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International Socialism, January 1978


Notes of the Month

China: Prospects for 1989


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 104, January 1978, p. 4.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Recent reports from China tell of mass executions and major shifts in policy. For instance at the beginning of November a report from Peking suggested that a wave of ‘political trials is taking place followed by executions’. At the same time, the Chinese press is full of appeals to ‘resolutely smash the Gang of Four’ and ‘consolidate the Party’. It is clear that there is a major settling of accounts going on in China today between the ‘moderates’ and the ‘radicals’ as the western press continues to call the shifting poles of the inner party struggle.

At the same time many of the policies which appeared to embody the Maoist line after the Cultural Revolution are being put into reverse. One of the most significant was the re-introduction of exams into the educational system as part of an overall change in policy. It was the students movement in 1966 against ‘bourgeois standards’ in education that was the first manifestation of the Cultural Revolution. Since then, it has been the universities where according to the Maoist line ‘politics have been put in command’ to the greatest extent. There have been no national examinations in Chinese universities since then. Students were sent to the countryside as an integral part of their course and preference was supposed to have been given to the children of workers and peasants. Now all this is changing.

A similar change is under way in the economy. For the first time since the Cultural Revolution, there is to be a national wage increase. 46 per cent of the work-force are to be promoted to a higher grade. But a price is to be paid for this generosity; there is to be the appointment of competent managers, and better maintenance and quality control; translated it means increased productivity, and the ending of any role that the Chinese worker may have had in determining his or her working conditions.

But does this mean that as some continental leftists claim that the ‘gains’ that they believed emerged from the Cultural Revolution are being wiped out?

The answer in fact is very different. Any gains made by the Cultural Revolution were liquidated ten years ago, but by the leaders of the Revolution themselves, the so-called ‘Gang of Four’. After all it was they who demobilised the student Red Guards and sent them to the countryside. It was they who called in the army as the only reliable prop of the existing state to allow the shattered Chinese Communist Party the opportunity to regroup itself. It was they who ended the experiments in workers’ control in the Shanghai factories and forced them to bow before the party dominated factory committees.

What we are seeing now in China is the final act in the clean-up of the instability left by the Cultural Revolution – the purging of the newcomers into the elite. For ten years there have existed two shifting groups within the top layers of the Communist Party. On the one hand, there is the old ruling group, centred around Teng Hsiao-ping, purged as ‘the number two capitalist roader’ in the Cultural Revolution. He has an extensive base within the party apparatus and is generally regarded as the guide behind the changes in policy. The other faction was the ‘Gang of Four’, the leaders within the party of the Cultural Revolution who rose to power on the backs of the students and workers and then turned to destroy their radical base. The history of China since 1968 has been an unstable, shifting conflict between these two wings. While Mao and Chou En-lai were alive the conflict could be kept in hand with first one side then the other being favoured. But with the deaths of the two major leaders of the Revolution, the conflict was decisively resolved in September 1976 with the routing of the ‘Gang of Four’.

The purges in the provinces are the extension of the struggle at the centre. The purges are meeting with resistance though, partly because of the strength of the ‘Gang of Four’s political network and partly because of continued splits within the ‘Moderate’ leadership.

The changes in policy are the result of conflicting pressures on the bureaucracy. In order to defeat the ‘Gang of Four’ they must reverse those policies that the ‘Radicals’ put forward both in order to ensure that the population supports them and to destroy the base that the ‘Radicals’ had in certain areas of Chinese life. The first is easy enough. From all accounts the ‘Radicals’ had little or no base within any class of Chinese society. Workers were against them because of the ban on wage increases and their substitution by calls to work harder. Students appeared increasingly alienated by mock campaigns which constantly disrupted studies. And perhaps too many of them remembered the black days of Autumn 1967, when the ‘Radicals’ destroyed the student Red Guards. The reversal of policies also cut out wide areas of favouritism that undoubtedly existed where the ‘Radicals’ were in control.

But the main pressure forcing the bureaucracy to reverse so many policies is undoubtedly the worsening state of the Chinese economy. Population is still increasing rapidly yet grain production has stagnated over the last two years. Further industrial production has increased at the rate of only 4–5 per cent over the last two years. This is due in large part to the political strife at the highest levels of the party which meant that any plans for the economy could not be implemented. But another factor was undoubtedly the upsurge in workers’ militancy, which, taking advantage of the splits at the top, pushed for their own interests. In Hangchow especially, there was an upsurge of ‘Economism’ as workers moved into action demanding increased wages and better conditions. At times the unrest reached the level of insurrection.

So what are the prospects for the future? One thing is already clear – the bureaucracy will not be able to solve the most important problems facing Chinese workers. Their reversals of the policies of the ‘Gang of Four’ do not imply any increase in workers’ control over their own society or lives. Teng and Hua have put forward no proposals whatsoever for any increase in democracy. Secondly, any concessions they may make on the economic front will demand a heavy price in increased productivity. But they have plenty to play with. One observer reckons that the wage of a Shanghai worker is at the same level today as twenty years ago even though productivity has increased by 450 per cent. But workers’ expectations will have risen with the downfall of ‘Radicals’ and the new leadership may find difficulties in satisfying their demands.

A second point is that though the purge against the ‘Gang of Four’ is being stepped up, the leadership is by no means united. The hysterical build-up of Chairman Hua as Mao’s one and only heir has all but come to an end, not because it has achieved its result – it would be difficult to do so given Hua’s almost complete obscurity until three years ago. It has stopped because of opposition from within the leadership. In the past, every time there has been a split within the leadership the Chinese masses have taken action, often independently of one or other faction. The workers’ movement has been radicalised and mobilised to a massive extent over the last ten years. One pay increase is not going to satisfy them. Demands have been raised for increased democracy at all levels of Chinese life, which the bureaucracy is entirely incapable of meeting. Indeed the stagnating economy will force the bureaucracy to clamp down to an ever greater extent. In that clash, there lies the possibility of the emergence of movements aimed not merely at the winning of better conditions but devoted to the struggle against bureaucratic rule in whatever form it takes.

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