Charlie Hore Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

George Gorton

China since the Cultural Revolution

(Spring 1984)

From International Socialism 2 : 23, Spring 1984, pp. 43–75.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Map of China

For the past 20 years, the Chinese experience has been one of the strongest influences on the growth of the revolutionary left. From the revolution of 1949 through to the Cultural Revolution, China seemed to offer a road to socialism untainted by the horrors of Stalinism, one which waged a continuous fight against bureaucratisation and compromise with world capitalism. Mao Zedong’s leadership had overcome China’s former state of hunger, backwardness and poverty, and seemed to prove that determination and the correct ideas could overcome all material difficulties. Maoist organisations came to dominate the revolutionary left throughout the industrialised world after 1968. Nor was their influence confined to newly-radicalised students. ‘Soft’ Maoist groups grew in Italy, Spain and to a lesser extent, the Scandinavian countries, to have a serious working-class base, on the basis of a militant opposition to the reformism of the CPs and Social-Democratic parties, and a serious orientation on workplace activity.

If the influence of Maoism on Western revolutionaries was large, in Africa and Asia it was immense. Mao’s experience appeared to offer a strategy for defeating both foreign imperialism and the local ruling class, and for building a strong, independent nation whose economic development would ‘serve the people.’ And so tens of thousands of would-be national liberators threw themselves into the task of building guerrilla armies in the most backward areas of the countryside. None of these movements came even close to succeeding – with the horrific exception of Pol Pot in Cambodia – but thousands of selfless and dedicated revolutionaries died in the attempt.

Now China has become part of the same world order it once seemed to want to overthrow. The post-Mao government openly admits that Mao’s economic policies were disastrous, and has China’s heavy industry. Chinese cities have seen the appearance of advertising. Western fashions, Coca-Cola and McDonalds hamburgers – as well as the growth of thousands of small businesses to absorb unemployed youth. In two provinces. Special Enterprise Zones (SEZs) have been set up to attract the high-technology, cheap labour, assembly plants that Western multinationals have established throughout South-East Asia. And the recent public executions of young criminals, as well as the admission that widespread female infanticide still exists [1], have shown the hollowness of claims about Mao’s ‘new socialist morality’.

The new leadership that came out of the Cultural Revolution has entirely disappeared, in vicious and convoluted infighting whose methods seemed more drawn from prohibition-era Chicago than the ‘mass democracy’ beloved of Maoism. Of the 25 members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo in power immediately after the Cultural Revolution 17 have been disgraced and another five are dead. The only survivors are two senior military leaders and a planning expert. Every leading member of the bureaucracy dismissed by Mao since 1959 has been rehabilitated (among them most of the present leadership). Meanwhile, thousands of Cultural Revolution activists are in prison, labour camps or unmarked graves. Mao himself is still officially described as ‘a great Marxist’, but one who got every important decision since 1959 wrong.

Internationally, the war with Vietnam and the subsequent support for Pol Pot’s genocidal maniacs have removed the last vestiges of China’s ‘progressive anti-imperialist’ image. Support for the EEC and the Western European arms build-up against the USSR [2], have further disillusioned most Western supporters – governments apart, of course. And in the drive for hard currency to pay for Western imports it has revived one of the most degrading practices of Chinese history – coolie labour. Up to 40,000 Chinese labourers are to be exported to work on Japanese construction projects in the Middle East and Africa (Far Eastern Economic Review – hereafter FEER – 30 November 1979, p. 68).

A necessary consequence of these changes has been the disappearance of Maoism as a significant revolutionary current in the West. The residual lunatics apart, it is today very difficult to find a Maoist. Yet there has been no serious account of what has happened in China from that quarter. This article is an attempt to analyse those changes, though not from the viewpoint of disillusioned China- lovers. For almost alone on the revolutionary left, our tradition never jumped on the China bandwagon. Our analysis of China as a state-capitalist regime was developed at length in articles in the old series of International Socialism, as well as in books by Tony Cliff and Nigel Harris. [3]

For us the direction that China has taken since Mao’s death is not ‘revisionism’ or a ‘betrayal of principles’, but rather the necessary response of a ruling class to their own and the world’s economic crises, and to increasing unrest among the working class. They are following essentially the same path as that taken in the early 70s by Argentina, Iran and Poland, among others, of using massive amounts of Western investment to force-develop heavy industry. Yet the deeper they become enmeshed in the world economy, the more they will lose control over the Chinese economy. The new strategy can no more solve China’s fundamental problems than the old one

From the Cultural Revolution to Mao’s Death

For Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution was an attempt to reassert his power over the state machinery, against the majority of the ruling bureaucracy. It was a gamble which went disastrously wrong. The tens of millions of students and school students who were organised into ‘Red Guard’ groups split into warring factions all dedicated to ‘upholding Mao Zedong Thought’, whose battles quickly developed into armed and deadly conflicts. In the city of Wuhan, where there were 54 competing gangs, one battle alone left 250 dead and 1500 wounded. [4] The whole education system effectively fell apart.

More worryingly, in city after city workers moved beyond being used as a stage army by various factions to organise strikes and demonstrations in defence of their own interests. The first outbreak was a city-wide strike in Shanghai in January 1967 against low wages, long hours and poor working conditions. Strikers blocked the main north-south railway line for five days, demanding to be taken to Peking to present their grievances to Mao. [5]

With the local Party and state machines in chaos, as thousands of officials were denounced as ‘capitalist roaders’, the only force capable of restoring order was the army. By mid-1967 the armed forces were in effective control of most of China. But while they could be counted on to keep order (and break strikes), they could not be counted on to take orders from Peking. This was demonstrated most graphically when the local army command in Wuhan mutinied in July 1967, kidnapping two high-ranking officials sent from Peking. The response of Mao was to ring the city with paratroopers, and a major civil war was only narrowly averted. [6]

From then on the major concern of all factions of the bureaucracy was to wind up the Cultural Revolution as quickly as possible, which because of the extent of the chaos proved extremely difficult. The Red Guards concluded that ‘those in power taking the capitalist road’ were more widespread than they had thought, and redoubled their efforts.

The 9th Congress of the CCP was called in April 1969 to declare the Cultural Revolution officially over. Mao’s enemies had been scattered, it declared, the task now was to get everyone back to work.

Yet the extent of the problems remaining could be seen by an amazing order sent by Peking to Shanxi province three months later. It explicitly forbad hiding, exchanging or transporting arms; using state workshops to make arms for personal use; sabotaging road and rail communications; looting banks and organising strikes. Strikers were given guarantees of no victimisations if they returned to work inside a month (which gives some idea of the extent of the strikes and the inability of the bureaucracy to suppress them by force). [7]

The problem of the Red Guards was solved by mass deportations to the countryside. According to official figures, from 1966 to 1975, a total of 12 million young people went to the villages (2.7 million in 1969 alone), roughly 6% of the urban population. [8] A French writer who has worked with refugees in Hong Kong gave this description of their reception and reactions:

‘It must be understood that for the local cadres and the peasants, these young people who arrived en masse represented a burden: it was necessary to find them somewhere to live, to teach them how to work and above all to feed them ... the fields not being expandable, and the labour force being often already amply sufficient, their presence represented a loss for the peasants. They were of course tempted to compensate for this loss by reducing as much as possible the “educated youths” share of the harvest ... Further, as strangers, they were often ready-made targets for the continuous series of “movements”. If a victim was needed, better someone you didn’t know rather than a local lad. It is also known that some cadres took advantage of the situation to rape young townswomen. All this led to conflict, an atmosphere of rancour and mistrust, which aggravated the difficulties of adaption of the “educated youth”, and led them rapidly to see themselves as a group apart from Chinese society, a sort of “lumpen proletariat of a new type”.’ [9]

Once the ruling class had restored some semblance of order, they faced the larger problems of economic strategy and rebuilding the Party/state machine. The second meant a fairly immediate return to Power for many of those dismissed during the Cultural Revolution. Men who two years previously had been humiliated by the Red Guards now came to be running the ‘Revolutionary Committees’ that were supposed to replace them. Many of the economic policies that ad been attacked, such as bonus payments for higher production came back too in an attempt to make up for the losses the economy ad suffered. This was simply following the well-established pattern since the mid-50s.

During the 50s and early 60s the Chinese economy had develop in a series of zig-zags: voluntarist campaigns to increase output Very rapidly, involving unrealistic targets that were only met on paper and large-scale waste (of which the most glaring example was the 1958 drive for backyard steel furnaces, which used more industrial grade steel than they produced), interspersed with periods of more ‘liberal’ economic policies and more realistic targets, to allow the economy to recover from the damage caused by the last campaign. There is no evidence that the combination of the two was a conscious strategy, rather, they were short-term solutions to what was seen as the most pressing problem at any one time. For the Chinese bureaucracy faced the same question as Stalin in the late 1920s – how to accumulate capital rapidly from inside the national economy so as to achieve a rate of growth dictated by the need to compete with Western capitalists [10] – and after 1963 the USSR as well.

But Stalin’s solution – the mass dispossession of the peasantry – would not work in China. The revolution of 1949 had been based on the peasantry, whose support had been largely won on promises of land redistribution. Wholesale collectivisation would founder on their mass passive resistance – as was shown when it was briefly tried at the height of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ in 1958.

The ‘mass campaigns’ were an attempt to circumvent this problem. Because extra production was for accumulation, not consumption, a work discipline had to be imposed secondly and more importantly, by ensuring the production targets (and providing local scapegoats for the inevitable failures).

However, the constant chopping and changing from campaign to ‘liberalisation’ forced local officials into a permanent state of confusion and peril, illustrated most clearly by the issue of private plots of land. Cadres who followed orders in 1957/8 to abolish them were attacked in the 1961/4 liberalisation for ‘ultra-leftism’. So they gave them back, only to be attacked in the Cultural Revolution for ‘following the capitalist road’. [11] On less important issues, the directives from above contradicted themselves far more often. The net effect was to make the local officials unwilling to take any initiative, and slow to carry out orders – the opposite effect to that intended by the campaigns strategy.

The Cultural Revolution saw this zig-zag approach blow up in the rulers’ faces. It became obvious to a large section of them, whose main spokesmen were first Zhou Enlai and then Deng Xiaoping, that a long-term coherent strategy was needed. Firstly because if the major priority desired above all was peace and quiet, and a leadership in Peking that knew its own mind two years running.

Secondly, because the economic damage was such that a long period of liberal economic policies was essential; policies were needed which would have to question the whole ‘siege economy’ strategy of Maoism. That China’s technological development could catch up to world levels unaided had always seemed unlikely; following the destruction of the whole higher education system in the Cultural Revolution, it was now impossible. Yet the onset of the world economic crisis, and the real threat of a war with the USSR (there had been a constant military buildup along the border following the Ussuri River clashes of March 1969), made it more essential than ever to compete. This could only be done by an opening to Western capitalism, in particular the USA and Japan. Such a strategy was bound to arouse the opposition of those who had come to power during the Cultural Revolution.

This was the fundamental issue that divided the various warring groups in the ruling class. Above them all stood the enigmatic and devious figure of Mao Zedong, increasingly senile but still able to play one group off against another in order to maximise his power. It was obvious to all factions that Mao had no coherent strategy for the 70s – but it was equally obvious that none of them could impose their will on the ruling class as a whole until Mao died. This impasse could only make the infighting even more vicious and convoluted.

The first victims were the group around Lin Biao, who disappeared from public life in 1970/71. For the next two years there was a deafening silence from Peking about their fate, broken by the announcement that they had organised a military coup to kill Mao and take power and, on being discovered, had fled to the USSR in a plane which had conveniently crashed, killing all aboard.

The official account was of course preposterous. To accuse Mao’s chosen successor of being a man who ‘represented the interests of the overthrown landlord and capitalist classes and the desire of these overthrown reactionaries to topple the dictatorship of the proletariat and restore the dictatorship of the bureaucracy’ [12] was to accuse the entire ruling class of unbelievable stupidity in allowing such a traitor to remain hidden for 40 years. It was also to cast doubts on everyone else – if Mao’s favourite could be a traitor, so could any other member of the ruling class (Mao apart, of course).

While it was easy to doubt the official story of Lin Biao’s death [13], it was and is impossible to discover the truth. What is clear is that Lin and his fo9llowers were eliminated in a faction fight [14], probably because he either threatened or was suspected of using the armed forces to settle a dispute, in a manner that did the regime no credit whatsoever. As Nigel Harris commented:

‘Clearly politics was not the kind for mass involvement, but the secret opinions of a cabal; had it been otherwise, Mao could scarcely have refrained from publicising his doubts, rather than supporting Lin for promotion to the position of his heir.’ [15]

The issue which got Lin eliminated was almost certainly the establishment of diplomatic relations with the USA and the beginning of small-scale imports of foreign production plants. These events, combined with Chinese support for the repression of popular revolts in East Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 1971 [16], were a direct reversal of China’s international stance pioneered by Lin Biao since 1966, anal the start of a series of moves aimed at bringing China back into world politics. The most important was the renewal of relations with the USA, broken in 1949, which was an essential first step in opening up diplomatic and trading links with the rest of Western capitalism.

While Mao was prepared to approve all these moves, he was not prepared to dismantle the siege economy entirely. His reservations limited the power of the modernising faction of the bureaucracy headed by Deng Xiaoping (restored to the CCP Central Committee in August 1973), and strengthened that of the ‘Gang of Four’. The removal of one of the contending factions increased the tensions between the survivors. The only secure figures were Mao and Zhou Enlai, who served as a protector for the modernisers. While these two lived, neither faction could eliminate their rivals or be eliminated themselves. But as both were close to death, the succession seemed to hinge on which would die first. The ‘Gang of Four’ had led the campaign to attack Lin Biao and turned it into an attack on the modernising faction. Economic events had strengthened their hand. China had re-entered the world market just as the recession had started to bite. The imports of technology coincided with a decline in Chinese exports, causing a balance of payments deficit for 1974 of 1.1 billon US dollars (in 1969 the total value of foreign trade had only been 3.4 billion). They forced through a drastic reduction of imports, though they were unable to prevent an increase in overseas borrowing. [17]

They further pushed their advantage by following the campaign to criticise Lin Biao with a campaign against ‘bourgeois rights’ such as overtime payments, bonuses and piecework (which had been gradually reintroduced into Chinese industry since 1969). This classic attempt to cut wages in order to ease an economic crisis provoked a rash of isolated strikes and disturbances in industry, culminating in what seems to have been a near-general strike in Hangzhou in spring 1975. After a visit by one of the ‘Gang’ had failed, Deng Xiaoping broke the strikes by sending 10,000 troops into the factories. [18]

This wave of workers’ struggles swung the pendulum back towards the modernisers, and imposed a truce of sorts on the various factions.

This was broken in early 1976 when Zhou Enlai died. Though the ‘Gang of Four’ were not strong enough to put their man in Zhou’s place, they were able to block Deng Xiaoping. Instead a compromise candidate was installed, Hua Guofeng, formerly head of the secret police and one of the earliest Cultural Revolution casualties to return to power. And the ‘Gang’ launched the snappily-titled ‘campaign to beat back the right-deviationist attempt to reverse correct verdicts’, aimed openly at Deng Xiaoping.

Though these campaigns had been mainly restricted to the media, as all sections of the bureaucracy feared that ‘mass mobilisations’ would get out of hand (a well-founded fear, as the 1975 strikes had shown), they nevertheless entailed another round of denunciations, arrests and repressions of whatever the latest ‘deviation’ was. The hardships and bitterness caused by the ‘mass campaigns’ vividly outlined in one of the most important dissident writings since the Cultural Revolution – the Li Yizhe wallposter Concerning socialist democracy and the legal system. Written by four ex-Guards in Guangzhou (Canton), and published in November 1974, the poster was ostensibly an intervention in the criticism of Lin Biao, but went beyond that to attack both the ‘Gang of Four’ and the Cultural Revolution.

For they argued that: ‘Lin Biao’s collapse does not mean the end of his system. The process of the affirmation of the Lin Biao system has created a force of the civil officials who share vested interests; and they are afraid of the upsurging masses of the people’ [19] ...‘They are quite unwilling to part with those “glorious days – days when hundreds and thousands of the people’s heads fell to the ground” ... What they have gained in the “all-out victory” – positions, special privileges ... even the lashes to beat and drive the slaves – are precious treasures glowing with a sacred halo and which cannot be desecrated by the slaves. The Chinese society of that time was their paradise, and the social relations in that paradise cannot be changed in the slightest degree.’ [20]

And their view of the Cultural Revolution and the ‘mass movements’ since it was sharply at variance with the romantic view prevalent in the West: ‘... one may say that suppression (for the peoples’ democracy) and resisting the suppression (from the capitalist-reactionary line) have all been designed to deal blows to the people, who rose ... to make rebellion to the degree that they had to be beaten and sent down to the eighteenth hell.’ [21] The document was quickly torn down, and its authors imprisoned, but it was reproduced and circulated throughout China by underground groups of ex-Red Guards. In April 1976 the bitterness and frustrations they had chronicled exploded in the most important challenge to the regime since its establishment – the Tiananmen riots, which involved over 100,000 people in Peking alone.

The spark for the riots was the removal by the police of wreaths commemorating Zhou Enlai (revered as the only man with the authority to mitigate the excesses of Mao and the ‘Gang of Four’) from a memorial in central Peking. One Hong Kong journal carried this account of the start of the riot, written by a participant:

At 7.45 a.m., more than 50,000 people had gathered on the square ... at 9 there spread from the masses at the square the words that ‘The wreaths were inside the Great Hall of the People.’ Calling out the name of Zhou Enlai, the masses rushed towards the Great Hall but only to be barred by the army. Together they seized the army’s caps’ insignia and had them thrown in the air ... A short while after the army had entered the square, the vice commander of Yiu Jang district’s militia led 600 militiamen to the rescue. They wanted to lay down an ambush in front of the Great Hall but before they reached the main gate, they were broken up into sections. Another chaotic skirmish started, in which a hundred or more militiamen were wounded, 12 seriously. [22]

The riot lasted all day, with police cars and stations being burnt, soldiers being stoned and militia barracks wrecked. It was only broken up at night, when many of those remaining in Tiananmen were beaten to death. Similar disturbances were reported in Hangzhou, Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Kunming and Guiyang, and in the provinces of Anhui and Guangxi. [23]

The extent of the panic among the ruling class can only be guessed at. For the riots had taken place only yards from the closed quarter of Peking where the top bureaucracy live – and where Mao lay on his deathbed. They closed ranks at once against this threat from the streets, dismissing Deng Xiaoping from all his positions (as the person held responsible for the riots), and setting in train a massive repression. But though the ‘Gang of Four’ had now got rid of their main rival, their triumph was a short-lived one.

The conclusion that the majority of the bureaucracy drew from the riots was that the ‘Gang of Four’ would have to go. Their insistence on carrying on their press campaign against Deng throughout the Tangshan earthquake disaster of July (the second biggest in recorded history, which killed over 600,000 people) only deepened their isolation. Deeply unpopular even with the hardest-line Maoists in the leadership (who knew a sinking ship when they saw one), they clung to power only through Mao’s support. And on 9 September 1976 Mao died.

After a month of confusion, the question of the succession was settled with the arrest of the ‘Gang’ at gunpoint – the official reason given for this was that they had planned a military coup! This was followed by charges that they had been agents of capitalism implacably opposed to Mao and socialism, and yet responsible for all the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. The propaganda machine they had used to such effect on their enemies now turned out exactly the same torrent of lies and abuse on them. As one Canadian Maoist, defending the arrests, admitted:

‘... the official People’s Daily used the same language to describe the Four and their “crimes” as it had used to condemn Deng Xiaoping not many months before. One could be forgiven for thinking that sometimes the articles were simply reruns with appropriate name changes made to take care of new circumstances.’ [24]

The Chinese economy since Mao

With Mao dead and the ‘Gang of Four’ in prison, the way seemed clear for the faction around Deng Xiaoping to break with the siege economy strategy and impose a new direction on the Chinese economy. This section aims at firstly explaining that strategy and then looking at the way in which the strategy has worked out in practice and the major contradictions facing the ruling class.

The ‘Four Modernisations’ (of industry, agriculture, science and technology, and military affairs) have two major components. The first is the rapid development of heavy industry through wholesale importation of foreign plant and technology. By the end of 1978 deals had been signed or were in prospect for the supply of mining development, ethylene, steel, oil, copper smelting, vehicle welding and aluminium refining plants, as well as offshore oil drilling rigs, harbour construction and a chain of modern hotels for the growing tourist industry. More have since been added, though the tempo of importation has gone down since 1978.

A subsidiary part of this was the setting up of Special Enterprise Zones (SEZs) in the early 1980 to attract direct foreign investment in cheap-labour micro-electronics assembly plants. The SEZ in Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong, had the further aim of reassuring Hong Kong capitalists that it would be business as usual when China reclaims Hong Kong in 1997. For if it works as a free-enterprise (and low wage) enclave within China, it can simply be integrated into Hong Kong when it ceases to be a colony. Investors are offered a 3 to 5-year tax holiday, no taxes on the import or export of raw materials, machinery and finished goods, and state investment of up to 75% of total capital. On wages, the governor of Fujian province said:

‘We are now studying the wage rates of Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea. We believe that our wage levels will be lower than these places. In order to protect the investors’ profitability, the wage rate cannot be too high.’ (FEER, 18 January 1980, p. 52).

The second component is a far-reaching restructuring of the economy, moving away from central state control over all sectors towards a form of ‘market socialism.’ The theoretical background for this was set by the assertion by one of Deng Xiaoping’s leading economists in 1978 that the ‘law of value’, far from being a specific feature of commodity production under capitalism, was in fact a general law that applied to any industrial economy. He went on to argue that the behaviour of any economy, regardless of political regime, was governed by such objective laws, with which governments should not interfere. It followed that it was entirely proper for China to study the management techniques of Western capitalism, which has much greater experience of operating these objective laws. [25]

The changes that followed this fundamental revision of Maoist economics aimed at introducing greater flexibility into the over-bureaucratised economy. Large industrial enterprises are allowed to keep a proportion of their profits for reinvestment, given greater freedom to decide output targets, and urged to compete with each other. Provincial authorities have been allowed to contract foreign loans and investment directly, without first clearing them with Peking, provided they are under specified amounts. 1982 saw the introduction of a three-tier planning system under which only key products such as grain, steel, coal, oil, etc. are subject to centralised compulsory planning. Most industrial products and consumer goods are subject to guiding plans, and have prices floating within set limits. Non-staple foods and handicrafts are subject to no planning at all.

In the cities the state has attempted to solve the problem of youth unemployment by setting up small private businesses providing services either to individuals or industrial enterprises. The advantages to the state are obvious: ‘... with little investment these enterprises can take in a large number of workers, and the advantage is that since they are responsible for their own profit and losses, the state’s payroll will not be affected’ (Beijing Review – hereafter BR – 3 August 1979, p. 3). In the first eight months of 1978 alone 3.33 million people were employed by such ‘service collectives’ (BR, 19 October 1979, p. 6). Among the services offered in various cities were: housebuilding and repairs, levelling roads, loading and unloading goods, planting trees and clearing industrial waste (Shanghai), home repairs, carpentry and knitwear workshops, small restaurants and creches (Changsha), and in Shenyang 2,000 people were employed making (unspecified) products from factory waste materials (Xinhua News Agency Daily Bulletin – hereafter Xinhua – 10 June 1979).

The most fundamental changes have been in the countryside. The fields in the communes have been turned into strips farmed by individual families on which they grow what they like. Instead of being paid a wage, they turn over a quota of their crop to the state, and keep the rest for consumption or sale. Earlier this year, it was further announced that families may lease their strips of land to others – which must lead soon to the return of private wage-labour. State investment in agriculture is now to be reduced to the absolute minimum. Any mechanisation that occurs will come through those families who have prospered investing in small-scale machinery.

The scale of the changes is matched by the ambitiousness of the state plan for the rest of the century, which aims at quadrupling per capita national production by the year 2000. Yet the experience so far shows that the new strategy is no more capable of overcoming China’s backwardness and poverty than the old one.

The most fundamental contradiction facing the Chinese ruling class is the conflict of demands between capital accumulation and consumption. For if the plans are to have any hope of success then an ever-increasing proportion of national output must be devoted to capital accumulation. Yet an essential part of the ‘market socialism’ strategy has been the reintroduction of piecework and bonus payments in order to raise productivity, which must in the short term cut into profitability. And while the reforms in agriculture have raised levels of food output, this has been at the cost of substantial rises in food prices, which have further added to the pressure on wages. This pressure mainly takes the form of passive rather than active resistance, made possible both by the low technological level of Chinese industry and the job security enjoyed by the majority of Chinese workers.

The ‘iron rice-bowl’, as this job security is known, is coming under increasing attack as pressure grows to close down unprofitable enterprises. Yet the ruling class have to move cautiously for fear that any attack on living standards may spark off another revolt like the Hangzhou strikes of 1975.

A more long-term strategy for reducing consumption is the campaign to limit population growth, which aims at zero population growth by the end of this decade, and a reduction of 10% in population by the middle of the next century. Families are restricted to one child through a mixture of propaganda, pressures from state and workplace authorities, and discrimination in favour of only children at the expense of others. For example, it was announced in 1982 that ‘the only child is ensured paid social welfare benefits and priorities for medical treatment, enrolment in kindergartens and schools and employment’ (BR, 1 November 1982, p. 3).

As industrialisation increases, more of the population will become irrelevant to the needs of accumulation: ‘Due to the introduction of new technology and the raising of the level of mechanisation and automation the state-run enterprises ... which form the mainstay of China’s industrial production and the main force for realising the four modernisations, have only a limited capacity for the) employment of a new labour force’ (BR, 11 February 1980, p. 15). Far from economic growth being tailored to human needs, the population is to be tailored to the needs of accumulation. For the ruling class the mass of the population are simply another factor of production, an object of history. [26]

The ruling class does at least have some measure of control over levels of consumption. Its plans for growth depend centrally on the world economy as a whole, over which the ruling class can have no j control whatsoever. This was spelt out most clearly by the World Bank report on the economy published in June 1981. This concluded that the planned growth rates of 5–7% annually would only be possible on the basis of massive overseas debt, rising to a level of 40 billion US dollars (at 1980 prices) by 1990, a ten-fold increase on the 1980 level of debt. Servicing this debt will require a growth of export earnings of 6% annually in 1980–85, rising to 11% annually in 1985–90 (FEER, 14 August 1981, pp. 48–50).

Such growth in export earnings is simply impossible. Yet without it the plans for modernisation will have to be cut back even further. Already in 1979 and 1980 there have been massive cutbacks in the original investment targets for the ‘Four Modernisations’, the second of which involved cancelling or postponing most current orders for imported plant. These cutbacks revived Western capitalists’ fears about a return to the economic autarky of the 60s, and foreign investment has not yet even returned to the levels of 1978/9. The only exception to this is in the area of development of energy sources for export to Japan (coal mines, rail lines and ports) and the offshore oil industry, much of whose output will also go to Japan.

The cutbacks were forced on the ruling class partly through lack of money to finance the investment programme, and partly because the expansion plans had shown up appalling inefficiencies and bottlenecks in the economy. According to the State Statistical Bureau in 1979, ‘43% of our major industrial products turned out by the nation’s key enterprises did not reach the best quality levels previously attained, and 55% did not match the lowest past levels of consumption of fuel, power, raw and semi-processed materials. 24% of the industrial enterprises owned by the whole people were still run at varying degrees of loss.’ [27] Much of the imported plant lies idle or runs under capacity because its technological levels are too high to fit into the rest of the economy. [28]

Because of that last factor, the importation of technology, without which the plans for modernisation are entirely impossible, has a logic of its own. To be productive, the plant has to be supplied by further imports of plant, parts – and sometimes raw materials. For example, the Baoshan steelworks complex 19 miles south of Shanghai needs Australian iron ore, as the Chinese ore is of low quality. So a new harbour had to be built 130 miles south of the steelworks, as the river on which Baoshan is sited cannot take ocean-going ships, and to ensure regular supplies of ore China has had to invest directly in Australian ore mines.

The further the importation strategy goes, therefore, the harder it will become to reverse it. Further, the need for foreign currency to pay for it will become ever greater – witness the offer earlier this year to turn the Gobi Desert in the northwest into a nuclear waste dump for West Germany! This pressure is intensified by, the growing constraints on export earnings – Japan has been forcing down the price paid for Chinese oil and coal over the past few years, and the US and the EEC have both imposed import quotas on Chinese textiles. The ruling class faces the fundamental problem that while the power of the world economy over China will continue to grow, China’s power within the world economy remains puny.

The difficulties imposed by reliance on the world economy have been added to by the contradictions inherent in the ‘market socialism’ strategy. The increased freedom given to enterprise and local authorities in making decisions is clearly necessary to cut red tape and so stimulate growth. But there can be no guarantee that they will use that freedom in ways approved by the central planners. Despite a decision to reduce capital construction in 1983 compared to 1982, in the first half of the year it actually rose by 17% over the same period of 1982 (BR, 15 August 1983, p. 7). Budgeted state investment is now less than half of all investment, compared to 80% in the 50s and 60s (FEER, 6 October, 1983, p. 10), and increasingly that locally-directed investment is used to develop sectional interests as against those of the state as a whole. It was revealed in 1982, for instance, that some local and provincial authorities are imposing internal import controls to protect local industries from competition! (Xinhua, 22 February 1983, p. 3)

Linked to this is the enormous growth in corruption and abuse of power among lower-level bureaucrats. In the first nine months of 1982 there were 136,000 cases of economic crime detected (BR, 20 December 1982, p. 23), and the real figure will have been much higher. The losses to the state run into thousands of millions of dollars, and the abuses are so widespread that the state can only hope to catch those who get conspicuously greedy – as in the case of the head of an electricity company who cut off the power to a local theatre for refusing him free tickets (China News Analysis – hereafter CNA – 23 October 1982, p. 4), or the two officials in Shenzhen who pocketed 700,000 US dollars over three years (BR, 17 January 1983, p. 8).

It has become extremely difficult to distinguish economic crime from creative application of the ‘market socialism’ strategy. A Guangzhou paper in July 1982 revealed that of 785 cases studied, 60% of the crimes were committed collectively (i.e., by factory managements as a whole rather than maverick individuals), and 64% had all the outward appearances of legal transactions carried out publicly (CNA, 13 August 1982, p. 6). The response of the state to this corruption, and to their relative loss of control over the lower levels of the bureaucracy, has been to launch periodic crackdowns to reassert their authority. The most recent of these was that of July 1983, when a halt to all construction projects outside the state plan was ordered (resulting in widespread waste of capital and raw materials), and an attempt was made to get factory managements to refund excess profits.

The major effect of these moves is to increase the confusion among local officials, as yesterday’s initiatives in market socialism become today’s economic crimes, and hence to stifle their initiative, and so the crackdowns must always stop short of rooting out the causes of the state’s headaches. The ruling class are left with the insuperable problem of seeing the economy run by an army of officials who can no longer be trusted.

A further necessary consequence of the modernisation strategy is the deepening of the already enormous inequalities in the Chinese economy. Four provinces and the three major cities produce 50% of industrial output. Shanghai alone, with 1% of the population, produces ⅙ of total exports. Per capita industrial production in the city is 1106% of the national average, while in Guizhou and Yunnan provinces the figures are 35 and 45% respectively. Practically all the new investment both from abroad and from the state, will go to these areas which already have a developed industrial base and economic infrastructure. The only exception to this will be those areas with large mineral deposits, whose resources will be developed for export, creating islands of modern industry in the most backward provinces. Meanwhile, Qinghai province, one of the poorest in the country, has been told that major economic construction cannot turn to the northwest before the turn of the century. Meanwhile, it should concentrate on becoming a major stock-breeding area – and on developing as the major dumping ground for unemployed youth deported from the cities!

In the countryside, the effect of the ‘household responsibility’ system will be that fertile areas and those close to the city markets will prosper, though at the cost of great dislocation – in Zhejiang, one of the most densely populated provinces, between one third and two thirds of the rural labour force became ‘surplus’ for working the communal fields (BR, 19 December 1983, p. 7). But the poorer areas will remain in chronic backwardness. Inequalities will grow inside the villages too, as the state has admitted. Already ‘The income gap between the rich and the poor has indeed widened, though the number of people at each extreme is small by comparison.’ [29] For the state none of this matters. Their intention is to maximise profitability by placing investment where they can get the highest return – and agriculture, though it employs 78% of the working population, accounts for less than 25% of state receipts (CNA, 31 July 1981, p. 2). A capital-starved ruling class is in effect abandoning vast areas of China to sink or swim, concentrating economic development on heavy industry.

We are back to Trotsky’s law of combined but uneven development. His image of Russia in 1905 fits China today almost exactly:

‘The appearance of modern capitalist industry in a completely primitive economic environment: for instance, a huge Belgian or American industrial plant surrounded by dirt roads and villages built of straw and wood which burn down every year, etc. The most primitive beginnings and the most modern endings.’ [30]

Far from overcoming the fundamental problems of the Chinese economy, the modernisation strategy has accentuated its tendency towards constant crisis. The combination of the contradictions between accumulation and consumption, between China and the world market, between central planning and ‘market socialism’, and between central and local authorities, lead to a constant changing of economic gear, and a consequent unevenness and fitfulness in rates of growth. Sectoral crises of overproduction caused by the unevenness of development only add to the problems of the ruling class. As they have opened up China to the world economy, so they have seen their ability to direct the economy reduced continually, and their range of options for the future narrow drastically.

Politics, opposition and repression

The power shifts inside the ruling class since Mao’s death can be divided into two slightly overlapping periods. The first, from 1976 to 1982, was the gradual removal of all major opponents of Deng Xiaoping’s modernisation strategy. The second, which began in 1980, was the opening up of divisions inside the victorious faction. Three broad groups could be distinguished inside the leadership immediately following Mao’s death: the modernisers, those who had risen to power because of the Cultural Revolution, and the military leadership. Mao’s formal successor, Hua Guofeng, straddled all three groups to some extent.

The victory of the modernisers was sealed at two meetings of the top leadership in late 1978. At the first, a Central Committee work conference which lasted for five weeks instead of the planned three days, they used the pressure of the Democracy Wall movement to demote four of Deng’s opponents to purely symbolic roles. Three of them were removed for having directed the repression of the 1976 riots, which were now declared to have been ‘exemplary revolutionary actions’.

At the second, which followed immediately after, Deng Xiaoping pressed his advantage to force Hua Guofeng into denouncing the personality cult he had tried to build around himself, and to demote him from the position of Mao’s successor to being merely one of a collective leadership. The meeting also formally endorsed the strategy of modernisation, and declared that the period of ‘class struggle’ had come to an end. The priority henceforth was to be the ‘four modernisations.’

At one stroke the modernisers had gained full endorsement of their strategy and removed almost all of their serious rivals. Senior military figures apart, the only top leaders left faithful to Mao’s memory were without a power base or very old. The demoted leaders were to be gradually stripped of all their positions over the next few years, and a new generation of younger (60-year-old) bureaucrats were promoted in their place as eventual replacements for the group around Deng.

The modernisers could win the arguments about economic strategy and rejecting the Cultural Revolution for two central reasons. Firstly, they were the only faction who had a coherent economic strategy. Secondly, they had a mass base in the ranks of lower level officials who had been removed during the Cultural Revolution and had returned during the early seventies. These officials wanted above all an end to the politics of ‘mass campaigns’, which held the continual threat of being dragged through the streets by the mob for the crime of having followed the wrong orders. They also wanted an authority in Peking which knew its own mind two years running, which they saw as a precondition for their own security and stability. It was this class of senior administrators, practically all of whom had suffered in the Cultural Revolution, who managed the day-to-day running of the state, and against their pressure the hardline Maoists were powerless.

In the argument over the new assessment of Mao’s role, the modernisers were to be less successful. The trial of the ‘Gang of Four’ in late 1980, while mainly aiming at reassuring foreign investors and the lower ranks of the bureaucracy that Deng Xiaoping’s victory was irreversible, also had the function of limiting the extent of de-Maoisation. For while it marked the formal rejection of the whole of the Cultural Revolution, it did so by blaming everything on Mao’s evil henchmen (and woman), while absolving Mao of anything more than making mistakes. This involved denying the obvious truth that the Gang had only survived under Mao’s personal protection, and whether many Chinese workers were gullible enough to believe the story is doubtful.

The trial was an obvious farce, rigged from start to finish. When Jiang Qing showed signs of departing from the script on one occasion, she was simply removed from the court. Nothing new was said about either the ‘Gang of Four’ or the survivors of Lin Biao’s group, though it did confirm, if confirmation was still needed, that the Cultural Revolution had been simply a bloody and sordid power struggle among the ruling class. [31]

The trial marked an agreement among the ruling class on a formula that allowed them to junk almost all of Mao’s economic policies while claiming a continuity with him – a continuity that was important because it legitimised the leadership as inheritors of the state machine. This position was refined over time, and probably found its best expression in a formulation of Hu Qiaomu’s: ‘[Mao’s] mistakes are opposed to scientific Mao Zedong Thought and therefore Comrade Mao Zedong’s thinking in his late years should not be confused with Mao Zedong Thought. Mao Zedong Thought is a scientific theory which does not embrace Comrade Mao Zedong’s mistakes.’ [32] The key factor in limiting the extent of de-Maoisation was almost certainly the attitude of the senior military leaders, whose weight in the ruling class had been increased by the removal of the hard-line Maoists. The most conservative and nationalist force inside the ruling class, they do not act as a distinctive faction with a strategy for development of their own, but rather as an occasional bloc who can put a brake on changes in policy that damage their positions. A wholesale rejection of Mao’s role would mean for them a rejection of the military victory of the 1949 revolution, and hence a rejection of the weight of the military in the state ever since then. While not opposed in principle to the modernisation strategy, its development in practice has resulted in their increasing dissatisfaction – a process started by the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979.

There had been small-scale armed clashes on the border throughout 1978, and in February 1979 these erupted into an invasion by China involving over 100,000 troops. China emphasised that this was a ‘punitive strike’, not a permanent occupation, and withdrew a month later. The most likely explanation at the time was that the invasion aimed at withdrawing Vietnamese forces from their war in Cambodia, and curbing Vietnamese (and hence Soviet) influences in South-East Asia.

Hindsight offers a further – and even more cynical – motive. Negotiations were under way in 1978 with American and Japanese oil companies for developing offshore oilfields. It was believed – correctly – that the oil deposits lay under territorial waters disputed between China and Vietnam, and it seems highly likely that China was also reassuring potential investors – and warning Vietnam – that military force would be used if necessary to defend ‘their’ oilfields. [33]

Whatever the precise reasons were, the war was a classical imperialist display of national self-interest, without the slightest shred of ‘socialist’ justification. Chinese and Vietnamese soldiers and peasants died by the thousands in a squabble between rival ruling classes over mineral deposits and spheres of influence. And the obscene spectacle of the most war-torn country on earth being invaded by its ‘socialist’ neighbour was traumatic for any pro-Chinese revolutionaries still capable of independent thought.

The reputation of the Red Army was a further casualty. Outdated equipment and lack of experience meant that the Chinese took very heavy casualties and lost many of the battles. This fuelled the demands of the military for greater arms spending and for the importation of Western arms or arms technology, pressure which has got stronger ever since. Yet none of these demands have been satisfied. Military spending has actually dropped since 1979, to the point where 20% of defence industry capacity has been turned over to the production of consumer goods. Almost all of the defence delegations who went overseas to shop for arms in the period 1977–80 returned empty handed, and there have been very few such delegations since then. The view of the ruling class is that substantial military modernisation must wait until the economy can afford it, and since there is no immediate prospect of this happening, the disaffection of the armed forces leaders has increased greatly. This has been given a further twist recently by the introduction of the ‘household responsibility’ system in the countryside, which has dried up the traditional pool of peasant recruits for the armed forces, and forced them into running a recruiting drive for the first time ever. And though the ruling class as a whole has managed so far to impose its will on the military, their demands will become in the future an increasing source of tension inside the ruling class.

This tension has been exacerbated by the opening up of divisions within the modernising faction. These focus on the contradiction between the development of ‘market socialism’ and the need of the state to retain control of planning, as outlined above. One group, headed by the Premier, Zhao Ziyang, has emphasised a slower and more planned growth, with the state focussing on key areas of the economy to develop. As against these, senior economists and planners favour an even faster decentralisation and development of ‘market socialism’ as the only way to stimulate growth, seeing the temporary loss of control by the state as a teething problem.

The first group are saying, in effect, that the Chinese economy must learn to walk before it can run. To which the second group replies that the needs of international competition dictate that the economy must try to run before it can walk, even if this means falling over a lot. The argument cannot be finally settled because both are right in pointing to the material constraints on their actions. The contradiction between the capabilities of the economy and the demands placed on it by the need to accumulate at a pace dictated by the world economy is an irreconcilable one.

The past few years have thus seen the emphasis shifting from planning to decentralisation according to whether the priority is to reassert state control or to stimulate rapid growth. So, for instance, the 12th CCP congress approved a three-tier system of planning that marked on paper a move away from decentralisation, yet five months later the number of enterprises allowed to retain their profits for reinvestment and to sell their products directly on the market was increased, as was the power of local authorities over their slice of the economy.

The divisions inside the ruling class do not reflect two distinct groups in society with distinct aims, but rather the stalemate that the new strategy of modernisation has become. Of much more importance for revolutionaries is the fact that the rejection of Maoism by the new leadership has opened up greater opposition to the bureaucracy than ever existed previously. Undoubtedly the high point of this opposition since Mao’s death has been the ‘Democracy Wall’ movement of 1978–80. Though at their heights both the Cultural Revolution and the 1976 riots involved more people in active opposition to the state, the Democracy movement went further for two main reasons – the vast majority of activists were young workers, and there was a level of organisation never previously seen.

The movement had its roots in small groups of oppositionists who had come together in the 1976 riots, and in underground groups of Red Guards. It was to find a mass base in the youth sent down to the countryside, who started from 1977 onwards to flood back into the cities.

The movement had no fully developed political analysis, and the divergences inside it were great, though seldom expressed clearly. It was united around the demands for greater democratic freedoms and for the release and rehabilitation of all those who had suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Hence they supported unreservedly Deng Xiaoping’s faction against the Maoists, because, as one chronicler of the movement put it:

‘... the majority of the [CCP] leaders had been victims of the Cultural Revolution. Having fallen from power, they had seen at close quarters the reality of Maoism, and had learnt how much those deprived of democracy and the rule of law suffer. Now that they had regained power, they would therefore be disposed to establish democracy and the rule of law.’ [34]

But while they were prepared to support Deng, they were not prepared to sit back and let him do it for them. From early 1978 onwards, a rash of wallposters appeared in Peking and other major cities, demanding a speed-up of democratisation, the release of those arrested in the 1976 riots, and the punishment of those responsible for its suppression. Up to this point the aims of the movement coincided with the modernisers’ ambitions, but it seems clear that many of the activists saw these as merely the first steps in much greater changes that no faction of the ruling class would support.

During the Central Committee work conference of late 1978 (mentioned above), the Peking municipal authorities announced that the 1976 riots had been, after all, justified. The number of wallposters had naturally multiplied during the meeting, and, following this news, the movement in Peking started to focus on the Xidan wall, in west-central Peking. It became an arena for non-stop debates on politics, art and culture, and for the sale of the first dissident journals. Mass meetings started, and on 25 November 10,000 people gathered to hear a variety of speakers, one of whom gave an account of an American journalist’s interview with Deng Xiaoping in which Deng had said ‘Democracy Wall is a good thing. The people are free.’ The same month, the authors of the Li Yizhe wallposter which was seen as the founding statement of the movement, had been released from prison in Guangzhou. The message seemed clear – the new authorities not only tolerated but supported the movement. [35]

The freedom to speak out without fear of arrest, the thirst for ideas, and the need to tell the truth about the last ten years, quickly outgrew the medium of wallposters, and by January 1979 dozens of handprinted journals were circulating in and between every major city. No doubt many of the activists would have been content to simply enjoy the astonishing victories they had won, and not push their luck too far.

This was particularly true of the cultural side of the movement. Since 1966 the Gang of Four’s domination of the media and the arts had imposed stifling straitjackets on writers and artists. China’s vast cultural heritage, and Western ideas and techniques, had been condemned as ‘feudal’ and ‘bourgeois’. Radio, television, cinema and the stage had been dominated by Jiang Qing’s appallingly tedious and stilted ‘revolutionary operas’, which were repeated ad nauseam.

Not one new novel was published between 1969 and 1976 – and this in the oldest and most populous civilisation on earth! Deng Xiaoping’s support for the dissident movement saw an explosion of creativity. Many of the unofficial journals were entirely given over to short stories and poems, and all carried them regularly. Artists, sculptors and engravers organised unofficial exhibitions, and a new spirit of experiment even crept into the official media. Though practically all of the art was directly political and critical, this was the least threatening side of the movement, and consequently survived the longest, though under constant threat of arbitrary censorship.

But the movement as a whole had too powerful a dynamic to be contained in this form. The experience of the past few months had taught the activists that if they fought, they could win. Every extension of freedom of speech, every new issue of a journal, brought to light new injustices to fight. The movement turned in particular to the youth returning from the countryside. Since the fall of the Gang of Four, the government had been operating a discreet policy of allowing some of them to return home. This spurred others into going to Peking to petition for this policy to be extended to all of them. According to one source, there were at one point 10,000 of them in Peking, sleeping rough and living by theft, begging or prostitution. [36] As the government refused to move on the issue, their demonstrations grew larger and more militant and spread to other cities.

Deng’s reaction was to demand that the movement cease ‘causing disturbances’, and restrict its discussion to subjects allowed by the authorities. In reply, Wei Jingsheng, the editor of a journal called Explorations, wrote:

‘Does Deng Xiaoping want democracy? No, he does not. He is unwilling to comprehend the misery of the common people. He describes the struggle for democratic rights ... as the actions of troublemakers who must be repressed. To resort to such measures to deal with people who criticise mistaken social policies and demand social development shows that the government is very afraid of this popular movement.’ [37]

This was the first open criticism of Deng, and the state reacted by arresting Wei Jingsheng two weeks later, and soon after others protesting about his arrest were themselves arrested. The repression increased throughout 1979, at first accompanied by announcements that the movement would be tolerated provided it kept within state-set limits.

This relatively mild repression seems to have been prompted by fears of the effect of too savage a repression on foreign investors. As FEER rather cynically saw it:

‘Businessmen may not be the most concerned lovers of democracy and human rights but they see them as the best guarantee of smooth functioning of industrial and commercial structures. As seen from Europe the major problem of China remains to modernise, but for that there must be the wholehearted support of the population, support which might be lost through a lack of democracy and legality’ (11 May 1979, p. 26).

The effect of this was to make the movement smaller but tougher. The rest of 1979 saw further demonstrations of youth sent to the countryside in Peking, Shanghai and Hangzhou. The surviving journals held meetings to defend those arrested and, when Wei Jingsheng was put on trial in November, his defence was published as a pamphlet and sold at Democracy Wall. The site was first moved to the outskirts of Peking and then closed down altogether the following month. In February 1980, the freedom to put up wallposters was removed from the constitution and all unofficial journals were banned.

The movement not only learned how to live underground, but extended its organisation and influence. In September 1980 a meeting of representatives of over 50 unofficial journals was held in Guangzhou, and set up a national organisation. The following month, two mass movements showed the spread and endurance of the democratic movement.

The first started with mass demonstrations at Changsha University when an oppositionist candidate was removed from local elections through ballot-rigging. Students throughout Changsha went on strike in support of the university, and the movement was only defused when its leaders returned from Peking with promises of new elections. [38] It was even reported that collections had been held in the local factories for the students, raising between 2,000 and 3,000 yuan, several times the annual average industrial wage (FEER, 31 October 1980, pp. 13–14). (The incident raised ironical historic echoes – Mao Zedong had started his political career as a student activist in Changsha ...)

In the second, a movement of Shanghai youth demanding to be allowed home exploded in Aksu, Xinjiang province, the westernmost city in China. At its height, the movement involved over 70,000 people who effectively took over the city. They won their demands, only to find when they got to Shanghai that the city authorities refused to allow them to resettle there. Dispersed around the city, and facing a far stronger police force than in Xinjiang, the majority of them were forced to return. Though they lost their battle, it meant the effective end of the policy of keeping such youth in the countryside, until it was revived in late 1983. [39]

As well as better organisation, the repression also produced a move to the left as well as a clarification of political ideas, which led much of the movement to a position of opposition to the bureaucracy as such. In at least one case, it also produced the idea of a journal as the organiser of a group around a definite political line.

‘... we must still introduce ideas to our readers. They are precious comrades. By contacting us they run great risk of persecution. They do not just read our publications, they pass them around and exchange ideas with other people. Some of them cannot work with us because their ideological or theoretical level is low, but we believe that their thinking and their ability to draw conclusions will improve through propaganda and through our publications and they will eventually Work together with us.’ [40]

The movement survived a nationwide crackdown in 1981 involving hundreds of arrests, though it has almost certainly been destroyed in the repression that began in the summer of 1983. The trust the majority of activists placed in Deng Xiaoping, and the movement’s focus on oppression, meant that the democracy movement was never sufficiently powerful or politically coherent to pose a fundamental threat to the Chinese state. The course of the struggle destroyed their illusions in reforming bureaucrats, and the experience of Solidarity in Poland directed the movement more towards the factories after 1980. And their experience of organisation, and painfully-learnt lessons about the nature of the state, will be invaluable assets the next time that large-scale struggles break out again. The movement was living proof of the saying that it is better to fight and lose than never fight at all.

Though their timing cannot be predicted, large-scale struggles are in the long run inevitable. For the root causes of discontent that produced the democracy movement have not been eliminated by the modernisation strategy – if anything, they have become worse. Since 1977 over 18 million youth have returned to the cities, the vast majority to dead-end ‘service collective’ jobs, unemployment or petty crime. Their numbers are added to every year by school-leavers. Betrayed by Mao in the Cultural Revolution, oppressed by the Gang of Four, betrayed again by Deng Xiaoping, and offered no future by the modernisation strategy, Chinese youth are now profoundly hostile to the system. The ‘lost generation’, as those who grew up in the 60s are called, have become a major source of headaches for the ruling class. [41]

Evidence for working-class discontent is more fragmentary. But there were in 1981 reports of organisations modelled on Solidarity arising in Shanghai, Wuhan and Xian, and a widespread, if passive, support for the democracy movement. The increased attacks on job security and the pressure to close down unprofitable factories, combined with the now endemic price inflation, will have done nothing to allay that discontent. Even less is known about peasant discontent, though the revelation in 1978 that ten per cent of the rural population have seen no increase in their living standards since 1949 provides some measure of this. [42]

The introduction of material incentives such as piecework and productivity bonuses in the factories, and ‘household responsibility’

in the villages, are clear indications that the ‘political incentives’ beloved of Maoism were useless in increasing production, and that some concessions were necessary to buy off this discontent. Yet these can only work fora minority of workers and peasants. The regime can offer the vast majority no real increase in living standards. Nor can it fall back on comparisons with China before 1949, as over two-thirds of the population are too young to remember it. The most persuasive means the ruling class has left for keeping this discontent in check is repression.

This has taken three main forms: the public executions and mass deportations of young ‘criminals’, the campaign against ‘spiritual pollution’ and the purge of ‘leftists’ (supporters or supposed supporters of the Gang of Four) and corrupt elements from the bureaucracy.

The public executions started in earnest in mid-1981, and have increased to the point where there were 30 in Peking in August 1983 alone (FEER, 6 October 1982, p. 67). In 8 of the 13 administrative units of Fujian province there were 151 in October and November, which if typical would give a national death toll of 9,000 in those two months alone (FEER, 16 February 1984, p. 14). The vast majority are young workers, mostly charged with ‘hooliganism’, a catch-all term which can cover anything from street crime to political opposition. Crowds of up to 50,000 people are assembled to watch these executions, which aim both at terrorising crime off the streets and reassuring the ‘silent majority’ that the state is at least capable of keeping public order – still a popular issue, given memories of the chaos of the past 15 years.

No figures exist for the numbers of young workers and unemployed who have been arrested and shipped off to the remotest parts of China, but the numbers involved will be greater by far than those in the executions. The combination of these two means will in the short term be brutally effective in keeping down worker discontent, but there are already signs that sections of the bureaucracy realise that they must be counter-productive in terms of winning a broader base for the regime among youth.

This is certainly one of the reasons why the campaign against ‘spiritual pollution’ has been wound up so quickly. Started in late 1983, it seems at the time of writing (February 1984) to have been dropped as over-zealous officials took it to ridiculous and unenforcible lengths. Started to combat the spread of ‘pornography’, it has led to arrests or denunciations for such overtly pro-capitalist behaviour as wearing sunglasses, the wrong colour or style of clothing, and smoking tipped (foreign) cigarettes! It had aroused fears, not least among Western investors and potential investors, of a return to the politics of the Cultural Revolution, and clearly led at local level to an increase in the influence of ‘leftists’ inside the bureaucracy.

It has even been suggested that the campaign was started in order to smoke out such people, so as to identify them for the purge of the lower ranks due to start sometime this year. This purge, mooted ever since the arrest of the ‘Gang of Four’, has been postponed so long because of its potentially explosive consequences. Anyone who held any position of influence from 1969 to 1976 necessarily carried out at least some of the policies of that period. Are all of them to be purged or ‘re-educated’? If so, vast holes will be left in the state machine which cannot be filled. And it has necessarily aroused the fears of the whole of the bureaucracy of a return to the politics of ‘mass campaigns’. So it has to be carried out very slowly and carefully, to ensure the continued smooth running of the state machine, which necessarily means that it will be ineffectual. The ruling class will find that they can no more remove all ‘leftist’ elements than they can remove all the corrupt officials, for they need above all to keep the loyalty of the mass of officials if the repression unleashed on workers and youth is to be effective.

The Chinese ruling class already relies on a very narrow – and narrowing – social base. Though they cannot trust the lower levels of the bureaucracy they can even less afford to alienate them. And though the contrast between the lenient treatment of local officials and the savagery meted out to young workers will only increase worker discontent, they no longer dare turn that discontent onto the officials: ‘... the methods of mass struggle will not be used because history has taught us that mass movements often broaden the scope of struggle and disrupt the normal order’ (BR, 22 February 1982, p. 3). Their distrust of the mass of officials is nothing compared to their fear of the working class.


For the SWP, our analysis of China as state capitalist was not simply a way of saying that the regime was a nasty and oppressive one. It was rather an analysis that centred on the material realities that forced the regime to act as it did, not on their rhetoric or expressed wishes. Starting from the proposition that to describe Mao’s rise to power as in any way a working-class or socialist revolution meant rejecting the core idea of Marxism – that socialism is the self-emancipation of the working-class – it identified the driving force of the Chinese economy as the accumulation of capital. The scale and pace of this accumulation are dictated not by the needs of the Chinese economy, but by the need to compete with the rest of the world economy. This competition was expressed in military terms primarily – hence the squandering of vast resources in the 50s and early 60s to produce a Chinese atom bomb.

This process creates a class of top bureaucrats, factory managers, military chiefs, planners, and so on, defined by their control over the running and direction of the economy, and their necessarily antagonistic relationship to the working class and peasantry. For if accumulation was the goal, then the fulfilment of basic human needs clearly had to be subordinated to it.

While this is the general law of any capitalist society, in an economy as poor as China it became of much greater importance. To develop an industrialised economy, the Chinese ruling class had to be particularly single-minded. Yet Mao’s attempts to build a siege economy, aiming at overcoming material backwardness through sheer willpower and hard labour, in fact led the economy from crisis to crisis, and made it impossible to develop any coherent long-term strategy.

Fifteen years ago this was heresy to most of the left. Today it is the official position of the new leadership in Peking. The voluntarism central to Maoism has been rejected wholesale. As one of them has put it, ‘Politics is the most concentrated expression of economics ... over and above the economic laws in objective existence politics in itself cannot create other laws and impose them on the economy.’ (BR, 10 November 1978, p. 8). To borrow Orwell’s image from Nineteen Eighty-Four, even if the state proclaims that two and two make five, it must for its own purposes start from the objective truth that two and two make four. Mao not only proclaimed that two and two make five, but tried to run the Chinese economy as though it were true.

For the new leadership, the ‘economic laws in objective existence’ dictate that the other central tenet of Maoism, self-reliance, must also go. A modern industrial base can only be built by the wholesale importation of foreign plant and technology, which necessitates a vast increase in foreign debt. The problems of China’s backwardness cannot be overcome within the confines of the Chinese economy. Yet the strategy of opening to the West has already run into massive problems. The cutbacks in imports in 1979–81 have now led to the declaration that the economy must spend the rest of the decade in relative stagnation, and that an economic boom can only be expected in the 1990s – when the offshore oil fields have come on stream, if their development goes according to plan (and there can be few riskier industries on which to pin hopes for economic growth, as North Sea oil has shown.)

Further, the opening to the West has led to a realisation of China’s weakness in relation to the world economy as a whole, as can be seen in the case of Hong Kong. While the formal Chinese position is that the treaties under which it became a British colony are illegal, and that Hong Kong is a part of China, the need to take over Hong Kong as it currently exists have meant an ever-growing list of promises to the local capitalists in order to keep them in place after 1997. In the current negotiations it is puny Hong Kong, not the massive Chinese state, which holds the whip hand. While it is inevitable that China will take over in 1997 (all other factors aside, Hong Kong depends on China for food and water supplies) the terms under which it does so will be decided by Hong Kong’s capitalists. [43]

The means to growth chosen by the ruling class – decentralisation of planning power, the introduction of local autonomy in investment decisions, and the framework of ‘market socialism’ – have further weakened their own centralised power. For they have created thousands of localised and sectional economic decision-making centres, over which they can have no direct control. Nor can they regain that control – the ‘market socialism’ strategy has a dynamic of its own which must lead to even greater sectionalism and unevenness.

Yet the power of the ruling class is based on precisely their ability to control the growth and direction of the economy. They cannot sit back and allow it to escape from their grasp, they must constantly intervene to offset these tendencies and reassert the power of the central state. Yet each time they do so, they simply worsen the already chronic tendency to crisis, and make economic growth ever more uneven and unpredictable. It is a vicious spiral, from which there is no escape within the nation-state, even a state as big as China.

For revolutionaries the central lesson of China since the Cultural Revolution is that of the comprehensive failure, not only of ‘socialism in one country’, but also of ‘national economic development in one country’. The ruling class have, in abandoning Maoism, themselves disproved the idea that a national economy can develop independently of the world economy, and their practice since 1978 refutes the idea that it can be done dependent on the world economy when it is in crisis either. For they have solved none of the basic problems that were Mao’s legacy, nor will they be capable of doing so. China is the third largest country in the world, with a quarter of the world’s population and reserves of every raw material necessary for the development of a modern industrial economy. If there was one state which ought to have been able to develop independently of the world economy, it was China. And if China cannot do it, it should by now be clear that it cannot be done anywhere.

The roots of that failure lie not in mistakes or inadequacies of the Chinese ruling class, but in the nature of capitalism as a world system, in which the nation-state has become a brake on economic development.

Sixty years ago Trotsky’s advocacy of international socialism against Stalinism led to accusations of ‘idealistic utopianism’. The history of state capitalism since then shows that it is the notion of ‘socialism in one country’ which is the idealistic utopianism. It is from the nature of capitalism as a world system that the necessity for international revolution flows. The establishment of socialism as Marx and Lenin understood it requires not simply the destruction of one state, but the destruction of the system of contending states in the world as a whole. As capitalism decays ever further, international socialism becomes ever more imperative as the only means to end the hunger, poverty and desperation of the mass of the world’s population. In that struggle the Chinese working class, numerically the largest in the world, will have a central role to play.


I have used the Peking-sponsored pinyin romanisation throughout for Chinese personal and place names, with the exception of Peking and Hong Kong, which are far better-known than their pinyin equivalents. I have used it both because it is far easier to pronounce than other systems of transliteration, and because most sources use it throughout (some romanisations in sources have been altered to prevent confusion). All places mentioned in the text are marked on the map.

I would like to thank Gregor Benton, Pete Binns, Norah Carlin, Pete Green and Derek Howl for all their help and encouragement.


1. First admitted in Xinhua, 18 April 1983, p. 7. 210 cases of female infanticide were discovered in Guangdong province in 1982, according to FEER, 28 April 1983, p. 50.

2. For instance, from the official communique issued during Francis Pym’s visit to China in 1980:

‘China and Britain hold that it is imperative for them ... to make every effort to strengthen their defence capabilities in order to cope with the threat from hegemonism and to make a contribution to the maintenance of world peace ... the Minister of National Defence expressed his appreciation of the untiring efforts of Britain and other West European countries which have built up their defence to safeguard their security against the menace by hegemonism.’ BR, 1 April 1980, p. 7.

3. See for example articles entitled: Permanent Revolution (IS 12, reprinted as an SWP pamphlet in 1982); Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism-Maoism (IS 26); Crisis in China (IS 37); China and world revolution (IS 78) and Mao and China (IS 92). The books are Y. Gluckstein, Mao’s China, London 1957 (now out of print but available from libraries), and Nigel Harris, The mandate of heaven, London 1978.

4. Simon Leys, The emperor’s new clothes, London 1977, p. 77. This is by far the best account of the Cultural Revolution as a whole.

5. For a fuller account, see Livio Maitan, Party, army and masses in China, London 1976, pp. 123–30.

6. For a fuller account see Leys, op. cit., pp. 76–85.

7. Ibid., pp. 194–5.

8. Given in Peking Review, 12 January 1976. Though the same journal gave an even higher figure in saying ‘in the period of 1977–81, a total of 37 million people were assigned jobs in China’s cities and towns. About half were people who had been sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.’ Beijing Review – the name was changed in 1979 – name was changed in 1979 – (hereafter BR), 27 September 1982, p. 20.

9. Jean-Jacques Michel and Huang He (Yellow River, a group of ex-Red Guards based in Hong Kong), Avoir vingt ans en Chine... a la campagne (To be twenty in China ... in the countryside), Paris 1978, pp. 23–4.

10. ‘Given 50 or 60 years, we certainly ought to overtake the United States. This is an obligation. You have such a big population, such a vast territory and such rich resources, and what is more, you are said to be building socialism, which is meant to be superior; if after working at it for fifty or sixty years you are still unable to overtake the United States, what a sorry figure you will cut. You should be read off the face of the earth. Therefore, to overtake the United States is not only possible, but absolutely necessary and obligatory.’ Mao Zedong, Selected Works, Volume 5, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1977, p. 315. Compare with Stalin’s famous speech of 1931: ‘No, comrades, the pace must not be slackened. On the contrary we must quicken it as much as is within our powers and possibilities ... To slacken the pace would mean to lag behind, and those who lag behind are beaten ... We are 50 or 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag in ten years. Either we do it or they crush us.’ Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, Stalin, Harmondsworth 1966, p. 328. Mao’s longer time-scale reflects both the fact that he was speaking during the prolonged world boom, and that the gap between China and the USA in the 50s was far larger than that between the USSR and the USA in 1931.

11. The question of peasants’ private plots of land has been one of the thorniest facing the bureaucracy. On the one hand, output is consistently higher on them than in the ‘collective fields’, for the simple reason that everything produced on the plot will be eaten or sold by the peasants. So if the immediate priority is to increase food output, economic policy has to stress the private plots. But the greater their importance, the more the ability of the state to plan and direct agricultural output is weakened. (At times drastically. In Yunnan province the private grain harvest was larger than the collective one in 1962, and from 1959–64 there was more private than collective tilling in Guizhou and Sichuan. See Wheelwright and McFarlane, The Chinese road to socialism, Harmondsworth 1973, p. 70). So while private plots are tolerated, they must at the same time be continually curbed in order to maintain the power of the state in the villages.

12. Yao Wenyuan, On the social basis of the Lin Biao anti-party clique, Peking 1975, p. 2.

13. Anyone interested in the official story can find it in great detail in Jaap van Ginneken, The rise and fall of Lin Piao, Harmondsworth 1976.

14. Simon Leys, Chinese shadows, Harmondsworth 1978, p. 180, quotes ‘recent (1974) and more reliable reports that he was assassinated in Beidaho’ (the top bureaucracy’s summer seaside resort north-east of Peking).

15. Nigel Harris, op. cit., p. 76.

16. For a fuller account of the rebellions in East Pakistan and China’s response, see ibid., pp. 231–3, also the same author’s pamphlet, The struggle for Bangladesh, London 1971.

17. Bill Brugger, China: Radicalism to revisionism 1962–79, London 1981, pp. 185–6.

18. Nigel Harris, op. cit., pp. 128–30.

19. Li Yizhe, Concerning socialist democracy and the legal system, in The Seventies (ed.), The revolution is dead – long live the revolution, Montreal 1977, p. 232. The Seventies are a group of libertarian ex-Red Guards in Hong Kong.

20. Ibid., p. 224.

21. Ibid., p. 236.

22. Minus 8 (Eight years to 1984), Hong Kong, June/July 1976, pp. 10–11. Minus 8 was an irregular journal published by members of the Seventies.

23. According to China News Analysis (hereafter CNA), 4 June 1976, drawing together various provincial radio broadcasts. They were confirmed in an article PR, 24 November 1978, p. 7.

24. Neil Burton, in Bettelheim and Burton, China since Mao, New York 1978, p. 11.

25. Developed at length in articles in PR, 10, 17 and 24 November 1978. The author even quoted Marx in his support:

‘All directly social or communal labour on a large scale requires, to a greater or lesser degree, a directing authority, in order to secure the harmonious co-operation of the activities of individuals, and to perform the general functions that have their origin in the motion of the total productive organism, as distinguished from the motion of its separate organs. A single violin player is his own conductor; an orchestra requires a separate one.’ (Capital, Volume 1, pp. 448–9 in the Penguin edition)

The author fails to mention, however, what Marx then goes on to say, and which is highly relevant to China today:

‘The control exercised by the capitalist is not only a special function arising from the nature of the social labour process, and peculiar to that process, but it is at the same time a function of the exploitation of a social labour process, and is consequently conditioned by the unavoidable antagonism between the exploiter and the raw material of his exploitation ... Moreover, the co-operation of wage-labourers is entirely brought about by the capital that employs them. Their unification into one single productive body, and the establishment of a connection between their individual functions, lies outside their competence. These things are not their own act, but the act of the capital that brings them together, and maintains them in that situation. Hence the interconnection between their labours confronts them, in the realm of ideas, as a play drawn up by the capitalist, and, in practice, as his authority, as the powerful will of a being outside them, who subjects their activity to his purpose.’ (Ibid., pp. 449–50).

26. ‘Excessive population growth will not only directly affect the increase of per-capita income but also create serious difficulties in food supply, housing, education and employment, and it may even disrupt social stability.’ BR, 13 September 1982, p. 16.

27. BR, 6 July 1979, p. 38. One such enterprise was described in Xinhua, 29 March 1979. A steel plant in Qinghai province that was started eight years previously had to that date cost 40 million US dollars, and was only turning out 15,000 tons of iron and steel a year. The project had so far lost 13.7 million dollars, and would take a further seven or eight years to complete, at a further annual cost of 2.4 million dollars. One of the main reasons for such losses was that the nearest iron ore mine was 500 miles away!

28. For instance, according to Michael Yahuda, Chinese foreign policy after Mao, London 1983, p. 191, a plant producing Rolls Royce aircraft engines was completed in 1980 at a total cost of 200 million US dollars. It lay idle as China did not produce an aircraft to which the engines could be fitted. (Yahuda reported a rumour that the plant was converted to producing bicycles!)

29. BR, 21 June 1982, p. 3. The extremes were households with per-capita incomes of 60 yuan up to 500 yuan – a quite enormous differential in a supposedly classless rural economy.

30. Leon Trotsky, 1905, Harmondsworth 1973, p. 354.

31. For a fuller account of the trial, see Socialist Review, 1980 : 9, pp. 9–10, and 1981 : 2, p. 7.

32. BR, 15 June 1981, p. 17. ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’. ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’ – Lewis Carroll would have made an excellent bourgeois Pekinologist.

33. The threat was made explicit in 1983:

‘If the Vietnamese authorities insist on obstructing China’s legal exploration for oil in Chinese territorial waters, they will have to bear the responsibility for any consequences arising therefrom.’ BR, 28 February 1983, p. 10.

34. Christian Bourgois (ed.), Un bol de nids d’hirondelles ne fait pas le printemps de Pékin (One bowl of swallows-nests soup doesn’t make a Peking spring), Paris 1980, pp. 9–10.

35. This account is taken from the introduction to the above.

36. Gregor Benton, Wild lilies, poisonous weeds, London 1982, pp. 33–4. This is the best general account of the Democracy movement.

37. Ibid., p. 47.

38. Ibid., pp. 106–11.

39. Ibid., pp. 112–19.

40. Ibid., p. 130.

41. For a round-up of Chinese press accounts of this, see CNA, 12 and 26 September 1980.

42. According to the People’s Daily, 16 April 1979, quoted in Yahuda, op. cit., p. 133.

43. For the best general account of the current situation in Hong Kong, see Gregor Benton, The Hongkong crisis, London 1983.


Cast in order of appearance

MAO ZEDONG (Mao Tse-tung).

LIN BIAO (Lin Piao) Mao’s proclaimed successor from 1966 to his murder in a faction fight in 1970 or 1971.

DENG XIAOPING (Teng Hsiao-p’ing) Head of the ‘modernising’ faction of the ruling class; disgraced during the Cultural Revolution, returned to power in 1973, dismissed in 1976 and made a second comeback in 1977.

ZHOU ENLAI (Chou En-lai) Manager of the state machine, and Mao’s real number two until his death in 1975.

LI YIZHE Collective pseudonym of four ex-Red Guards in Guangzhou. Arrested in 1974, released in 1978; one of them at least has since been re-imprisoned.

‘GANG OF FOUR’ Rose to the highest levels of power after the Cultural Revolution as Mao’s only fully reliable allies. Arrested the month after Mao died. Individually:

HUA GUOFENG Formal successor to Mao, demoted from that position in 1978, dropped from the Politburo in 1982.

HU QIAOMU Leading ideologist of the ‘modernising’ faction.

ZHAO ZIYANG Current head of state, ‘moderniser’.

WEI JINGSHENG Prominent member of the Democracy movement, imprisoned in 1978.

Charlie Hore Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated on: 20 April 2017