite deterioration in economic conditions with signs that the government seemed nervous about possible unrest or protest and was seeking ways (eg, the furore about Taiwan) of distracting attention from deteriorating prospects and living conditions for its citizens. He ended by wondering, tongue in cheek of course, whether, given the increasingly repressive atmosphere, a comparison with the Ming dynasty might not be appropriate.

Xi Jinping: a ruler for ever?
All of this is anecdotal of course, but there does seem a lot of backing for Simon’s take on China from a good many other sources. For example, recent newspaper coverage has reported on the shrinking of China’s population and government concern about the low birth rate leading potentially to a loss of young workers. China’s apparently permanent leader Xi Jinping has been quoted as referring to women playing ‘a unique role in promoting traditional virtues’ and to the ‘need to cultivate a new marriage and childbearing culture to tackle the ageing population’. There is also evidence that, after decades of relatively high economic growth under a mixture of state and private capitalism, China’s economy is losing momentum, with significant downturns in various sectors (eg, building and construction, property, private tutoring, data management and transfer), unrest and unemployment leading to strikes and demonstrations among workers and also concern within the small Chinese private capitalist class, some of them fabulously rich, about government crackdowns, as the one-party regime seeks to tighten its control over both state and private economic activity.

As long ago as the 1980s, many people thought that China was moving towards less authoritarian, more democratic political institutions. Such hopes were dashed by the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, but there are again some commentators who consider that the current regime will find it difficult in the longer term to contain social unrest and this may lead to more enlightened government policies or at least a relaxation of repression – as happened for example in Eastern Europe where, against most people’s expectations, seemingly stable regimes crumbled almost overnight. This is obviously to be hoped for, since not only is the current anti-democratic, repressive regime an obstacle to the needs of continuing capitalist development, bumping up against the free circulation and exchange of ideas that need to go with that development, but it is also an obstacle to the subsequent development of socialist consciousness that we are looking for.

Socialism (with Chinese characteristics?)
To return to Simon and his wife, their perception of the way the Chinese regime currently operates (which it laughably called ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’) and their rationale for not staying there seem fully corroborated. There seems little doubt that their work situation and their freedoms, academic and otherwise, would have been far more restricted in China than in the UK. Of course, Simon had complaints about the way he was being treated by his employer here. But at least he was able to seek to address this via his trade union, a body independent of government or other ‘higher’ authority. How much more difficult would he have found the same kind of thing in China, where unions do exist but are closely government monitored and controlled? Would the outcome be a cancelled visa? Anyway, hasten the day when all such autocracies give way to at least the limited democracy that capitalism can offer and provide the ground for workers to decide collectively that they want to move on the road to that genuine alternative system of society beyond the system of wages, money and profit, which we call socialism.


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