SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 120 - July/August 2008

Political tremors in China

2008 WAS supposed to be a ‘coming out party’ of sorts for China, with the prestige and posturing surrounding the Olympic games. However, before the Olympic torch has even reached the Beijing national stadium, 2008 has proved to be an awkward year for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its ruling caste.

Campaign and pressure groups – inside and outside of China – have used the media circus surrounding the Olympics to highlight human rights abuses. Protests – both in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and around the globe – have highlighted the oppression of the Tibetan minority. The bloody repression of pro-Tibet protestors has scarred images of oppression into the consciousness of workers, in particular, across Asia.

January saw huge and devastating snow storms in the run up to the lunar new year, China’s largest national holiday when many migrant workers travel back to their homes. More than 80 people died in the storms, 800,000 houses were destroyed or damaged and economic and agricultural damage was valued at 80 billion yuan (about $11bn). The CCP came under fire for shortfalls in the relief effort, with the New York Times dubbing it "a public image disaster for the Chinese government". This exposed many weaknesses in the state machine’s ability to respond to natural disasters.

In that context, when on 12 May a devastating scale eight earthquake hit Sichuan province, the CCP was under huge pressure to ‘get it right’.

The earthquake’s impact was colossal, over 77,000 people are now known to have died in the initial earthquake and aftershocks. Two thousand schools in the worst hit area collapsed. Due to the Chinese state’s one-child policy, this has resulted in the tragedy of almost an entire generation being wiped out at once in certain towns. Many hundreds of thousands have been injured, had their homes destroyed and lost their jobs, or have been impacted by the earthquake in some other manner. In total, 45.5 million people have been affected by the disaster.

It is true that, as the Asian Times stated, "the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] rapidly [deployed] up to 140,000 personnel to the scene. This stood in sharp contrast to the generals’ cavalier attitude during the first phase of the SARS crisis of 2003 as well as the severe snow storm earlier this year in southern China".

It is also a sharp contrast to the pitiful relief efforts in the Indian state of Orissa after it was hit by a ‘super-cyclone’ in 1999, or in Sri Lanka after the tsunami of 2004. This demonstrates that, despite the opening up of sections of the Chinese economy over the last period and the dismantling of the ‘iron rice bowl’ welfare system, when it is under pressure the Chinese state is still able to respond more rapidly than other so-called ‘emerging economies’. This is particularly the case in comparison to Orissa. As part of the ‘Asian tigers’, Orissa had seen its regional gross domestic product consistently grow at record pace. For instance, from 1995 to 2000, GDP jumped from 271,180 million Indian rupees to 387,280. But despite this, the state was not able to mobilise a relief effort anywhere near the scale of that of China.

However, the ‘liberalisation’ of the Chinese economy and privatisation of sections of it has had a visible negative effect. China has been experiencing a large-scale construction boom over the last period; this is now moving into a slowdown as it is in many other parts of the global economy. Nonetheless, parts of Sichuan were literally littered with bulldozers, cranes and other construction equipment. In many instances, while the PLA was quick to mobilise the relief effort, the equipment of private companies already on the scene was not utilised.

And it was not only equipment that was untapped. In the area hit by the earthquake, there was the mood and the desire for a large-scale voluntary relief effort. However, the bureaucratic, top-down approach of the Chinese state made a mobilisation of this character impossible. Crucially, the CCP leadership fears the independent movement of the masses and is unwilling to lean on them even in a disaster situation such as that over the course of May.

The scale of the Sichuan earthquake was so great – the Jamestown Foundation referred to it as the "natural disaster of the century" – that it has impacted on the outlook and the consciousness of almost the whole Chinese population. However, following decades of one-party rule, and in particular in the last period where the CCP has been steering the country in the direction of capitalism while maintaining a core centralised economy alongside other elements of Maoism-Stalinism, mass political consciousness remains confused. This has meant that the impact on people’s outlook has been far from uniform.

On the one hand, there has been a marked increase in nationalist sentiment. The UK’s Guardian newspaper, for instance, reported on this phenomenon. Zhang Qiyu, a 22-year old student it interviewed stated: "I used to look at events and think how they affected me. Now I consider whether they benefit my country". The article goes on to state: "Zhang wears [a] white t-shirt, which is emblazoned with a red map of China and the slogan Zhongguo Jiayou, which literally means Add Petrol China! Formerly a football chant, the phrase has become ubiquitous since the earthquake and was most loudly heard in Tiananmen Square on the day of mourning, when a three minute-silence was followed by a burst of nationalist chanting".

In some instances, this nationalist mood is bound up with an increase in support for the ruling CCP. There is, for instance, a ‘We Wen’ Facebook group dedicated to premier Wen Jiabao, whose stock rose dramatically after photographs were published of him openly crying while visiting the disaster area.

However, in many other cases, there has been an increase in criticism of the CCP and anger directed at the state. This is strongest in, though by no means confined to, those areas directly hit by the earthquake. In particular, this has focused on the way that privatised and liberalised building work during China’s construction boom, combined with widespread CCP corruption, exacerbated the earthquake’s impact.

A stark visual illustration of this can be seen when looking at telegraph poles in Sichuan. Those built in the 1950s, with steel support running through them and constructed under a plan of production – albeit a bureaucratically run one – still stand. But wires droop down from those leading to poles that were erected in the 1980s and 1990s under more liberalised conditions. These collapsed immediately under the strain of the quake.

More tragically, the same is true of the school buildings that collapsed and now lie as rubble while nearby Mao-era buildings, and more recently constructed government buildings, still stand.

Poor-quality construction, so-called ‘Tofu buildings’ (because they are soft like bean curd), has been the focus of huge anger. In a number of areas Sichuan parents who have lost their children in the earthquake have organised marches and protests outside local courthouses and CCP offices against lax construction regulation and ‘Tofu’ projects. In many areas where protests were staged, parents have been violently removed by police and bans put on gatherings near school ruins. This shows the gross hypocrisy of the Chinese ruling caste. It organised ‘official’ mourning ceremonies in China’s big cities yet had the audacity to ban parents from gathering next to the place where their children died!

The seismological aftershocks of the Sichuan earthquake may have now died down, but the social and political aftershocks are only just beginning to be felt. Like Katrina in New Orleans or the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, the earthquake has acted to lift the lid on conditions which are not often seen by the wider world. It has focussed the minds of workers and poor living in those conditions on the inability of the system they live under to offer solutions to the disaster that confronts them.

Greg Maughan


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