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China & World Revolution

Nigel Harris

China and World Revolution

4. The Chinese Regime

From International Socialism (1st series), No.78, May 1975, pp.19-22.

HOWEVER, mediation was not something that could be continued once the Party had won power. It had promised the dominant classes of China that it would not injure their interests provided they supported the Party. But as the government, its survival in an imperialist world depended upon how quickly it could build up its national power, could force the pace of capital accumulation. Its policy therefore swung back and forth between placating the old entrenched classes when it needed their support and attacking them when it thought it could accelerate the process of growth. At the same time, it eroded and in some cases eliminated the position of entrenched classes. By these means, by the process of growth, a middle class stratum of party leaders transformed itself into a ruling class, based upon the control of the means of production. But the poverty of China and the dangers of its external situation allowed no stability – the swings of policy continued as the condition of survival of the ruling class.

Much the most important element to be wooed and abused was the ‘rich peasant system’. In the first phase, the Party freely permits private plots and private markets; it also tolerated the improvement in worker conditions and pay. As a result, the surplus available for investment tended to shrink. Furthermore, inequalities increased, the local Party and army leadership increased its privileges, and the potential for class conflict grew. Sooner or later – and sooner, when an external threat such as Soviet or American intervention grows more threatening – the centre goes into reverse. It tries to beat back popular consumption, to reinforce a more uniform level of austerity, and break the opposition in the Party and army. It can do so only for so long as output keeps up. When peasants refuse to relinquish their crops without the inducement of higher prices, or workers cut their output because wages are too low, then again the process must be reversed lest it affect the overall surplus. From the regime’s viewpoint, it is a Catch 22 dilemma.

Without an internationalist class strategy China is ruled by the regime’s attempts to escape the central contradiction. The millstones of the world market and imperialist military threat on the one side, and of a majority peasant economy at subsistence levels on the other, grind the Chinese regime between them. The situation would be stable despite the zigzags if the economy did grow rapidly. But the years of sustained growth become fewer and fewer in comparison to the years of stagnation, and each new effort to drag the country out of stagnation requires greater and greater effort by the national centre (and more and more splits in the central leadership). The process afflicts the whole world, and particularly all the economically backward countries, as world capitalism enters a phase of long drawn crisis.

Peking’s control of all sources of information in China except the Big Character posters makes it difficult to see these effects in the real quality of life in China. Foreign visitors see only what the regime permits them to see, and speak only – if they can speak at all – to those acceptable to the government. It is this which disguises 800 million people, a quarter of mankind, in such a queer monolithic appearance, as if they all thought, spoke and acted in unison. However, even the casual visitor can see clearly that the standard of living and general wellbeing in the cities and better off communes is tangibly superior to that in the rest of Asia. There is a noticeable lack of those brutal inequalities which make many other Asian countries so obscene.

Yet these impressions have to be compared with other facts. For example, the cities are tightly controlled against illegal entry, against the spontaneous movement of people. The pass system and elaborate regulations exist to prevent the mass of impoverished peasants fleeing to the relative privilege of city life. They do not do it with complete effectiveness, which is why the regime must continually campaign to get people out of the city, to reduce the actual or potential urban unemployment. Unemployment in China, as in other poor countries, is a key index of the failure to develop. Chou En-lai reckons that the population is growing by around 2 per cent, which has added perhaps 20 to 25 million people to the labour force every year since 1968. Taking into account the number that go into higher education, the armed forces etc, the system needs to find 10 to 15 million jobs a year to keep up the level of employment of 1968. Deleyne (p.57) guesses that there are only about half a million new jobs in the cities each year, and very few on the land (except for the very short period of harvesting when there is sometimes a shortage of workers). The rest can only go into work sharing (underemployment), unemployment or flight to Hong Kong (the numbers going to Hong Kong have been at exceptionally high levels over the past three years, possibly 80,000 in 1973). Those in the villages will try to get to the cities where there is a higher chance of getting a job or just getting by, and it is precisely to stop this that the city entrances are blocked and young people are regularly expelled.

The Big Character posters offer another insight. In 1974, the posters revealed – despite vigorous efforts by the authorities to prevent journalists seeing them – continuing complaints of arbitrary arrest, police brutality and torture, the corruption of public officials, inadequate health and safety conditions, poor compensation for accidents. These posters were probably sanctioned by one section of the bureaucracy in its fight with another, so they reveal only the tolerated complaints, not the spontaneous reactions of ordinary people. They were also in the cities where life is much better than in the countryside. They are not the voice of the poorer peasants, the citizens exiled to villages or even the ordinary city worker. The effects of the enormous improvement in conditions between 1945 and 1957 cannot now be effective in purchasing loyalty.


Basic inequality in China remains substantial, and is a continuing source of complaint. Of course, it is less extreme than in the Soviet Union, let alone Kuomintang China. Piece rates are not employed on anything like the same scale, and considerable efforts are made from time to time in the provision of housing, medical facilities and cheap basic foodstuffs. Nevertheless, there is still a heavy emphasis in urban industry on increasing labour productivity and the continuous use of machines – increasing jobs is sacrificed to raising output per job.

What are the differentials? The first major one is between town and country. On the countryside, the variation between communes is enormous, from the rich lowland horticultural or export-crop farms to the arid subsistence hill farms. In 1965, the Kwantung Province Party estimated that Mutual Aid teams received monthly pay per commune dweller ranging from 150 to 200 Yuan for rich teams to around 60 Yuan for poor. In 1964 family incomes in thirteen communes in different provinces varied between 390.9 Yuan and 1,392.4 Yuan. For agricultural labourers, monthly wages in eight provinces varied between 17.5 and 47.2 Yuan. Deleyne (p.72), a most sympathetic former inhabitant of China, reckons in 1971 that over the whole vast variety of China, peasant incomes vary by a ratio of 1 to 12. Communes visited by foreigners, he notes, are not located in the poorer regions, but even in those communes, the monthly income per worker varies between 200 and, exceptionally, 600 Yuan, or for families with two working members, 400 to 1,200 Yuaa But there are cases in the far south where the income per worker is as low as 50 Yuan. On top of this income, there is what peasants receive from their private plots, and there the differences are much greater because of the variation in the quality of soil; in the better off communes, this may add 15 to 30 per cent on top of the basic pay.

All these figures leave out the level of pay of higher officials at the communue or county level, let alone the value of differences in allowances and ‘perks’ (housing, food, transport). There is not much information on the variation in real consumption, and little that is recent. In the First Plan period, the New China News Agency reported that the differences in the annual consumption of cloth per person varied between 94 feet for Party cadres and 39.58 for other city dwellers in the municipality of Tsinan, and between 5 and 20 feet for peasants. Even if we had figures on consumption, it would not show the other advantages in being a cadre or an army officer – for example, access to higher education or professional jobs for their children, to the use of modern transport (cars, rail, air) etc.

The current relaxation and particularly the occasional stress on commune ‘self-reliance’ makes the differences much worse. For, if a poor commune has to finance its own educational, medical and welfare services, they will inevitably be much worse than those provided in a rich commune. Equality does depend on the richer areas helping the poor, not on ‘local self-activity’.

There is more information on city incomes. There has been little change in factory pay in recent years. In large scale modern factories, there is – according to several accounts – a more than three-fold variation in wages for skilled workers, and between the least skilled and the most skilled technician, a ratio of 1 to 7 in difference. Karol (p.559) for 1967 says that there are eight wage grades among workers, ranging from 40 Yuan to 120 Yuan per month, with factory directors getting between 140 and 190; one Chief Engineer of a ‘ chemicals plant received monthly 250 Yuan. On top of these basic rates, an incentive premium was paid of between 6 and 10 per cent of the salary. Apprentices received 18 to 20 Yuan per month. These figures are only internal to the factory, and exclude the higher pay of higher management staff outside the factory, banking and merchanting, Party and city officials and government bureaucrats. Nor do they include any allowance for the bureaucrats’ access to facilities-housing, transport, different types of canteen food, medical facilities, schooling for children – nor special privileges, like being able to go on holidays for longer than the two to five days allowed ordinary workers.

Incomes are much more stable than the propaganda of the regime suggests. The Party and management are under continual pressure to reduce the wage bill (which is why municipalities were given the opportunity of employing cheap temporary rural contract labour on unskilled loading jobs in the city – on the railways, docks and in the mines). But because overall wages are low, any real changes drastically affect people’s willingness to work. So far, no ruling class has found a means of filling stomachs on a diet of moral rhetoric about sacrifice, particularly when the differences in sacrifice required are so apparent.

What was the Cultural Revolution about, then, if not to recharge the batteries of idealism and ‘destroy the thousands-of-years-old concept of private ownership’ (Wheelwright and McFarlane, p.109; note, on the account of these authors, the problem was not ‘a capitalist road’, which is only a couple of hundred years old).

The Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution was not a revolution. As Shen-wu-lien says (see the Box), a revolution in the Leninist sense, involves a transfer of power from one class to another and the destruction of the old State. It is a change in the structure of power which topples a ruling class, not a change in personnel or policies. Yet in China, the men and women who form the leadership remain broadly the same as before, despite some dramatic dismissals at the top. Indeed, some of those sacked – like the former General Secretary of the Party, Teng Hsiao-p’ing – have been readmitted to power.

For the party leadership, the Cultural Revolution was an old-fashioned Party ‘rectification’ campaign, but one that was compelled to use forces from outside the Party because the leadership believed the decay inside the Party too deep-rooted to be tackled through an internal Control Commission. The decay was however the direct result of the policies pursued by the same Party leadership over the preceding seven years which had allowed the cadres steadily to extend their privileges and power to the point where they were limiting the power of Peking itself, inhibiting its capacity, ‘to grasp the revolution and promote production‘. (NH stress).

But the campaign to purge the Party had two separate results that threatened the whole exercise. First, it split the leadership itself, to Mao’s astonishment (see the extracts from his unpublished speeches, Mao Tse-tung Unrehearsed, Talks and Letter, 1956-71, edited by Stuart Schram, Penguin (London), 1974, pp.267-279). One section fought the purge on the basis of leaving things as they were, and tried to form a conservative alliance of national and provincial leaders against Mao Tse-tung. It became necessary for the whole conflict to be escalated, to simulate a fake ‘class war’ against people now designated ‘capitalist-roaders’.

To simulate class war is dangerous for any ruling class. In China, it promoted real class war, a real struggle for democracy that threatened to make no distinction between the rival factions in the ruling order. The instrument for the first attack on the conservative Party bureaucrats – the school and college students – immediately began to raise many other wider issues than that simply of ‘culture’. At some stages, their grievances spilled .over into a real attack on the regime. Attempts were made to disperse them, to get them to leave Peking and return home, to put them under army direction, to divert them into worrying about educational matters rather than job privilege. It had all happened before. For example, the Party was claiming in 1962 to have transformed the educational system and raised the proportion of working class entrants to higher education from 36 per cent (1957) to 67 per cent.

What changed the terms of the battle was the wave of strikes that followed in the wake of the Red Guards, and the agitation among peasants. This threatened not just the ‘capitalist readers’ but the very structure of power. The leadership panicked. Despite severe disagreements among themselves, they called in the People’s Liberation Army to re-establish order and beat back what was now officially described as ‘the black wind of economism’, anarchism and Kuomintang provocation.

‘In all institutions where seizure of power has become necessary, from above to below, the participation of the People’s Liberation Army and militia delegates in the temporary organs of power of the revolutionary triple alliance is indispensible. Factories, villages, institutions of finance and commerce, of learning (including colleges, secondary and primary schools) must be led by the participation of the People’s Liberation Army’.
(Red Flag, March 10, 1967).

‘Bombard the Party Heaquarters’ was replaced by the demand to close the ranks against anyone doing so, by the sudden rapid shrinkage of the ‘capitalist roaders’ into a tiny handful, many of whom could return to their positions after a pause. The attack on the bureaucracy and on management by decree was now replaced by an attack on those who seek to ‘rob the nation of the mature political and organisational skills of experienced men’ (Red Flag, February 22, 1967).

However, Mao still hoped to win back full control over the process of capital accumulation, despite this temporary setback. The escalation of the US war on the people of Vietnam on China’s southern borders did not deter him in this endeavour. But two other external events did – the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, showing to what extremity Moscow could go in curbing recalcitrants, and the armed clash between Russian and Chinese forces on the Ussuri river in 1969. Now the leadership really went into reverse, restoring much of the old Party leadership and relaxing domestic consumption levels. Defence became the top priority, not accelerating economic growth.

The Red Guards accepted the liquidation of their role with great reluctance. The change of gear encouraged cynicism and bitterness, and permitted the ‘rehabilitated’ cadres to wreak vengeance on their former persecutors. Relaxing the economy, restoring the ‘rich peasant system’, also permitted the return of profiteering, black marketeering, speculation and embezzling. The Red Guards were prized out of the cities in droves-some 10 to 20 million young people are said to have been despatched to the countryside between 1969 and 1971. Some of them then made the hazardous trip to Hong Kong.

The stalemate which emerged from the Cultural Revolution is directly the product of a domestic class struggle. It concerns disagreements within the Party, not between the ‘socialists’ and the ‘capitalist readers’, but between those prepared to tolerate economic stagnation provided it brings to them central political power, and those – led by Chairman Mao – who want to subordinate all consumption to the drive for capital accummulation. Both sides of that debate take for granted that the workers and peasants of China will be the source of the surplus; they disagree on what should be done with the surplus.

The leadership played with the language of class war. But it quickly returned to the concepts of class collaboration, of national unity in the face of the Soviet threat.

It is this reformism that makes China and its Communist Party so attractive to so many middle and upper class non-Marxists in the West. Chinese Communism seems to offer a political parallel, a sister reformism, in economically backward countries to Scandinavian Social Democracy in Europe. For them, approving of Chairman Mao involves them in no commitment to fighting a class war. Indeed, it does not involve them in fighting imperialism in Europe or anywhere else. It preserves – indeed it offers approval of – their own national boundaries, and wards off the prospect of international class war. It also allows those daydreams of happy toiling communities, singing at work, united and polite, a whole people free of strikes, strife and ‘greed’ (that is, workers fighting exploitation). No wonder Labour’s Denis Healey responds with simple pleasure at the apparent lack of industrial disputes and wage pressure.

The liberal Maoists are like the Webbs, those famous Labour intellectuals. They were horrified at the ‘anarchy’ of workers’ power in 1917, but promptly fell in love with the barrack-society of Stalinist Russia in the 1930s. The one threatened their entire importance, the second guaranteed it.

China & World Revolution

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Last updated: 2.3.2008