China Study Group

Conditions of the Working Classes in China
by Robert Weil 31 dec 

Every class and sub-class stratum in China is undergoing dramatic changes that will have a profound impact on their own role, the relations between them, and the future course of the society. These transformations are especially evident among the Chinese working classes, who are experiencing the most radical alterations in their conditions in many decades. They have major implications not only within China, but for the global system, both in their own direct impact and as one "model” for developments elsewhere as well. The Chinese working classes are today mounting some of the largest protests found anywhere in the world, demanding basic changes in their political, economic and social conditions and relations, and are experimenting once again with collective forms of organization. Among the consequences already being seen, are the creation of a new climate that is helping to stimulate the revival of the "left” in China, still relatively small and tentative in its newfound openness and mobilization, but nevertheless becoming a significant factor on the national, and potentially at least, the international scene.

The following report and analysis is based primarily on a series of meetings held with workers and peasants in and around Beijing, in Jilin province in the Northeast, and in Henan province in the central part of the country, as well as other observations and discussions, over a five week period in the summer of 2004. It makes no pretense at comprehensiveness—we did not visit the coastal areas where the greatest concentration of foreign investment is found, and which have received most of the attention from media and NGOs in the United States—but rather presents a snapshot from the "grassroots” of the kinds of changes that significant segments of the Chinese working classes are now undergoing, as seen by those we talked with directly. It analyzes as well some of the possibilities and limitations that the workers, migrants and peasants are facing, as the full effects of "marketization” and "globalization” sweep over them. It briefly discusses the new role of the left in relation to these developments, and suggests some of the possible directions that may emerge from the present rapidly evolving situation. The meetings on which this paper is based were arranged by and carried out with Alex Day and another student of Chinese affairs. Others both within and outside China contributed to the ideas found here. The names of those with whom we talked and organizations referred to have generally been omitted, due to possible "complications” that using them might entail for those involved. Any errors in content or interpretation remain my own responsibility.

The Urban Proletariat

Though the general outline of what has happened to Chinese workers over the past decade is now relatively common knowledge, it is another matter to hear directly from some of them the personal effects of these changes. Discussions with members of the working class in the cities of Zhengzhou and Kaifeng, in central Henan Province, yield a searing picture of the almost complete devastation of the urban proletariat in the main industrial centers of the country that were built up during the socialist era from 1949-1976 under Mao Zedong, and that were the last redoubt to be stormed after his death by the "market reformers” led by Deng Xiaoping. With the outright, or at least quasi-privatization of virtually all State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), most commonly in corrupt arrangements involving state and party officials, managers and/or the new private capitalists, tens of millions of workers have been thrown out of work, losing not only their jobs, but pensions, health care, education for their children and in many cases housing—all of which were provided by their danwei or work unit. The result is a massive experience in what the Chinese call "eating bitterness,” a feeling that was starkly conveyed by those we met with, who described not only their own dire circumstances, but the impact on their fellow workers, of the losses they have suffered in recent years.

The scale of the disaster is difficult to grasp. In these two cities, somewhere around 70-80 percent of the former SOE workers have been laid off. In Kaifeng alone, some 100,000 have lost their jobs—in a city of less than three quarters of a million total population. The SOEs there are virtually all gone. As one worker put it, they are not supposed to wear the "hat of the state” anymore. In entire regions of the country that were once centers of industrial production, there are very few SOEs left. One Zhengzhou worker who has travelled around China to investigate such conditions, quoted the same 100,000 figure as in Kaifeng for those without work in Shenyang in Liaoning province in the Northeast, the other main center of the "rust belt” of Chinese industry, where he saw 150 factories shut down. Typical is an SOE combine factory in Siping in Jilin province, the next to the north. It formerly had 3,000 workers, but closed for two years, and then reopened as a shareholding corporation with only 1,000 left. Because these massive layoffs are common throughout what were once the Chinese industrial belts, it "makes workers fearful because the conditions are so general,” so that even those still working are afraid for their jobs. Some families have broken up, and others have gone south, to the coastal export regions. It is a "very bitter situation” to happen to the working class, one worker said. "Even if Chiang Kai-shek came back from Taiwan, he would not have sold off or shut down the factories—even the Japanese built up, not destroyed.” The result of this ravaging by the new capitalist economy is to leave millions of workers in a kind of suspended animation, trapped in the several forms of "unemployment” in China today. Xiagang refers to workers who, at least in theory, receive a payment of some kind from their former factory, usually for a set number of years. Daigang is a form of partial layoff, in which what was once one job is shared out as part-time work among several people. There are other forms of "waiting” for work—which generally never comes.
Many older workers have been forced into retirement, where at least they may receive some benefits, though these are under constant threat of being cancelled. Some other former employees may also receive payments, though these are generally much smaller than those for retirees. Overall, however, enterprise managers and the party and state authorities with whom they are commonly closely aligned, attempt to deny or limit any payouts or other obligations, by refusing their laidoff workers Xiagang or any other official jobless status. The result is that they try to make the former SOE employees, depending on their age, live either off their children or their parents, get new jobs in the private sector, set up small businesses, or simply "hustle” on the streets. While some of those laid off retain a financial relation to the factory, therefore, however tenuous, tens of millions have been cut off and driven to find other lines of work. In general, the families of these dismissed workers are left with little or nothing, relying mainly on the pensions of their retired relatives. As a consequence, there is a growing stratification: those 60 and older are largely retirees, those in their 50s are unemployed, and those in their 40s-30s have either found jobs in private enterprises or in some factory that has been "sold off.” Only some of those with higher education and the younger workers are favored to be kept on. As one of those we talked with explained, he receives just 460 Yuan per month in retirement payments for himself and his wife, while his three grown children—all of whom once worked in the same factory with him—receive only Y120 each. The total of Y820 is equivalent to less than $100 monthly, far too little to support five adults. Three generations, including children and grandchildren, frequently live off a retiree—one of those we talked to was supporting 8 family members on a single pension.

Even more traumatically, this reverses what should be the usual generational relationship. The new dependence of even middle aged workers on their retired parents is a matter of great embarrassment and often despair, especially in a society where traditionally the young honored the old and served as their primary economic support. The social consequences of these sudden reversals of former roles can be devastating. There are many divorces, including among older couples. Women in particular are, as one worker put it, "sent home to knit,” where their premature "retirement” causes many tensions, while others find new ways to survive on the streets, including by turning to prostitution. Most unemployed younger workers are forced into casual labor, or to do street sales, but they are generally limited to finding a little day hiring, which lacks any security or benefits. Not every young worker suffers equally, however. Among the tens of thousands of taxi drivers in Chinese cities today, a high proportion of them younger laidoff workers from the SOEs, some claim to be making more than they did in the factories, but only at the cost of their former securities and benefits, and they are still heavily exploited by taxi company owners, corrupt officials and police. For millions of others, even options like this are lacking. One consequence is that many in the younger generation cannot afford to marry. Thus among both young and old workers, the family, the traditional center of Chinese life, is in many cases breaking down. Escape to a better situation is difficult, or even completely out of reach. Young workers who aspire to go to university are often unable to afford the up to Y30,000 it can now cost, an impossible sum for many, especially if their parents or grandparents are no longer working. As a result, some younger members of the working class even kill themselves, having no jobs or chance for education, and there are a lot of crimes, with many ending up in prison.

Polarization is becoming extreme, with many private entrepreneurs and corrupt officials now living in "world class” luxury at the top. Chinese society today is more divided by income than even Indonesia or India—with Gini indices respectively of 44.7, 34.4 and 32.5, according to the latest figures from the World Bank—and is now higher than in the United States itself, at 40.8 (WDR 2005, WB and Oxford UP, NY 2004, Table 2, 258). The sharp division of classes extends down to the level of the individual factory or local community. Cadre salaries are much higher now, maybe three times as much as before, while the average retired worker gets only Y400 a month, and the sick wait at home to die with no money. The collapse of the SOEs and their related services destroys entire communities. In the area of Kaifeng where the SOE retirees that we talked to live, even the school in the worker housing area is gone. In Zhengzhou, things have gone further yet. There workers took us on a tour of several areas in the city where housing for those who formerly worked in the SOEs had been torn down to make way for stores and other similar investments, many of them by the largest capitalist conglomerate in the province, which is owned by a relative of the mayor of the city. On one remaining block of worker houses, buildings were hung with banners protesting their looming demolition and the lack of adequate compensation for the loss. The rapid collapse of public benefits and familial relations often combine and reinforce each other. One of those who took us around came close to breaking down as he described both the loss of his housing and the divorce that followed his own dismissal, making him dependent on friends for a place to sleep, food, and even cigarettes. In his family, which for 40 years had worked in a major electrical equipment factory as well as having a record of service in the Red Army, four out of five members are jobless, and are left without even the ability to find meals. Such conditions are found in the Northeast, a rich agricultural region, as well. After meeting with the organizer who described the conditions at the Siping combine factory, we bought some bananas from a man selling nothing but a small bunch of them on a street near the railway station, who turned out to be one of the workers laid off from that same plant—a poignant verification of the desperate personal situations we had just been hearing about.

The workers have not taken the destruction of their former jobs, securities and rights, won through many decades of socialist revolution, passively. For over a decade, Zhengzhou has been a hotbed of militant working class consciousness and resistance—as has been Shenyang in the Northeast—though little of this activism is reported on in the U.S. media. In 1997 there was a strike of taxi cab drivers, who still today earn only about Y600 per month, compared to Y2,000-3,000 for those in Beijing, against a new fee of Y20,000 per cab, an enormous expense. Some 13,000 drivers demonstrated, with wide support from other workers, forcing a roll back of the tax. In 1999, those working at a textile factory struck to block the overnight sale of the enterprise. They lay down on nearby railroad tracks—a common tactic—supported by 100,000 others, and prevented the selloff of the plant. But the most dramatic and significant struggle was the seizure of a local paper factory by the workers in 2001, to prevent its complete privatization and the piecemeal selling off of its various parts, which was already well advanced. After many twists and turns, part of the plant still remains under worker control, but it is struggling to survive not only in the market economy, but in the face of official attempts to undermine it economically. There have been other similar struggles in the area, though none have reached the same level of longterm possession of enterprises by the working class. In one such case, however, the state was compelled to reacquire a factory, after the new private owners violated their contract, and the authorities were afraid that the workers would take militant action—there already being the "model” of the paper factory seizure to follow.

Nevertheless, such victories are very few and far between. In most cases, the result is similar to that in the electrical equipment factory where the struggle was, as one worker explained it, against the "communists and capitalists”—who worked together to take it away. One capitalist buyer of the plant told the workers, "the Communist Party is selling you—it grabs me by the hand and forces me to 'kill' the workers.” In most such conflicts, the "official” labor union is now all but worthless, or even actively in support of management and the authorities. Its leaders are commonly paid off to help trick the workers into agreements, arranging for them to be slowly laid off and allowing the selloff of the equipment. The "people's representatives” in the factory never discuss any of this with the work force. Instead, as one of those we met with put it, they are "selling our fate and lives.” It is not like the Mao era, when the union leaders were real representatives and were elected. Since the "reforms,” they have been appointed, and salaries and jobs are used to divide and pay off workers and activists. Unions have become just one more part of the "market economy” system. "Here the union is not to represent workers, but to sell them.” Employees cannot believe what the labor officials say—"they cheat”—and those who want a real union will be arrested. They have to be careful what they say even in small groups, because the police will come and arrest them at their homes. "This is what they now call 'development,' but it leaves us with nothing,” as one worker put it.

There are still occasionally honest union officials, but they are repressed. One of those who helped to lead the workers at the Zhengzhou paper factory was just such a representative, but he was kicked out and told he was "no longer a leader.” Most union officials are chosen top down, and are out for themselves. Even payoffs now go both ways. In one Zhengzhou factory the union representatives took Y60,000 from the worker welfare fund and gave it to the capitalists trying to seize the plant to establish "relations” with them. These conditions are what the workers still struggle to oppose, drawing on their experience from the socialist era. In the electrical equipment plant, they put up a banner saying "Continually Uphold Mao Zedong Thought.” Another of their slogans was: "Workers want to produce and live.” But police were called in, and there were struggles and beatings, after they had tried discussion first. Their leaders were arrested, and the authorities beat and shot those who tried to stop the selloff, which was completed in spite of the protests. The two activists from the factory who we talked with were held in 2001 for 2 and 4 months, respectively, but kept on fighting and are still active in the leadership of the city workers, though they are constantly harassed and threatened by the authorities. Even meeting with us was a risk. They thought it likely it would lead to a visit by the police, and at one point they asked us to walk some distance behind them to avoid our being seen together, given the likelihood that we they were being watched.

Demonstrations, sometimes on a very large scale, continue on an almost daily basis. But because the privatization of the SOEs in the area is now almost complete, protests today are almost entirely limited to attempts to hold on to their pensions, Xiagang payments, medical care, housing, etc., rather than to prevent the loss of the factories themselves.

It is the older generation, in particular, that today most often leads these struggles, both because they have the most to lose, and because they still retain the consciousness absorbed in earlier periods of working class mobilization during the Mao era. As one worker explained, since they went through the Cultural Revolution, they "have an idea of what a factory should look like.” They always continue to raise these issues and resist privatization. Most such resistance is led by such activists from the Cultural Revolution period, who see political, and not just survival issues in the conflicts, like too many of the workers do today. They worry that the younger generation is losing this consciousness and is too easily tricked by offers of small and temporary "bribes,” such as onetime layoff payments, that are quickly used up in the daily realities of the capitalist economy, with rising costs for housing, medical care and education. Such workers often have illusions of "making it,” but are surprised to find that the severance payments are worth so little. The working classes now are "too accepting of government promises, which are not kept.” But as both private entrepreneurs and the party and state authorities break their pledges this, in turn, is raising worker awareness of the changed conditions, giving birth to a new kind of consciousness for the era of "marketization,” and fueling mass protests. Older workers are trying to help mold this into renewed activism, while they still can. In this way, the age divide may be overcome, not by a return to the past—the changes in worker conditions call for new goals and methods to meet the challenges of today—but by passing on the experiences and lessons of the socialist era to a younger generation.


The stream of migrant labor in China, made up of peasants moving to the urban areas—which continues to be estimated at well over 100 million persons—is undergoing transformations as equally profound as those affecting the urban proletariat. Many of these have to do with changing objective conditions in the economy and the labor market. But others reflect a subjective change in the view that migrants hold of themselves and their growing resistance to the ways in which they have been exploited. In one sense, those in the migrant stream form the "swing group” among the Chinese working classes, with one foot in the peasantry and the other in the urban work force. In theory, at least, they could form a bridge between the other two. In some ways, this is already happening, insofar as migrant workers carry knowledge of what is happening in the villages and the urban areas back and forth between the two. But many aspects of their condition—not only official discrimination, but the attitudes of urban dwellers in general, including other parts of the working classes, similar to that facing (im)migrants everywhere—militate against their playing such a role. What is now clear, however, is that the migrant work force can longer be considered peripheral to the basic worker and peasant class division of China. In Beijing alone, there are over 3 million migrants in a population of some 15 million. They are, for now, a "permanent” part of the structure of the Chinese working classes, and one of growing importance.

For most migrants, the basic conditions of life remain unchanged. On average, they work 70 to 80 hours per week, either in the new private factories, many of them foreign owned in whole or in part, on the seemingly never-ending construction sites that continue to rise in cities across China, or in a wide variety of "dirty” laboring and service jobs that many urban Chinese no longer want. For this they receive from Y500-900 per month, or the equivalent of some $60-100 plus dollars. Many send money back to their families in the villages from which they have migrated, a major source of funds for those left behind, but reducing sharply their economic position in the cities where they now live. The exploitation that they suffer from is extreme, including not only overwork and very poor living conditions—overcrowded and restrictive dormitories for the factories, temporary housing, often just primitive shacks, at the construction sites—but in virtually all cases lack of benefits of any kind, and in many even nonpayment of their minimal wages. Estimates of the amount of money that migrants have earned but not been paid ranges over a considerable spectrum, but is acknowledged even by the government to be in the billions of yuan. Some migrant workers have gone to extreme measures, including hanging themselves from construction cranes, in despair and protest over their constant mistreatment. Overall, therefore, labor and living conditions for migrants have changed little since they first began departing their villages for the cities two decades ago. They continue to represent the primary "reserve army of labor” for the Chinese economy.
Nevertheless, profound changes are beginning to affect the situation of migrants. In large part, this is simply the result of the length of experience which growing numbers of one-time peasants now have as members of the migrant stream, as well as the gradual rise in the average age of those who make up this massive laboring force. Even today, tens of millions of younger persons continue to leave their villages to take their chances in the cities, where they provide an ever renewing pool of labor, in many cases naïve in the ways of capitalist exploitation and of their limited rights as workers. But as with the migrants who cross the U.S. border with Mexico seeking a better chance for work, the process in China has been going on so long that those who do it are now in many cases seasoned veterans. Taken as a whole, therefore, the Chinese migrant stream is no longer composed primarily of fresh young faces from the countryside, eager to escape the fields. It is now a more complex and varied class stratum, resulting in both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, there is a growing consciousness of their conditions and of the ability to resist them. On the other, there are the deepening difficulties of lives that have been largely spent in the instability and discriminatory circumstances of migration.

The contradictory policies toward migrants in Chinese cities will be familiar to those who follow the similar oscillation in the treatment especially of Latino immigrants to the United States—where efforts to keep them out, deny them rights, or expel those already here, occur at times simultaneously with plans to grant them amnesty or even to invite more in. Dependence of business interests on their labor often collides with local resistance to their presence. In China, the demand for a migrant work force ensures that a flow of peasants out of the villages and into the cities will continue to be "welcomed,” especially by those employers seeking the lowest paid and least protected segment of the working class. At the same time, migrants have brought with them many of the problems of added costs to local governments, competition with the urbanized proletariat, and difficult adjustments to city life, that make them unwelcome in ways resembling that faced by similar groups around the globe. With this process now some two decades old in China, entire migrant communities have "settled out” in many of the larger urban centers, where they have won some degree of limited residency and education rights, though these vary from city to city, and are in many cases more a question of accepting a fait accomplis than a formal granting of legal status. Though some cities are gradually taking steps to integrate those from the villages—and new national policies are beginning to dissolve the decades old rural/urban legal divide—migrants as a whole still face sharp discrimination in the denial of urban residency permits, housing and education. As a result, to take but one example, "illegal” schools have sprung up in many areas for the children of migrant families, who are not allowed into the city education system because they are not officially "residents.”
As is common elsewhere, migrants are also looked down upon, not only by the "middle class” in the cities, but by many urban workers as well. One of those we talked with in Beijing, herself a migrant for 20 years, who continues to work with women who have moved from the rural areas to the city, cited a "neoliberal professor” who says that migrants "are like water—we open and close the floodgate to let them in,” a remark she found especially dehumanizing. Migrant workers thus continue to face discriminatory policies, both official and unofficial, and disparaging attitudes, and are even subject to recurring efforts to push them out of the cities and back onto the farms. Stuck at the bottom of the urban social structure, they suffer with special severity from the extreme degree of economic polarization now occurring in city life. Though they may gain some temporary income from helping to build the towering skyscrapers still rising everywhere in the cities—prime symbols of the enormous growth that is propelling China forward as a world power in the global economy, and where its "new rich” work and live—they have no claim to a permanent or secure role in the urban labor force. The long "boom” in the Chinese economy may have resulted in very large part from their work, but as the old U.S. union song "Solidarity Forever” puts it, for too many in the migrant population, "Now we stand outcast and starving, 'midst the wonders we have made.” Overall, therefore, despite any partial regularization of their urban existence, and the few cases of those who manage to "make it”—and who are held up by the government and the state media as shining examples—the situation of most migrants is growing more desperate.

Fundamental here is the gradual aging of the migrant population, many of whom are beginning to lose the vigor of youth or even the strength of middle age, and thereby the ability to continue performing the kinds of hard labor to which they are, with few exceptions, confined. In a society where respect and guarantees of support for the elderly—once bedrocks of the culture—are deteriorating for all strata of the population, the condition of aging migrants is especially dire. Increasingly, those who have left their villages to come to the cities face the "4 No's: no family, no career, no son, no daughter.” Many older migrants are already finding that they can no longer get even temporary jobs. As they age, the lack of stability and familial support becomes more critical. The result is a kind of suspended animation between their urban present and their village past. Even though their conditions are rapidly declining in the cities, they "can't go home again,” because their villages have become so degraded. In many such cases, there is no longer enough land to support the former farm population, especially after diversion of farmland to rural "development”—the very same situation that drove many into the migrant stream to begin with, and a process which, as with SOE "privatization,” is widely accompanied by corruption. In addition, environmental degradation, much of it the result of township industries and the adoption of more intensive pesticide/herbicide and artificial fertilizer based farming, has devastated many rural areas. In the home village of the activist we talked with and the surrounding region, the water is now too polluted to drink and the ponds are gone. The human devastation is equally profound. "All of the young people” migrate out and cannot take care of the older generation any more, many of whom even die of starvation, "after 1-2 weeks without food”—and this in a relatively "rich” area. Even if those who have left return home, "they come out again,” since there is no way for the village to support them today. The isolation of these returned migrants in the villages is not just financial, however. There is "no one in their age group to talk to” any more.

Just as with the urban working class, therefore, the conditions of the migrant population too are scrambling and disintegrating the generational supports that once underpinned Chinese society.
Among those who do remain in the urban areas, the toll of occupational diseases and other health problems is increasing, especially for the aging members of the migrant population. Without any medical benefits, and unable to afford private doctors, illnesses are very widespread among the migrants. Many have stomach ailments, the result of both poor nutrition and the stress of their overall life conditions. In 10 years time the situation will be even more dire, and many serious problems will emerge with the health of aging migrants who will not be able to eke out an existence or deal with their medical costs. Even for younger workers, however, occupational illnesses are developing—like in shoe factories, where they are constantly breathing in toxic fumes. Cancer is widespread, the result of pollution on the job as well as in the communities. Ten years from now those who are young today will also face worse health conditions and the effects of stress, which are already being felt. Thus Shenzhen, the heart of the Pearl River development region north of Hong Kong, is the "youngest” city by age, but the worst in health, with not only physical but mental problems becoming widespread. Workers quickly burn out under these conditions. Even three years in such zones is frequently enough to destroy the health of young workers, who leave, only to be replaced by others. But it is not just individuals who break down in these circumstances. Social policies also disintegrate. Thus with the dissolution of normal family life and the constant movement of single young persons around the country, such goals as the one child policy also dissolve under migrant conditions. The growing gap between the high number of males compared to females in China—among the most extreme such disproportion now found anywhere in the world—makes marriage out of reach for growing tens of millions of young men, and only further exacerbates the vicious cycle of familial instability for those who leave the farms and often work in sexually "segregated” factories or construction sights.

In this situation, migrants are even more vulnerable than most workers or peasants to being opportunistically exploited by those who claim to "help” them, including by the numerous new NGOs, both homegrown and foreign, that are rapidly expanding in China. Some of these were set up to "civilize” migrant peasant workers to the ways of city life. The ex-migrant activist we talked with had initially worked for an NGO that was formed by a leader of the Women's Federation, who had a maid herself, and after attending the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995 and seeing all the international operatives there, organized an agency to get money and teach female migrants "to be better maids, etc.,” and to "raise the quality of peasant women in the cities.” The Ford Foundation gave her $1 million in start up funds. Though ostensibly meant to serve those coming from the countryside, this NGO is basically just a glorified employment agency, charging for its services by deducting 2 months wages from those it helps to obtain jobs. While the head of the organization is hailed abroad and receives money from groups such as Oxfam, who push her foundation to "raise feminine consciousness,” in the view of the activist we talked with she is little more than a human trafficker. This NGO set up a hotline for migrant women, finds cases from the newspaper of their abuse, and tries to expose such conditions and get support and publicity for them, such as by arranging interviews with journalists. But sometimes this just results in "double injury,” as the added exposure only creates more problems for those who are singled out in public, and many of the cases are hyped up or even "invented” for the purposes of gaining media attention.

The migrants are therefore subject to manipulation and exploitation not only by their employers and local officials, but even by those from the new Chinese professional stratum who claim to be helping them, and who are increasingly well paid in return for often meager results. The NGO with which the activist we talked to worked only won one case, with a U.S.-trained lawyer assisting, in which an employer was ordered to pay Y5,000 in compensation for beatings, etc. But the owner ran away to Canada, and there is no way to collect. A rape case was also publicized, but the police dismissed it, after claiming that there was not enough evidence. The NGO organizes seminars on laws, and some migrants take a little time off to attend, but quickly lose interest. Others are held up publically as "models.” For example, migrants who do volunteer work to "beautify” Beijing were referred to as "little birds” and became celebrities. The NGO also tried to "sell” the activist we talked to as a success, but she realized she was being degraded by this kind of treatment—and only escaped because she "married a Beijing guy,” a local worker. She left the organization because she believed that it did not serve the real needs of those it claimed to assist, and was too subservient to the foreign foundations providing it with money. She is now helping migrant women to self-organize and support their own interests—the only way that they will be able to overcome the deepening crisis of their conditions and the exploitation that they suffer.

While these exploitative relationships have been developing over the past two decades, there is a new and growing level of conscious and organized resistance to them by migrants. The migrant population continues to include many recent and/or short term workers who do not have high consciousness and come to the cities with "dreams and illusions” about "making it.” But increasingly, those who have been in the urban centers longer are now refusing to accept the brutal working and living conditions to which they are subjected. Strikes, some of them involving thousands of workers and lasting weeks, are now a common occurrence in the coastal export regions, where most of the labor is provided by the migrant workers. Some of these actions are over the right to form a trade union in foreign owned plants, others are over the basic demands for better wages paid on time, shorter hours or at least the payment of overtime, and improvements in the quality of housing, medical care, etc. Even more significant, in some respects, is the large scale decision of many migrants in the last year or so to "vote with their feet” by leaving the southern coastal area altogether, either moving inland to new factories being built in the Chinese heartland, or even going back to their home villages. As a young intellectual and migrant activist, who also came originally from a peasant family explained, in part this is a delayed reaction to the worsening exploitation that followed the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Though China largely buffered itself from the direct effects of this collapse, they still spilled over indirectly on the working classes. Those who had invested on the mainland from areas affected by the crisis—including Hong Kong and Taiwan—tried to salvage their situation by reducing pay to their Chinese work force. As a result, wages were cut by one-fifth, especially in the factories owned by Korean and other Asian investors—who are widely considered to treat their employees the worst of all—leading to a growing refusal among migrant workers to accept such exploitative conditions.

This "push” for migrants to walk away from the factories of the southern coastal area was magnified by the "pull” to move to inland cities closer to their home villages. It is very expensive to go to Guangdong, and even further from the families that they leave behind. As a young member of the "new middle class” in Zhengzhou explained, today it is also hard to get migrants to work in Shenzhen, because now the minimum wage for labor is more or less equal across the entire country. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, which may force coastal employers to raise wages, and/or to move their investments further inland. With the south and east coasts now facing competition for the migrant work force from the newer centers of production rising in the interior of the country, and with farm conditions slightly improved in the last couple of years, the employers in the coastal export regions therefore find themselves under pressure to pay higher wages than before. But despite some movement in this direction, beginning from around the summer of 2004, they have nevertheless been faced for the first time with a significant labor shortage. This newfound leverage of migrant workers, combined with their growing consciousness of the exploitation they face and experience in their own self-organization, has begun to change the power relationship between them and the owners. As a result, the migrant stream can no longer be counted on to flow only in one direction, or to be made up of pliable and inexperienced young workers, who will accept whatever they are offered. Increasingly, it is becoming a class conscious segment of the work force, who act to defend their own interests in the cities, and carry new ideas back with them to the villages. This has potentially long lasting consequences for the unity of the working classes as a whole in China, linking rural and urban areas in newly forged bonds of both consciousness and action. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to exaggerate how far this has developed up until now, given the barriers that still divide peasants and workers.


Like the urban proletariat and the migrant work force, the Chinese peasantry—still the great majority of the population—face increasingly dire conditions as a result of the "marketization” and "globalization” of the economy, and they are responding in new and different ways. Key to these changes is the realization by growing numbers of those still working the land, that they can no longer survive in the global market as isolated individual producers—the "model” of the "family responsibility system” that had been imposed by Deng Xiaoping, after dissolution of the collective agricultural communes of the socialist era under Mao. But as with the urban worker and migrant segments of the work force, peasants are also experiencing complex changes pulling them in more than one direction at the same time, with a higher level of consciousness of their conditions and of mobilizations to confront them. Here too, the situation is the consequence of both objective economic developments and changes in governmental policies, and a subjective awareness of their newly transformed relations, not only to the internal Chinese market, but to global capitalist forces as well, as the country continues to "open up” through trade agreements and expanding foreign investments. Discussions with peasants, and with activists who are working with them, make clear that the outflow of migrants from export zones of the south in the summer of 2004 and beyond—which was a striking measure of the heightened resistance to their exploitation there—was also a result of the changing conditions for those still back in their home villages, as there was at least a temporary improvement in the overall situation of the rural areas that year, providing some of the impetus for the reverse migrant flow. On the other hand, the condition of the peasantry as a whole was still worsening in its longer term relationship to the urban centers and to global economic forces, which threatened to overwhelm any immediate relief which some of them were experiencing. A brief review of the "rise and fall” of the reform era peasant economy makes this contradictory duality of both gains and losses clear.

In the immediate aftermath of the breakup of the communes beginning in the early 1980s—which put into place the "family responsibility system” of individually contracted plots of land to work—the incomes of many peasants began to grow. Though often attributed—not only by "reformers” around Deng Xiaoping, but by many analysts in the West as well—to a spirit of private "entrepreneurship” by the newly "liberated” farmers, the increase in the wellbeing of some of the peasantry resulted more directly from higher prices paid for their crops by the central government, as well as the ability to benefit from the takeover without cost of the agricultural infrastructure built up over decades of collective effort. As one organizer put it, after the breakup of the communes beginning around 1983 there was a "dissipation of public assets, which were split up, with no supervision, but plenty of bribes. As a result, a great public accumulation was lost.” Nevertheless, for many peasants the 1980s were a relatively good time, when "grain production rose and income went up. The reforms gave people enough to eat, some goods, and men could marry.” Also contributing to the rural economic advance in this period were township enterprises, which absorbed much of the excess labor in the countryside, and similarly benefitted from the groundwork laid during the socialist era under Mao Zedong—part of the legacy of the attempt at rural industrialization during the Great Leap Forward of 1957-60, though today that campaign is dismissively treated as nothing but a foolish disaster. As many peasants began to leave to work in the cities, more money also flowed into the rural areas, while the number of mouths left behind to feed was reduced at the same time. These developments led to a growth of income, most obviously shown by the new houses being built by peasants in many parts of the country, though even here there was a widening polarization, with those families less favored by circumstances falling behind, and those without resources left stranded by the collapse of collective social services. As one old peasant we met with put it, "If peasants were part of a small family there was not much gain from 'family responsibility,' if it was bigger they actually saw some improvement in income growth relative to the cities.”

By the 1990s, however, each of the factors contributing to the gradual rise in the incomes of many of the peasantry had run up against serious limitations of the "reform” policies. As China moved ever more relentlessly into a "market” economy, the advances which initially accrued to the countryside rapidly began to disappear. First and foremost was the ever wider gap which developed between the value of farm products grown by the peasants, and the rising cost of the inputs from urban industries needed to sustain their higher levels of output. In large measure, the growth in production in the early reform period was fueled by a switch to the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides/herbicides, which could only be obtained in the marketplace. As a result, a growing dependence on industrial products from the cities, as well as on consumer goods never—or at least no longer—produced in the villages, meant that peasants, while gaining more access to items which they had previously lacked or could not afford, such as a wider variety of foods and better clothing, became ever more vulnerable to the "scissors” of rural/urban price inequalities which, despite the expansion of the "free market,” are still heavily impacted by official policies, including government grain purchases. No longer able to rely on the conversion of collectively developed resources from the socialist era to provide them with private "capital,” as in the initial stage of the reforms, peasant farmers found it increasingly difficult to finance improvements, or even their daily expenses, relying instead of funds borrowed from state owned banks, credit coops, or even their better off neighbors. At the same time, as a result of the rapid widening of the market economy, township enterprises—which had commonly been set up as collectives run by villagers themselves, primarily to meet the needs of their own local or regional communities—now had to compete with the lower cost production of urban enterprises, and even of foreign multinationals, and were increasing forced in turn to sell on a national scale. Many ran into economic difficulties, and either folded or were sold off and privatized—or were seized, frequently with the usual corruption, by officials and/or the stronger families in the villages—thereby reducing the "escape valve” that they had once offered to the surplus rural population.

As a result, though the "reforms” initially brought a narrowing of the gap between the peasants and urban dwellers, the 1990s saw a rapid widening, especially as even city incomes became more polarized. Particularly after 1997, on average peasant incomes once again began to fall further behind those in the cities. At the same time, with the dismantling of the rural communes, the collapse of free health care and schools, as well as of the infrastructure of collectively maintained irrigation and other environmentally critical systems, began to eat away at the wellbeing of even better off peasants. Forced to buy formerly public services in the private marketplace, and with the productive capacity of their farms being reduced by pollution of water systems and the land itself, peasant families increasingly found themselves unable not only to grow food, but to stay healthy or educate their children. Rampant corruption at the local level, including exorbitant taxes and fees, and the selling off of land for often dubious "development” projects with little or no compensation to the villagers, added to a rapid heightening of exploitation. By the late 1990s, and especially after the turn of the century, these conditions reached a boiling point, leading to widespread demonstrations, some of them violent, in the rural areas. With the situation in the countryside becoming explosive, the new leadership of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao tried to address some of the most immediate causes of the rural crisis. By late 2004, they had brought some relief to the peasants, in the form of a move to eliminate the 5% national tax on farmers and a gradual reduction of other legal charges set by local officials, together with a rise in the price for grain sold to the state, a crackdown on the wide variety of extremely onerous illegal taxes and fees, and efforts to prevent the corrupt selloff of farmland for "development.”

These policies did have an effect. Peasant incomes stabilized and even rose in many parts of the country, and there was a sense that the rural situation was once again improving. This at least temporary uptick in the situation of the peasantry was a major factor in the decision of many migrants to return to their villages, rather than to continue to suffer extreme forms of exploitation in the export factories of Guangdong and the other coastal areas. For the moment, it seems, "going home again” has once more become a viable option. But despite the new sense of possibility which some peasants and migrants might now be feeling, the underlying longterm crisis in the countryside not only has not ended, but is continuing to deepen because of factors far beyond those addressed by the recent ameliorative policies of the central government. It is not so much the immediate causes of the dire economic conditions of the peasantry that most need addressing—such as by the lowering of taxes and fees, or by the raising of crop subsidies—however much such efforts may relieve some of the more exploitative aspects of their situation. Rather, it is the ever more helpless position of the individual Chinese farmer in the face of the global capitalist market that lies at the root of the declining situation of the peasants. The small scale of the "family responsibility system” scatters each peasant farm, limiting its potential ability to specialize its production for the marketplace, by focusing on growing only the best and highest quality crops or animals for each area. To process such produce requires storage, wrapping and other methods and facilities for which these mainly tiny farms lack the needed resources. Such enterprises are beyond the individual means of the farmers, so that, without larger scale organization, their market position is very weak.
The consequence of these changed conditions for the peasantry is a growing sense that left each to their own they will fail, and their turn once again, therefore, at least part of the way, toward the collective efforts that they practiced during the socialist era. This higher level of awareness and organization in the countryside is apparent in an expanding movement for cooperatives among the peasants, the primary "new thing” that has been developing there over the past few years. We met with some of those organizing coops, both participating villagers and the activists helping them, outside of Beijing and in the Northeast. The basic problem that these cooperatives are attempting to address is that the peasants have to borrow to buy seed, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, etc., and then sell their crops at what is often a very narrow or even negative margin. With too many areas of production and distribution to cover individually, they are overpowered by market forces, and cannot profit from their own labor. As a result, a surplus is exacted from them, with which they support the cities, by consuming 30 percent of their grain themselves and selling 70 percent at unfavorable prices to the urban areas. Since this relationship is increasingly nonviable, villages in Henan, of which Zhengzhou is the capital, are now based on a "non-intensive labor” form of production. They send their young men out to the cities as migrants, and use large inputs of pesticides, fertilizers, etc.—but not very much labor, and even that is mainly of the old and children. If prices are high enough they get a small margin. If not, they just break even or actually lose—in which case they could buy more rice with the money used for inputs than they make from production. They cannot survive economically without outside help, which primarily takes the form of sending the young and healthy of both sexes to the cities. Despite the famous slogan of Deng Xiaoping, most such individual families cannot "get rich.” On the contrary, their incomes stagnate and they lose incentive. The market forces are now too powerful, and the negative consequences hit each family by itself, and then the next one, without any help, adding up to misery in the Chinese countryside. They are like "potatoes in a sack,” as one of those we talked with described their situation.

It is, in other words, the very "family responsibility system,” the original policy foundation of the Deng Xiaoping "reforms,” that is now at the heart of the rural crisis. The market today is too strong, and most individual peasants cannot survive in it. This inability of small peasant farms—which generally only measure a handful of acres—to compete with imported grains, and even processed food products such as chickens, from U.S. and other multinational megafarms and from the urban industrial centers, has only been exacerbated by the recent entry of China into the WTO and the relentless "opening up” of the country to the full effects of its injection into a global economic system that favors integrated large scale production. Despite its rapid overall growth, the Chinese economy is relatively still very weak in its ability to compete globally in the agricultural area, where it is at the bottom of the international commodity chains. Trade agreements are aggravating the negative conditions and divisions among the peasants themselves, with those near the cities or transport lines able to specialize on "green” products or other specialized crops, while those further away from major internal or external markets are barely able to survive, if at all. With all the world increasingly subject to the same rules, the WTO therefore represents a very heavy new pressure and challenge, with only a few of the Chinese products able to compete. According to one activist, soybean production in the Northeast has already been largely wiped out, though the new agreement has only just recently been put into effect. The resources necessary to reverse this situation do not exist, as investment flows primarily to the urban areas, export industries and real estate and other "quick profit” sectors, leaving more and more peasants effectively stranded.

It is in this situation that the new movement toward peasant cooperatives has made a tentative start. These are not a return to the socialist communes of the Mao era, but efforts to buffer Chinese peasants against the global capitalist market by collectively organizing their purchasing and marketing needs, providing more favorable access to loans for daily operations, financing common development projects, and offering a small but critical "safety net” against individual misfortunes. One of those belonging to a coop that we met with near Siping in the Northeast, told how he had bought 40 pigs when he first became a member, but they all died. As a result, he had no recourse and ran out of financial resources, as neither the government run credit union nor any private lenders would help him. If he had not been in the coop, he would have been in a very difficult situation, the kind that wipes out individual farmers across China on a daily basis. But the coop did help, and lent him Y60,000, enough that he could expand his production to 120 pigs, which he sold in 94 days, netting Y14,000 after the loan. Now he is considered among the most successful and reliable of its members. Another member said that in one year in the coop he earned the equivalent of what he had made in the previous 20, and that there are many such cases already. Though raised collectively, the animals remain the private property of participating coop members. Thus while each farmer still controls their own inputs, and many continue to raise some pigs individually without putting them into the collective—either for their own consumption or to sell privately on the market—the coops pull together land, labor power, the purchasing of supplies and the marketing of products in a more ordered relationship, with the peasants themselves as active "players” in determining their own conditions. Without this, it is not possible to resolve the new problems of their participation in the global market place with any security.

The coops also allow rapid but orderly expansion. The one that we visited has 36 families now, with others applying. It was founded in late 2001, and registered in 2003. It already has a dozen large shed-type buildings in which the members raise 4,000 pigs per "cycle,” and was also building a small processing plant that cuts the cost of feed by 70 percent, and keeps quality even. It not only saves labor, but yields better animal weight, raising the profit per pig by about 50 percent. The coop members have also designed a biogas system, using manure as its fuel, with pipes to each house, replacing electricity for some purposes. It solves the pollution problem, and the leftover residue from the process makes excellent fertilizer. The coop gives technical training to its members, provides vaccinations for animals, and guarantees loans from the credit union. Both the internal and external scale of operations is projected for expansion, with the present membership drawing in new ones, and serving those outside at market cost until they join. The hope is to have 3,000 households in the regional coop movement. They are trying to set up about 3 to 4 per township for a total of some 75 to 100 coops in a network, each with around 30-40 households. One activist described the movement as a "prairie fire,” with almost unlimited possibility for expansion, given the 900,000,000 rural Chinese—some one-sixth of all the people in the world—to draw on. These coops constitute a kind of "half-way house” between individual production and full collectivization, resembling the "mutual aid teams” of the early period of land reform—as described by Bill Hinton in Fanshen—that preceded the communes set up during the Great Leap Forward. As in the early stages of that movement, there is still a reluctance by some peasants to turn over all of their assets to collective management and control, for instance by investing directly in a credit coop, rather than just having it guarantee their loans. But the results of mutually assisting each other are very clear, and people can see directly the outcome, saying "I help you, you help me, we help each other, in the end we are helping ourselves.”

The coops are run by boards chosen by the members themselves, and vary in composition. The one that we visited had just one woman among its seven elected leaders—and even she did not attend the meeting with us. But another coop described to us reserves 30 percent of the seats on its board for women. Winning overall equality for their participation is an ongoing struggle. Though the coop gave one vote to each family, originally it listed only men as the heads of households. But after many women started coming to the meetings, the policy was adjusted. In running their own affairs, members of the coop that we visited explained that their greatest lack was trained personnel, such as accountants, marketing specialists, and so forth, but they are receiving support from regional governments and from academics not only in the surrounding area, but even at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. All levels of government up to the province also have environmental offices that are giving technical assistance, and a local conference was planned to further advance such cooperation. The new coops, however, differ from region to region, with those in the South more specialized and even less fully "collectivized” than those in the Northeast. Even the latter in general have not addressed the provision of education and health care that the communes once did. At present the resources are too limited to take on other areas, so the focus for now is just economic. Peasants already spend a lot of their time in meetings etc. just to deal with this. However, in the Siping area coop there is also a health/education project, with 36 members in it, in which savings are "pooled” partly for those purposes. Though each family has its own account set aside, which is limited by what it can be used for, it is not a true cooperative.

There is also one small "study coop” with just 10 families, which can serve as a model for others by supplementing the lack of free schooling under the "reforms” and overcoming the post-1983 sense of "disassociation” among the peasantry. It is the first such collective effort in the region since the communes, and is an effective way to spread education because it is not just a "school,” but is related to their work, community, and the coop itself. Both old and young are involved in study sessions, with documents and presentations about the coops, market techniques, etc. as the subjects. It is a way to learn while also working, arrange visits to industrial enterprises to study their methods, and generally meet the need to raise the educational and cultural level. More broadly, as the head of the coop we visited explained, the movement as a whole not only increases the income of its members. It is a "big school” which raises consciousness, education, literacy, and culture. Members learn to write papers, and raise their technical level. It also serves to reduce social tensions. At first the peasants spent their spare time on playing mahjong, etc. But now they devote it to coop matters, discussions, meetings, self-education—a complete consciousness change and cooperative spirit—which also helps to mediate their relationships with the government. Yet so far there is a lack of the sufficient political and legal environment and of support policies to allow the movement to reach its full potential. It is coming and accelerating, but it is also hard to carry out successfully everywhere—regardless of whether the region is rich or poor—a problem faced also by the communes. Overall, there is a no social consensus regarding the means to solve the rural problem. There is a strong desire by the farmers to cooperate, but little of a "culture” to do so. Experts and government policy makers are confused about how to deal with the rural crisis, but the answer, say those who we talked with, lies in the promotion of economic democracy and grassroots action by the peasants themselves. The coops are "like seedlings” that have sprouted, that are hoping now for the "rain.”

Both the strengths and weaknesses of this "half-collectivization” are apparent, as was also the case in the early land reform era. This accounts, in part, for the conflicting attitudes that coop members have toward the past. Many peasants still have positive memories of the communes. As one old peasant put it, under Mao everyone was equal and it was "not so ugly,” with the division into classes, and "some so high, and others so low.” Many of them remember him fondly. But this kind of nostalgia for the communes varies from one region to the next, partly depending on how much land peasants have and their economic situation today. As the activist working with the coop we visited said, "when the peasant farmers are feeling bitter” about their circumstances now, they are sentimental about the earlier period, but rationally they are more resistant. Many have partly negative remembrances of the communes as too tightly controlled, and see the coops as more voluntary and allowing greater room for individual initiative, democratic control and transparency, and the ability to flexibly address needs as they arise. What is needed now is a "culture” of cooperation, which is reviving because peasants realize the value of organization in order to survive in the face of the market.

But even now, as they are just getting going, the coops are already facing their own difficulties. Their resources are limited, and since the peasants are reluctant to invest in credit markets for fear of the risk and a potential loss of their savings this, in turn, leaves them still dependent on the government, and its shifting policies, for their funding. But the deeper contradiction is that even the new coops already face the same problem of "market competition” as do individual families. They must still compete with each other, as well as with outside producers and distributors, including foreign multinationals. As one activist analyzed it, much of their early success has come from the "comparative advantage” of cooperative buying and marketing in an economic system that is still largely based on the individualism of the "family responsibility” system. But as the coop movement itself spreads, such relative advantages will be lost. If "everyone” does it, no single unit will be able to compete better than any other, and even the efficiencies of scale will lose much of their value. In effect, the new coops are basically just competing with other peasants, and especially with those who are not yet in cooperatives—not with the global market. The forces there are too large for such small Chinese units, even when they are partially collectivized, to hold their own for long. The underlying dilemma, therefore, is the capitalist "market” itself, with its inequality of sales to urban centers, and dependence on global products and finances. Unless the peasants recreate—albeit with new elements—the more truly communal form of production and consumption they formerly had, with large scale organizational levels bringing together tens of thousands of farmers, greater regional self-sufficiency, exchange of agricultural and industrial products within the rural areas themselves as well as with the cities, and the collective provision of social services, they will continue to be ever more subject to the whim of forces over which they have no effective control. But this return to larger scale communalization would require China turning once again from the "capitalist road,” and back onto the path to socialism that was the original goal of the revolution under Mao.

The "New Middle Class”

The forces buffeting the urban workers, migrants and peasants farmers are being felt with equal strength by the new urban "middle class” and by intellectuals who, as a whole, have been the main mass beneficiaries of the "reforms.” Over the past decade and a half, but especially since the late 1990s, a newer stratum of academics, professionals and managers has arisen in China, who are increasingly interwoven with and resemble in both lifestyle and attitudes their global peers. They are centered in government offices and the universities, as well as in private enterprises and the NGOs, both domestic and foreign, that are springing up across China. The homes of those who have made it into this new stratum—a few now are even buying second suburban apartments to supplement their main urban residences—are, year by year, more attractively furnished, filled with electronics and other upper end consumer goods, supplied with food from supermarkets and "convenience” groceries, and linked through computer technology to the rest of China and the outside world. Their children, much like their peers in the West and in Japan, are growing up with the expectation of being able to carry into the next generation the careers and lifestyle now enjoyed by their parents. But the most obvious visual symbol of the rise of this new urban "middle class” is the explosion of private cars—virtually all of them very late model because of the recentness of this phenomenon—that not only add enormously to the already horrendous traffic and pollution in even smaller cities, but increasingly take up every available space on university campuses and areas surrounding highrise apartment complexes, and more and more are pushing off the streets the once ubiquitous bicycles, which are now sometimes banned on major thoroughfares.
This newly arisen intermediate stratum is nevertheless as polarized, subject to the stresses of "globalization,” and increasingly expressive of discontents as are the less well off laboring classes. In part, this is the result of the "opening up” of the higher education system to ever broader segments of the population. Across China, universities and other educational institutions are expanding and consolidating as rapidly as are other sectors, with absorption of smaller units by larger ones being promoted as a way to compete with the outside world. The independent science and technology university where I taught in 1993-94, typical of this consolidation, has now been made just another branch of the provincial system, and its old and low buildings are being torn down to make way for soaring office, classroom and housing units, while an entire second campus, complete with a fancy multistory hotel, is already well along in construction. Many new private colleges have sprung up, admitting those, in particular, who do not make it into the public ones, but have the money to pay for alternative schooling. Largely as a result of this enormous expansion, the access to institutions of higher education has become much easier, and it is now possible for much larger numbers of the children of workers and peasants to attend. As one student who is studying in Britain and was back home for the summer break explained, before only some 10 percent of middle school—the equivalent of U.S. high school—students could go to university, but now a large majority can do so. According to him "anyone,” rural as well as urban, can go if they pass the exam, though since a large proportion of young Chinese still never make it past primary school, the overall percentage who get to the top of the education system still remains relatively small. Nevertheless, now any worker or peasant family who can afford it, may have a child going to university. This, in turn, has opened up new opportunities for a much wider stratum of the working classes to attend, reducing the previous disproportionate weighting of the student bodies of the universities toward those from professional and cadre families—the pattern that the Cultural Revolution tried, with only partial success, to reverse in the 1960-70s.

With these expanded opportunities, however, have also come new generational divisions and class struggles. This was made apparent to me on the streets of Changchun, in Jilin Province in the Northeast, where I taught for four months in 1993-94, and which I have revisited at five year intervals since. During our initial stay at the university there, we were struck by the complete absence of any of the signs of the social and economic dislocation that were already becoming apparent in other parts of China, and that are so common even in the United States—homelessness, begging, and the unemployed seeking work on the streets. The "reforms” had not yet reached deeply into Changchun at that time, and the factories and universities still operated along the lines of full employment and benefits of the socialist era. On a return trip in 1999, however, the most striking change were the groups of laid off workers from the SOEs "shaping up”on one street corner after another, the same way they do in front of the lumberyard in the downtown area of the small California city where I now live, rushing to every car or truck that pulls up to the curb to see if they can hire out on a temporary day job. By the time of my next return visit in 2004, however, the number of such unemployed laborers in Changchun seemed somewhat fewer and more dispersed—many just sit on the sidewalks with a cardboard poster that states their particular skills, while other have found new lower paying jobs or drifted off into other types of activity. But this time they had been joined, or even "replaced,” by a new set of those seeking work on the streets. Outside of a large department store a few blocks from the university, as many as 60 young college students at a time were lined up, standing quietly all day in the hot summer sun, each holding a small sign advertising the academic fields which they were prepared to tutor. Once in a while, the family of a middle school student would stop by and bargain with those in the line—but as with workers in the "shape up,” the "customers” were few and far between. As one student that I talked with explained, it is "very hard, because there are too many trying.” I later saw students outside a teachers college where I was staying, sitting at a row of tables, serving as agents in a similar hiring process for those on their campus. The young students I talked with said that there are many places in the city with the same kinds of gatherings and "hiring out” operations. Later, a former student of mine now teaching in Dalian, the coastal city an overnight train ride south of Changchun, told me that the identical conditions are now widespread there as well. This phenomenon of even college students having to "shape up” results from the very high costs of obtaining a university degree today, a change from the educational policies of the socialist era. When we first taught in China in 1993-94, all education in universities was essentially free, up to and including graduate school. Many of our students, especially those doing graduate work in science and technology, had jobs in enterprises, but these were connected to their studies—some would even leave in the middle of the semester to rejoin their work unit for a week or two before returning to class. Today, the situation is very different, with those from the working classes in particular having to hustle on the streets in order to pay for their university education. To help earn enough for college, many of these students have themselves been reduced to an increasingly proletarianized condition, despite some scholarships from the schools and government programs, including a reduction in tuition fees, offering them limited support,. One student explained that in her department, total costs are Y6,000 per year—the equivalent of some $3,000 for a four-year degree—an enormous amount, especially for those from the rural areas, where incomes still hover in the low hundreds of yuan annually. Many of the students therefore give up their summer vacations, and the chance to be with their own families or help them with their work, in order to stay in the cities and earn money. But the situation is, if anything, even worse once they leave school. A constant refrain both from students themselves and their older peers is that the job market for recent graduates is terrible and getting worse. Many more are graduating now, but there are fewer openings, and competition is growing for those positions, so that it is very hard to find work today—in contrast to the socialist period, when those who graduated from college were guaranteed jobs. One activist stated that in Henan province alone, there are now 30,000 graduates without work.

But just as with the working classes, these new conditions for students have an age dimension as well. As my former student in Dalian explained, for her cohort—the first generation that grew up entirely during the "reform” period—it was not hard to find work after graduation, as the number of those attending college was relatively small, the government still guaranteed positions for any who wanted jobs in the public sector, and the expanding "market” economy quickly absorbed the rest. For those graduating now, however, it is much more difficult. In effect, the government today is creating among the more highly educated the same kind of "reserve army of labor” that it has already put into place for peasants, migrants and urban proletarians—a situation similar to that found in India, with its legions of unemployed university graduates, providing a massive pool of those having advanced schooling, but very low pay scales, the basis for global hightech "outsourcing.” Even for many in the first "reform” cohort of those with higher education degrees, however, who already enjoy some of the privileges of the "new middle class” and are gradually advancing in their careers, the situation is becoming more difficult and stressful. My former student complained that for her too, life and work have become much more rushed. Things used to not be so hurried, but the constant striving to "keep up”—so familiar to her class peers in the United States today—is taking a heavy toll. As she explained it, the generation of her parents saw most people as quite equal in their economic conditions, but now there is a very great division, with some doing better, and many losing out, putting growing pressure on her age group as well. As for the younger students just starting out, they are both better informed and more independent—in part because of the one-child policy—than those she grew up among, but they are also more self-centered, with less sense of either social or familial responsibility. Some are selfish, thinking only of themselves and their own advancement, which is different from her generation, who had more siblings and extended family relationships.

The result is an increasingly sharp generational divide. The older generation of academics and intellectuals, who were already established in their careers before the "reforms,” have often been able to prosper quite well in the current "market” economy, where their professional skills are in high demand. A significant number of younger members of the "new middle class” are also prospering, with jobs in the universities, government offices, NGOs and the private economy. Friends of my former student in Dalian, who belong to the same generation as her, drive a late model SUV—which they use to take vacation trips up to the mountains—comparable to any owned by their better off peers in the United States. But for those starting out now, the path to "getting rich” will be much more difficult. These changes and divisions are affecting the situation of the "new middle class” as a whole. Even as their numbers expand—estimates are as high as 200 million, or a sixth of the population—their conditions are rapidly being altered. As one intellectual and activist noted, even among the more educated, it is now already necessary to have two jobs per family in order to "make it.” In his view, the entire "new middle class” is declining, not only in its overall life and work conditions, but even in its relevance. It is not a decisive factor in the conflict of classes, because it is those at the top and the bottom of the society who form the basic and growing contradiction in China today. With the class struggle heating up, the intermediate strata are finding themselves squeezed between the two main forces—the expanding ranks of capitalists on the one side, and the hundreds of millions of workers, migrants and peasants, many of them falling into deepening poverty, on the other. As the country polarizes, those in the middle are being pulled apart as well, in their economic and social conditions. As a result, their consciousness is also being raised, not only of their own precarious situation, but of the strains ripping at the society around them, an awareness that, potentially at least, brings them more in line with the great majority of the working classes.
Conflict and Unity

On the surface, at least, it would seem that the converging conditions of urban workers, migrants, and peasants—and even many members of the "new middle class”—would provide the basis for a broad unity of struggle against those who are exploiting them under the capitalist "market reforms” and "opening up” to global economic forces. But as in similar situations in the United States and elsewhere around the world, the unification of the working classes is more easily conceived in theory than realized in practice. Old prejudices, especially the low esteem in which many urban Chinese hold the peasantry, die hard, compounded by new forms of competition brought about by the massive migration from rural areas to the cities, and manipulation by those in power, who use the time tried methods of "divide and conquer” to set each group against the others. As an example, when asked whether Beijing workers feel that migrants are taking their jobs, one activist we spoke with answered, "Yes, especially among those who are laid off, there is some such feeling.” Many of them look down on the migrant population. During the cleanup from a major storm, some urban workers remarked, "that is the kind of work the migrants are here to do, they never see any money at home.” The feelings, however, are mutual. Migrants, in their turn, say similar things, such as, "that one deserves to be Xiagang.” In a pattern all too familiar from the United States—where race and ethnicity as well as immigrant status enter into the "mix”—government attempts to help migrants get back pay and the other rights they deserve, are seen by some workers as "favoritism.” The media plays on this division and promotes such attitudes—that a migrant is willing to work for "nothing” versus an urban proletarian wanting to take jobs with foreigners—and tries to get those who are Xiagang to imitate the migrants, leading to resentment of them.

The sharpness of these divisions was made evident by the experience of workers in the Zhengzhou electrical transmission equipment factory. There, as the enterprise was being sold off and broken up, the police made night arrests of protesters, and broke in and took away machinery—"worse than a robbery”—like thieves. But they also brought in peasants at Y50 a day to haul out the equipment. The result was a long struggle. In part to avoid the public reaction to the city using police to do its own "dirty work,” peasants were hired as thugs, wearing helmets and using weapons to beat the workers. Some 30 trucks with 500 peasant "scabs” were brought in, an example of what happened all over Zhengzhou. Those who were working in the factory rang a bell—"everyone came out”—leading to a four hour battle of peasants versus workers, on July 24, 2001. The latter won that day, as other factories turned out to help—as many as 40,000 altogether. Though eight workers were arrested for "destroying property,” they also had legal help and the capitalists lost again—"our laws, Mao's laws” were upheld. There were so many people that the government was afraid. But the capitalists put on pressure, workers were arrested again, this time by public security police to bypass the courts, and there was a ten day fight with the peasants. In this way, they used peasant "enforcers” to push the workers out from the factory, and sold off everything right away, dismissing 5,600. Then they tore the buildings down, including worker housing, and gave the land to a private developer, who built a store and upscale homes. Now everyone is afraid to continue struggling, without work or housing. The police at times become goons themselves, taking off their uniforms, and acting more like a gang that is protecting the capitalist owners, even using knives. At a pottery plant a mob almost beat a leader of the workers to death, but the authorities let it happen, and ignored complaints afterward.

In this way, police and other government agencies not only directly attack and repress those who work in the SOEs, but pit the various segments of the working classes against each other. Despite the need for unity, such experiences make it very difficult to overcome the already existing prejudices and divisions. As one worker activist from the electrical equipment company said, "Peasants and workers should be one family—we had to fight them, but we should work together.” Those on the opposing sides act in their short term interests. At the plant, even the head of the police said he did not want to do what he did, but was under pressure. One worker said to him that "he is just like a dog.” He answered, "Yes, but if I do not bite you now, they will skin me.” The replacement of SOEs with privatized "development” compounds the divisions. What new factories are being built in the region mostly get their workers from the countryside, with very low wages, and no housing or benefits. Moreover, as one worker put it, unlike the United States, those who are laid off from the SOEs in China cannot even get service jobs, as it is peasants who are used for that, since they are cheap and easy to control—though, of course, the employment of immigrants, many of them undocumented, does often play this same role in U.S. services as well. Despite a desire to work together, therefore, such conditions lead inevitably to resentment between segments of the working classes.

In spite of such divisions and conflicts, efforts are expanding to bring about a higher level of unity among wider segments of the urban workers themselves, and closer ties between them and both the peasants who are still on the farms and those who are migrants to the cities. As the demonstrations around the Zhengzhou paper, textile and electrical transmission equipment plants, and the taxi strike in that city indicate, workers in many enterprises and sectors, as well as community members, have at times turned out in support of those opposing privatization, the loss of jobs and benefits, or higher taxes and fees. Nevertheless, the more common pattern throughout China is for those working at individual factories to have to confront their employers and the government officials associated with them on their own. Frequently, these confrontations—which may include such actions as laying down on railroad tracks and blocking highways, or surrounding and occupying offices, and otherwise shutting down "business as usual” for the city—end with small onetime payments to the affected workers, by no means sufficient to provide them any long term support, but enough to pacify their immediate demand for some kind of relief. In an attempt to get beyond this relatively isolated form of struggle, which has in most cases proved inadequate to halt the overall march of privatization, unemployment and lost services and securities, workers from the different enterprises in Zhengzhou are beginning to link up. In Kaifeng too, workers have expressed the need for greater unity in order to succeed. Only recently, those from the different factories—both the many who have already lost their jobs, and the few still currently employed—have started to get together, holding meetings with representatives from each of the enterprises, and joint protests drawing participants from all of them. The activists we talked with there were planning a big demonstration of workers from all the factories in the city in September.

But prospects for such united action are uncertain. There are many remaining divisions within the urban proletariat—economic, generational and even political—with some more supportive of the "reforms” and the government, and others holding to the socialist perspective. Even a Zhengzhou park in the middle of a working class district that we visited is divided physically between "right” and "left” groupings of workers and retirees, with the former dominating certain areas, especially during the daylight hours, and the latter more prevalent in other parts, particularly at night. As we experienced when we briefly stopped to talk with some of the many who come there every day for relaxation, debates can get quite heated, and even vaguely threatening, at times. It is similar for the prospects of unity between the workers and peasants, with the migrants playing a kind of "inbetween” role. There is a desire to get together, but differences in both their conditions, and their treatment by the government, work against such higher levels of unification. Under the reforms, there has also been a partial reversal of fortunes. In both the cities and in the countryside, those we talked with stated that today, in a sharp contrast to the situation during the socialist era under Mao, some peasants are actually better off than many of the urban workers. They may still be poor and struggling for survival—the most impoverished peasant families remain the worst off of all—but at least they have a plot of land on which they can grow some food. For unskilled urban workers, however, especially those who have been dismissed, there is truly "nothing to lose”—they have been reduced once again to the classic proletarian condition, devoid of all access to the means of production, and literally left to starve without some kind of outside support. If they have an ill parent, or even a child for whom school fees have to be paid, their situation can be quite desperate. Only those with more skills or who are able to start some kind of small business are more equal to the peasants with their land.
As a result, unity in the actions of these two classes is also difficult to achieve. Frequently, protests and demonstrations occur almost simultaneously in both the cities and surrounding countryside. We heard of such parallel events in and around Zhengzhou and Kaifeng even during the short time while we were there. In the latter city, twenty workers had just been arrested at one factory, while peasants were also rising up and doing "bad activities,” with a protest the same day in the next county, where they broke things, damaged government buildings and blocked highways, because they had been cheated on land for a road. But there was no link between these virtually simultaneous events, and there have been no joint worker and peasant protests yet. Moreover, there are differences even in the forms of the state reaction to demonstrations by these two classes. City workers face a particularly strong repression by the local authorities, because their struggles are more visible to the public and disruptive of the urban seats of power, and because their actions directly challenge the very heart of the "reforms”—the privatizing of enterprises and the formation of the new capitalist class. As one worker put it, he and those like him are very angry, and they "need to get together, and 'rebel'—but unlike America they are not supposed to even say anything about their situation.” Still, they are "not afraid to die, since they have nothing”—and so will keep on struggling. Large scale labor actions are growing around the country, at times winning local victories, but often ending with arrest and imprisonment of the leaders. On the other hand, while on paper at least, the improvement of rural conditions is now official government policy, the crushing of peasant protests, when they occur, can be even more brutal, because they are largely "invisible,” unless the actions are on a large enough scale as to receive public notice—such as the killing of some 20 villagers in Dongzhou, Guangdong province, in December 2005, for protesting against inadequate compensation for land taken for a power plant. In spite of these divisions and barriers, there is a feeling that the working classes in the cities and the countryside may find ways soon to link up, with peasants becoming more and more angry, and their conditions converging with those of urban workers, while migrants age and face their own deteriorating situation. Activists working with all three class strata are trying to bring about the move toward unification, but it is a long and difficult process, that has only begun to bridge the gap between them.

The Return of the Left

The possibility for such higher levels of unity is favored by the presence among peasants, migrants, and especially the urban working class, of those with deep experience of the struggle for socialism in China and of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. This historical legacy has fundamental significance for the revival of the Chinese left today. As one former Red Guard in Zhengzhou put it, the understanding of a "two-line struggle,” a clear demarcation between the socialism of the revolution and the capitalism of the present, is now coming out primarily from the working classes themselves, and not mainly from the intellectuals. It takes the form in particular of anti-corruption—not only in the narrow sense of opposing financial malfeasance and bribes, though that is part of it, but as a broader attempt to block the alliance of state and party officials, managers and entrepreneurs from completely converting the means of production and socialist gains of the workers and peasants in the revolutionary era into the private property of the newly emergent capitalists. The theory, spirit and practice of the revolution are kept alive by activists, notably in Zhengzhou and other areas which were centers of the Communist movement going all the way back to the early 1920s. In that city, a double pagoda-like tower built in 1971 looms over the main downtown intersection, to commemorate the more than 100 workers killed in a Communist-led general strike on the Beijing-Hankou railway line in 1923. But the legacy of the Mao era is also kept alive there today, and the level of worker consciousness is very high, leading to the "two-line struggle.”

Among the more striking aspects that emerged from discussions with the workers in that city was the sense of entitlement that they felt in the factories where they used to work. Whatever the limits to the social ownership and participatory rights which the working class had in the SOEs—and which proved inadequate as safeguards against the Dengist "reform” expropriations—there is no question that they felt strongly that these plants were in some basic sense "theirs.” As one explained it, the electrical transmission equipment factory was "built by the sweat of workers,” and they did not want it taken by capitalists and privatized. It belonged to the whole nation, and was part of the collective economic accumulation of the entire working class. Under Mao, the workers also had some control over the factories, "could put in ideas and be listened to.” This reached its height during the Cultural Revolution. Then "they were the leaders, the working class represented itself at that time”—but now no one listens, and they have no power. Over and over again, these workers expressed their sense of disentitlement as a result of the effective stealing of their collective property, built up over a lifetime of labor, and of disenfranchisement from all of the participatory rights that they previously exercised. Putting these understandings in a more theoretical context, one Zhengzhou worker explained that the current system of "bureaucratic capital” is a political problem, not basically one of the economy—an analysis that could have come straight out of "What Is To Be Done?” by Lenin. "It looks economic on the surface, but it is really a struggle between capitalism and socialism,” primarily a question of politics. China, he said, is "not like the United States, where they never had socialism. Older workers understand this historical context. Most went through the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution. They experienced Mao Zedong Thought, and their generation wants to bring China back to 'Mao's road.' It is part of the international struggle to protect the socialist path.”

This worker would like the struggle of the Chinese working class, and why it is important for them to return again to the road to socialism, better understood in the West, because they are experienced and can help others to understand it. It is a long struggle. He hopes workers in China will slowly move back to this path, in which case they should eventually win. But he also issued a warning. If the current movement does not reach a higher level soon, younger workers will see it only as economic, as a struggle for "better conditions.” That is the legacy of the anti-socialist "reform” period, and the sayings of Deng Xiaoping—such as "to get rich is glorious.” These are ruining the understanding of the younger workers. "Most of them are afraid to even meet and discuss like this”—we heard these sentiments more than once expressed by the older workers. It is in part for this reason, that those who are still dedicated to keeping alive the struggle for socialism have found other ways to pass along their consciousness and experience, using cultural forms, and not just political and economic ones, to keep alive the legacy of the revolution and transfer it to new generations. In a corner of the park that we visited in the middle of a working class district in Zhengzhou, workers and their family members get together each night to sing the old revolutionary songs. On the weekday evening that we were there, a hundred or more—from older retirees to teenagers and even young children—took part in the very spirited singing, accompanied by a group of musicians, and led by a dynamic "conductor.” We were told that on weekends, "many times more” are often present, up to a thousand or so. As one of the workers who took us to the park put it, "The political meaning of this singing is to show our opposition to the Communist Party—what it has become—and to use Mao to confront it and to raise consciousness.”

This same historic spirit pervades the practical struggles in the city as well. When the paper mill strike began in 2000—still the "model” for resistance to privatization in this area—workers used "Cultural Revolution” methods, according to one activist, in forcing out the managers, seizing the factory, preventing the removal of equipment, and instituting worker control. As their leader explained, after having been jailed, they had adopted this specific form of struggle "because the principles of the Paris Commune will live forever.”Other actions by the workers take an overtly political form. The same year as the paper mill seizure, a celebration of the anniversary of the death of Mao began. In 2001 this gathering had tens of thousands of workers—with 10,000 police surrounding them—and there was a big strike and confrontation. Today, workers are prohibited from even going to the small square where the last Mao statue in the city still stands, on either his birth or death dates. But they go anyway and confront the police. It was there, on September 9, 2004, that a worker activist, Zhang Zhengyao, passed out a leaflet blistering the Communist Party and government for deserting the interests of the working classes and taking part in widespread corruption. His flyer also denounced the restoration of capitalism in China and called for a return to the "socialist road” taken by Mao. Both he and the coauthor of the leaflet, Zhang Ruquan, were arrested, after police raided their apartments. Their case soon became a cause celebre in China, with many leftists from all over the country traveling to Zhengzhou to protest outside the closed trial of the two in December, 2004, when they were each sentenced to three years in prison.Together with Ge Liying and Wang Zhanqing—who assisted in the writing and printing of the leaflet, and who have also been harassed by the police—these worker activists have come to be known as the "Zhengzhou 4.”

A petition letter, initiated in the United States, to President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, calling for their release, attracted over 200 signatures—about one half each from inside and outside China. This was an unprecedented show of support for leftist workers, especially given the potential risk for those who signed it, uniting Chinese intellectuals and activists with their international peers. Though the government did not respond directly to the letter, Zhang Ruquan was later released from prison, ostensibly for health reasons, which some activists believe was at least partially a result of the pressure generated by the petition and other related solidarity activities, such as the posting of sometimes quite lengthy information and analysis regarding their case on left websites. The Zhengzhou 4 represent the refusal of workers in China to passively accept the new conditions imposed on them by the party and state, the persistence of leftist ideology and activism in their ranks, and the growing support which they are gathering from others throughout the society and even abroad. But this case also brought out the divisions as well as the renewed strength of the Chinese left. It was mainly the younger leftists who took the lead in signing the Zhengzhou 4 petition letter, using the internet to circulate it widely, while criticizing those among their elders and mentors who, at least at first, had tended to hold back. For the young generation, solidarity with workers who were taking a public stand on the left took precedence over concern with having the exactly correct "line.” For the older leftists, on the other hand, past divisions and struggles over ideology and policy often prevent the ability to unite for common action. In their case, it is harder to lay aside historical conflicts in order to face the new conditions of the present.

These differing attitudes reflect what is a widely accepted analysis of the three main groupings found among Chinese leftists: 1) the "old” left which is made up largely of those who rose through the ranks of the party and state and who, after in many cases initially embracing at least parts of the Deng Xiaoping "reforms,” moved to opposition when the capitalistic nature of those policies became increasingly apparent; 2) "Maoists” who have remained steadfast in their support for the programs of the revolutionary era of Chinese socialism under Mao, and have their popular base primarily among the workers and peasants; and, 3) the "new” left which, like its counterpart in the West—especially during the 1960s—tends to be composed of the younger generation, mainly centered in the universities and new NGOs, who are open to both a wide range of Marxist, as well as broadly sociological and social democratic trends, but who are also more willing to align themselves with the followers of Mao than are those among the "old” left. The lines between these three groups, however, are by no means either rigid or mutually exclusive. "Old” leftists can be found throughout society, both inside and outside of government, while many "Maoists” and even some in the "new” left work within the party and state. In 2001, a highly unusual meeting of four different leftist tendencies—organized by a former Red Guard leader in Zhengzhou who was imprisoned for many years after the "reforms” began, and is still an activist—was held at Beidaihe, the seaside town where the top leadership gathers each summer to plan strategy. While they "agreed to disagree” on whether to oppose all of the "reform” policies, they were united in criticizing Deng Xiaoping for the extent of the recapitalization that he had introduced.

More recently, a forum of very high cadre from several prominent institutes, universities, and agencies met to develop a Marxist analysis of the current situation—with the president of Beijing University introducing the session. The hope is to turn this into an ongoing gathering. The old party member who was behind the organization of this meeting, explained that it could not have happened without at least some high level support. In Zhengzhou, a similar forum led by leftists and "liberals”—a term that, in China today, often includes those who are more radical than their counterparts in the West—has met for the past decade, bringing together those who hold a wide range of views. Their common meeting ground is a strong sense that the current direction of Chinese society and of official policies is not sustainable. Thus, despite their differing backgrounds and approaches, there are many who fall roughly within all three "left” categories—"old,” "Maoist,” and "new”—both inside and outside party and state bodies and institutions, and not only their ideas, but also their various forums and meetings, overlap, interpenetrate and influence each other, and even draw in those who do not share their ideology. Within the new NGOs, there are some with a strong leftist basis, who are working on such practical issues as providing schools for impoverished rural villages, and promoting a more worker and peasant run society than mainstream foundations do. This "return of the left” reflects the increasing strength of the popular struggle among the working classes, which has made it impossible any longer to avoid addressing the social crisis in China and the threat that it will only deepen without a radical change in current policies. It reopens the possibility, however distant it may seem today, of a renewal of the revolutionary socialism of the Mao era.

A striking example of this new opening on the left is a letter to Hu Jintao from a group of "veteran CCP members, cadre, military personnel and intellectuals” in October 2004, called "Our Views and Opinions of the Current Political Landscape.” Though more respectful in tone than the Zhengzhou 4 leaflet, and giving some positive credit to the "reforms” for their economic gains, it parallels very closely the same themes as that statement and, with its calls for corrective action and a return to the socialist path and away from the "capitalist road,” is equally militant in its critique of the present situation. Whether there was any direct relation between these two documents is unclear. But leftists in China continue gathering signatures in support of the Zhengzhou 4, and the eagerness with which parts of the "new” left have embraced their cause and the defense of such "Maoist” activists is opening up more space for "old” leftists to reassert their long standing critiques as well—such as in the letter to Hu. This willingness of veterans of the earlier revolutionary struggles to come out so openly against the current policies of the party and state is a measure of the newer climate that is emerging. As late as 1999, our discussions with older leftists made clear how restrained they still felt that they had to be in the face of the prevailing "reform” atmosphere. Now, it is clear, many of these former leaders and those in similar positions feel "freed up” to voice their opinions more openly. It is not just in theory, therefore, that the past continues to inform the present, and that the actions of one part of the left have an impact on others, but in practice as well.
In a few cases, small in number, but sometimes quite large in their influence, the socialist forms of organization of the Mao era continue to be implemented today, though necessarily in modified form to meet the new conditions of the "market” economy. Thus even now there are some one percent of rural villages, accounting for several thousand overall—the numbers vary depending on who is doing the measuring and just what they consider as criteria—that never fully abandoned the collectivization of the commune era. Even a few that did implement the Deng reforms, have moved back more completely once again toward collectivized production, becoming a "model” for others exploring alternatives for the rural economy. As the most prominent such example of maintaining the goals and methods of the socialist era, Nanjiecun or South Street Village, a "Maoist” town in Henan Province an hour or so outside Zhengzhou, which began recollectivizing 15-20 years ago, continues to function as a form of commune for all its members, with essentially free housing, health care and education—even paying for the college expenses of its young people. It upholds the egalitarian practices of the socialist era as well, such as paying its administrators no more than the wages of a skilled worker. It also remains devoted to the political goals of Mao, whose photos and sayings, together with images of other revolutionary leaders—including Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin—are prominently displayed throughout the village. Its spotlessly clean avenues, promenades and gardens, surrounding multistoried housing complexes with light and airy apartments provided to each member family, and its equally attractive school and child care center, are virtually unique in China—outside of the new compounds of the urban rich—and clash sharply with the more typical rural environment found just beyond its walls and gates.

But even with such successes, there are many contradictions in the practices of Nanjiecun, as it draws on foreign investment for much of its financing, and uses peasants from the surrounding area—housed in decent, but decidedly less comfortable dorms—as the main labor force in its "township enterprises,” which are fully integrated into the new capitalist economy. Recently, according to activists in Zhengzhou, including two who accompanied us on a visit to the village, it has faced serious financial difficulties, due largely to overexpansion into new and unfamiliar areas of production. But despite such limitations—inevitable in a situation where it is surrounded by a "sea” of capitalism, and must compete in the market economy in order to survive—it serves as a focal point for those who still believe that another road is possible for rural China. Delegations come on a daily basis—sometimes made up of entire busloads of peasants or workers—from all over the country to study how it has continued to practice both collectivized production and distribution. It has also received the blessing, and thereby the protection, of Henan provincial authorities. The 2004 open letter from leftist party "veterans” to Hu Jintao pointed to Nanjiecun as a model for what is still needed in the rural areas today. But even where the legacy of the Mao era is not so prominent, its experiences and concepts remain the background against which the conditions of the present are constantly being compared and analyzed. It is not unusual, therefore, to encounter those like the head of the coop that we visited near Siping, who gave a very detailed comparative analysis of the rural and urban classes and their situation today, or the young member who delivered a long and indepth Marxist discussion of the situation of the country, not only internally, but in relation to the rest of the world. The Chinese working classes not only have things to teach urban intellectuals about the "real” world of work and exploitation, therefore, but they are more experienced in the implementation of socialism in practice, and in many instances are more fully developed in their understanding and application of the basics of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, than some of the young more educated leftists.

At the same time, the rapid polarization of society is moving many within the "new middle class,” regardless of their specific occupation or position, into conditions that more closely resemble those faced by workers and peasants, leading to a growing basis for unity between them, and helping to create a mass base for a revival of the left. The capitalist system is devouring its own, and rapidly generating ever wider groups of the alienated. Today, even many Communist Party cadre in former SOEs end up being kicked out after they have helped to sell them off to private investors. They are not kept on by the new capitalist owners, a condition that one worker described as "burning the bridge you just crossed.” As a consequence, many of them are now also unemployed and understand better what "marketization” is really about —"it raises their consciousness.” Such newer understandings resulting from changing conditions in their own lives are common. We heard more than one story from those who had initially embraced the Dengist reforms—such as a progressive academic we talked with in Beijing—who are now moving back toward Mao and even reexamining the Cultural Revolution itself. In some instances, this is a direct result of their "learning from the masses.” Such is the case with one prominent but formerly quite conservative student of the rural areas, whose "conversion” came about because, when he visited the peasants, he never heard one word of criticism of Mao, forcing him to reexamine his own attitudes toward the past. But such reevaluations have much deeper roots than just some personal experiences. For many, including among the intellectual elite, the various ideological tendencies that have flourished since the beginning of the reform era—from the rationales for marketization and privatization "with specific Chinese characteristics” put forward by state and party propagandists, to Western liberal concepts found mainly in academic and NGO circles—are proving inadequate to explain what is happening in China today.

As both a former Red Guard and a young activist intellectual put it in separate conversations, having "tried everything else,” those who had initially favored the reform policies, but who are now groping to understand what is happening, "have to return to the two-line struggle and the Cultural Revolution to deal with the present,” because they have tried other approaches and these do not offer an explanation. While just a few years ago, the problems facing Chinese society seemed to be specific and therefore still subject to being relatively easily "fixed”—for example, through an "anticorruption” campaign—today there is a growing sense that they are systemic and intractable, requiring a much more fundamental transformation, one that capitalism and the global "market” have no ability to carry out, and that the state and party, as presently constituted, will not be able to resolve. As a result, the critique of the "capitalist road” that Mao put forward during the Cultural Revolution once again seems increasingly relevant today, because these ideas, advanced in the last years of his life, continue to offer the kind of thoroughgoing analysis of the current system that gets to the root of its growing contradictions, and point to deeper solutions than just attempts at amelioration. Many previous taboos among intellectuals are therefore beginning to fall. Even the Cultural Revolution, still largely anathema to most academics and others among the elite—we were told that any hint of a positive attitude toward it could lead to peer isolation and a ruined career—is once again becoming a topic of discussion and reexamination, especially among young leftists, who are doing their own historical research by digging up materials and conducting interviews with those who were active during that period, and who are posting websites with their findings and in other ways challenging the official party line on the events of that era.

There are other highly significant signs of this growing revival of the left, and of its expanding ties with the working class struggle. In 1999, we visited with students at Qinghua University in Beijing—often referred to as the "MIT” of China—who were taking part in a small Marxist study group, one of a few that had sprung up recently, especially at the more elite universities. I remarked at the time that to be effective, they would have to find a way to get outside of their campuses and link up with the working classes, something that the Tiananmen student movement of 1989 had initially failed to do. In that struggle, though many workers in Beijing, at least, later joined in—and in turn suffered the brunt of the murderous violence and repression that brought it to an end—the gap between the students and working classes had not been fundamentally bridged. In Changchun in the Northeast, for example, where a smaller version of the same movement took place, workers at the vast First Auto plant refused to join the students who walked out of the universities—a bitter experience that had left the latter exposed to very harsh repression, and led them to reevaluate their own isolation from the working classes. In the end, as has happened so often in Chinese history, it was the largely "peasant army” from the outlying provinces that was brought in to crush the movement in Tiananmen—after the regiments stationed near Beijing had resisted doing so. The lessons of that time have not been lost on the current generation of young student leftists, and the change by the summer of 2004 could not have been more dramatic. Today, activist students in significant numbers are leaving the university campuses to make contact with the working classes, to study their conditions, offer them legal and material support, and carry reports of what is happening in the factories and on the farms back to their schools.

One veteran Red Guard from the Cultural Revolution who is still a key leftist organizer in Zhengzhou, explained how there has been a big change in the student/worker relationship. Beginning as far back as 2000, students from the Marxist study group at Beijing University, the leading higher education institution in the country, came to visit factories in that city. From 2001 to the present, student groups from Qinghua University have come every year. In 2004, as many as 80 students came from yet another major Beijing campus to Zhengzhou. The national authorities are fearful of these growing contacts, and are attempting to discourage them. In an exact opposite policy to the free train rides and other encouragements to students wanting to move around the county that took place during the Cultural Revolution, therefore, the government today tries to stop this flow, even refusing to sell tickets to the student delegations, or denying them the right to get off in Zhengzhou—but they still come. They go to the factories, and some even lived in them during the earlier stages of the struggle in that city, to try to help stop the plant closures. After this movement started in Zhengzhou, it spread to the Northeast, as well as to other parts of the country. It also extends to the rural areas, where students go to the villages to carry out similar activities, bringing materials, setting up contacts, offering legal support and generally breaking the isolation that many peasant activists feel. Today at Beijing University, and many of the other institutions of higher education, an organization called the Sons of the Peasants—which despite its name includes many "Daughters” as well—has been formed specifically for this purpose. As explained by a leftist activist we met with in 1999 and who, at that time, seemed to be virtually the only one carrying out such direct investigations of working class conditions and encouraging others to do so, by 2004 the students seem highly self-motivated, no longer needing leadership from those like him. Now, it is they who are taking the initiative themselves.

This movement is both driven and facilitated by the changes in the makeup and conditions of the university student body itself. With larger numbers of students drawn from working class families, and many of them facing a growing "squeeze” in financing their higher education, and in finding work after graduation, there is an expanding social basis for empathy and unity between many in the universities and workers and peasants. Chinese universities today are less the preserve of the privileged, and have a more mass character, than was the case in the early years of the "reform,” when in reaction to the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping emphasized being "expert” instead of "red,” and enforced a return to more exclusive entrance requirements. As a result, student leftists are now bridging the gap between the elite intellectuals and those who are struggling in the factories and farms—who are today more commonly their own relatives, or at least their "classmates.” In some respects, therefore, the current stage in China resembles nothing so much as the early days of the Russian Revolution, when Lenin led Marxist students in going out to the factory districts and linking up with the workers. The critical difference now, of course, is not only that as a result of the changes in education policy, many of those on the campuses come from worker and peasant families, but that young Chinese leftists, even as they grope with how to establish a new relationship with the working classes, have behind them the 50 years of revolutionary socialist experience under the leadership of Mao on which to build. The concepts, policies and relations of that era cannot—and should not—be applied without alteration to the very different situation of today. But they remain a vast reservoir of revolutionary ideas and practices on which the left can draw in confronting the conditions of the working classes in the face of the capitalist "reforms” and the current stage of global "marketization.” Far from being new, leftist ideas are already deeply embedded among the workers and peasants.

Nevertheless, it would be a serious mistake to exaggerate these tendencies. The Chinese left as a recognizable force is still small, marginalized, and divided—like the working classes themselves—into many groupings and factions. As is the case with leftists across the globe, they have had to face the crumbling of the "world” they once knew, and they are trying to find new paths forward without any single unifying set of concepts around which to organize their own ranks and mobilize the working classes. To a large extent, it is the workers and peasants themselves who are in the lead in China today, carrying out what are at times enormous struggles. Though these are often led by leftists within their own ranks, there is so far little if any larger organized movement of the left as a whole. New competing ideologies—including liberal reformist and social democratic concepts—also pose a challenge to leftists. In a development that echoes the situation in the United States, even the term "class” itself is used less today, and instead there is now talk of "weak social groups” in the marketplace, while the very concept of exploitation is made less explicit. These tendencies are reinforced by the lifestyle of many urban professionals, whatever their politics. Some intellectuals, including those who consider themselves "leftist,” are now making good money in the cities, and are largely isolated from any practical ties to the working classes, whose conditions can seem increasingly remote compared to their own experiences. For those who do attempt to take public positions or to translate their ideas into action, suppression is widespread, though it is not necessarily focused on the right or left. Rather, it is more a question of how far outside the accepted framework one goes whether the government takes action. Even a migrant organizer who favors the "reforms” and advocates privatization of land in order to turn peasants into independent "citizens,” was nevertheless detained for trying to hold a meeting in Beijing to promote "human rights.” Any attempt to end one-party rule is the line one cannot cross, and anything that seems to undermine state dominance over all areas of public activity can quickly lead to trouble, regardless of its specific political content. The left, however, is seen as a special threat by the authorities, since it has the potential to give more organized form to the rapidly expanding working class struggle.

Among the workers and peasants, the broader ranks of intellectuals, and within the "new middle class” as well, there is a very wide demand for greater transparency in both the economic and political systems, and for the right to have a more participatory share in decisions that affect them. Though U.S.-style electoral "democracy” may still lack widespread appeal, many people are talking about democratic rights quite openly. For some of them, freedom of speech, for others opposition parties are the main goal. Many workers now even talk about how the "one-party system does not work.” Forums are taking place, even within the Party, looking for ways to have more space for open debate, and the "civil society” NGOs springing up cover a wide range of issues, such as women's rights and the environment. Feelings for democracy are widespread, therefore, and the government knows it cannot just repress them. It is trying instead to meet this challenge by introducing change gradually. But official "reform” policies in this area—such as elections of village governments—despite a surface democratization, are often met with cynicism by the working classes, since they are largely just used to ratify top-down party "nominations.” Here, as in so many other areas, the memory of the socialist era, and especially the participation of workers and peasants in running their factories and farms, and even universities and local governments, during the Cultural Revolution, still continue to serve as a benchmark, and stand in sharp contrast to the stripping away of all such political rights today. As one worker put it, "democratic reforms as implemented so far by the government turn the Mao revolution on its head, and turn the lives of workers upside down—they are a form of retaliation and reprisal on the working class.”

The key to an acceptable approach to political reformation, therefore, will be finding a way once again to bring together leftist concepts of worker and peasant control with the participatory democracy that is now part of the global progressive agenda. This search has already begun. In the 2004 letter to Hu Jintao from the left "veterans” of the revolution, one of the principle demands was to reinvigorate mass struggles from below as a means of controlling the abuse of power, and giving the working classes themselves a direct role in the functions of the party and state, as part of a democratic system. The barriers to building a united movement and carrying out such revolutionary changes are, however, as daunting in China as they are everywhere else today. Despite their legacy from the past, older workers and peasants are fearful that if a new level of the struggle for socialism is not reached soon, the memory of the era of revolution will die out, and those in the younger generation will know and pursue nothing but the desire to "get rich” and to join in the consumer culture. In that case, they will have to "start over” again, as it were, from scratch, if and when they finally face the need for fundamental change. But the Chinese have the advantage that they have "been there, done that” before. As distant as the prospect can seem at times, China still has the possibility of a "fast track” to renewed socialist revolution, a development which would once again "shake the world.” This is, to be sure, only one among the many possible scenarios for what will happen in China in the near future. The complexity and polarization of its class structure are pulling Chinese society in contradictory directions, with the potential for a wide range of outcomes.

Still, the worsening conditions of the working classes are pushing them rapidly in a more radical and militant direction, and within the ranks not only of the workers and peasants, but among the "new middle class” and intellectuals as well, there is a deep and growing understanding that global capitalism has no answer to their situations, and that the revolutionary socialism that they built under Mao offers at least the outline of another way forward today. In the factories and on the farms, workers and peasants in China not only are resisting the new forms of capitalist exploitation, but have memories of "another world” that they already know "is possible.” From their own previous lives during the socialist era before the "reforms,” they are aware that viable alternatives exist to the uncontrolled rampage of global capitalism. Despite this legacy, any simplistic return to the past is neither possible nor desirable. Too much has been changed, and too many genies have been let out of the bottle to simply put them back again. The failures and mistakes of the past, as well as the successes and victories, will have to be reexamined, and ways found to overcome the limitations of the first era of socialism, in China, as elsewhere. No easy prediction is possible as to what direction the struggle will take in the coming period. But as they move forward, the Chinese working classes may go "back to the future,” as they find their own path again to a new socialist society, one that combines their historical and current struggles with the global movements of today, and brings about a revolutionary transformation once more in the conditions of their lives.

  1. I am glad that I found again your website. (your domain-name was picked sometime by Taiwanese hackers or something like that)I am making an analyse of the relatively strong wave of revisionism in the international communist movement. I use the example of the fall for revisionism of the (no longer) communist party Workers Party of Belgium (,,, of wich I was member until I was expelled in 2005.I am now analysing the writings of Deng Xiaoping (since 1978), trying to prove that the CPC (under his strong impuls) developed revisionism since 1978 and had token a political line (in fact identical of that of Liu Chaochi in the fifties) AGAINST which the CPC itself OPPOSE(under impuls of Mao Zedong) in de sixties (and under the Cultural Revolution.On your website, I find concrete information (for example this article on which I am reacting now)with FACTS that prove my analyse.The socalled “marxist” explanation of Deng Xiaoping to defend his reform of remuneration-sistem in China (quoting Marx out of his “Critic to the Gotha program”) has made AGAIN a commodity of the workforce of the Chinese worker. This article of Robert Weil, “prove this truth with FACTS”. Other articles of your website “prove with facts” that the socalled “socialist market economy” is just a restore of the COMMODITY-economy (and remember that the capitalist production-system is the HIGHEST POSSIBLE form of COMMODITY-economy – socialist planeconomy with dictatorship of the proletariat will just TRANSFORM a commodity –economy, so production of products selled for their value, to a production-in-function-of-NEEDS)I will use articles of your website, but I will always put a reference or a link to your website when I will use them.

    Nico - Oct 22 11:59 pm

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csg articles

City of Youth

Robert Weil | 7 nov 07

The Cultural Revolution After the “Cultural Turn”

Arif Dirlik | 23 may 07

The radical cultural project that the Cultural Revolution placed on the global agenda four decades ago is as urgent in our day as it was then. It also affords a perspective from which to view the present critically.


韩德强 | 05/23


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